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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783

"High Windows" is a poem from Philip Larkin's final poetry collection, published in 1974, which carries the same title. He is one of Britain's most celebrated poets of the twentieth century.

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Written in 1967, this poem explores the onset of the era of sexual liberation from the point of view of a persona past his youth. In the poem, he makes his personal observations figure in this rather new climate of free love. Though the sexual revolution broke out in the US in the 1960s, it wasn't until the 1970s to 80s that Britain followed suit.

Comprised of five quatrains, Philip Larkin fills each one with a clever combination of full rhymes and half-rhymes to gain an unpredictable musicality. Examples of the half-rhymes present are "kids/pills," "back/dark," and "glass/endless." Veering away from the exclusive use of full rhymes makes for an apt use of poetic device to echo the theme of freedom from rigidity. Moreover, Larkin makes use of a casual, rather straightforward tone to reflect the era's almost irreverent, candid way of handling a subject matter previously deemed taboo. His language is conversational and sincere.

The poem begins strong. Using the "I" to convey truths extracted from surface-level observations, the reader is offered an image of young men and women and how the observer, advanced in age, imagines them in all the freedom afforded them by the social climate of the 70s. He makes use of a powerful word in lieu of "lovemaking," as well as the image of contraceptives as symbols of sexual power and agency in the era.

Going to the second stanza, the speaker then declares how this sexual freedom, to old people, is "paradise"—an image that is loaded in that it speaks generally of bliss, but also that state of humanity where there is the absence of sin, pointing to the way the stigma of sex has been removed and therefore no longer exists as explicitly sinful. It provides a sharp contrast to an understandably different time for people who have aged—the persona included—and thus did not enjoy the same erotic liberation during their youth. Larkin provides a visual depiction of this contrast:

Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly.
There is an attitude of longing and regret for having lived in a different era, and the image of the "long slide" likewise reinforces the disconnect that the persona experiences in looking at these carefree men and women slipping into the ways of their time. In a way, it is an idealization of youth. However, the poem then goes deeper as the persona reaches beyond the scene before him and into his own past, wondering whether the older generation might have ruminated on his generation's freedom as well—the way he is doing so with these kids at the moment. He then goes on to enumerate the emergent aspects of the time of his youth, "forty years back":
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds.
The persona is probably speaking of the 1920s, an equally ripe time in terms of revolutionizing the world socially, politically, culturally, and economically. Fondly called "the roaring 20s," this was an era of liberation from rigid thought and existing social structures as well. As the country reshaped itself in the midst of the devastating effects of war, tightly held belief systems were suddenly being dismantled in 1920s Britain. This is a crucial point in the poem in that a reader is taken down the "long slide" further into the past, only to be abruptly stopped by a lack of words. In its place, the metaphor of "high windows" appears. High windows depict largeness of space with their placement above standard height. They participate in one's confinement by being part of the wall in marking the limits of interior space. They give a glimpse, however, of what is beyond. They exist to provide a scene outside of one's immediate reality to offer hope. This image speaks of the human desire to keep seeking beyond one's own time, and yet the past is the only sure channel we can track, much like a slide where there is only one definite direction to go. The future, embodied by "the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless," is something that can hardly be put down in words. It cannot be contained, and the persona admits to the power of this uncertainty.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334

“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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

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 verbs of the opening stanza set the agenda for the stages of the poem: the speaker can “see” the couple, can “guess” what they are doing, and can “know” that they are in paradise. His initial observation reveals more about his own desires and fears than theirs. Through an imaginative shift in perspective, he is able to look at himself more objectively. This double perspective inexplicably leads to the vision of high windows.

Tonally, the speaker moves from a cynical stance of envy (stated in vulgarly degrading diction) to a more reasonable viewpoint (mildly blasphemous in comparing priests with “bloody birds”), until he comes to rest in the meditative reconciliation with the world and himself in the high-toned final stanza.

This tonal modulation is matched by the poem’s thematic development. It moves from a literal interpretation of the couple’s freedom (the freedom from restraint to couple as they please), to an act of imaginative speculation (if there is no God, then the priests have no power), to a symbolic interpretation of freedom that acknowledges that beyond the physical and social realm lies another sort of freedom—beyond desire, envy, and everything transient and human.

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