Certainly the past has a way of making itself felt, whether in the realities of cycles of growth, or in the metaphors we make of such things. Larkin’s trees are emblematic of spring for me, but also have come to represent my dad and his last days, since I read the poem at his funeral, thirteen years ago this month. He was also on my mind on Saturday, when I joined a perplexingly tiny audience for a concert given by a touring French choir. We'd chosen for the funeral some of the music from their final item, Fauré’s Requiem, including the ethereally lovely last piece. Of course the starting point of the requiem mass is death, but it’s not just the words of ‘In Paradisum’ which persuade us that life goes on, even though in the ‘real world’ this is an impossibility. Or is it? Thomas Gradgrind wouldn’t have it, but apparently Stephen Hawking surprised audiences at the weekend by his advice to ‘One Direction’ fans mourning the loss from the line-up of Zayn Malik to explore theoretical physics, because it might one day come up with proof of an alternative universe in which Malik was still in the band. Science and art used to be poles apart; increasingly, a marriage between the two seems essential if we are to respond in a productive way to the imperatives of the modern world. Cake and eat it? You can’t have both at once, used to be the received wisdom. Maybe that’s out of date. Ali Smith’s How to be Both reminds us of just this: that past and present, fact and fiction, life and death can and do exist simultaneously. As Larkin said, the trees' 'yearly trick' of looking new is contained within their 'rings of grain'.
Philip Larkin's 'The Trees' was first published in High WIndows (Faber and Faber 1974)
Le Choeur de Paris Sciences et Lettres gave three concerts in Cambridge: watch out for their next visit
How to be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2014) is now available in paperback