If Rudyard Kipling’s is the poetry of empire, then Philip Larkin’s is the poetry of the aftermath of empire. Having lived through the divestiture of England’s various colonial holdings, the economic impact of empire building having finally come home, together with the ultimate travesty of imperial pretensions and the nightmare of Nazi and Soviet colonization in Europe, Larkin was wary of the expansiveness, the acquisitiveness, and the grandeur implicit in the imperial mentality. Many features of his poetry can be traced to that wariness: from the skepticism and irony, to the colloquial diction, to the formal precision of his poems.
Indeed, of all the writers who shared those ideals and techniques and who came to be known in the 1950’s as the Movement, Larkin most faithfully retained his original attitude and style. Those writers—Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, and Thom Gunn, among others—diverse though they were, shared attitudes that were essentially empirical, antimodernist, skeptical, and ironic. Most of those views can be understood as outgrowths of an elemental alienation from society and its traditional institutions. Amis’s Jim Dixon is the outstanding fictional embodiment of these attitudes; although he desperately wants and needs to be accepted into university society and the traditional power structure it represents, his contempt for the institution and those in it, bred of his alienation, carries him into situations that border on both hilarity and disaster. Lucky Jim (1954) is the Movement novel.
Isolation and alienation figure prominently in both of Larkin’s novels, as well; yet it is in his poems that they receive their fullest development. The speakers of his poems—and in the great majority of cases the speaker is the poet himself—seem alienated from their surroundings, cut off from both people and institutions. While that alienation normally shows itself as distance, as irony and wry humor, it can sometimes appear as smugness, complacence, even sneering judgment. Larkin turns his sense of isolation, of being an outsider or fringe observer, into a position of centrality, in which the world from which he is alienated seems to be moving tangentially to his own sphere. In his best poems, that distance works two ways, allowing the poet to observe the world in perspective, as if viewing it through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, so that weighty matters seem less momentous, while at the same time reminding the poet that he, too, is a figure of little consequence. When his poems fail, the poet risks very little of his own ego as he sits back in safety, judging others across the frosty distance.
Larkin gains his perspective in large measure through his belief that nothing lies beyond this world, that this existence, however muddled it may be, is probably the only one. His skepticism is thoroughgoing and merciless; he rarely softens his tone. In some writers such belief might provoke terror or a compulsion to reform the world. In Larkin, it gives rise to irony. He examines the feeble inhabitants of this tiny planet surrounded by the void and asks if it can all be so important.
The resulting sense of human insignificance, including his own, leads him to several of the characteristic features of his work. He rejects “poetic” devices in favor of simpler, more mundane vehicles. His diction, for example, is nearly always colloquial, often coarse, vulgar, or profane. His distrust of a specialized diction or syntax for poetry reflects his distrust of institutions generally. Similarly, he shies away from the intense poetic moment—image, symbol, metaphor—in favor of a discursive, argumentative verse. Although he will occasionally resolve a poem through use of an image or a metaphor, particularly in High Windows, he more commonly talks his way through the poem, relying on intellect rather than emotion or intuition.
This rejection of the stuff of poetry leads him to a problem: If overtly poetic language and poetic devices are eschewed, what can the poet use to identify his poems as poems? For Larkin the answer lies in the external form of the poems: scansion, rhyme schemes, stanzaic patterns. The tension and the power of a Larkin poem often result from the interplay of common, unexceptional language with rigorously formal precision. “The Building,” from High Windows, is an example of such tension. The poet meditates on the function of the hospital in modern society and the way in which it takes over some of the duties traditionally performed by the Church, all in very ordinary language. The poem, however, is stretched taut over not one but two sophisticated units: a seven-line stanza and an eight-line rhyme scheme (abcbdad). Rhyme pattern and stanzaic pattern come together at the end of the eighth stanza, but the poem does not end there; rather, the poet employs another rhyme unit, a stanza plus a line, as a means of resolving the poem. Even here Larkin’s shrewd distrust of the intellectual viability of poetic forms displays itself: Ending neatly on the fifty-sixth line would be too neat, too pat, and would violate the poem’s ambivalence toward the place. Similarly, although his rhyme schemes are often very regular, the same cannot be said for the rhymes themselves: speech/touch, faint/went, home/welcome. If Larkin recognizes his need for traditional forms in his poems, he recognizes also the necessity of altering those forms into viable elements of his poetry.
Finally, there is in Larkin a sense of an ending, of oblivion. For all his distrust of the “new apocalypse crowd,” many of his poems suggest something similar, although with a characteristic difference. Where the “crowd” may prophesy the end of the world and everything in it, he, working out of his alienation, more commonly seems to be watching the string run out, as if he were a spectator at the edge of oblivion.
The North Ship
Larkin’s first volume of poetry, The North Ship, went virtually unnoticed at the time of its original publication and would be unnoticed still were it made to stand on its own merits. (It has few.) The poems are almost uniformly derivative Yeatsian juvenilia, laden with William Butler Yeats’s imagery but shorn of its power or meaning; this is the verse of a young man who wants to become a poet by sounding like a known poet. No one has been more critical, moreover, of the volume than the poet himself, characterizing it as an anomaly, a mistake that happened when he did not know his own voice and thought, under the tutelage of Vernon Watkins, that he was someone else. That he allowed the republication of the work in 1966, with an introduction that is more than anything else a disclaimer, suggests a desire to distance the “real” poet from the confused adolescent.
Despite his objections, the book can be seen as representative of certain tendencies in his later verse, and it is enlightening to discern how many features of his mature work show themselves even when buried under someone else’s style. A major difference between Larkin’s poems and Yeats’s lies in the use of objects: While the younger poet borrows Yeats’s dancers, horses, candles, and moons, they remain dancers, horses, candles, and moons. They lack transcendent, symbolic value; objects remain mere objects.
There is also in these early poems a vagueness in the description of the phenomenal world. Perhaps that generality, that vagueness, could be explained as the result of the Yeatsian influence, but it is also a tendency of Larkin’s later work. One often has the impression that a scene, particularly a human scene, is typical rather than specific.
One of the things clearly missing from this first work is a suspicion of the Yeatsian symbols, attitudes, and gestures, almost none of which the mature Larkin can abide. His assertion that it was his intense reading of Hardy’s poetry that rescued him from the pernicious influence of Yeats may have validity; more probably, time heals youthful excess, and during the period when he was outgrowing the poetry of The North Ship, he began a salutary reading of Hardy.
The Less Deceived
A striking development in Larkin’s second book of poems, The Less Deceived, is his insistence on the mundane, the unexceptional, the commonplace. In “Born Yesterday,” a poem on the occasion of Sally Amis’s birth, for example, he counters the usual wishes for beauty or brilliance with the attractive (for him) possibility of being utterly unextraordinary, of fitting in wholly by having nothing stand out. This wish he offers, he says, in case the others do not come true, but one almost has the sense that he wishes also that the others will not come true, that being average is much preferable to being exceptional.
Larkin makes a similar case for the ordinary in the wickedly funny “I Remember, I Remember,” which attacks the Romantic notions of the writer’s childhood as exemplified in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). In other places, he has described his childhood as boring, not worthy of comment, and in this poem, he pursues that idea vigorously. In the first two stanzas, he comes to the realization that he does not recognize the Coventry station into which the train has pulled, although he used it often as a child. When his traveling companion asks if Coventry is where he “has his roots,” the poet responds in his mind with a catalog of all the things that never happened to him that supposedly happen to writers in their youth, “the splendid family/ I never ran to,” “The bracken where I never sat trembling.” Through the course of that list, he recognizes that the place looks so foreign now because it never gave him anything distinctive, that there is nothing that he carries with him that he can attribute to it. Then, in a remarkable about-face, he realizes that the location has very little to do with how his childhood was spent or misspent, that life is largely independent of place, that the alienation that he senses is something he carries with him, not a product of Coventry.
The poem at first seems to be an honest appraisal of his youth in contradistinction to all those romanticized accounts in biographies and novels, but the reader is forced finally to conclude that the poet protests too much. There is no childhood in which nothing happens, and in insisting so strongly on the vacuum in which he grew up, Larkin develops something like the inverse of nostalgia. He turns his present disillusionment and alienation back against the past and views it from his ironic perspective. Larkin is...
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