By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Sad Steps’ was completed by Philip Larkin in April 1968, and was published in his final volume of poetry, High Windows (1974). Larkin was in his mid-forties when he wrote ‘Sad Steps’, and the poem analyses and explores the poet’s awareness of middle age, and the loss of his youth. You can read ‘Sad Steps’ here.
The title of Larkin’s poem is an allusion to another English poem by Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), namely sonnet 31 from Sidney’s sixteenth-century sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella. Sidney’s poem begins with the line, ‘With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies’.
The opening line of Larkin’s poem, in turn, adds a different meaning to this title: for Sidney, the moon seemed to be taking ‘sad steps’ across the night sky, but for Larkin, his ‘sad steps’, at least at first, seem to be altogether more everyday and down-to-earth, namely the steps he takes back to bed ‘after a piss’.
The crudeness of this word, coming at the end of the line as it does, completely disabuses us of any straightforward poetical songs to the beauty of the moon, or the way it reflects the poet’s lovelorn heartache.
This is something John Carey has identified as part of Philip Larkin’s wider poetic strategy, what Carey calls ‘the two Larkins’: the first, who tends to open the poem, is bluntly spoken, demotic in his language, even slightly adolescent; the second Larkin, who takes over the ‘voice’ of the poem as it develops, is more thoughtful and philosophical. Compare, here, ‘This Be The Verse’ or ‘High Windows’, also from Larkin’s later career.
‘Sad Steps’, in summary, sees Larkin being struck by the moon in the night sky, something that poets have been drawn to as a poetic topic for centuries.
But Larkin rejects the age-old responses to the moon (‘Lozenge of love!’ or ‘Medallion of art!’, to say nothing of the link between full moons and werewolves hinted at in ‘wolves of memory’, suggesting man’s primeval connection to the moon), highlighting them in exaggerated terms, using exclamation marks to suggest they have lost their sincerity and now seem excessively romantic and out of touch with people’s true attitudes to the moon as symbol.
In a typical Larkinesque ‘turn’ at the end of line 12, with a characteristically brusque ‘No’, Larkin replaces these high-romantic visions of the moon’s significance with a more grounded and realistic response: he ‘shivers slightly’ looking up at the moon, because the cold greyness of the moon is a reminder, for him, of his lost youth, and the fact that he will never be young again – though for others, who still have their youth, these things are ‘undiminished’.
Why does the moon prompt these thoughts? The clue, or at least part of it, lies in the allusion to Sidney’s poem encoded in that title, ‘Sad Steps’.
The sonnet sequence from which Sidney’s poem comes, Astrophil and Stella, is all about the poet’s pain and heartbreak that stems from being in love with a woman he can’t have. (The sequence, which was the first substantial sonnet sequence written in English, dramatizes Sidney’s frustration and feelings of unrequited love for Penelope Rich, the woman he had been offered in marriage, whom he had turned down – only to discover, once she had married someone else, that he actually loved her.)
Sidney’s poem thus connects the moon with what Larkin describes as ‘the strength and pain / Of being young’: namely, the trials and tribulations of being in the first throes of (unrequited) love. Larkin’s poem is not written from this youthful perspective, but from an older, middle-aged one, and the moon’s pallor only reminds Larkin that, for him, those strongly-felt emotions of youth have faded and become washed out, and love is no longer felt with the same sharpness or keenness.
‘Sad Steps’ sums up Larkin’s ability to analyse his own feelings in a plain-speaking manner, whilst also employing highly poetic language and a sophisticated rhyme scheme to do so.
Continue to explore Larkin’s life and work with our commentary on his ‘Going, Going’, our thoughts on his famous ‘Toads’ poem, our analysis of his classic poem ‘High Windows’ and our biographical trivia about Larkin. You can get hold of all of Larkin’s essential poetry with The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, which we’d thoroughly recommend.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.