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The Atlantic Monthly | June 1986
The Country's Changing Measure

by Jack Beatty
hilip Larkin, the English poet, died last year at the age of sixty-three. The obituaries spoke of him as the voice of Britain's long slide—the years that saw its standard of living eclipsed by Italy's. You don't have to be British, however, to respond to these lines:
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know that it is a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.
Because I live in a small city whose center is full of boarded-up shops and stores (victims of a suburban mall), those words about Britain voice my sense—one of my senses—of America. The country is so different from what it was even in green memory—its diners killed off by the chains, its grocery stores by supermarkets, its street and neighborhood life by television—that it is hard to take the measure of the changes. That's why we need poets like Philip Larkin: to take the country's changing measure, and ours.

Robert Lowell was such a poet—the voice of an American generation. Still, America is not a tight little island like Britain (where, to give you the measure of the difference, a newspaper once led a story this way: "It was raining in America on election day"). America is a geographic and social immensity, in which even the voice of a public poet like Lowell could sound coterie, limited by time and temperament and class in a way that the Larkin lines I quoted do not seem limited. I am thinking particularly of the closing lines of his "For the Union Dead." The poem takes as its starting point the Saint-Gaudens frieze in front of the Massachusetts State House, which depicts the Boston abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw leading his Negro troops off to war: "Two months after marching through Boston, / half the regiment was dead." It then moves to a climactic contrast between the high-mindedness of Colonel Shaw and the crassness and vulgarity of 1959 Boston: "Everywhere,/ giant finned cars nose forward like fish;/ a savage servility/ slides by on grease."

A savage servility? That is meant to describe the finned cars of the fifties. My father had one. He was proud of it, and I of him for possessing so brazen a car. I think the sheer ornamental exuberance of its fins made him feel that the Depression, which had nearly wrecked his life and which had irrevocably changed its course, was not going to come back. The Depression was gone for good; somehow the car was a promise of that. What Lowell saw as vulgarity, he experienced as freedom, as release. Lowell's alienation from the postwar superflux, in these lines at any rate, seems born of a sense of superiority to it. Larkin's alienation from Britain, in contrast, seems to spring from a kind of identification with Britain's decline; this man, we feel, has lost as much as his country has. (It is what he's lost.) Larkin's reference to "our children" draws me in—wins from me the spontaneous assent that is poetic belief. I don't feel that way about Lowell's brilliant description, for I, a Boston boy, am in the back seat of one of those savage servilities, and the old Democrat I can only dream back from death is at the wheel.

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Copyright © 1986 by Jack Beatty. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1986; The Country's Changing Measure - 86.06; Volume 257, No. 6; page 15.