Is Larkin’s classic poem “Water” a work of insincere artifice?

Two acclaimed poets kick-start a conversation stream

 Photo Credit:  Bob Bob , Courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Bob Bob, Courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons

Daisy Fried and I have never met, though we’ve both been in some of the same magazines, and have been Facebook friends for a while. We both post a fair amount about poetry, politics, and our kids.  

I recently posted this video of a Greek Orthodox Priest enthusiastically blessing the waters and his congregants for the feast of Epiphany (or Theophaneia)

Φώτα 2015..!! αχαχαχαχαχα..!! :-D

Posted by Akou Ti Mou Eipe on Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Theophany commemorates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the river Jordan (when the dove comes down and the voice of God says "This is my Son with whom I am well pleased”). 

Upon my posting the video, Daisy and I almost simultaneously posted a reference to Philip Larkin's "Water”:


If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

(6 April 1954 TWW) 

And then, in your comments stream, you said, “Actually, I never quite got that poem, because it seems to be unaware of baptism...” I said, “Also the flood.” You again, “Yes. What’s with that? Is he being ironic or obtuse?” Then you really drew me in: “He just wants that last image, of course,” you said.

Because art has many motivations and requirements which aren’t necessarily thematic. The poet wants that image. Or has some other desire more to do with aesthetics or formal necessities than with thematic content. Larkin may not have been much invested in constructing a religion at all. Poems aren’t necessarily made because we have something to get off our chests, or because we’re after a factual recording of experience. Maybe Larkin wanted to build contrast across the poem. Sousing and fording and drenching—those big-muscle, full-body actions—followed further on by the crystallization of light in water, in a contrastingly tiny vessel.

Poems aren’t necessarily made because we have something to get off our chests, or because we’re after a factual recording of experience.

And maybe he wanted the beautiful inflection of “any-angled” and the way that multitude of angles fits into the tiny vessel. Could he have wanted everybody in the whole world who ever lived (“congregate endlessly”) also to fit in that glass?

Maybe the whole thing adds up to a simultaneously strenuous and weightless vision—and maybe that’s where the authentic experience of religion lies in this poem, or rather, an authentic desire for what religion might be. So that freshness or derivativeness of the ideas in “Water” may not be as important to Larkin as achieving the energies and contrasts in the poem, which seem to me to translate emotionally and (maybe) spiritually in a struggle both towards and away from faith. 

"Building contrast" is a perfect phrase. The dry work-a-day words and phrases—“construct,” “make use,” “entail,” “employ”—that stand in contrast to the furiously fluid ones.  This is one of these Larkin poems that I think of as kind of anti-Larkin; that is, this isn't the stereotypical Larkin most people think of—dour, misanthropic, with "deprivation" being for him "what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”

And I suppose it’s obvious, but this could be a companion piece to "Church Going," written mere months apart.  (And where almost his first action is running his hands around the baptismal font.)  In the Anglican tradition to which he (I suppose somewhat uneasily?) belonged, baptism is usually by "aspersion"—sprinkling (and usually of an infant) as opposed to full immersion (usually of an adult, as in, say, the Baptist tradition.) Western art is full of images of full-immersion Baptism—certainly any Greek Orthodox church would have images of Jesus standing in the Jordan getting drenched and soaked, and there's that marvelous Arian Baptistry in Ravenna with a mosaic of Jesus buck-naked in the river.

I’m still a little puzzled by this new religion. Is it a yearning for something more enthusiastic (I almost want to say American), as it were, than the Anglican tradition?  "Any-angled" is a pivotal point (though perhaps that is confusing my geometry), of course, with its pun on angels (any-angled being anti-angeled?) —but I hear a hint of Angles and Anglican too. Of course I’m likely over-thinking, as is my wont.  

Overthinking is our job! Somebody’s got to do it…when I think of any-angled I (over)think of cubism, actually. That’s pretty farfetched though, and tells a story about my associations more than Larkin’s.

But I can see the painting now!

 Pablo Picasso, Glass of Absinthe, Paris 1914. Image credit:  MoMA

Pablo Picasso, Glass of Absinthe, Paris 1914. Image credit: MoMA

Or Picasso’s any-angled glass of absinthe!

I’ve just realized that my favorite Larkin poems involve—in contrast to “Water”—the staging of individuals in settings. The train-rider and wedding parties in “The Whitsun Weddings,” the couple whom Larkin’s regretful speaker observes in “High Windows.” The mothers in “Afternoons”: “Something is pushing them / To the side of their own lives.” In each case, the poet is lonely, observing other people’s rituals, but he is in the scene.

“Church Going” is also dramatized, with the poet-speaker taking off his cycle-clips and feeling up the font. By contrast, in “Water,” humans are generalized, actions detached from specific bodies. I guess that’s partly why the poem feels atypical to me.

How little my own life is or ever has been involved in religion or religious ritual. I was raised by secular parents (both are now observant Jews, but that happened recently), and I’m married to an atheist. I’m more or less one, too, though there’s something about Larkin’s edging up close to religious ritual for a look, but not embracing it, that attracts me. 

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for…
                      — from “Church Going”

My daughter, as it happens, sings in an Episcopal church choir, but (so far) only for the music education. The Sunday services I’ve somewhat reluctantly attended because of her involvement don’t involve water (unless you count sips of communion wine). Her church has little relationship to any ecstatic tradition; rather it’s a generous-hearted, progressive, ethical, quite middle-class affair. No water-flinging! Too bad, my daughter would like that!

I was a pre-natal Episcopalian, as my parents used to say, (now I identify more as Epicurean, though I enjoy church-going, both Orthodox and Anglican) but their own union was, for Kentucky, as we used to joke, a mixed marriage: an Episcopalian yoked to a Southern Baptist. So forms of baptism, and the attendant theology, were a subject of discussion in my household.

Is water a special-occasion religious substance? That’s a special celebration in your video. As, of course, is baptism. There’s also the “Water-Drawing Celebration” during Sukkot in the Jewish tradition. (“He who has not seen the Water-Drawing Celebration has never seen joy in his life,” says the Talmud. Okay, then.) There are also ritual baths—my mother had to go all the way under when she converted to Judaism. Hinduism has the sacred Ganges. On a smaller scale, Roman Catholics dip fingers in holy water, entering church, and there are pre-prayer ablutions in Islam.  

By contrast Larkin investigates the idea of big water in daily observance. Fording and changing into dry clothes each churchgoing. Regular drenching. It implies a more drastic commitment, a more drastic interruption of the quotidian, involving the whole body.

The question I come back to, the question I think you’re raising: is this poem more than a sort of brilliant exercise? Do we believe it?

Well, I guess what I might say is that I believe it less than I believe “Churchgoing”—I suppose what I am trying to work out is whether the poem is flawed by conveniently forgetting about full-immersion baptisms, whether I can suspend my disbelief for the duration. Of course, a baptism is, in theory, a single act, or so the Nicene creed has it, whereas as you point out, this is every church going. I think it’s always going to bother me a little, and also that that probably says more about me than about Larkin. 

In general, I prefer the Larkin poems in stanzas; he is such a master of stanzas. This looks a bit sonnetish, but isn’t, and yet it isn’t all that free either. Larkin is king of the cross-stanza enjambment, but he doesn’t employ what might be an easy and tricksy “line break” after “fording” say; rather, the leap comes after “drench.” Lines hew close to phrases, as do the strophes on a larger scale. This is not so, of course, in a complex stanzaic poem like “Church Going.” Perhaps that is part of the poem’s feeling of light-ness and deceptive simplicity. 

I am trying to work out is whether the poem is flawed

I like what you point out about the absence of others in this poem. In “Church Going,” others are also absent, but their absence itself echoes (sniggers back), and is strongly felt in the empty pews. He goes to church, but not on a Sunday when he might expect to meet a congregation—enough days later that the flowers have turned “brownish.”

“Water” is empty of people—even the idea of them (except for that bureaucratically passive “if I were called in”—but whom? By what committee?). It’s light that congregates, rather than church goers. But your mention of communion (by the by, events have overtaken this discussion, with the Episcopalians being now suspended I think from the Anglican communion) does hit on something I had failed to observe before about the poem, and which also brings me back to the feast of Epiphany. Besides the baptism of Jesus, it also commemorates his first (and most social) miracle, changing the water to wine at the wedding at Cana. 

“And I should raise in the east”—one isn’t certain for a moment that he isn’t going to suggest raising some monument or steeple or something.  But the raising in the east—which sets us up for something grand—turns out to be the mundane (and convivial) gesture of raising a glass. But usually when one raises a glass, it’s a toast, and the glass has, well, wine in it. (Noah, sick of all that water, had to invent the stuff.) And one might well expect communion wine here. But it stubbornly isn’t—it’s just plain water, lifted to the light. It occurs to me that this is a kind of epiphanic anti-miracle (a bit like the Arianist heresy, come to think of it)—the marvel of things just as they are. 

Yes: conviviality, but no buzz! Where you find a steeple or monument hiding in the image you mention, I believe I always see sunrise for a fraction of a second before I get to the water.  

And I should raise in the east                           sun…!
A glass of water                                      or not…

Meanwhile, a nice bit of syntax assists the linebreak in delaying the glass of water, what with the prepositional phrase “in the east” coming before the direct object (“a glass of water”). It’s casual, but not—that’s often true of Larkin, something I find strangely thrilling. Any inversion in typical word order also communicates “pay attention, this is out of the ordinary.” The out-of-the-ordinary turns out to be quite ordinary, though. By the final stanza, it’s as if the speaker simultaneously holds a celestial body and a glass of water. (If it’s a steeple combined with a glass of water, you’ve still got a huge contrast in scale.) “God-like,” you said, and here he takes the huge tiny religion into his own hand, replacing god, leaving god out. 

A final tangent: comparative-glass-vessels-in-20th-Century poems. I’ve always pictured a glass jar in Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”? Like “Water,” that’s a short philosophical poem about man’s place in the world, although there’s no light in the Stevens poem, only a very little bit of air, and no god I can detect. The jar is empty. There’s also May Sarton’s “A Glass of Water,” which is connection to the elements (“It tastes of rock and root and earth and rain”), and also salvation from madness. (“Perhaps someone will pass this house one day / To drink, and be restored, and go his way, / Someone in dark confusion as I was”). No god there either.

“Anecdote of the Jar” strikes me as a similar kind of poem in a way (certainly a similar size and weight)—and I have a kind of similar relationship to it.  (It is highly memorable, and I allude to it often enough in passing, on FB say, when I am headed to Sewanee, but it isn’t one of my favorite poems—I don’t love it, but it niggles at me.)  I suppose I had always pictured a jelly jar, but looking back at the poem I notice now that it is “grey”—is it a ceramic jar, or just dirty?

Thank you for bringing up the May Sarton poem.  This poem seems clearly in conversation with Frost’s “Directive,” which concludes:

Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

The deictic “here” and the imperative “drink” have the feel of a Eucharist.

The Scottish poet Hugh McDiarmid’s “The Glass of Pure Water” is meanwhile a long, irregularly rhyming, socialist poem with the look of approximate blank verse but variable line length and metrical organization. It kicks off its looping, loping journey with three epigraphs having to do with water, the last of which is from W.J. Watson, a Celtic scholar: “Praise of pure water is common in Gaelic poetry.” (And in British and American poetry, too, it seems.)

And I might interject here, that in classical poetry—and for poets saturated in the classics, such as Frost—unsullied water tends to stand for inspiration, the source, the origin, the Hippocrene, the fountain of the muses.

McDiarmid uses his glass of water to move discursively through a consideration of poverty, beginning “Hold a glass of pure water to the eye of the sun! / It is difficult to tell the one from the other / Save by the tiny hardly visible trembling of water.”

I sense that God here is less important in this poem than man’s feeling for God, or his absence, something that’s true for Larkin as well. The poem ends:  

                                 … every true man’s place
Is to reject all else and be with the lowest,
The poorest—in the bottom of that deepest of wells
In which alone is truth; in which
Is truth only—truth that should shine like the sun,
With a monopoly of movement, and a sound like talking to God…

That confluence of light and glass and water—did Larkin know this poem?  

I’m ashamed to say I don’t really know this poem at all—but “monopoly of movement” does seem in the same family as “congregating endlessly.” For that matter, there would seem to be an echo (not a sniggering one, though) of “congregating endlessly” at the end of “Church Going,” where, in the church’s “blent” air, “all our compulsions meet.”

I’m setting up artificial comparisons—oh look, here’s a bunch of poems with similar objects in them—but I think they’re helping me understand what I find important in Larkin’s “Water”.

All comparison is metaphor, isn’t it, and the point is not whether it is artificial, but useful—which I think it is here.

I don’t find myself asking of the Sarton, Stevens or McDiarmid poems, did s/he really mean it the way I do of the Larkin. I assume their sincerity in relation to madness, economics, God (or lack thereof), and the Tennessee landscape. That ought to be a plus for a poem, but is it? I think of you saying, “I think it is always going to bother me a little.”

Maybe I trust insincerity and display in relation to god, as I trust yearning, as I trust true seeking, especially if they’re all tangled up in the same package.

But I’ve read and will read the Larkin poem more frequently than any of the other glass vessel poems. Partly because of its formal elegance. But also because there’s yearning in it—a capacity I like to spend time with. And maybe the speck of insincerity in the Larkin poem that troubles the poem’s beauties and sincerities actually allows “Water” to be about the strange confusion that life is, especially in relation to faith and religion. Maybe I trust insincerity and display in relation to god, as I trust yearning, as I trust true seeking, especially if they’re all tangled up in the same package.

Sincerity/insincerity: maybe that is what I am attracted to in contrary-to-fact conditions in poems, that special negative, itself a kind of transparent container. (“If I were called upon”—but I haven’t been—“I would make use”—but this is all day-dreaming—still it would be thus and thus and thus.) I like counterfactuals precisely because they devour their cake and hold on to it, too.  In a sense this is the opposite of what is going on in “The Anecdote of the Jar”—which might well have been the “Parable of the Jar”—facts are stated; you have to take the poem’s word for it. Larkin’s religion and glass of water are entirely set in If’s alternate universe. But the glass of water with the light prisming in it seems very real; Larkin does conjure it up for us out of thin air, or, anyway, words, which are thin air themselves.

Of course, events have overtaken us again. I don’t know that we can take that glass of pure water radiating illumination for granted the way we might have before the Flint lead-poisoning catastrophe—all those images of murky toxic water belching out of pipes.  What would it be like to be teaching this poem right now in Michigan? But that is also part of the rough magic of poems, that they speak to the future (that is, our now), and their angles change depending on how you hold them up to the light.

A.E. STALLINGS’ most recent collection is Olives (2012), and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Parnassus, The New Criterion, and other magazines. In 2011, she became a MacArthur Fellow. She is a contributing editor for Partisan.

DAISY FRIED's latest book is Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, London Review of Books, Partisan, and elsewhere.

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