Nomination: Talking in Bed [10 August 1960. From The Whutsun Weddings]
I admire this poem because it frames so precisely, and with poignance, the problems of “honesty” that almost inevitably attend intimacy.
‘Talking in Bed’ appears in Philip Larkin’s 1964 volume The Whitsun Weddings. The title of the book speaks of couplings; the title poem concerns them. Whitsunday falls, of course, on the seventh sabbath after Easter. Whitsun week—coming, as it does, in full spring—is notable for weddings in England, as (say) June is in the United States (my native country). Into this general context, established by the title and title-poem of the book, falls ‘Talking in Bed’, which does not necessarily have to do with a marriage at all, of course: only with a couple de-coupling.
In speaking of that “emblem of honesty” that a couple “talking” or “lying” in bed together “ought” to constitute, Larkin doubtless has in mind for “emblem” O.E.D. senses 2a and 3a: “a drawing or picture expressing a moral fable or allegory; a fable or allegory such as might be expressed pictorially. Obs.,” and “a picture of an object (or the object itself) serving as a symbolical representation of an abstract quality, an action, state of things, class of persons, etc.” The “easiest” place not merely to talk but to do so honestly ought to be in bed, then, partnered, coupled—in fact, “post-copular,” one inevitably supposes, whether with or without that old cinematically iconic cigarette.
Whatever the case, the poem has to do, in some sense, with blowing smoke, right there at the outset, with that wily pun: “lying together goes back so far…” Well, yes, back even into antiquity. (Re-read a bit of Catullus or Propertius as to the dubiety of “lying” in bed.) Lying in bed together may well be an “emblem of two people being honest,” but not every sign signifies what (or as) it ought to. Emblems typify by abstracting this or that quality from their real-worldly entanglements anyway.
So, equivocation is our theme, or one of our themes: “lying together,” which in every sense “goes back so far.” How confidential is all this “talking in bed” anyway? And not only how confidential, but how frequent, and for how long: “Yet more and more time passes silently.” Here the grammar has about it some slight equivocation. Is the duration of time that passes silently, or the frequency of it, most in question? That is, do we hear the line as “Yet, more and more, time passes silently” (which would have to do with frequency: the thing happens more often). Or as “Yet, more and more time passes silently” (which would mean that the silences grow longer)? Well, it hardly matters as to general import. Though, if you’re to read the poem aloud, you must decide how to lay your voice into the sentence. I quibble it out here simply to suggest that equivocal matters of all sorts make their way into the bedroom imagined in this poem.
Even the couplings in rhyme are not “true” for the duration of the piece. “Far” has no partner anywhere, and the relatively full rhymes of easiest/honest/unrest run down the page alongside the sight rhyme of silently/sky, the almost full rhyme of horizon/isolation, and the triplet rhyming of the last tercet where the second and third lines involve a kind of quasi-repetend that engages its own semi-negation (in sense): kind/not unkind. The rhyming is irregular, never quite in harmony, or at ease, with itself—as of course is only fitting in a poem on the theme in question here. And who knows but that we ought to score a point or two for Larkin for having written a poem about a slowly de-coupling couple in tercets? Why should he write of this couple in couplets? He makes four threesomes of his coupling conundrum, and gives us three sets of triple rhymes (easiest/honest/unrest, silently/sky/why, & find/kind/unkind). But nothing requires us to make the supposition. I’ll leave it merely as an agreeable possibility, as to his poetics, in this instance. Larkin’s crafty.
As for the second tercet, the best of it lies here: “Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest / Builds and disperses clouds about the sky.” Just how “complete” in its “unrest” does the wind have to be before we speak of it as—what would it be?—gusty, stormy? I am not being whimsical. The enterprise of the poem works in that intermediary space between rest on the one hand, and restiveness or restlessness on the other, whether we speak of “outer” or of “inner” (i.e., psycho-sexual) “weather.” The two harmonize here, if things ill at ease can be said to “harmonize”: the inwardly awkward (and quiet) disquiet of the couple, the outward disquiet of the wind. In both cases, something is being built, or has been, and is as readily dispersing—a cloud, a cloudy human affair; a coupling, a de-coupling & dispersal.
To put it another way, we have here to do with a thing somewhere between coherence & integrity (even if of a cloudy sort) and disintegration. Couples, clouds. It hardly matters what Larkin has in view; in fact, he has them both. Couples cohere, adhere, and then disperse and dissolve. I give you O.E.D. sense 2c for “disperse”: “intr. (for refl.) To separate, go different ways.” Larkin, in his usual bleak way, seems to imply—wait: there’s no seeming about it in Larkin’s poetry—that most couples lie at some point along a spectrum that runs from cohesion to dispersal, as do clouds. The anecdote in this poem is emblematic, representative, not meanly or merely autobiographical. It is as if the poem somehow licensed one to say to his neighbor, “Well, how sits it with you and your partner? Is that rather cloudy coupling you built out of your weltered lives still stable? Or is something already undermining it? Has it already gone entropic, centrifugal, dispersive? Exactly where along the spectrum are the two of you? Is your un-rest—and, come on, we’ll just stipulate, on the authority of Catullus, Propertius, and Larkin that ‘complete rest’ is not really in question;—is your un-rest still ‘incomplete,’ or is it nearing its completion? Or is it still, well, perfectly incomplete, even as on the day of your jointure?” Anyway, Larkin puts such a query to himself—and implicitly, to his reader, with whom he may assume some fellow-feeling, given (after all) that most of us read him by election. And don’t poems, even when they concern de-couplings and dispersals, somehow exist to create fellow-feeling of a kind? I mean no paradox here: a not completely unhappy fellow-feeling about de-couplings, dispersals. Why not? There’s nothing un-charming about Larkinesque meditations on these themes. The poems are simply too fine.
But the “dark towns heap up” on the “horizon” lying beyond the couple in this poem, even as the “building” and “dispersals” go on above them. And wouldn’t you know it? “None of this cares for [them].” The natural world and the social world alike afford cold comfort. There’s no curacy in either, no charge, no oversight, no responsibility. But what’s more, and worse, there’s no “care” (le mot juste). I suspect Larkin is reaching back in the career of the latter word in English, when “to care” meant “to grieve,” “to mourn,” “to lament,” to be “troubled”—or “uneasy, or anxious”—about a thing: say, this couple. No, the dis-ease, the anxiety, the unspoken griefs (and grievances) are inside this room and “lying” on this bed. Let the towns build and “heap up” on the horizon; we only feel all the more claustrophobic, and all the less agoraphilic. Let the “incomplete unrest” of the wind undertake its cloudy buildings and dispersals. Let the couple lying together in bed do the same. Who “cares”? And “nothing” in any of it “shows why”
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
Just how “distant” is this “couple” from “isolation”—isolation, one gathers, not so much from the “heaped up towns” (though the phrasing hardly makes these agreeable) as from one another? The lyric treats an intimately “social” problem: two people lying in bed. Why not let it also hint, by extension, at some larger awkwardness with “the social,” at being incompletely unrestful amongst any folk in any heaped up town? (I’m simply trying to gauge what slight savor of “general” misanthropy may underlie the poem, as if to complement the as yet incomplete antipathy of the couple.) And as for the “isolation,” our distance from it, here, is “unique,” which, if indeed unique, ought to be specifiable. And specify it Larkin does. The partners to this couple are near enough, now, to “isolation” from each other such that saying words “at once true and kind / Or not untrue and not unkind” grows every night harder. Each party to the coupling must make a choice. They lie together talking, or talk together lying, or lie together lying, or talk together talking—take it as you will. But each may either speak the truth and risk unkindness, or say something kind and court dishonesty. And failing that already bedeviling choice, each must navigate one still finer and more vexing: saying things “at once” “not untrue and not unkind.” Which would carry one back to his neighbor and how things sit with him. “Are you and your partner at precisely that unique distance from isolation at which it grows difficult to be both truthful and kind? Or have you moved on and reached the point where even saying things both not unkind and not untrue puts you ill at ease?”
In any case, let’s suppose that our Larkinian “emblem of honesty” comes in here: that he should frame so precisely the problems of “honesty” and of the awkwardnesses that sometimes attend intimacy—with candor, with fidelity to all the complexities, and with wit. Whitsun weddings are all fine and dandy. But fidelity is almost never semper in Larkin, perpetual bachelor that he was in fact (and always is as a persona)—though, in his poetry, fidelity may well “simper” (cf. O.E.D.: obs. “simmer” ), at some “unique distance” either from the boiling-point or from that tepid “room temperature” at which the couple in ‘Talking in Bed seems to lie.