Themes

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Last Reviewed on July 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 367

The Freedom of Youth

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Regardless of generation, each new era of teenagers seems to enjoy more freedoms than the one before. The couple whom the narrator spies has the opportunity to enjoy more sexual freedom than he did. It is worth noting that this couple is imaginary and ongoing ("When I see a couple of kids") and that he presents no evidence that any of these teens are actually engaging in sexual activity.

His envy drives him to make the assumption that because they can, they all just are. He considers this true "freedom." He also notes that, in his youth, he experienced his own freedoms not shared by the generation before. He was allowed more freedom in religious expression and wasn't expected to put the priest on a moral pedestal. The nature of youth is always changing, bringing with it new opportunities, which is a source of envy for some in older generations.

New Sexual Freedoms

Published in the early 1970s and after a decade of the availability of the birth control pill, the poem reflects a changing attitude toward sex in American culture. The availability of the pill and other contraceptive options, like the diaphragm (also referenced in the first stanza), shifted attitudes—which is reflected especially in the culture of the 1960s and 1970s.

Of course, the primary concern at this time was simply the avoidance of pregnancy, and many other concerns noted in our culture today weren't even on the radar of typical teenagers (and some, like AIDS, didn't even exist yet in America). Nonetheless, the freedom of sexual choices is seen and envied by the narrator.

The Regrets of Midlife

The narrator himself envies the opportunities of the younger generation in his midlife. He also pauses to consider that maybe, when he was a teenager himself, some older man might have stopped to envy the freedoms that he enjoyed at that time. Perhaps that is just part of midlife—taking stock of impossibilities and missed opportunities with regret. His final stanza ends on this note: regardless of which era teens grow up in, they all eventually pass through the window of adulthood and eventually find themselves in the vast nothingness of midlife.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

“High Windows” is a poem about the nature of freedom. The technology of birth control has granted sexual license to the young couple by freeing them from the inevitable sequence of love-marriage-children, but old “Bonds and gestures” die hard. A generation reared on the restraints of religion envies the young’s relative “paradise.” Deeper than envy, however, is the fear of freedom. Without restraints, society dissolves into anarchy, and the universe becomes meaningless. Such fears are what William Blake called “the mind-forg’d manacles” of self-enslavement. In the course of the poem, the speaker casts off envy and fear to accept the absolute freedom promised by the endless emptiness of “the deep blue air.”

The poem (dated February 12, 1967) takes as its point of departure the free love of the sexual revolution. Old and new views of sex are contrasted in a pair of images: the combine versus the slide. The old view of sex has been “pushed to one side/ Like an outdated combine harvester.” It suggests something mechanical, useful, and economically profitable, and it carries the symbolic baggage of a moralistic grim reaper: Ye shall reap what wild oats ye sow. The new view re-forms the old metal into a smooth playground slide, down which the young are going “To happiness, endlessly.” The mechanical social duties of sex have been replaced by the free play of the pleasure principle.

With the obsolescence of social bonds, the power of the church, the chief agent of restraint, is lessened. The priests, too, will go down the long slide, like “free bloody birds,” but not to happiness. In the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, they will be “condemned to be free.” They will disappear into the empty heavens.

In situation and point of view, Larkin’s poem resembles “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats. An old man observing “the sensual music” of “The young/ In one another’s arms” decides that “That is no country for old men.” Leaving the sensual world to the young, the speaker finds his solace in “monuments of unaging intellect” and is left contemplating “God’s holy fire/ As in the gold mosaic of a wall” in the ideal city of Byzantium. Yet Larkin’s tone is wryer, drier, and more down to earth. Larkin’s speaker finds neither monuments of culture nor God in his “high windows.” For all their majesty, they are not the stained glass of an old church, but clear “sun-comprehending glass.”

The absence of God in Larkin’s sky, as well as the absence of culture, has led some critics to see Larkin as a pessimist. Far from conveying any sense of hopelessness, however, the transparency of the glass, the purity of the blue sky, and the clarity of the vacant heavens are supremely peaceful. Above and beyond any thoughts of youth or age, unsullied by human desire or deprivation, social or even divine expectations, are the sun and sky—nature, pure and brutally simple, without judgment or explanation.

The image is a vitalistic, life-affirming view of nature. The “sun-comprehending glass” may be uncomprehending, leaving the big metaphysical questions unanswered, but it does understand the sun’s life-giving warmth. The pagan sun god of sensual joy has replaced the Christian God of restraint and punishment. The last word of the poem is “endless,” but the poem’s motion does not end there. Instead, it circles back to the young couple “going down the long slide/ To happiness, endlessly.” The linkage affirms the connection between their literal freedom and the absolute freedom of the speaker’s vision beyond the “high windows.”

The revelation suddenly reconciles the speaker not only with the couple (he now seems free of envy for their slide to happiness) but also with the priests (who may be pitied for their illusory slide into a vacant heaven). For him there may be “Nothing” in the way of transcendental or metaphysical solace above and beyond man and nature, but with the disappearance of God there is also the disappearance of shame and therefore a rediscovery of “paradise.” Instead of “sweating in the dark/ About hell and that,” the speaker stands in the light of a new kind of peace and freedom, where he must find, or make, his own meaning of a seemingly meaningless universe.

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