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homage to a government

Next year we are to bring all the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

“Homage to a Government” was written in ’69, also published in the volume High Windows in ’74. It belongs in the same volume as “Annus Mirabilis” and it is a companion piece: Politics and eros are complementary. It is also written in an ironic mood, but almost devoid of humor—perhaps sex is inherently funny, but politics is not. Honor and empire, prosperity and freedom may be good or great, but they are tied up with bloodshed. The dark passions of the soul, which are animated by anger, are dominant in politics.

The title is again the signal of irony. A reading of the poem suffices to prove that it is no homage. But irony is an education as much as anything else, so we will have to consider in what way this ironic title teaches us how to think about the predicament of politics at the moment of liberal despair, which also is complementary to the moment of liberal ecstasy or enthusiasm described in the other poem. The obvious meaning is this: Government depends in an essential way on homage. This is not primarily a matter of good policy or even of prudence. It is about the limits of applying knowledge to events in order to arrive at or defend good things. It is about the limits of rewards owed to the men who dedicate themselves to public life.

woodstockThe poetic conceit is to reverse the relation of homage to time. Homage is paid to those who have proven themselves worthy of it. It is a correlative of prudence: We cannot know now quite whether our actions are prudent. Much depends on events, and is therefore unpredictable. But in hindsight, we can pay homage, not least in the hope of learning something, for example, that some men’s actions are deserving of homage. Not so with Larkin’s poem, which pays homage now to something whose consequences cannot as yet be known. This is supposed to signal an inversion in the relation of politics to time in late liberalism. In theory, this is called the end of history: We could pay homage if, with Hegel, we assume that we live in an absolute moment and we can basically know the outline of the future.

The style is again a kind of common speech, bordering on banality, as if to suggest that iambic pentameter is nothing like what you might expect on account of Shakespeare. Larkin refrains from rhyming here, because it would distract from the combination of helplessness and anger that underlies this opinion about what’s happened to Britain. In fact, there is no sign of anger. Larkin dares his audience to take the poem at its lifeless word. But he gives signs that he is both less serious than he seems and far more serious: Look at the repetitions, especially at the end of the lines—he is not attempting subtlety here, he will not suggest to you to count the words and look for clues, like with Shakespearean sonnets, but he achieves a kind of subtlety: It is not obvious why he should repeat words instead of sounds, as rhyme would do, but he is doing it, so we have to figure out what he wants us to see that we’re not seeing….

1. The first stanza begins with the future, that which is not actual and has never been actual. This future is the new order. The poem is about the coming of this new order. “Annus Mirabilis” concerned itself with the social revolution, but this time it is politics, and so there should be controversy—there are always supporters and opponents of any policy. This should allow Larkin to defend and accuse the Tory politics which was best described by Churchill, and never better than in his Marlborough. His description of Britain, however, is eerily familiar. The fact about Britain is that there is no disagreement—people are somehow the same.

Two kinds of people are placed in opposition: We, the taxpayers, let’s say, who are represented by our elected representatives; they, the soldiers. There is a suggestion that the opposition is typical, not accidental: Consider that the places where soldiers dwelt are also referred to as ‘themselves.’ If you are inclined to this kind of poetry, you might say, the soul of those places themselves are the soldiers. That is empire.

soldiersBut the emphasis is on us. It is also a shifting emphasis. Part of the education that poetry offers is that repetition is never repetition. We start with the thought that necessity moves us—we’re too poor to afford an empire. This is neither honorable nor respectable, but the facts of life command a kind of respect all their own. Being reasonable is in a basic sense respectable. Of course, one wonders, are we too poor to defend ourselves? Then it turns out we want the money for ourselves because we’d rather not work. It is not said that the soldiers agree and would end their mission—but they have no choice. This suggests Britons had been working previously to make empire possible.

This is the age of decolonization. It is modern idealism, self-government across the globe—soldiers had previously installed and defended order—now, everyone in the world gets to do it for himself, one terrible slaughter after another, worlds ending in terror, available to us on the nightly news or videos of UN ceremonies of independence. ‘The proper feudal spirit,’ as Wodehouse would say, which is so connected with the belief in civilizing empire, has departed. We look only to our own comfort or advantage and this allows everyone else to be free. But if we are as good as we think we are, it is at least possible that others would need us or benefit from our empire….

Calling policy ‘all right’ is so far from paying homage it is damning with faint praise. Praise could be the instrument of criticism, holding up to people such a brilliant sight that they feel shame because they know they are not living up to it: Such flattery may move people to improve. Approval could be the instrument of chastisement, suggesting that they are very limited or obtuse or narrow. This is what we have here. The title leads us to expect praise. The lack of it, as well as the narrowness of the motives of politics, suggest another problem with liberalism. What’s the point of politics—is it to make sure we’ve got money so we can work less than previously? Larkin gives here the view of modern prosperity typical of conservatism. Men separate here spontaneously by their reactions to this opinion. Some will feel shame.

The whole of Tory politics may be said to be expressed by the ending words of the lines, which replace rhymes. (This implies an opinion about what rhyming means or ending lines—it’s supposed to reveal connections between thoughts – to put together something that does not occur to us as a whole, though it does to the poet.) Home-right-orderly-orderly-home-right. That is the reasonable life for human beings, it is very heaven, if you think about the peace that it requires and rewards. To be Tory is to be for freedom from chaos. There are various modes of conservatism, but they all live and die by inferring a sense of order from a sense of home and establishing it as a principle of right.

tories2. The second stanza returns to the past for an attempt to retrieve the causes of the present contentment. In political terms, the crisis is obvious only here, in the center, which is as it should be. A very serious political change may be going unnoticed, because people do not take politics seriously. The change in policy has come unbidden—there was in fact no deliberation. One imagines, this was a budget problem with a budget solution in the mind of some fellow tasked to solve such problems. People are apparently satisfied with this: After all, they did not want to decide for themselves. Offering the world self-government by suffering empire to collapse is not even serious about protecting self-government at home! This is in a way connected to the silence of the soldiers. Martial virtue depends on anger, as does politics—the people are apparently in their multitude complacent. There was no anger to stiffen the sinews of polemic. Obviously, one must ask: To what end were the soldiers supposed to fight or risk their lives or do their duty? The silence about purpose recalls to mind J.R. Seeley’s word, ‘we seem to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind.’ So, too, is that conquest relinquished.

The endings of the lines recall Tip O’Neill’s quip, all politics is local: Happen-minds-here-hear-happen-minds. The sole variation, here-hear, is, I think, a good joke, but not a great joke, so I do not feel too bad to explain it: In politics, what is here is what you hear. Reputation and deliberation are the life of politics. Far stranger may seem his use of ‘mind.’ So let’s talk structure: The first stanza shows us the benefits of the policy to be enacted—after it was decided—the second stanza the lack of costs—and the third stanza should offer congratulations that such  a benefit could be secured at no cost! But it is not mind he shows us in showing the calculation—it is mindlessness. Decisions made without being made are ok. Our wanting to escape trouble makes us easier in our mind.

That phrase about the end of the old order which opens the poem, ‘next year,’ is now given meaning, now we know what the effect of the policy on the country will be, and therefore on us. Soldiers make trouble. People like Churchill made a lot of trouble when everyone wanted only to avoid trouble by appeasement—the spinelessness of realism in a liberal regime shows in that whenever one hears, ‘be realistic’ or ‘get real’ or some such phrase, what is meant is, appease. The distinction between citizen and soldier here looks like this: Citizens may notice that something happened, even a big policy change, without having made it happen – the soldiers did make something happen. In the one case, there is almost no ability to act, and therefore no humanity, in the other case—too much, as if human action could overpower chance or necessity.

Of course, soldiers are an effect of trouble as much as a cause. But think about cause here: Soldiers fought in the cause of empire, which was said to be civilization. Peace is a cause of war, too, then. Not knowing who makes decisions; not minding what has been decided; this does not make anyone innocent. The soldiers are human inasmuch as they take up a cause and fight for it. It was not right to abandon the cause for which they fought, which is obvious in the mindlessness of the abandonment. The sentence about what the soldiers made happen is the central of the eleven in the poem. Given the plain speech, one could easily make more or fewer sentences in each stanza. The longest, the only one to occupy three lines, is the central one, so it probably deserves attention.

tories3. The third stanza is all about what country means. This would usually be talking in the past, about heritage. We have political authorities because we are not the authors of our own beings and powers. Instead, we have talk about the future. Larkin shows a  kind of country that might not deserve any homage, because it cannot field an army. This is not merely about defense in the sense in which Churchill defended Britain against Hitler—but about the sense in which he defended civilization. I have already pointed out the complicated relation between praise and truth so far as poetic rhetoric is concerned. Homage might be flattery or mere truth-telling. Larkin fails to pay homage by telling the truth, which is pretty funny, if you’ve got the stomach for it.

Britain was a Tory country. Churchill wrote his Marlborough to show the country he was facing by showing what his warlike ancestor had faced. Tories are the solid, sensible Brits, and also the party that does not take war seriously and causes incredible disasters. There is perhaps something dishonorable in being reasonable. Tories are liberal creatures in the sense that they are the original electorate of modern liberty. But they are not entirely liberal: They are less cosmopolitan than liberalism requires, not to say prejudiced or set in their ways. This is why they are also more bellicose than liberals, which allows them not only to follow a leader to war, but to destroy those who would lead them to war when they will not be led. What Tories are not is imperialists; liberals might more be more imperialist, being less bound by place and more enticed by innovation. Possibly, a liberal-conservative alliance is required to defend civilization. Otherwise, the liberal contempt for honor would make for a weak foreign policy that provokes chaos and the reasonable conservative attachment to place would fail to criticize it.

Larkin moves from soldiers to statues: War is a thing of the past, as is honor, as is, therefore, the possibility of paying homage. One may consider the succession of images, and whether bringing soldiers home is turning them into statues. The living statue of the British soldier is the guard at Buckingham, of course. I regret this vulgar habit of explaining jokes, but it is necessary to make the point. Tree-muffled squares, I think, are opposed to the squares where public life is conducted. Modern life is really more about privacy than policy. The statues will be standing there still, but not quite looking the same. The past will seem more distant, and accusatory. There will be no new statues to join the old, needless to say. It will be almost impossible to remember the past. In the future, there will perhaps no longer be a past to remember.

The concluding lines are terrible. It is close to saying that our children will not know what it is to be human. Why should money be so corrupting? There is a kind of comedy in the ending words of his lines in this stanza: country-money-same-same-country-money. Repetition may seem childish, but it compels thinking. Money appears in the first stanza, in the only statement of purpose: We want the money for ourselves. That comes after saying: For lack of money. The one phrase contains a purpose, which is the signal of human action; the other one is unlike—it concerns the impossibility of having a purpose or acting in a fully human way—it is about necessity compelling our actions. Maybe the shift in emphasis hides something; it moves from the fundamental problem to a somewhat moralistic suggestion about our greed. But the fundamental problem is that we really are poor: We were richer for empire, despite its cost. We were more human, we insisted on humanity by insisting on orderliness and guarding places….

The Biblical phrase that comes to mind is selling one’s birthright for a stew. It is strange to think of Esau as the Tory and Israel as the more warlike, but he was at least adventurous. Churchill had a lot in common with him, certainly. The reason we cannot be more reasonable—why we cannot think of our finances and what we could buy with all our money in this age of undreamed prosperity—is that our past binds us. There are commitments there that cannot be changed by unknown and mindless bureaucrats; there are things which money and exchange and contract cannot undo. Larkin points out we may be moving ourselves into a situation where we no longer remember what these are or might be.

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