Philip Larkin seems not always to have been the nicest of people. A.N. Wilson once commented that the poet’s task was “to make the beautiful true and the truth beautiful, and that, sometimes, Larkin did neither.” Most times, though, he fulfilled the task of the poet as prescribed by Wilson. He transformed unpleasant moments into insights into human existence; if the truth did not become beautiful, it at least was told in a way that had some meaning.
On a BBC radio programme on how writers handle literary legacies, the poet Andrew Motion talked of the interest some people had not only in the words of deceased writers, but also in their possessions. One enthusiast for the works of Larkin had been keen to acquire the late poet’s lawnmower. It would seem an odd thing for which to wish, until one remembers Larkin’s poem The Mower.
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
Of course, Larkin’s lines can appeal to our anthropomorphism, the hedgehog can become Mrs Tiggywinkle in our minds, but it is a profound expression of the reality and sheer bloodiness of human life.
The death is an arbitrary moment, it is inadvertent, a matter of carelessness, but maybe most of the harm we cause is similar. Even those who would own up to harmful acts sometimes engage in a post hoc rationalisation; who would not prefer to be thought calculating rather than plain stupid? Men, especially, will pretend an intention, endeavour to justify an action, rather than admitting that the failure to deal with base, animal instincts is at the root of the damage they have caused.
Larkin recognizes his part, his responsibility, in mauling the hedgehog’s unobtrusive world “unmendably.” If the hedgehog were a metaphor for our own destructiveness, how much unmendable damage has been caused?
And the death brings mourning, mourning as real the next day as it was the one before. Pain doesn’t go away just because time has passed; unresolved, it deepens and darkens. Years later, hurts arise, overshadow happiness, bring tears.
Be kind while there is still time? It is Golden Rule advice, unquestionable wisdom. But if we were wise, we would not be clumsy, we would not cause hurt that does not go away, we would have the humility just to say “sorry”; we would not be mangling hedgehogs.