Corpus Christi is the liturgical feast for poetry. The audacious claim that bread and wine become body and blood for the life of the world needs the poet’s dense art to reveal the mystery without pretending to strip it bare. It is no coincidence that one of the Church’s greatest Eucharistic theologians, Thomas Aquinas, also wrote some of Christianity’s finest hymns when the feast was instituted in 1264.
Philip Larkin doesn’t enter many lists of Eucharistic poets, perhaps because the morose, godless librarian philandered ruthlessly, mocked his lovers, and never let religion ruin an evening. Yet Larkin’s poetry often probed cracks in life’s smooth surface, places of doubt that might yawn into black despair or pour out radiant hope. He yearned for meaning, and in his poetic searches he occasionally placed his hand directly on the Christian mystery, even if he then withdrew it like a child from a stove.
“High Windows” is one of those moments. The opening lines are memorable:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s ------- her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
The irony of the passage is clear, accentuated by the clashing, inelegant language and the comic juxtaposition of “diaphragm” and “paradise.” The base carnality of the stanza also manifests in its dissonant absence of rhyme, a dissonance that slowly opens into euphonic, regular rhyme as the poem’s subject grows loftier.
The narrator and his generation wish that they grew up as these young people have, free of all sexual inhibition and responsibility. The chains that bind the world are sexual mores, and with them gone, the old imagine the “young going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly.”
Yet all is not well in paradise. The narrator remembers the old men when he was young imagining a glorious life for him, growing up free from the only chain they saw binding the world: God. Without God, “or sweating in the dark / about hell and that,” they knew that he “and his lot will all go down the long slide / Like free bloody birds.”
But reading between the lines we see that life was not a long slide for him; even without the God-specter his life was full of the secret wounds and inexplicable griefs that marked his predecessors’ lives. Perhaps, just perhaps, the same agonies will blossom and bear their rotten fruit in the lives of the young who so blissfully couple and uncouple without squeamish moral “bonds and gestures.” And something waits unbidden at the bottom of the long slide, spreading like a silent cancer through the happiness of the young: death.
The narrator sees that we have lied to ourselves about who God is and what the body is. God cannot be just a dark idea we tremble at or scorn; the body cannot be just a vehicle of taboos or of pleasure. There must be something more.
When Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
The poem’s closing lines bring to mind lofty cathedral windows whose glass can hardly be seen until an errant sunbeam blazes it into a radiant sheet of fire. Outside, that beam vanishes invisibly in the endless blue air. Seen alone, the air does not divulge its secrets; only through the glass can we make out the infinite fullness that the sky hides.
Our modern eyes see the body as mere opaque flesh, the site of banal hook-ups and increasingly bizarre experiments in identity manipulation. Larkin reveals the luminosity of the body and its orientation to the other, linking the body to a window that becomes itself only when lit from the outside, by another. The identity of the other he leaves open, allowing the mind to wander the endless paths of the “deep blue air” that shows nothing but contains everything and is nowhere but is everywhere.
Corpus Christi answers the open question of the poem’s final stanza: It is the endless, wholly other God who sets the human body ablaze with glory in the person of Jesus Christ. The body of Christ reveals the human body’s true vocation: not to be a tool of shame or indulgence, but to be “sun-comprehending glass,” revealing the face of the hidden God.
Communion with God in the Eucharist is the privileged place for this transfiguring encounter. Pope Urban IV, in the bull establishing the feast of Corpus Christi, says of the Eucharist that “this bread is received, but not truly consumed; it is eaten, but not changed, because it is not at all transformed into the one eating, but, if worthily received, it conforms the receiver to itself.” The Eucharist changes us like light striking glass; the two can no longer be distinguished, but are as one. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
Larkin’s poem discovers the fissure that tears through the modern mind: we believe God and man are radically opposed, that I can never be free until I am shut of God and His mournful legacy. Even as an atheist Larkin reaches for a desperate, poetic hope: that God and man might be one.
Gabriel Torretta, OP is a summer fellow at First Things and is studying for the priesthood in the Dominican Order.
Philip Larkin, High Windows