Larkin, Philip (Vol. 18)
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.
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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,
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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 that "life is slow dying"…. This fundamental idea shapes much of Larkin's perspective on human experience, a perspective, above all, on the habitual deceptions and failures with which our lives are composed, on life which is a succession of deaths, a "repeated fraying of the thread". (p. 80)
In Poem XXIX from Larkin's first published volume, The North Ship … the poet advises himself to "Take the grave's part, / Tell the bone's truth," and to "Walk with the dead / For fear of death." This commitment to the "bone's truth" manifests itself in various ways throughout Larkin's work, but one of the earliest forms it takes is an attempt to visualize the ghostly figure of Death itself, and to imagine the awesome and...
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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. However, this stance must be increasingly difficult to sustain in view of the fact that he is, willy nilly, the darling of the London literary establishment, has been crowned by journalists and honoured by the Queen, and has edited the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973). This has placed strains on the poet. He no longer speaks with confidence as outsider and provincial. He has been spirited inside. The best poems in his fourth book, High Windows (1974), abandon the old stance altogether. 'The Explosion', 'How Distant', and 'The Old Fools'—poems of observation—take their tone from the experience. If Larkin is to avoid self-parody in future (something he fails to do in several poems in High...
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