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The Muse v. The Reading Public
    Richard Wilbur v. Philip Larkin
    (or: A Study in Writing Habits)

Kompare & kontrast:

‘Advice from the Muse’
Richard Wilbur
for T. W. W.

How credible, the room which you evoke:
At the far end, a lamplit writing-desk.
Nearer, the late sun swamps an arabesque
Carpet askew upon a floor of oak,
And makes a cherry table-surface glow,
Upon which lies an open magazine.
Beyond are shelves and pictures, as we know,
Which cannot in the present light be seen.

Bid now a woman enter in a mood
That we, because she brings a bowl of roses
Which, touch by delicate touch, she redisposes,
May think to catch with some exactitude.
And let her, in complacent silence, hear
A squirrel chittering like an unoiled joint
To tell us that a grove of beech lies near.
Have all be plain, but only to a point.

Not that the bearded man who in a rage
Arises ranting from a shadowy chair,
And of whose presence she was unaware,
Should not be fathomed by the final page,
And all his tale, and hers, be measured out
With facts enough, good ground for inference,
No gross unlikelihood of major doubt,
And, at the end, an end to all suspense.

Still, something should escape us, something like
A question one had meant to ask the dead,
The day’s heat come and gone in infra-red,
The deep-down jolting nibble of a pike,
Remembered strangers who in picnic dress
Traverse a field and under mottling trees
Enter a midnight of forgetfulness
Rich as our ignorance of the Celebes.

Of motives for some act, propose a few,
Confessing that you can’t yourself decide;
Or interpose a witness to provide,
Despite his inclination to be true,
Some fadings of the signal, as it were,
A breath which, drawing closer, may obscure
Mirror or window with a token blur—
That slight uncertainty which makes us sure.

Wilbur, Richard. Collected Poems, 1943-2004: 104-105. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2004.

‘Fiction and the Reading Public’
Philip Larkin

Give me a thrill, says the reader,
Give me a kick;
I don’t care how you succeed, or
What subject you pick.
Choose something you know all about
That’ll sound like real life:
Your childhood, Dad pegging out,
How you sleep with your wife.

But that’s not sufficient, unless
You make me feel good —
Whatever you’re ‘trying to express’
Let it be understood
That ‘somehow’ God plaits up the threads,
Makes ‘all for the best’,
That we may lie quiet in our beds
And not be ‘depressed’.

For I call the tune in this racket:
I pay your screw,
Write reviews and the bull on the jacket —
So stop looking blue
And start serving up your sensations
Before it’s too late;
Just please me for two generations —
You’ll be ‘truly great’.

Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems: 170. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.


  1. Larkin seems pretty jaded. What about beauty and truth! Methinks he mighteth plead with thine inspir’d muse and thence be quenched with hither poetic’s rhyme. To the gallows beckons hither love’s goodly wench And to thine Wench be ‘horing true.

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      ‘Larkin seems pretty jaded.’

      Indeed; and Edgar Allan Poe seems pretty morbid, Oscar Wilde seems pretty clever, and Philip K. Dick seems pretty paranoid.

      ‘What about beauty and truth!’

      Here’s a starting point: See Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’, in the last stanza of which, the speaker says that a beautiful but ahistorical detail on an old tomb effigy — a husband and wife holding hands — ‘has come […] to prove / Our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love.’ Larkin’s speaker has said repeatedly that this sculptural hand-holding is only an artistic flourish, not an expression of the love between the actual man and woman entombed beneath their stone effigies. Literally, the poem is saying that this sculptor’s artistic flourish fails to prove that ‘what will remain of us is love’; the message is flatly negative. But (to this reader, anyway), the total effect of the poem is more ambiguous, a thoroughly gray agnosticism. I think it’s because of the strange syntax of that last stanza: The sculpture has not ‘almost proved our almost-instinct true’, but has instead ‘proved our almost-instinct almost true’. To say that I have ‘almost proved something true’ is to say that I have not proved it true; it’s negative, yet clear. But to say that I have ‘proved something almost true’ is both affirmative and ambiguous, an uncomfortable combination that — to this reader, anyhow — provides what Richard Wilbur’s ‘Muse’ might call ‘Some fadings of the signal’ — though just what the ‘slight uncertainty’ produced by such ‘fadings’ is supposed to ‘[make] us sure’ of, I am… unsure: A character’s motive? The probity of the narrator, who is honest enough to reflect the real world’s complexity in his story? The existence of providence — ‘That “somehow” God plaits up the threads, / Makes “all for the best”‘? It is impossible to say.

      Or is it?

      (Sorry, very tired.)

  2. How many drinks?

  3. I had forgotten that I gave Wilbur that line about the pike. That was a good one.

  4. The Haunting Echo of Angelico's Laughter says

    Ha ha I bet you thought this was JOB!

  5. Actually, it’s neither the public nor the muse but somewhere in between – an image, a line, a metaphor as mistake, a fantasy that takes a wrong turn only to hit the brakes at the last possible moment at the intersection of Epistomology Ave. and Phenomenon Lane.


    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      Does this mean that the narrative, like the poem, ‘must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully’?

  6. In his dad’s car no less.

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