Thursday, 13 October 2011

At Grass, the Blinking Stars ... Doctored Art?

I'm certain I recall reading in Andrew Motion's biography of Larkin (Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life, Faber and Faber, 1993) that, though he much admired Larkin's well known poem about racehorses put out to grass, he was disturbed by the inaccuracy of the final line of the final stanza ...

Only the groom, and the groom's boy,
With bridles in the evening come.

Motion feels that racehorses 'At Grass', taken by grooms to their stables, by implication, would be led by 'halters'.  The line, then, should read:

Only the groom, and the groom's boy,
With halters in the evening come.

Motion is absolutely right here. The bridles suggest horses equipped for a race, which is quite the opposite of the poem's mood of 'Veterans at Rest' and 'Triumphs Past'.

This brings me to the heretical idea that works of art, conceivably, could be tweaked and doctored to engage more empathetically with latter-day sensibilities. Do I mean bowdlerisation? No! Of course not!

I mean that some modern meanings of certain words can torpedo the effects the lyricist intended.  Shall I ever forget the ripple of laughter at the Royal Festival Hall when that splendid Toulonnais, Gilbert Becaud, sang an English translation of one of his songs: 'The blinking stars are dancing ...'  He simply could not understand the Londoners' (not unkind) laughter.

My sensibilities are also disturbed by the jarring appearance of 'free lances' in Louis MacNeice's classically perfect 'The Sunlight on the Garden', even though I know very well the meaning MacNeice intended, and its pathos. It's just that so many other contemporary – and dullish - associations are now conjured up by the term. That is why I have presumed, for my own private delectation, to doctor the poem so my attention does not waver at the beginning of the second stanza.

A massive presumption, yes! (To loosely change: Our freedom as free lances/Advances towards its end;/The earth compels ...) N.B. The iron 'Siren' neither reflects the Spanish Civil War nor the London Blitz of WW2 since this prophetic poem was completed in the mid 1930s. The dictators who wreaked havoc in both those conflicts I now dub, specifically, the 'unanswerable rogues' who never answered for their actions.

The Sunlight on the Garden

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

We know the rogue who answers
Unanswerably at the end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful, too,
For sunlight on the garden.

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