How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
Near the beginning of the pandemic, a news bulletin on RTÉ, the main Irish TV network, ended with a reading of this poem. It must have been striking to hear so clearly acknowledged the painful inevitabilities of this time: there will be dying, there will be dying.
Clive James, a famous literary critic, wrote that Philip Larkin’s poetry ‘faces the worst on our behalf, and brings it to order.’ I think this small, simple poem from Mahon might be doing the same: it considers what is really the worst of things, human mortality, and tries to bring it into some sort of resolution. But whether or not we believe in its reassurance is up to us. It’s harder at some times than others. At the lowest time of my life, I had a friend who’d pick me up into a big sort of bear hug and say very simply, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ I was grateful. But sometimes I felt like saying, ‘Really? How do you know it’s going to be okay? Maybe it isn’t!’.
I think this poem manages to convince us because it states its sorrows so baldly; then counters them with these incredibly simple, beautiful images: ‘a riot of sunlight’, ‘the far cities … beautiful and bright’. What’s more is, the narrator’s sense of peace – even joy – at these scenes is presented as another inevitability, just as inevitable as death. ‘How should I not be glad?’: it’s as if there’s nothing else to do in the face of such beauty. It’s a poem to keep close to your heart for hard times; for times when things are too difficult to go straight into. Better to turn your gaze elsewhere: to the sunlight, the far cities, the clouds flying.
All my love,