If Rudyard Kipling’s is the poetry of empire, then Philip Larkin’s is the poetry of the aftermath of empire. Having lived through the divestiture of England’s various colonial holdings, the economic impact of empire building having finally come home, together with the ultimate travesty of imperial pretensions and the nightmare of Nazi and Soviet colonization in Europe, Larkin was wary of the expansiveness, the acquisitiveness, and the grandeur implicit in the imperial mentality. Many features of his poetry can be traced to that wariness: from the skepticism and irony, to the colloquial diction, to the formal precision of his poems.
Indeed, of all the writers who shared those ideals and techniques and who came to be known in the 1950’s as the Movement, Larkin most faithfully retained his original attitude and style. Those writers—Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, and Thom Gunn, among others—diverse though they were, shared attitudes that were essentially empirical, antimodernist, skeptical, and ironic. Most of those views can be understood as outgrowths of an elemental alienation from society and its traditional institutions. Amis’s Jim Dixon is the outstanding fictional embodiment of these attitudes; although he desperately wants and needs to be accepted into university society and the traditional power structure it represents, his contempt for the institution and those in it, bred of his alienation, carries him into situations that border on both hilarity and disaster. Lucky Jim (1954) is the Movement novel.
Isolation and alienation figure prominently in both of Larkin’s novels, as well; yet it is in his poems that they receive their fullest development. The speakers of his poems—and in the great majority of cases the speaker is the poet himself—seem alienated from their surroundings, cut off from both people and institutions. While that alienation normally shows itself as distance, as irony and wry humor, it can sometimes appear as smugness, complacence, even sneering judgment. Larkin turns his sense of isolation, of being an outsider or fringe observer, into a position of centrality, in which the world from which he is alienated seems to be moving tangentially to his own sphere. In his best poems, that distance works two ways, allowing the poet to observe the world in perspective, as if viewing it through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, so that weighty matters seem less momentous, while at the same time reminding the poet that he, too, is a figure of little consequence. When his poems fail, the poet risks very little of his own ego as he sits back in safety, judging others across the frosty distance.
Larkin gains his perspective in large measure through his belief that nothing lies beyond this world, that this existence, however muddled it may be, is probably the only one. His skepticism is thoroughgoing and merciless; he rarely softens his tone. In some writers such belief might provoke terror or a compulsion to reform the world. In Larkin, it gives rise to irony. He examines the feeble inhabitants of this tiny planet surrounded by the void and asks if it can all be so important.
The resulting sense of human insignificance, including his own, leads him to several of the characteristic features of his work. He rejects “poetic” devices in favor of simpler, more mundane vehicles. His diction, for example, is nearly always colloquial, often coarse, vulgar, or profane. His distrust of a specialized diction or syntax for poetry reflects his distrust of institutions generally. Similarly, he shies away from the intense poetic moment—image, symbol, metaphor—in favor of a discursive, argumentative verse. Although he will occasionally resolve a poem through use...
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of an image or a metaphor, particularly inHigh Windows, he more commonly talks his way through the poem, relying on intellect rather than emotion or intuition.
This rejection of the stuff of poetry leads him to a problem: If overtly poetic language and poetic devices are eschewed, what can the poet use to identify his poems as poems? For Larkin the answer lies in the external form of the poems: scansion, rhyme schemes, stanzaic patterns. The tension and the power of a Larkin poem often result from the interplay of common, unexceptional language with rigorously formal precision. “The Building,” from High Windows, is an example of such tension. The poet meditates on the function of the hospital in modern society and the way in which it takes over some of the duties traditionally performed by the Church, all in very ordinary language. The poem, however, is stretched taut over not one but two sophisticated units: a seven-line stanza and an eight-line rhyme scheme (abcbdad). Rhyme pattern and stanzaic pattern come together at the end of the eighth stanza, but the poem does not end there; rather, the poet employs another rhyme unit, a stanza plus a line, as a means of resolving the poem. Even here Larkin’s shrewd distrust of the intellectual viability of poetic forms displays itself: Ending neatly on the fifty-sixth line would be too neat, too pat, and would violate the poem’s ambivalence toward the place. Similarly, although his rhyme schemes are often very regular, the same cannot be said for the rhymes themselves: speech/touch, faint/went, home/welcome. If Larkin recognizes his need for traditional forms in his poems, he recognizes also the necessity of altering those forms into viable elements of his poetry.
Finally, there is in Larkin a sense of an ending, of oblivion. For all his distrust of the “new apocalypse crowd,” many of his poems suggest something similar, although with a characteristic difference. Where the “crowd” may prophesy the end of the world and everything in it, he, working out of his alienation, more commonly seems to be watching the string run out, as if he were a spectator at the edge of oblivion.
The North Ship
Larkin’s first volume of poetry, The North Ship, went virtually unnoticed at the time of its original publication and would be unnoticed still were it made to stand on its own merits. (It has few.) The poems are almost uniformly derivative Yeatsian juvenilia, laden with William Butler Yeats’s imagery but shorn of its power or meaning; this is the verse of a young man who wants to become a poet by sounding like a known poet. No one has been more critical, moreover, of the volume than the poet himself, characterizing it as an anomaly, a mistake that happened when he did not know his own voice and thought, under the tutelage of Vernon Watkins, that he was someone else. That he allowed the republication of the work in 1966, with an introduction that is more than anything else a disclaimer, suggests a desire to distance the “real” poet from the confused adolescent.
Despite his objections, the book can be seen as representative of certain tendencies in his later verse, and it is enlightening to discern how many features of his mature work show themselves even when buried under someone else’s style. A major difference between Larkin’s poems and Yeats’s lies in the use of objects: While the younger poet borrows Yeats’s dancers, horses, candles, and moons, they remain dancers, horses, candles, and moons. They lack transcendent, symbolic value; objects remain mere objects.
There is also in these early poems a vagueness in the description of the phenomenal world. Perhaps that generality, that vagueness, could be explained as the result of the Yeatsian influence, but it is also a tendency of Larkin’s later work. One often has the impression that a scene, particularly a human scene, is typical rather than specific.
One of the things clearly missing from this first work is a suspicion of the Yeatsian symbols, attitudes, and gestures, almost none of which the mature Larkin can abide. His assertion that it was his intense reading of Hardy’s poetry that rescued him from the pernicious influence of Yeats may have validity; more probably, time heals youthful excess, and during the period when he was outgrowing the poetry of The North Ship, he began a salutary reading of Hardy.
The Less Deceived
A striking development in Larkin’s second book of poems, The Less Deceived, is his insistence on the mundane, the unexceptional, the commonplace. In “Born Yesterday,” a poem on the occasion of Sally Amis’s birth, for example, he counters the usual wishes for beauty or brilliance with the attractive (for him) possibility of being utterly unextraordinary, of fitting in wholly by having nothing stand out. This wish he offers, he says, in case the others do not come true, but one almost has the sense that he wishes also that the others will not come true, that being average is much preferable to being exceptional.
Larkin makes a similar case for the ordinary in the wickedly funny “I Remember, I Remember,” which attacks the Romantic notions of the writer’s childhood as exemplified in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). In other places, he has described his childhood as boring, not worthy of comment, and in this poem, he pursues that idea vigorously. In the first two stanzas, he comes to the realization that he does not recognize the Coventry station into which the train has pulled, although he used it often as a child. When his traveling companion asks if Coventry is where he “has his roots,” the poet responds in his mind with a catalog of all the things that never happened to him that supposedly happen to writers in their youth, “the splendid family/ I never ran to,” “The bracken where I never sat trembling.” Through the course of that list, he recognizes that the place looks so foreign now because it never gave him anything distinctive, that there is nothing that he carries with him that he can attribute to it. Then, in a remarkable about-face, he realizes that the location has very little to do with how his childhood was spent or misspent, that life is largely independent of place, that the alienation that he senses is something he carries with him, not a product of Coventry.
The poem at first seems to be an honest appraisal of his youth in contradistinction to all those romanticized accounts in biographies and novels, but the reader is forced finally to conclude that the poet protests too much. There is no childhood in which nothing happens, and in insisting so strongly on the vacuum in which he grew up, Larkin develops something like the inverse of nostalgia. He turns his present disillusionment and alienation back against the past and views it from his ironic perspective. Larkin is often the victim of his own ironies, and in this poem, his victim is memory.
His irony, in this poem as in so many, is used defensively; he wards off criticism by beating everyone to the punch. Irony is in some respects safer than laying oneself open for inspection. In many of his finest poems, however, he drops his guard and allows himself to think seriously about serious subjects. The foremost example in The Less Deceived is “Church Going.” The title turns out to be marvelously ambiguous, appearing at first blush to be a mere reference to attending church, but then becoming, as the poem progresses, an elliptical, punning reference to churches going out of fashion.
The first two stanzas are curtly dismissive in a manner often encountered in Larkin, as he describes his stop from a bicycle trip at a church that is apparently Ulster Protestant. Neither he (since he stops for a reason he cannot name and acts guilty as he looks around) nor the church (since it is not at all out of the ordinary) seems worthy of attention. He leaves, thinking the church “not worth stopping for.” In the third stanza, however, the poem shifts gears in a way typical of Larkin’s finest work: the dismissive attitude toward mundane existence, the wry observations give way to serious contemplation. “Church Going,” in fact, contains two such shifts.
In stanzas 3 through 7, Larkin reflects on the fate of churches when people stop going altogether—whether they will become places that people will avoid or seek out because of superstition, or become museums, or be turned to some profane use—and wonders, as well, who will be the last person to come to the church and what his reasons will be. Larkin has a sense, conveyed in a number of poems, that he and his generation of skeptics will be the end of religion in England, and in this poem he wonders about the results of that doubting. The final stanza contains yet another shift, this one rather more subtle. As if the “serious house on serious earth” were forcing the poet to be more serious, he shifts away from his musings about its fate, which are after all only another kind of dismissal, and recognizes instead the importance of the place. He suggests, finally, that the shallowness and disbelief of modern people cannot eradicate the impulse to think seriously and seek wisdom that the Church, however outmoded its rituals, represents.
The Whitsun Weddings
The two finest poems in Larkin’s succeeding volume display similar movements of thought. In the title poem, “The Whitsun Weddings,” the movement takes on further embellishment; not only does the poem move from dismissiveness to contemplation, but also the language of the poem moves from specificity toward generality in a way that mirrors the theme. The poem also contains one of Larkin’s favorite devices: the use of a train ride (occasionally a car ride) to depict the movement of thought.
The poem opens with the concern for specificity of someone who, like the speaker, is late; when the train leaves the station at “one-twenty,” it is “three-quarters-empty.” He catches glimpses of scenery along the way, none of it very interesting, much of it squalid and polluted. Not until the third stanza (suggesting the incompleteness of his detailed observation) does he notice the wedding parties at each station. Even then, it is with the dismissive attitude of someone who, as a professional bachelor and alienated outsider, rather scorns the tackiness of the families gathered on the platforms to see the couples off, as well as that of the unreflective couples with whom he shares the coach. His ironical, detailed description takes up most of the next five stanzas.
Toward the end of stanza 7, however, he undergoes a change, has a moment of vision in which the postal districts of London appear as “squares of wheat.” That image leads him, in the final stanza, to see the couples as symbols of fertility, so that finally the slowing train inspires in him an image of arrows beyond the scope of his vision, “somewhere becoming rain.” That he loosens the reins of his vision, so that he can describe not merely what he sees but also what he can only envision, is a major development in his attitude from the beginning of the poem. It demonstrates a breaking down, however slight or momentary, of his alienation from the common run of existence and of his resistance to recognizing his own relationship with these others. The poem may ultimately be judged a failure because of the brevity of that breaking down, but the image it spawns of fertility and life just beginning is magnificent.
“Dockery and Son” displays a similar movement and is a stronger poem because the poet is forced to lower his defenses much earlier and reveal himself more fully during the course of his meditation. An offhand comment by the Dean that a fellow student now has a son at school sets the speaker’s mind in motion. His first musings on the train home are again mundane, dismissive, of the “you-never-know-do-you” sort, and so boring that he falls asleep. On reconsideration, though, the poet experiences the shock of being brought up hard against the reality of having missed, irrevocably, what is for most men a major part of life—familial relations. Even this reflection remains thin and unsatisfactory, and he moves on to explore the nature of unquestioned and unquestioning belief and its source, deciding that it results not from wisdom or truth but from habit and style grown sclerotic. Yet those beliefs are what a man’s life turns on, producing a son for Dockery and nothing for the poet.
At this point, very late in the poem, Larkin develops one of his marvelous reversals on the word “nothing.” For most, it connotes an absence, a negation, a nonentity, but for Larkin “nothing” is a positive entity, a thing or force to be reckoned with, “Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.” The line suggests that the poet has had to wrestle with this “nothing” he has created even as a father, such as Dockery, has had to wrestle with the problems brought on by having a son. The similarity, however, does not stop there; the poet goes on to recognize the common fate that awaits not only Dockery and himself but everyone as well. Most commentators read the final phrase, “the only end of age,” as meaning death, and certainly that meaning is there. Nevertheless, to understand it as merely meaning death is to lose some of the force it holds for the speaker. Rather, it must be read back through the stanza and the poem as a whole, so that the emphasis on nothingness informs that certain knowledge of death. That the poet not only knows he will die but also has already tasted the nothingness he knows, as an unbeliever, that death entails, makes the experience of that knowledge the more poignant. As is so often true in Larkin’s work, that poignancy, which could border on self-pity, is tempered by the understanding that he at least comprehends, and there lies behind the poem’s ending an unstated irony aimed at those such as Dockery who engage life so fully as to obscure that reality.
Again, that constant strain of alienation insinuates its way into poem after poem. Throughout The Whitsun Weddings, the poet feels himself cut off from his fellow humans, often struggling to retrieve a spirit of community with them, sometimes simply wondering why it is so. The volume, while it represents little change from its predecessor, renders a picture of a man in middle age who feels life passing him by, and who sees more and more clearly the inevitable. Settings are close, small; lives are petty, insignificant; society is filled with graffiti and pollution. In “The Importance of Elsewhere,” he finds comfort in being a foreigner in Ireland, since at least he can explain his estrangement from his fellow inhabitants there. In England, ostensibly at home, he has no such excuse.
A number of the poems in High Windows display that estrangement, often in unsettlingly smug tones. “Afternoons,” in the previous book, shows Larkin at his judgmental worst, picking out nasty little details of petty lives and common tastes. In this volume, “The Old Fools,” a poem that is often praised for its unexpected ending, displays a similar attitude. After railing against the infirmity and senility of the elderly throughout the poem, the tag line of “Well, we shall find out” rings false, sounding too much like an attempt to dodge inevitable criticism.
“Going, Going” presents some of the same problems, yet it implicates the poet in his critique in a way that “The Old Fools” does not. What is going is England itself, and that entity, it turns out, is place, not people. People have ruined the landscape and the architecture, reducing everything to rubbish. The poem redeems itself through its linguistic implication of its creator. The piece remains polemical throughout, avoiding the impulse to resolve through metaphor, as if the misanthropic, gloomy sensibility demands a crabbed style distrustful of the richness of figurative language and, perhaps, mirroring the destruction of English literature: If “carved choirs,” echoing as they do William Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” are ruined and replaced with “concrete and tyres,” then this poem’s language is the replacement for Shakespeare’s. Everywhere the poet turns, he finds traditional institutions, including poetry, degraded into mundane modern forms.
A much finer expression of that discovery is to be found in “The Building,” which brings together numerous themes and ideas from throughout Larkin’s canon. Like “Dockery and Son,” it is a meditation on the foretaste of death; like “Going, Going,” a consideration of the degradation of institutions in the modern world; like “Church Going,” a questioning of what people shall do without churches.
The first two stanzas examine the ways the building in which the speaker sits resembles so many other modern buildings—high-rise hotels, airport lounges—although there is something disturbingly unlike them, as well. Not until the end of the second stanza does he reveal that it is a hospital. What unites people here is the common knowledge of their own mortality; even if they are not to die immediately, they are forced by the place to confront the fact that they will die eventually. The inescapability of that knowledge tames and calms the people in the building, as once the knowledge of death and its aftermath quieted them in church.
The recognition of this similarity grows slowly but steadily throughout the poem. The words keep insinuating a connection: “confess,” “congregations,” a “locked church” outside. The reaction people have in the hospital also suggests a function similar to that of the Church; outside they can hide behind ignorance or refusal to face facts, while inside the hospital those illusions are stripped away and reality is brought into the clear, sharp light, the unambiguous clarity of hospital corridors. This growing realization culminates in a final understanding that unless the modern hospital is more powerful than the traditional cathedral (and Larkin, suspicious of all institutions, does not think it is), then nothing can stop the ineluctable fate that awaits humanity, although (and now the similarities are overwhelming) every night people bring offerings, in the form of flowers, as they would to church.
A remarkable poem such as “The Building” can overcome a score of “Afternoons,” and what is more remarkable about it is the way Larkin overcomes his initial alienation to speak not only at, but also to, and even for, his fellow humans and their very real suffering. His finest poems end, like this one, in benedictions that border on the “Shantih” of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), giving the reader the sense that a troubling journey has reached a satisfying end.
The publication of his Collected Poems in 1988 brought to light scores of poems previously uncollected, long out of print, or unavailable to the general reading public. These poems will not significantly alter Larkin’s reputation, other than to expand the base on which it rests. For fans of his work, however, the additions prove quite valuable, showing as they do the movement from juvenilia to maturity. The early work displays even more clearly than, say, The North Ship the various influences on the young poet: Yeats and W. H. Auden. A work such as “New Year Poem” demonstrates a remarkable prescience, dated as it is the day before (and written an ocean away from) Auden’s famous “New Year Letter” of 1941; both poems look at the future and consider the social and spiritual needs in a time of crisis.
Larkin, ever parsimonious, wrote very few poems during the last decade of his life: Collected Poems reveals a mere seventeen. Many of those concern themselves with his standard topics—the ravages of age, the sense of not being in step with the rest of society, the approach of death. In “The Mower,” for example, he ruminates on having run over a hedgehog in the tall grass, killing it. From this experience, he takes away a feeling of responsibility for the death, a sense of the loss of this fellow creature, and the reflection that, given our limited time, we should be kind to one another. This slight poem (eleven lines) sums up much of Larkin’s thought in his later years: Death is a complete cessation of experience, not a transmutation but a blankness, an end, while life itself is a vale of unhappiness, and people therefore owe it to themselves and one another to make the way as pleasant as possible.
In “Aubade,” perhaps the most substantial of the late poems, Larkin writes of the approach of death, now another day closer because it is a new morning. He declares that we have never been able to accept death, yet are also unable to defeat it. Once religion offered the consolation of afterlife; for Larkin, that promise is no longer valid. What people fear most, he asserts, is the absence of sensation, of affect, that is death, as well as the absolute certainty of its coming. His “morning poem” is really a poem of the dark night of the soul. The fifth, and final, ten-line stanza brings the light of day and the unmindful routine of the workaday world, the routine that acts as a balm by taking our minds off our ultimate problem. Indeed, the poem’s closing image presents those representatives of the mundane, postal carriers, going among houses like doctors, their daily rounds offering temporary solace.
These two poems present Larkin’s typically ironic approach to the literary tradition. “The Mower” is a highly unconventional garden song. Although its title recalls Andrew Marvell’s poems “The Garden” and “The Mower, Against Gardens,” it shares none of their pastoral innocence or coyness. It finds death, not life, in the world of nature. Similarly, he subverts the traditional use of the aubade form to discuss not the coming day but also a coming night. In both cases, he undermines traditionally upbeat forms. Yet these poems also point to the playfulness of which Larkin was capable even in his bleakest moments, finding amusement in poems of abject despair. That may prove to be his great gift, the ability to face darkness fully, to take it in, and still to laugh, to be ironic even about last things.