Movement Poets Analysis

The Movement

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Movement arose as a reaction to both modernism and this neo-Romanticism, grounded in the aftermath of World War II. There was a general desire to avoid any heroic sentiments at all and to live in the ordinary here-and-now, which in postwar Britain was rather bleak and austere, with everything rationed and with an uncertain future. As a country, Britain had been bankrupted by the war and was about to lose its empire and its superpower status, but it was determined to lay the foundations of a solid welfare state and a less class-ridden society. The Cold War was about to begin, and harsh reality took the place of political idealism.

As a poetic movement, the Movement had no strong cohesion to it, no obvious “school” existing around one or two central figures. It was rather a group of young poets whose education had been completed or interrupted during the war. Many of them were academics, many from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, who had all managed a university education at Oxford or Cambridge, mainly through gaining academic scholarships. Most of them met at various times and were aware of each others’ work, although some denied they belonged to any “movement” at all.

Various events brought about cohesion and caused the literary culture of the day to label the group as the Movement. One such event was the publication in 1952 of Purity of Diction in English Verse by the young academic Donald Davie (1922-1995). Davie argued that English poetry should return to the Augustan era of the late eighteenth century, abandon modernism as an aberration, and redefine itself in terms of an older classical tradition, lost after Hardy died.

However, it is possible to go back to the war years, to the meeting of Larkin and Amis, then two young Oxford undergraduates. Both were studying English, loved jazz, and were “scholarship boys” from modest backgrounds. Though Larkin was under the influence of...

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The poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

It is difficult to generalize about the style, content, or imagery of Movement poetry. With nine poets as members, any general statement is likely to find an exception. The poets were all born in the 1920’s, nearly all to uncultured (“philistine”) families, often with blue-collar fathers or grandfathers. For the most part, their childhoods were spent in obtaining academic educations that allowed them to gain places at the prestigious universities of Oxford or Cambridge. There they encountered the elite, class-ridden society that predominated in the arts in England at the time, and they reacted against it. They also reacted, at some point in their early writing careers, against the wordy, inflated style represented for them by the alcoholic Welsh poet Thomas, who died in 1952.

Their poetic reaction took the form of formal verse, tightly patterned, as against the free-verse style represented by Thomas. Often they returned to eighteenth century patterns, with the ironic tone that accompanied that verse. The irony was subversive, mocking, often self-deprecating. It was very aware of elitism, inflated language and attitudes. Poetic utterance came as understatement, often tentatively expressed. “Perhaps” was a favorite word. Big claims were avoided; it was the smaller details of everyday life that became significant topics, expressed in ordinary, everyday language. Often the language would have some colloquial expression in it to produce an anticlimax.

Above all, a rigorous self-examination was conducted to produce as honest a piece of writing as was possible. Thus, a poem would often move away from the poet’s perception of his emotional reaction to a situation or person, to peel away layers of false sensibility and to arrive at the poet’s genuine response. Sometimes this honesty took the form of an aggressive philistinism, a refusal to be “poetic” or “artsy.” Larkin made a point of emphasizing his own provinciality and rejected the London cultural snobbery for the ordinary truth of everyday provincial life. However, there are plenty of poems about paintings and foreign scenes that suggest the poets were, in fact, perfectly well cultured. The philistinism sometimes became a pose in itself.

The other feature of Movement poets was a refusal to make political, philosophical, or theological statements, in contrast to preceding verse. In the end, this produced a rather limited range of topics, and many poets later broke away from this, though Larkin did not. The poets seemed content with life as it was in postwar Britain, however unexciting and drab.

New Lines

These features are best exemplified in New Lines, the anthology edited by Conquest. Each poet was represented by eight to ten poems, creating a total of seventy-five poems. Some of the poems included became iconic of the Movement: Larkin’s “Church Going” and “Toads,” Jenning’s “Afternoon in Venice,” Gunn’s “On the Move,” Amis’s “Against Romanticism,” Davie’s “Limited Achievement,” and Wain’s “Eighth Type of Ambiguity.” Davie’s “Remembering the Thirties” speaks exactly for the Movement, while its reference to “a...

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Later developments

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Larkin’s poetry was modeled on that of Hardy, though still influenced by Yeats. However, Hardy’s range is limited, and many Movement poets soon felt that limitation. Gunn’s poetry, now based on his California experiences and the first signs of the 1960’s counterculture experience, was soon being bracketed with that of Hughes, as much more elemental, violent, and unconstrained. As the influence of Hughes and Lowell grew in England, that of the Movement poets lessened. Their underlying egalitarianism became expressed more through their novels, such as Wain’s Hurry on Down (1953; pb. in U.S. as Born in Captivity) and Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), or through the new Angry Young Men drama of John Osborne.

Davie found himself returning to his religious roots, which as a young man had been merely “nonconformist” in a secular way. In this, he joined Jennings, always a devoted Catholic, who began increasingly exploring her faith and the effects of various mental breakdowns. Enright continued to write restrained, controlled poetry, but as he was working in the Far East, his subject matter appeared somewhat exotic. Conquest and Holloway pursued other careers as diplomats or academics. New Lines II: An Anthology (1963), edited by Conquest, included many new poets outside the Movement, some of whom had been antagonistic to it.

It was thus left to Larkin to continue the Movement into the 1960’s and beyond. However, his very retiring nature and the paucity of his output meant his influence on poetry was less than it might have been. However, his residual influence, and that of the Movement as a whole, brought a healthy discipline back to English verse, probably best seen in the work of Motion, who later became poet laureate, a post that Larkin had previously refused. Davie, Jennings, and Larkin were all in turn entrusted with significant volumes in the Oxford Books of Verse series.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Bradley, Jerry. The Movement: British Poets of the 1950’s. New York: Twayne, 1993. Part of the English Authors series, this book devotes a general chapter to the Movement, and separate chapters to each of the nine main members, followed by a very useful bibliography.

Davie, Donald. Purity of Diction in English Verse. London: Chatto & Windus, 1952. This is the groundbreaking text that acted as a manifesto for the Movement. Davie went on to publish many other critical studies and became an acclaimed university teacher in Great Britain and the United States.

Leader, Zachary. Amis. New York: Pantheon, 2006. A very full biography of Kingsley Amis, setting him in the context of the 1950’s and examining his wider influence, as well as his friendships with other Movement poets.

_______, ed. The Movement Reconsidered: Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, and Their Contemporaries. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. A collection of original essays by distinguished poets, critics, and scholars from Great Britain and the United States, seeking to reassess the Movement and to place it in a wider sociohistorical context.

Morrison, Blake. The Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. This is the first full-length study of the group as a whole, written while its members were all still alive and publishing.

Motion, Andrew. Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. London: Faber & Faber, 1993. A fairly biographical account building on an earlier 1983 biography. Motion brings out Larkin’s latent Romanticism and the tension this caused him with his antiromantic writings.

Swarbrick, Andrew. Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. A sensible analysis of Larkin’s poetry, with one chapter devoted to his particular relationship with the Movement. He builds on the groundbreaking work on Larkin by Andrew Motion.