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June 2008

Nomination: Water [6 April 1954. From The Whitsun Weddings]

Philip Larkin wrote the unlike poems ‘Skin’ and ‘Water’ on two consecutive days in 1954: the first on 5 April, the second on the 6th. They are so dissimilar they are almost antithetical: one day’s cheerless prognosis followed, without warning, by the next’s up-lifting vision.

‘Skin’ regrets the failure to participate in a carnally ‘brash festivity’, while ‘Water’ looks forward to the possibility of a ‘liturgy’, or rite, that has elements of the Eucharist, but none of the bodily associations – ‘This is my body, this is my blood’ – that the Christian sacrament carries with it. ‘Skin’ has a rhyme-scheme, more palpable in the first stanza than in the third, where the final, very loose connection of ‘changes’ with ‘such as’ lends expression to the bathos that is the poem’s theme; ‘Water’, doing without rhyme, takes the reader to mystical heights equal to those of the ‘sun-comprehending glass’ in ‘High Windows’. No coincidence, surely, that the final word of ‘High Windows’ is ‘endless’, and that of ‘Water’, ‘endlessly’.

It’s more than the concluding image, though, that gives ‘Water’ its elevation. I hear the poem’s meaning in its beautifully calculated chime of ‘any-angled’ and ‘endlessly’, where the absence of consonants at the beginning of each word somehow aerates and opens wider the prospect of a thoroughly cleansing ritual. Larkin had a particular genius for double-barrelled adjectival constructions, and the luminosity of ‘any-angled light’ could be read as a direct answer to ‘the sand-laden wind, time’ in the previous poem. The gritty attrition of experience can be washed away, and a moment of transcendence offered as light and water meet.

Or so it feels, provisionally.

Christopher Reid

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