by Sophia Brookshire
“Sad Steps” is what is known as a poem speaking to another poem; in this case, Larkin's poem is speaking to Sir Philip Sidney's poem “Astrophil and Stella #31.” Sidney's poem begins: "with how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies" (line 1), and goes on to ask the moon for advice on love and women. In both Larkin's and Sidney's poems, the moon is an all-powerful entity; however, Sidney seems to have respect and love for the moon, while Larkin is envious and fearful of the moon. These two poems also contrast in the way that Sidney was young and in love when he wrote his poem while Larkin was in his mid-forties when he wrote his. In Larkin's poem, Sidney would be the youth who shouts hyperboles at the moon (lines 11-12). Age changes how we view and experience life; youth is filled with naivety and unabashed fun and happiness while age brings wisdom and sorrow.
In his poem “Sad Steps,” Larkin mixes lyricism with crudeness in an effort to jar his reader from the typical poetic frame of mind. The major theme of this poem is the loneliness of age and death; the narrator looks to the moon and is envious of its singleness and immortality. We are born, we live, and then we die; conversely, the moon starts as nothing, grows full, and is nothing again, it has a never-ending cycle or rebirth. Furthermore, the narrator is also envious of the young, because they are inherently blissfully unaware of their own mortality. Throughout this poem the moon is described as having inhuman strength, clarity, and confidence, all of which the narrator wished he possessed. In the beginning, the moon both terrifies and angers the narrator, but by the end he accepts his mortality and draws strength from the moon.
This opening line is deliberately vulgar; Larkin wanted to make sure that his readers knew that the subject of this poem was also vulgar. It is clear by this opening line that Larkin is writing this poem more for the "average Joe" than high-society; taking a piss is not a common act described in poetry, and would be considered in most literary circles of the time as being in bad taste. "Groping" connotes a sense of darkness and uncertainty. The narrator parts the "thick curtains" of his bedroom window and is startled by the magnificence of the moon. Parting curtains or the pulling back of a veil is commonly used to symbolize the revelation of some truth; in this case, the narrator discovers the moon and is reminded of his own mortality. The narrator is troubled by the rapid movement of the clouds, which unveils the clear moon, forever young. The moon is set up to an ominous image where time has no real affect; conversely time has caused the narrator to grow older and weaker. The end of the narrator's life is coming closer and closer while the moon is just as brilliant today as it was thirty years ago. Line three also marks the beginning of a more lyrical tone.
It is four o'clock in the morning when the narrator discovers the moon. The moon is so bright that it acts as the sun does and casts shadows on the ground below. “Cavernous” is defined as one of large or unknown size. “A wind-picked sky” refers to the clouds that are moved hither and thither by the wind. Once Larkin has established his lyrical tone, he begins to mock it by saying that the scene that he had just described is “laughable”. It's laughable because of how lyrically beautiful this scene is depicted; Larkin tends to describe things as they are rather than trying to make simple objects or actions seem more profound or beautiful than they actually are.
The moon is once again an all-powerful entity that cannot be diminished. The moon dashes through the clouds-not even the clouds can thwart the moon brightness. The clouds are compared to the smoke that clouds up after a cannon is fired-puffy, thick in some areas and more translucent in others, and spotty. The moon is so bright that it is able to light up the night sky as much as the sun does during the day; it is so clear that one can see the rooftops below in detail. "Stone-coloured light" refers to the moon's light as being grayish.
The moon is “high and preposterous”—contrary to nature or reason—“and separate” from everything else. The moon is described as a confident, independent, transcendent, and arrogant, all of which can be used to describe youth, which is something that narrator is so keenly aware that he no longer possesses. The narrator bursts out into a frenzy of hyperboles-overstatements, or exaggerations-in a way to try and recapture the whimsy of youth. A lozenge is a diamond-like shape or figure; this hyperbole is stating that the moon is like a diamond in that they both represent love. A medallion is a tablet or panel bearing a portrait or an ornament, in this case it bearing a work of art; the moon is a work of art and should be revered like any other medallion. The moon has long been associated with love because it is the only time people can allow themselves to be free from the pressures of societal demands; it when lovers can be together and can express their love openly without prying eyes or ears intruding. The narrator loses himself for a moment in this flurry of emotions, but he quickly checks himself by ending the stanza with “No”. He is older and perhaps more wiser now than he was in his youth and he knows better than to try and akin himself with the moon; he and the moon are not equals, and do not share the same hardships.
He "shivers" at the realization that the moon is far more powerful than he; it is harder, brighter, and its light reaches farther than he will ever be able to see. It alone can withstand mankind's biggest enemy: time.
The sight of the moon reminds him of the strength and pain that comes with youth. You only get to be young once, so it is important to live life to its fullest. The moon lives in a never-ending cycle of rebirth, so for it time doesn't really mean much. The moon teaches us that we as humans have no control over life, and the only thing that is certain is that we will one day die. The narrator feels a sense of singles and emptiness as he is now reaching closer and closer to the end of his life.
‘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.