Tuesday, 23 February 2010

I didn't mean that

Some of the most quoted lines of poetry represent the opposite of what the poet meant.

I am reminded of this again and again as issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide are discussed. The line Thou shalt not kill, but need’st not strive officiously to keep alive is frequently deployed to suggest a total distinction between murder and a humane willingness to let a life come to an end.

But Arthur Clough was being ironic. He was tabulating a new set of ten commandments (The Latest Decalogue) in which the ‘common sense’ of the age neatly neuters the commandments.

Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipp'd, except the currency:
Swear not at all; for, for thy curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When it's so lucrative to cheat:
Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly:
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.

There are a lot of these misunderstandings about.

The other one about which I am most curious and most frequently reminded is that Philip Larkin thought that What will survive of us is love.

Actually I am not at all sure that this is what the last verse of An Arundel Tomb really suggests about the Knight and Lady holding hands.

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

That seems to me to be as likely to be saying that the sight of the tomb is almost enough to make us believe what he thinks is a falsehood.

Meanwhile, we spotted the machinery in the Cathedral last weekend.


Minnie said...

Hooray - and thank you for voicing my own concerns (only, of course, rather better than I could have done). Am so in nit-pickery deeply steeped that I frequently check brief quotes for context these days: they devalue the poet's currency when exploited to make a lazy writer seem more erudite.
And a very big cheer of agreement to the Larkin poem. For years I've thought that the line 'what ends of us is love' has a silent question mark at the end. Greetings from France.

Peter Mullins said...

Thanks, Minnie. I'm sorry your comment slipped by without a response, but a 'hooray', let alone one from France, is always cheering.