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Philia, Agape, and Storge in Greenbaum, Hopkins, and Larkin

In our culture, the word “love” often refers to romantic love. But eros is only one of the four types of love defined by the ancient Greeks, and in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day I thought it’d be fun to read poems that celebrate the three other types of love. There’s philia (friendship) in Jessica Greenbaum’s beautiful “On a Bus, Someday;” agape (the love between God and man) in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Lantern Out of Doors;” and storage (the love between parents and children) in Philip Larkin’s wistful “Reference Back.”

In “On a Bus, Someday,” Jessica Greenbaum devotes the first twenty lines of the poem to vivid details about the speaker’s friendship with another woman. It feels luxurious to devote so much time and space to the good times and inside jokes of a friendship. The details help the reader immediately grasp what the relationship was like, from “being invited places as a pair, like a comedy team” to:

… your imitation of your mother’s
habitual and by-the-way inexplicable confession about you
to shoe salesman: She has a funny foot;

… the apartments,
the Olivettis, the boyfriends, all the thoughts exchanged
unedited like an experiment of the big, walk-in consciousness

Then the speaker changes tack, asserting she’s now an extravert who “can’t resist” talking to strangers in public places. This is followed by a confession: “but the truth is I am not looking for new friends at this point;/ I am trying to locate the lost ones.” This came as a shock the first time I read the poem: a sudden realization the speaker is searching specifically for the (long-lost?) friend described in such caring detail above. Knowing about the speaker’s search made the line containing the poem’s title all the more poignant:

Even now, I can’t resist striking up
a conversation while standing on line, any line, or introducing
myself enthusiastically to whomever I am introduced,
but the truth is I am not looking for new friends at this point;
I am trying to locate the lost ones, the ones who left
through the hole of an argument decades ago,
a time more panicked and carefree than any other, except maybe
the early years of motherhood, which I missed sharing
with you on playground benches. But surely I will see you
on the bus someday, and your greeting will package
our jokes, advice, tears, book talk, our years of reliance….

The first two lines of Hopkins’s “The Lantern Out of Doors” will be understood by anyone who enjoys people-watching. Gay but unable to come out due to the strictures of his time (1844-1889), Hopkins had to content himself with watching beautiful and intelligent men pass through his orbit. The poem’s first stanza is also a pleasure to say aloud, thanks to the alliteration of “w”s and “d”s, and the assonance of the “ow” sound in “bound” and “down”:

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Resigning himself to being alone, the speaker grimly concludes that “out of sight is out of mind.” This would be depressing if it weren’t for the last three lines, in which Hopkins describes the one who’s always there for everyone as a “first, fast, last friend”:

Christ minds. Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend,
There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.

The elderly mother and middle-age son of Larkin’s “Reference Back” aren’t happy people; she’s in her “unsatisfactory age” and he’s in his “unsatisfactory prime.” The poem’s argument — that it’s heartrending to look at the arc of relationships when they go from close to distant over time — is spread across the poem’s three stanzas.

In the first stanza, the speaker is wasting a visit to his mother, holing up in a separate room and listening to records even though he knows she was looking forward to spending time with him.

However, the music forges a temporary bridge between them when she calls out “that was a pretty one” after Oliver’s “Riverside Blues” plays.

But in the third stanza, the speaker feels wistful, comparing that rare and fleeting moment of connection to the past, when their relationship used to be easily and naturally close. In the poem’s saddest moment, the speaker wonders if he could have preserved the loving dynamic of the mother-and-son’s early years simply “by acting differently.”

This sense of regret is ameliorated by the fact that “Riverside Blues” now consistently causes the speaker to think of his mother (“And now/ I shall, I suppose, always remember how/ the flock of notes…. made this sudden bridge”), which means the visit did bring them closer after all.