“Certain You Approve”

“Certain you approve.” For some reason, this line has been stuck in my head for a week or two now. It’s the sort of thing my wife and I regularly say to each other, a snippet from a song or poem that we’ve picked up and polished off to as a kind of shorthand for larger, unspoken matters. The sort of thing, as I say, but it is not in fact a phrase she and I have used with each other. This morning, it was bugging me the way earworms will–where the hell is this from, and why is it in my head?–so I Googled it to realize the line comes from the first stanza of Larkin’s “Poetry of Departures“:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

The rest of the poem is pure Larkin, a paean to respectable middle-class virtues and why the hell not? But that’s not the part that sticks with me, not that I especially disagree with him about the sentiment.

What I like about the simple line “certain you approve” is that implication you sometimes get from somebody with whom you’re speaking that disagreeing with an idea they’ve just expressed is impossible. At that moment, you realize you’ve been maneuvred into silently concurring with a position you may not like in fact. If it’s a serious matter–a racist remark, or the like–you have to speak up, of course. But littler things, less weighty but perhaps just as important, that you don’t want to rock the boat about? These you let go, even if you’re not sure you want to.

“Certain you approve” sticks in my head, I guess, because it seems to convey perfectly the smug cluelessness that reduces a dialogue into a monologue.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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