Larkin, Philip 1922–
Larkin is a British poet, novelist, and essayist. The subject of his poetry is his personal experience; the setting that of common provincial life. Larkin has consistently rejected what he feels to be the obscure symbolism of contemporary poetry and its focus on aesthetic problems. His concerns are humanistic, and a recurrent theme is man's relationship to nature. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, 9, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Stylistically [the] thirty-two poems [in The North Ship (1945)] differ from Larkin's mature work in two ways: they are dominated by the influence of Yeats, and they lack "local texture", the air of having proceeded out of a particular experience: only eight of them have titles. Larkin frankly describes them as "a mixture of Yeats and having nothing much to write about". It is not proposed to comment here on the influence of Yeats, except to say that it is not so much a matter of deliberate pastiche as of a kind of ventriloquism, with Larkin as the dummy (or, perhaps, the medium) through whom the dead poet speaks in accents uncannily his own. Yet, despite the Irish accent, many of the sentiments are—as seen with the hindsight afforded by his later poetry—obviously Larkin's: throughout Poem I—a youthful celebration of spring, love, and resurrection—a sinister note recurs:
Let the wheel spin out
Till all created things
With shout and answering shout
Cast off rememberings;
Let it all come about
Till centuries of springs
And all their buried men
Stand on the earth again.
A drum taps: a wintry drum.
[The] "wintry drum" itself is Larkin's own property: the awareness of sadness at the back of things, of the passing of time and the inevitability of death.
The "wintry drum" also represents the dreariness of reality which obtrudes into romantic illusion. This contrast is one of Larkin's most insistent preoccupations, and it appears for the first time in Poem XX of The North Ship where, despite his Yeatsism disguise as "a sack of meal upon two sticks", we recognize the poet made familiar to us by his later work as "an indigestible sterility". His attitude is polarized between the "wild" and "glad" girl whom he sees in the snowy fields, whose vitality he cannot match even with an equally-vital jealousy, and the "two old ragged men", clearing snow, who demonstrate the beauty of day-to-day survival, of "all actions done in patient hopelessness." Larkin sees himself as akin to these, rather than to the girl…. And yet this vision of affinity is itself a gesture towards life, a grasping at a kind of belief and pattern which transcends the ordinariness of the image.
I must repeat until I live the fact
That everything's remade
By shovel and spade;
That each dull day and each despairing act
Build up the crags from which the spirit leaps.
At this stage of his poetry, Larkin is capable of seeing everyday reality as a foothold for the spirit; but obvious in the lines is a sense of the effort involved in this view…. In Larkin's later work the arguments of reality are blunt instruments, the "despairing act" truly gets nowhere, and the spirit leaps from the crags not to fly but to fall flat on its face. Illusion is impossible, reality is a Yeatsian "desolation", and, whatever life one is allowed, the end is the same. (pp. 28-9)
Although an interval of nine years separated the publication of The Less Deceived from that of The Whitsun Weddings, to consider them in chronological order would be to try to tear apart the close fabric which, together, they compose. The same themes occur in both; a poem in one will continue, comment on, or dissent from a poem in the other; and the only essential difference is that the second volume is more pessimistic than the first. Their joint strength is two-fold: their themes are universal—time, failure, love, death; and their context, the detail of one man's experience in a "real place", gives them a sharp contemporary relevance.
It is this combination of universal and particular, rather than an ironic tone of voice, that would account for the strong impact that Larkin's poetry has made…. The basic point is that Larkin is an emotional poet: the irony of his tone may sometimes be the self-protection of a man who guiltily feels himself to be on the edge of life, but more often it is there to control strong feeling. Where irony is absent, as in "Going", the strength of this feeling is frighteningly apparent, but the presence of irony in other poems should not distract our attention from the emotion which is also there. (pp. 30-1)
Larkin's original intention was to call his 1955 volume simply Various Poems. Asked for something more...
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Readers of Philip Larkin's poetry keep writing about it, even though they recognize how simple and clear it is, because they also sense that its most distinctive aspect is indefinable, not just in criticism of the poetry but in the poetry itself. Because this aspect of Larkin's poetry seems by its very nature to be inexpressible, it needs speaking of in as many ways as possible, if the very sense of it is not to lapse. It seems that only the obvious can be said of Larkin, and that everyone who has written on him has said it again and again, in one way or another, since it is as simple and clear as a glass of water. Yet, because it cannot be defined, doubts remain as to whether either his most sympathetic critics … or his more severe … are responding to what makes Larkin's poetry of distinctive value.
Of Larkin himself, however, there can be no doubt. His choice of "Absences" as his own favorite poem for the anthology, Poet's Choice, as early as 1962, indicates that even then he had a sure sense of the indefinable aspect of his poetry that gives it its value. For "Absences" comes closer than any other of Larkin's poems to being explicit about what is inexplicable.
Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,
A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
Where there are no ships and no shallows.
Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,
Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.
Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!
The poem is "cleared of me," the biographically identifiable ego is absent from it. Yet it is no world, natural or supernatural. It is a very human attending and exclaiming; it is nothing, that unobjectifiable, un-delimitable act of observing, thinking, and speaking. The act itself cannot be seen or heard; in truth, it cannot even be thought, because to think it is to objectify it, to treat it as a mental object or fact, whereas its essential nature, as an act that arches over and assimilates both self and world, is to be irreducible to that which is other than itself, to the posited, to the factual. There is, however, nothing superhuman, Teutonic, or metaphysical about it, even though it is no part of the world…. By alliterating "absences" with "attics," Larkin calls attention to its humanness, even its commonness. It is awesome only in the sense that it is invulnerable, but it is available to any and all who will simply pull back from the existent world and live the invisible, inaudible, inarticulable attending aspect of their humanity along with whatever else they may have to do and suffer in the real, existent human and nonhuman world. Larkin is very careful to help his audience hear the last line in just this, the proper way. The conspicuous alliteration in the last line of the first stanza insures that, as the absence of all human beings is being affirmed, their presence as the indefinable act of viewing the sea as free of all human beings is gently suggested. The sea is made to remind one of a funhouse, with its collapsing floors, its tiltings and drops, its playfulness. The indefinable aspect of the poem, the saving, indefinable aspect of humanity, to which even the vast images of the sea and the sky are inadequate, is safe and homey. It has nothing to do with the fearfulness of nihilism or existentialistic absurdity. It is that absolute security into which the poem leads one to retreat from the meaninglessless of existence, of everything objective, whether ideal or real.
It is not otherworldly, only nonworldly. The "yet more shoreless day" does, of course, have its shores, as does everything in the objective world, whatever its expanse. Even the final exclamation, "Such absences!", is pressed into a delimited shape by the verbal imagining of the undelimitable nothing who does not give himself up even to the poem as object, offering it as a self-consuming artifact, to be broken down along with all selves as entities, and assimilated into the perfect freedom of being invisibly pleased. In such freedom, there is no respect for persons, there is no hierarchic stratification, one and all are anonymous. The most authentic statement Larkin has made outside his poetry is: "I think it's important not to feel crushed." That is the essence of the inexplicable freedom that gives his poems their distinctive value. However silly Larkin is willing to make himself seem within his poems, he is never crushed, because he has his true life in that undelimitable, uncrushable act of attending, of imagining, of speaking. His poems make an appeal, it is true, as though Larkin were an entertainer, who would as a result be subject to anxieties concerning the ups and downs of audience response. If the appeal fails, however, the loss is the reader's, not Larkin's, for he is never fully engaged in any objective situation or encounter, whereby he might be hurt or crushed. The same sort of aloofness indeed is what he offers to all, not as a way of life, but as an aspect of whatever way of life one may be connected with. It is easy of access, and priceless because invulnerable. (pp. 117-19)
[Larkin] accepts the debasement of all objects and images and [in "Solar,"] uses even the supreme object, the sun, in such a way as to reduce it to mere words in the service of his special kind of human freedom. (p. 120)
In "Solar," instead of a beholding of the sun with adoration, Larkin offers the hilarious shenanigans of a verbal artist whipping the silly sun about with metaphorical abandon, shaking it like a baby toy. The word "Solar" itself makes the sun small, shrunken by commerce and science. It is just something hung up there, suspended in a room with no furniture, a naked bulb, but magical, without wires. It may be a "lion face," but it is a comic one, spilling like a sack of wheat, pouring like a salt shaker…. If Larkin's poetry is at times tedious and irritating, it is not because of its chronic sadness, but because of what lies behind it, making it a sham sadness, that is, its gaiety, its jollity, won without effort and held to so jauntily. (pp. 120-21)
If Larkin did, in his maturity, overcome Yeats's influence and write under Hardy's, just as important is the fact that the gaiety which charges Larkin, as it nowhere charges Hardy, resembles that of late harsh poems of Yeats…. (p. 121)
There are no objective correlatives in [Larkin's] poetry. The sun of "Solar" is shown up as deserving dismissal, as incapable of bodying forth indefinable value. Just so, the sea and "shoreless day" of "Absences," instead of symbolizing mental spaciousness, are made to seem amusingly confined and inadequate, in comparison to the illimitable act of seeing them so…. Larkin wants to be sure that no reader takes his images too seriously. Highly-wrought language, a dazzle which might draw a reader swooning and yet alert into the imaginative experience of a poem, as a refuge where he could live happily apart from the pressures of the daily grind, Larkin will never imperil a reader with such a gawdy trap. What Larkin would share with his reader, ultimately, is the act of dismissing all images, all symbols, all realizations, all artifacts, the world itself, as inadequate, as inferior to the freedom of looking, imagining,...
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The question of the two profiles in Larkin's poetry—the implacable skeptic and the visionary manqué—is best considered in connection with those poems which explore the meaning of death. There emerges gradually a distinction between a view of personal death, which is seen as inevitable and unmitigated, and a view of death in relation to a world which perpetually renews itself. In this latter view—and it is one increasingly exemplified in his latest work—a quiet trust is sometimes apparent, a trust in continuity, a belief in something "undiminished somewhere" …, which will survive beyond his individual "extinction". There is, in addition, a significant body of work which illustrates the proposition...
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[Larkin] has not, apparently, coveted the praise that has been lavished on him—praise he neither fully merits nor, perhaps, relishes. And nor has he been prolific. His entire oeuvre to date, if we take into account The North Ship, consists in collected form of 117 poems, thirty-two of which he has republished on sufferance. (p. 331)
Frequently he presents himself in the poems as an outsider, a man without a past to be nostalgic for and without much faith in the future, a man on the fringe of the academy and literary life, an isolated bachelor, a provincial, rejecting all that is not English, refusing to travel beyond the British Isles. Denial and self-deprecation are recurrent themes....
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