… an uplifting New Year poem full of wholesome wisdom.

Nah. Google New Year and you’ll get a zillion pages of those. No one with half a brain comes to University Diaries in search of uplift. Here’s this year’s year-end poem, which appeared in 2002.


By Philip Levine


You can hate the sea as it floods

the shingle, draws back, swims up,

again; it goes on night and day

all your life, and when your life

is over it’s still going. A young priest

sat by my bed and asked, did I know

what Cardinal Newman said

about the sea. This merry little chap

with his round pink hands entwined

told me I should change my life.

“I like my life,” I said. “Holidays

are stressful in my line of work,” he said.

Within the week he was going off

to Carmel to watch the sea come on

and on and on as Newman wrote.

“I hate the sea,” I said, and I did

at that moment, the way the waves

go on and on without a care.

In silence we watched the night

Spread from the corners of the room.

“You should change your life,”

he repeated. I asked had he been

reading Rilke. The man in the next bed,

a retired landscaper from Chowchilla,

let out a great groan and rolled over

to face the blank wall. I felt bad

for the little priest: both of us

he called “my sons” were failing

him, slipping gracelessly from our lives

to abandon him to face eternity

as it came on and on and on.


So a little anecdote, a wee life narrative, from Philip Levine, a Jewish guy who spent some life-endangered time in a shared hospital room entered into one early evening by a cheer-spreading (but not really) priest. Those of us who know Matthew Arnold’s famous Dover Beach may read Levine’s first lines as a kind of modern affectless highly concentrated summary of that angsty Victorian verse. Both poets consider the seeming pointlessness of life, nicely visually captured by the eternal in and out of ocean waves expiring on the shore:

[T]he grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin…

Every day a little death; then, for no particular reason, even maybe stupidly, a gulp of air and another plunge back to the brine, only to dissolve yet again. One More New Botched Beginning. Levine even takes the word shingles from Arnold, who laments

the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world

Naked because these fragile piles of sea stones have been abandoned again and again on the shore by the always-retreating, always-betraying waves of “new” existence. In Levine, you hate the sea as it “floods the shingle,” dousing it with possibility, and then – (Lucy: football; Sisphyus: rock; etc. etc. etc. ) – stranding it. And then the ultimate insult: Not enough that life is drear; there’s the insult of life – even crappy life – “still going” when “your life is over.”

So with that general statement done, Levine proceeds to his story. The visiting priest asks Levine (this seems an autobiographical poem) if he knows what Arnold’s fellow Victorian, the great Catholic poet John Henry Cardinal Newman said about the sea. The poem never says exactly what that was, but take it that the priest might have had this in mind:

[My conversion] was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.

But Newman spoke too soon; he experienced very serious depressions in his later years, and wrote one of the most-cited poems about that condition. And here’s a sample of his late-in-life prose.

I have so depressing a feeling that I have done nothing through my long life, and especially that now I am doing nothing at all. … What am I? my time is out. I am passé. I may have done something in my day—but I can do nothing now. It is the turn of others. … It is enough for me to prepare for death, for, as it would appear, nothing else awaits me—there is nothing else to do.

The merry priest tells Levine to change his life – consider conversion, one imagines, in order to be happier, and situated in a meaningful deathless world – but Levine replies that he likes his life, bitter existential betrayal and all. The priest then complains that holidays like New Year’s Eve are “stressful” for priests – presumably because everyone’s miserably reflecting on their lives the way Levine (who has the double whammy of illness and end of year to get him going) is. So the priest himself ain’t so jolly, having to gad about from drear hospital room to drear hospital room attempting to spread cheer. In fact he needs a break and is off to the biblically and californically rich “Carmel” to decompress.

The priest is now silent; together he and Levine watch the night “spread from the corners of the room.” They are being engulfed by metaphysical darkness… The priest can only repeat himself: The poet should change his life. “I asked had he been reading Rilke,” Levine sardonically responds. Rilke’s famous sonnet, Archaic Torso of Apollo, ends with that imperative: You must change your life. But it seems unlikely that the priest would be quoting Rilke’s erotic, non-religious, hyper-aesthetic poem; it seems likely that Levine is having a little fun with the little priest.

Not that we’ve ever left it, but the poem ends with a big thudding return to godless modernity, with the retired landscaper in the next bed (he’s given up trying to alter the earth), who hails from a town with a random unartful name, groaning with emptiness (“blank wall”) and defeat. And who does the poet feel bad for? The priest, with his absurd “my sons” designation (he’s much younger, one presumes, than either of these old sick men) and his disappointment that these two sinners seem to be failing big time at eternal life. Not only are they dying without grace (“gracelessly”); they are, more problematically, robbing the priest of his much-needed certainty of their salvation – hence his need to retreat to Carmel and deal with his stress.

Darkest of all is the priest’s own peculiar metaphysical fate, meted out in the last two lines: Salvific eternity itself may present to our sublunary minds as another hideous Sisyphean tableau, the chilling endlessness of … endlessness.

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4 Responses to “Faithful Readers Know that at the End of Every Year UD Provides, with Commentary…”

  1. Greg Says:

    The priests claimed to have bagged Wallace Stevens’soul, in hospice, under the palm at the end of his mind. I have always had my doubts, thinking that his continued.

  2. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    Chowchilla has quite a lot of resonance: its meaning, the fact of the name being borrowed from a Native American language, its two prisons, and the 1976 schoolbus highjacking that was the first thing I thought of.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Dame Eleanor: I looked it up and the first thing that came up was a bird! So the name has tons of resonance; but in the context of the poem I suspect it’s just meant to be silly and unpoetic – part of the fallen world.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Greg: Hard to imagine anyone bagging that free soul.

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