Charles Cowling

The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said

I read those lines of Philip Larkin at the funeral of a 16 year old boy who’d died of cancer. They were just right for all sorts of reasons. It was May. Sam, a good artist, had a thing for painting trees. All through his dying in that delayed spring we had looked forward to the trees coming into leaf. What does Larkin mean when he says “Like something almost being said?” I don’t know that poetic meaning translates into words. Poetry uses words to transcend words and touch the mystery of things, that’s its sorcery. Let’s not be reductive.

It was as sad as sadness gets, of course it was, Sam’s funeral. And it was brave and beautiful. Over in Ireland his grandmother threw an armful of dogs into the car and came over to do the flowers. Together they were in the church for the better part of a week, raising up and blending huge, lovely, idiosyncratic vase-fuls. When the undertakers drove Sam’s body over on a morning heavy with mist and rain and sunshine, his friends stood in line to see him brought in, hushed and thoughtful as it came home to them, the death of one of them. Simon, the school rebel, whom Sam, very staid, had always wanted a part of, was in charge of seeing people to their seats. His best behaviour was engagingly loopy. We professed our sadness, spoke the truth about Sam, laughed some. The choir sang ‘God Be In My Head’ soaringly with outbreaks of huskiness, Sam being up there in the midst of them. He was buried in the steep village churchyard. When almost everyone had gone the gravediggers, unseen till then, rose up suddenly and came down the slope in that timeless way of theirs to heap the earth. His mother, a sculptor, later installed the memorial at the top. That’s Sam’s parrot you see and, at the foot, his dog.

Out of sadness can come the strangest and most wonderful beauty. Sam was too young, his death as bleak as it gets. His people might have succumbed to the nihilism of it all. They might have capitulated numbly to emotional and organisational best practice, worn drawn faces, griefwalked through some seamless, soulless ceremonial and back out into the world, unhealed. But Sam’s funeral broke the bonds of all that. There was a defiant vitality, a creative anarchy at work which made sense of it all precisely because it did not.

And that’s exacty what Larkin does, I think. Here’s the complete poem:

The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again

And we grow old? No, they die too.

Their yearly trick of looking new

Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh

In fullgrown thickness every May.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

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