Long Live the Sun

Philip Larkin is one of my favorite poets, maybe because he’s a dead old white guy like me.  There just aren’t enough of us around.  I’m grateful that I don’t have skin cancer, so you can’t call me Melanoma Gibson or Johnny Carcinoma, which may be one reason why I worship the sun.

Let’s take a look at Larkin’s magnificent tribute to the star of our very own solar system:

Solar

Suspended lion face

Spilling at the centre

Of an unfurnished sky

How still you stand,

And how unaided

Single stalkless flower

You pour unrecompensed.

 

The eye sees you

Simplified by distance

Into an origin,

Your petalled head of flames

Continuously exploding.

Heat is the echo of your

Gold.

 

Coined there among

Lonely horizontals

You exist openly.

Our needs hourly

Climb and return like angels.

Unclosing like a hand,

You give for ever.

 

In the opening stanza, Larkin show us the sun as a lion, suggesting a gallantly blazing mane as well as a deep roar.  He presents this great ball of goodness’ gracious fire as a liquid, using words like “spilling” and “pour” to let the sun’s heat and light flow from a source more abundant than Rapunzel’s generous head of hair.  He locates the sun at the center of the sky, suggesting not only that the poem takes place at noon but that the sun occupies the majestic place at the core of the solar system, and is the locus of eight parasitically orbiting planets (cling-ons?) magnetized by the pompous fireball’s irresistible gravitational pull.

The sky is “unfurnished”–with clouds, presumably, or perhaps with buildings, skyscrapers, airplanes, or UFOs; the word choice is apt, as it recalls They Might Be Giants song about the sun, dubbed “a gigantic nuclear furnace.”

“How still you stand.”  The word “still” could mean three things here: 1) unmoving; 2) silent; 3) enduring.  Whereas at the beginning of the poem the sun is suspended like a gold pocket watch dangling from a hypnotist’s chain (though suspiciously not swinging) or a spider bungee-jumping from a web, now it stands as a flower–“unaided”–certainly by us, and also by the God Larkin refused to believe in.  And yet, the flower has no stem, like the self-sustaining flame of nirvana that burns independently of a candle, or Apollo’s everlasting light (not to blaspheme Larkin).

“Unrecompensed”?  How can we ever repay the sun for all it gives us, from the shelter of its warmth to the light that nurtures the chlorophyll in the green plants that we eat?

In the second stanza, “The eye” implies a pun (“I,” or in lower case, “i,” a letter that looks a bit like a candle).  Why not “My eye sees,” or “People’s eyes see”?  For one thing, Larkin’s choice universalizes the visual experience while preserving its subjective uniqueness with admirable compactness.  It also suggests a reciprocal relationship between each of our eyes and the paradoxically blind eye of the all-seeing sun.  

The sun was here before the earth, making it our “origin.”  While at first the sun looks like a simple disk in the sky–or a painfully glaring eyeball–Larkin veers in for a close-up to show us the lion-flower’s burning blossoms in a storm of furious violence worthy of a National Geographic magazine cover.

The final line of the stanza is a beauty:  “Heat is the echo of your/Gold.”  Here Larkin performs a hat trick of synesthesia, making us feel, hear, and see the sun all at once.

The third stanza begins with the gold coin surrounded by admiring clouds (more tenuous cling-ons) stretched across the sky that don’t block its light–hence, “exist openly.”  The sun is unashamed to be naked, like Adam and Eve before the Fall.  The ricocheting needs recall the “echo” of the previous stanza, while Larkin playfully co-opts the angels he doesn’t believe in to insinuate an empirical heaven that he does.  What started out as a lion with a streaming mane and morphed into a bursting flower now possesses the gradual gentility of an opening hand (the choice of the word “unclosing” seems to make it open that much more slowly) with rays for fingers that caress us as gently as a loving mother handling her baby, giving us all we need to survive comfortably and be happy in a world made less cold and less “lonely” (curiously, the only negative word Larkin employs in the poem, a first for him).

In the words of that glorious anthem at the end of the musical Hair:  

“Let the sun shine, let the sunshine in, the sun shine in!”

 

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4 thoughts on “Long Live the Sun

    • thank you, m. o. m. (don’t worry–no pun intended!) the thing i like about larkin is that his work is deceptively simple on the surface, but when you move in for a closer look, you can find some awfully profound observations about life.

      • Yesterday I was cleaning out my basement, trying to create more space for the chil’un and came across a slim volume of Mr. Larkin’s poems. It went in a discard box. Damn. Now I’ll have to find it so I can have another look. Thanks for the reintroduction.

      • my pleasure. it’s worth picking up a copy of his collected poems. there are actually two different versions; i recommend the one with the green cover, which came out first, as it has more poems in it. there’s also a complete works volume available, which i haven’t got.

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