The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“High Windows” consists of five quatrains; it has a variable metrical pattern and an irregular but discernible rhyme scheme (basically abab). Like many of Philip Larkin’s poems, “High Windows” is written in the first person with no attempt to separate himself from the speaker. “I write poems,” Larkin has said, “to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and others.”

In “High Windows,” an older man describes his thoughts and feelings on seeing a young couple during the late 1960’s at the height of the sexual revolution. With cynical envy, and in blunt language, the speaker assumes that they have sex and that “she’s/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm.”

It is a situation that to him (and his generation’s way of thinking) seems like the “paradise/ Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives”—without consequences and free of shame. All social restraints of “Bonds and gestures” have been thrown aside like “an outdated combine harvester” in favor of this new freedom, and now everyone can go down the “long slide/ To happiness.”

At this point, the speaker wonders whether anyone looked at him when he was young, “forty years back,” and thought the same things: “That’ll be the life;/ No God any more, or sweating in the dark/ About hell and that.” The church and its priests, too, “will all go down the long slide/ Like free bloody birds.” Here it is unclear whether the slide leads to happiness, hell, or (in the absence of God) simply into nothingness.

The speaker concludes enigmatically by refusing to state his conclusion in words. “Rather than words comes the thought of high windows.” Larkin is conveying (in words) the idea that some mental processes are beyond words. In this case, there is only the image, like a revelation, of the “sun-comprehending glass,/ And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

It is one of the privileges of the contemporary poet working in traditional forms to play with those forms for ironic effect. Larkin once said that “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth”; his tone is typically that of a cynic for whom life has not made good on its promises. Larkin’s technique in “High Windows,” as elsewhere, is based on the frustration of form, just as his theme is often frustration itself.

At first glance, “High Windows” appears to be written in traditional quatrains, but the first stanza immediately frustrates such an assumption. Whatever one may have assumed about the decorum of lyric poetry is contradicted by the opening lines, as much by the tone set by the vulgar and technical diction as by the lack of perfect rhyme.

Like Wilfred Owen, Larkin is a master of slant or off rhyme, setting up sonorous expectations that turn out to be as off-key as life itself is. The “she’s/paradise” slant rhyme makes sense in that it displays the speaker’s envy; the “kids/diaphragm” pairing does not rhyme at all. Its dissonance is as much a thing of sense as of sound, implying the irony of kids using birth control to keep from having kids. After this unconventional opening, the poem becomes increasingly traditional, in diction and meter as well as rhyme, as the speaker begins to make sense of a situation that at first merely baffles him. His conclusion, though, is startling.

The three...

(The entire section is 446 words.)