In "High Windows" by Philip Larkin, the narrator sees a young couple and immediately assumes that they are probably having sex. The poem was first published in the early 1970s, when the movement toward more casual sex was made possible by a more ready availability of birth control like the pill. The narrator surmises that "she's / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm" and considers this a paradise compared to his own youthful existence, when no such allowances were possible.
He compares this new freedom of the youth to "going down the long slide," free and blissful. This youthful metaphor is extended to "everyone," which is a hyperbole, but in his envy, it seems that the youth of his day are all more free to explore their sexuality than he was in his day. This sense of envy makes him contemplate his own youth.
Then the narrator wonders if this is what the middle-aged do. When he was a teenager, did a middle-aged man look at him in envy of his religious freedoms not shared by the generation before? He acknowledges that when he was a child, he didn't have to hide what he thought of the priest and didn't have to worry about hell like the generation before him. Was this his own "long slide"? Does the metaphorical shape of the long slide transform from generation to generation?
The narrator ends with a stanza focusing on a high window. The window is made of glass, and beyond it is "Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless." There has been literary debate about what this stanza means and how it relates to the ideas presented in the previous stanzas. One interpretation is that the narrator decides that regardless of the new freedoms presented to each new group of youth, all of life ends up leading to the same place, one that in middle age is meaningless. It all leads to the same endless nowhere.
So perhaps this sexual freedom which the narrator is envious of in the beginning stanza isn't worth the envy after all. After all, there are certainly penalties that come with such seeming freedoms (STDs, AIDS, the .1% of women who become pregnant while taking the pill). Perhaps all youthful freedoms are merely an illusion to the middle-aged.
“High Windows,” finished in 1967 and included as the title poem in Larkin’s last volume, shows modest departures in method and new symbolic indirections. Though the windows are no doubt symbols, literally they are sashes set high in a wall (perhaps in a tall building) so that one looking out “the sun-comprehending glass” from inside sees only “the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” These apertures onto heaven, but not into eternity, are clouded over with a Larkinesque nihilism, an agnostic’s philosophical nothingness. The image of the windows occurs to the speaker “Rather than words,” suggesting the skeptic’s truth that what lies beyond cannot be stated. Thus the poem’s epiphany, its moment of revelation, reveals “Nothing”; the parallelism with “No God any more,” occurring earlier, heightens the figurative message. The hint in “high windows” of cathedral panes doubles the irony.
This poem seems an aging man’s piece but also surely reflects something of the youth-led and freedom-intent 1960’s—with “Bonds and gestures pushed to one...
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