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There are some who think that Phillip Larkin, the post-war English poet, cannot be called a true one hundred per cent humanist - and that this applies to other writers of the same period. Ian Hamilton, for instance, has written about a collection of post-war writers who were seen as not quite clever enough to be labelled as intelligent authors. Neither were they 'humane' in the full sense of the word as their outlook on the world was too narrow in its understanding and had not enough generosity in their literary perspective. In this sense, some do not view Larkin as a full humanist.
Philip Larkin's lifetime and poetic work spanned across the divide of two milieus. He was born while literary humanism was still the force behind literary works. He died in 1985, which is twenty-some years after the chasm was crossed and literary humanism gave way to twenty-century literary criticisms predicated on the belief that previous literary works were in fact not universal, as had been boasted, but rather prejudiced through a tunnel vision of lopsided philosophy. To be more precise, literature of the humanists--a term originated in the 19th century but applied retrospectively as part of the newly developed study of English literature to past great writers from earlier epochs such as Shakespeare--came to be viewed as the thoughts of individuals living with a great divide between the free and the not-free, the privileged and the not-privileged, i.e., men versus women and wealthy versus poor, which necessitates also an inclusion of superbly educated versus poorly or uneducated. The divide was reached and the chasm was crossed in the 1960s.
Larkin identified the chasm as a shift from humanistic values to hedonism and attributed the manifestation of this new anti-humanist hedonism to the revolution in unrestrained sexuality; therefore he ironically, tongue in cheek, identified the date of the divide between humanism and hedonism as 1963 ("Annus Mirabilis" (1967)). Accordingly, Larkin's pre-1960s poetry had elements of humanism in them. Whereas his post-1960s poetry was often dedicated to angrily fighting against what he saw as the destruction of morality and society; he was the shocked and outraged voice of his generation--and opponents of the trends within the latter generation--following a long tradition in English poetry of protest of social ills.
Having said this, Larkin's roots in pre-1960s humanism are still evident in at least some of his post-1960 poems. A case in point is "MCMXIV," first published in 1964. This poem is considered a meditation the subject of which is a line of English men lined up to volunteer for World War I, often called The Great War and the war to end all wars. Humanists emphasize the freedom of humankind and the right to choose, to independently act as an unconstrained author of life and history (this stands in stark contrast to the religious dogma of Calvinist Puritanism that founded Protestant England). These ideas are present in "MCMXIV," first noticeable in the description of the men lined up who are exercising free choice to direct their lives and--literally--make history. It is seen again later in the description of the wage-earning domestic servants, who, though domestics, are given the human dignity of equal mention with the volunteers who are riders in limousines. Larkin's humanist underpinnings are seen again in "the men / Leaving the gardens tidy" and their "thousands of marriages;" all of these receive equal mention, equal valuation.
Humanism has grown over the past several decades to include an immense number of varieties. For example, someone can be a "Secular Humanist" or a "Christian Humanist" of develop a completely different "strain" of Humanism. That being said, in general, Humanism promotes the belief in mankind, science and logic. Most Humanists see no need for any type of god because man possesses the power to change, evolve, and discover. Many Humanists believe that if humans simply work together, then problems will be solved without any type of supernatural help or faith. The philosophy stresses concepts such as relative truth and relative morality.
In regards to Larkin, his poetry overall does not represent Humanism. He is far too cynical and matter of fact to promote such a positive worldview. Moreover, when Larkin began studying Thomas Hardy's poetry, he developed a kinship with Hardy's style and themes. Hardy's works generally focus on Existentialism and Naturalism, both rather bleak views of the world; so Larkin's agreement with Hardy also implies that his perspective was much more in line with the negative views of life rather than with the positive philosophies of Humanism or Idealism. Below are two excerpts from his poems "This Be the Verse" and "Church Going" which demonstrate his rather fatalistic worldview.
From "This Be the Verse": "Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf. / You get you out as early as you can / And don't have any kids yourself."
The above excerpt demonstrates the Naturalist belief that man is fated to suffer and that there is no escape from that suffering. According to Larkin, humans choose not to have more chidren because they know that their children would face the same doomed life that they are "forced" to live.
From "Church Going": "Yet stop I did: in fact I often do, / And always end much at a loss like this, / Wondering what to look for; wondering, too, / When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into . . ."
This quote from the second stanza of "Church Going" does not represent Humanism because while many Humanists would agree with Larkin that church or religion is unnecessary for mankind, they would not share his bleaker view that his propensity for visiting churches even when he does not know what to do when he goes inside is natural to him. Larkin demonstrates in this poem that for some reason he keeps going to churches to look around but is at a loss when he goes inside. For that reason, he believes that churches will eventually be unused. This idea that God might be out there (Afterall, what makes the poet want to keep going into churches?) but that He is not involved in churches or in humans' lives is very similar to Hardy's Existentialist perspective that a spectator god looks down on the human race but does nothing to help or hinder it.
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