Philip Larkin World Literature Analysis
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3761
The list of contemporary literary luminaries responding in the media to Larkin’s Collected Poems helps suggest the stature as a modern English poet that Larkin achieved during his lifetime. Seamus Heaney, Stephen Spender, Howard Nemerov, Ian Hamilton, and Derek Walcott figure among Larkin’s many admiring reviewers. Some discussion focuses on whether the canon of Larkin’s poems should exceed what the poet himself chose to include in the four slim volumes he published—the 115 poems collectively constituting The North Ship, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows. Even the thirty poems of his first volume are marginal, since Larkin allowed that book’s reprinting in 1966 “with considerable hesitation”; Larkin’s characteristic style and voice, the collective features that give him his uniqueness, appear definitively in the last three volumes. Still, editor Anthony Thwaite salvaged 242 poems that Larkin wrote, mostly between 1946 and his death, with a few from 1938 through 1945. “Aubade,” written in November, 1977, and published on December 23 in The Times Literary Supplement, is an important, previously uncollected poem from Larkin’s late period, during which his nonproductivity led him to think himself unworthy of the proffered laureateship and to reject it. The “morning song” of an aging insomniac who wakes before “all the uncaring/ Intricate rented world begins to rouse,” “Aubade” is vintage Larkin: “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night,” he starts. “Being brave/ Lets no one off the grave,” he concludes.
In variants of just such an authoritative yet self-demeaning voice, Larkin speaks to his readers, sharing calmly depressing, undogmatic glimpses of postimperial (and especially working-class) Britain. In what poet/biographer Alan Brownjohn calls a “vigorous colloquial mode”—language both ordinary and formal, serious and witty, figurative and literal—the Hermit of Hull himself seems to come through, at once thoughtful, intimate, wry, sad, and playful. Poems in Larkin’s voice accumulate the collective features of the Larkin persona, a detached and bemused, sometimes misogynistic bachelor. Modestly ranging themes include choice and its fated limits, work, aging, the elusiveness of personal happiness, marriage and singleness, and, in general, the ordinary experiences of unpretentious people, lucidly and often tenderly rendered.
The notable regularity with which Larkin’s small volumes appeared—exactly one a decade—says much about his craftsmanship. External evidence of painstaking revision supports the feel that his best poems have of having ripened thoughtfully. (“The Whitsun Weddings,” for example, was begun in May, 1957, resumed in 1958, reworked through twenty-three pages, and finished later that year.) Though “quietly English,” Larkin’s poems after 1960 often show diction—and graphic concerns with sex and bodies—sure to make shy readers redden. Still, a gentleman’s formality always remains. Irregularized meter, stanza, and rhyme undergird even the most random-sounding of Larkin’s verses.
The paradox of colloquial formality, of course, is not unique to Larkin and in fact has a long history in English poetry. Larkin’s underpinning of talk with the organizational structures of traditional verse thus creates frequent random echoes of John Donne and the other Metaphysical poets, of Robert Browning’s artfully “natural” monologues, of T. S. Eliot (the Prufrock persona is never far out of hearing distance), of George Gordon, Lord Byron (especially in the witty rhymes), or of Alexander Pope (with his parallels and wordplay). As to the poet’s worldview, the sardonic pessimism of Thomas Hardy is the important influence that Larkin acknowledged.
Since Larkin invented no genuinely new formal mode for writing poems, the impulse to link him not only with earlier poets but also with contemporaries is strong. An association between Larkin and “The Movement” in English letters began soon after the appearance of The Less Deceived. The collective tendencies of this loose “school” include a rejection of both Romanticism and the extreme principles of modernist experimentalism. Movement writers think that common sense, honesty, clarity, realism, and empiricism should govern art. Robert Conquest’s anthology New Lines (1956) epitomized features of The Movement.
The Larkin persona, of foreground interest in most poems, is also often an unenthusiastic witness to life. Thus Larkin is both social critic and realist. His ordinary people marry and start their lives (“The Whitsun Weddings”), go to weekend fairs (“Show Saturday”), play cards, visit bars, get sick (“Ambulances”), and die (“The Explosion”). Meanwhile, the empire’s soldiers come “home/ For lack of money” (“Homage to a Government”), and England’s omnipresent churches stand as taunting residues of a dying religion (“Church Going”). Larkin’s social concerns appear as early as the novel Jill, a bellwether among postwar British novels for its working-class hero; his poems persist in showing something of the novelist’s sense of place and situation. One risks equating poet with persona to say that Larkin’s foiled plan to become a novelist seems but one more ironic instance of his “falling short.”
Larkin’s poems of wistful isolation show sadness and failure and treat the mundane and mediocre; however, they also imply persistent communal values. In “Show Saturday,” for example, a weekend fair reveals “something [people] share/ That breaks ancestrally each year into/ Regenerate union. Let it always be there.” Young lovers in “High Windows” or “The Whitsun Weddings” find at least brief pleasure in each other, even as the speaker is excluded. Indeed, there is everywhere in Larkin’s poems the sense of a “perfect happiness/ I can’t confront” (“Mother, Summer, I”).
A Larkin dichotomy that reminds posterity of his successes, not his failures, sounds in a later poem that begins “The daily things we do/ for money or for fun/ Can disappear like dew/ Or harden and live on.”
First published: 1955 (collected in The Less Deceived, 1955)
Type of work: Poem
The speaker, after berating himself for letting “the toad work” spoil his life, decides that he is fated for an unromantic existence.
Memorable among the poems in The Less Deceived (1955) that brought Larkin his first fame, “Toads” is a comically exaggerated, self-directed harangue whose speaker seems easily identifiable with the Hermit of Hull. The poem’s work-driven man trades six days of his week for economic security, meanwhile giving up “The fame and the girl and the money” that “windfall” types might get with their “wits” or “blarney.” The strong sensory impact of the opening rhetorical question makes the poem hard to forget: “Why should I let the toad work/ Squat on my life?” In nine quatrains of rough dactyls, the persona goes on to reach a partial, chilling answer: “something sufficiently toad-like/ Squats in me, too;/ Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,/ And cold as snow.”
The poem’s main image provides an “objective correlative”—to use the term suggested by the Anglo-American poet/critic T. S. Eliot—for oppressive daily work that suppresses the life of which the individual dreams. (A pun in “toady” as “fawning underling” lurks under the conceit.) The other life that the speaker decides is not for him, the unrealized romantic alternative to a workaday world, gives the poem its main contrast. The word “Toads” rules the poem as image, witty symbol, personification (or animation), metaphor, and analogy; but the text engages many other “poetic” devices. A second rhetorical question, echoing the first, heightens its animated little comic drama with simile: “Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork/ And drive the brute off?” (“Wit” is echoed later as “wits” and finally identified with “blarney.” Since the poet as crafty talker is at work in the poem, the foils of librarian and happy-go-lucky poet may be partly what the speaker imagines.) The phrases “skinny as whippets,” “Toad-like,” and “heavy as hard luck,/ . . . cold as snow” show other similes that sharpen the imagery. Further details sketch manly risk-takers living “up lanes/ With fires in a bucket,” eating “windfalls and tinned sardines.” The Popean wit of this last image (technically called zeugma) derives from Larkin’s pairing of things intangible and sensibly concrete, both objects of the verb “eat.” Hyperalliteration in the third stanza, especially, reinforces the poem’s comic tone, even as the catalog “Lecturers, lispers,/ Losels, loblolly-men, louts” is congruent with the mock-epic, one remote model for the poem.
The speaker’s mention of the inaccessible “stuff/ That dreams are made on,” echoing William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623), helps set up the poem’s romantic foil. In this detail, the text is reminiscent of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” where Prufrock thinks of the inimitable actions of Hamlet as the obverse of his own. Ultimately, in fact, it is hard not to compare Larkin’s resigned persona with Prufrock, for both are timid men whose “love songs” go unsung. Like Eliot and others, Larkin shows skill at using startling conceits to make the “stuff” of his poem memorable. While Prufrock’s mind drifts toward the genteel (and Eliot’s toward free verse), Larkin’s speaker stanzaically envisions a downscale society where something chancier would replace propriety.
Formally, the quatrains of “Toads” exemplify rowdy versions of the four-line “common meter” stanza, long serviceable in English verse. The dactylic meter is an “oomppah-pah” that blusters on. Half-rhymes typify the abab scheme: In fact, no exact rhymes occur. Such pairings as “poison/ proportion” and “bucket/ like it” are clever in the manner of Lord Byron. Larkin’s conversational “blarney” also employs colloquial diction, disruptive dashes, exclamations, italicized phrases, and contractions. The phrase “All at one sitting” is a pun full of irony, given both the toad’s “squatting” stance and the nonsedentary life needed for one to get fame, love, or wealth. Dialectal words help individualize Larkin’s speaker, who speaks of “losels” (worthless persons), “loblolly-men” (louts), “nippers” (children), and “hunkers” (haunches), and who says, “Stuff your pension!”
Unlike the rest, the poem’s last stanza is obscure; the pronouns are ambiguous, the antecedents remote. The verb “bodies” seems vaguely transitive. Probably “one” and “the other” (and “either” and “both”) refer to the “two toads” previously mentioned—one squatting “on my life,” the other squatting “in me, too.” The plural title seems to be a main clue that helps identify these two referents. Thus “one bodies the other/ One’s spiritual truth” means that the outward tendency to be a workaholic, symbolized by the outward “toad,” is an emblem of one’s inner reality. If the first “one” is the squatting toad and the second “One” the man on whom it sits, the idea may be that work gives an individual his or her “spiritual truth.” The fact that the speaker rejects the affirmation he asserts makes his last pontification doubly gnomic. Here the pedantic librarian’s voice supplants the breezier blarney that dominates the poem—though wit is a common denominator in both modes. However one reads its end, the poem’s serious theme is that a fatal temperamental workaholism, while paying the bills and securing the pension, fails to bring such footloose fulfillment as one can fancy.
First published: 1955 (collected in The Less Deceived, 1955)
Type of work: Poem
An English cyclist’s weekday visit to an empty church provokes his serious, skeptical reverie on the appeal, and future, of Christianity.
Written the same summer as “Toads,” “Church Going” also first appeared in Larkin’s remarkable little book The Less Deceived. Each of the two much-admired poems illustrates the book’s emphatic focus on relative disillusionment. The punning title “Church Going” is typically Larkinesque, implying both “attending church” and “the vanishing church.” A further irony is that Larkin’s “church goer” is a sole drop-in to whom the empty edifice is alien and puzzling, not supportive or enlightening.
As sobriety varies from playfulness, the persona of “Church Going” varies from that of “Toads.” Yet the loneliness and dissociation from human company that one perceives in the speaker and the recognition that he contemplates an important modern dilemma tie him to the “toad-dominated” worker. One added strength of “Church Going” is its firm grounding in a concrete setting and situation, allowing Larkin’s skeptical preachment about the irrelevance of the church to occur without much offense, from the ironic opening phrase onward: “I am sure there’s nothing going on/ . . . inside.” Eventually the speaker wonders “who/ Will be the last, the very last, to seek/ This place for what it was.” Imagery of a church in ruins dominates the poem at its climax: “Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky.” (Conjured images of Tintern Abbey, or other stereotypically English ruins, here summarize the coming fate of churches in England that the speaker sees.) The balanced melancholy of the poem finds the church, though a “place . . . not worth stopping for,” to be nonetheless “A serious house on serious earth” that pulls people toward it, a place “proper to grow wise in,/ If only that so many dead lie round.” The imaginative range of the poem, moving as it does from the concrete to the abstract and universal, from “disbelief” to a future time when even that may be a forgotten human stage, gives it distinction and significance.
Formally “Church Going” is like an ode, a stanzaic lyric poem that develops and explores a serious topic at some length. Each of its seven stanzas comprises nine iambic pentameter lines—the numerology seeming, like religion itself, to tap into the prerational. A complex stanzaic rhyme scheme, ababcadcd, employs full and approximate (half or slant) rhymes freely. Skill with subtle metrical variations—trochaic substitutions, caesuras, enjambments, feminine endings—keeps the lines flowing like talk, much in the manner to which readers of Robert Browning’s monologues, or of Larkin’s lyrics, are accustomed. As usual Larkin’s speaker is syntactic, at once colloquial and formal in his assertions. His sharp imagery draws the church interior in the first two stanzas: “sprawlings of flowers, cut/ For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff/ Up at the holy end; the small neat organ.” The “musty, unignorable silence” has “Brewed God knows how long.” When the man reads “Here endeth” to an empty sanctuary, “The echoes snigger briefly.”
As in “Toads”—and following the lead of his disavowed mentor Yeats—Larkin has his speaker engage in questions, a useful device for exploring alternatives: “Shall we avoid [churches] as unlucky places?” “And what remains when disbelief has gone?” and “I wonder who/ Will be the last . . . to seek/ This place for what it was?” “Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,/ Or Christmas-addict?” In such an inquisitive context, the speaker’s varied assertions hold their ground: “Power of some sort or other will go on,” “It pleases me to stand in silence here,” or “someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious,/ And gravitating with it to this ground.”
In this serious meditation on the post-Christian age, Larkin’s witty glints lighten the tone. As the persona, for example, wonders if in future eras “we shall keep/ A few cathedrals chronically on show” and “let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep,” his word “chronically” plays on “perpetually” while suggesting something like a lingering illness, and “let” as “lease” introduces a playful figurative situation, with sheep as renters. The “crew” of cathedral-hounds who “tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were” are mildly satirized as the eventual last “church goers,” just as the phrases “this accoutred frowsty barn” (where “frowsty” means unkempt and musty), “randy for antique,” and “Christmas-addict” all trigger weak smiles. The mild self-denigration that occurs in various details, hinting that the biker is a bit of a perplexed bumblehead, likewise entertains.
The speaker’s “serious” view is clearly that the church is irrelevant and “obsolete,” appeals to superstition, plays a riddling power game, and is destined to fade into vague memory, even as so many church structures in England already have. Nonetheless, nostalgia for inaccessible certainties remains. In that tangential respect, the speakers in “Church Going” and “Toads” are alike: Each looks wistfully at a pattern of living that he seems constitutionally unsuited to embracing and suffers an emotional isolation that seems to be his fate. As in Hardy’s poems and novels, there is no possibility that by strength of will the persona can remake himself into something he is not. The final lines hint bleakly that one “grows wise” only in the company of the dead.
“The Whitsun Weddings”
First published: 1964 (collected in The Whitsun Weddings, 1964)
Type of work: Poem
Taking the train down to London on a Maytime Saturday, a man observes newlyweds boarding at successive stations and contemplates the convergent pattern.
Written in October, 1958, and published as the title poem in Larkin’s 1964 volume, the odelike poem “The Whitsun Weddings” bears formal and thematic resemblances to “Church Going” but shifts its focus away from the Larkin speaker and toward the collective social event that he witnesses, voyeuristically, while making “A slow and stopping curve southwards” from Hull to London. The poem is thus only partly “about” the speaker, whose presumed bachelorhood serves as foil for the “dozen” wedded couples who, at stop after stop, board the train to journey with him toward their separate and communal destinies. The details of the poem that focus on the speaker seem little more than a cumulative medium for framing what he sees: “I was late getting away;” “At first, I didn’t notice what a noise/ The weddings made/ Each station that we stopped at;” and, near the end, “I thought of London spread out in the sun,/ Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat.” Through much of the poem the speaker says “we,” including others on the train with himself and—incrementally—all the couples who join their microcosmic ride.
The poem seems provocative and mildly fatalistic in its conclusions about what the observed phenomena mean. The ironic sense that the couples are wrapped in their own excitement so as to be unaware of participating in any larger pattern governs the poet’s conclusion, where “none/ Thought of the others they would never meet/ Or how their lives would all contain this hour.” Several details in the poem underscore how destiny operates in ways no person among the passengers can understand: “There [at London] we were aimed,” “it was nearly done, this frail/ Travelling coincidence,” and finally, “there swelled/ A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” In the moment lives a sense of “all the power/ That being changed can give.” The train ride becomes finally a metaphor for life as it moves onward, propelled by a common stream of marriages. Mutability, the inevitable pattern of change that governs life while remaining so unsusceptible to understanding or governance, is one large theme here.
Much of the poem’s appeal lies in its snapshot social realism. In minutely observed if mildly satiric detail, Larkin’s observer represents the working-class wedding parties: men “grinning and pomaded, girls/ In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,” “mothers loud and fat;/ An uncle shouting smut,” young girls who “stared/ At a religious wounding,” imagining some bride’s impending surrender. The note that “each face seemed to define/ Just what it saw departing” is precise in its relativism. Images of “short-shadowed cattle” and “the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth” vivify the witnessed drama. Meanwhile, unobtrusive figures enrich the poem’s texture: “tall heat that slept,” a typical personification, and the similes of the last two stanzas are examples.
Formally “The Whitsun Weddings” is much like “Church Going.” Its eight stanzas are each ten lines long, all lines but the second (which is two-stressed) showing the elegantly “natural” iambic pentameter that Larkin managed with such skill. The ababcdecde rhyme scheme suggests that the poet conceived of his stanza as quatrain-plus-sestet, the latter in the manner of Italian sonnets; enjambment, however, usually blurs the division, and run-ons in syntax between stanzas occur often.
First published: 1974 (collected in High Windows, 1974)
Type of work: Poem
Eying a young couple lasciviously, an aging man thinks of his youth before imagining blank “high windows.”
“High Windows,” finished in 1967 and included as the title poem in Larkin’s last volume, shows modest departures in method and new symbolic indirections. Though the windows are no doubt symbols, literally they are sashes set high in a wall (perhaps in a tall building) so that one looking out “the sun-comprehending glass” from inside sees only “the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” These apertures onto heaven, but not into eternity, are clouded over with a Larkinesque nihilism, an agnostic’s philosophical nothingness. The image of the windows occurs to the speaker “Rather than words,” suggesting the skeptic’s truth that what lies beyond cannot be stated. Thus the poem’s epiphany, its moment of revelation, reveals “Nothing”; the parallelism with “No God any more,” occurring earlier, heightens the figurative message. The hint in “high windows” of cathedral panes doubles the irony.
This poem seems an aging man’s piece but also surely reflects something of the youth-led and freedom-intent 1960’s—with “Bonds and gestures pushed to one side”—in its relatively licentious language and loosened style. Like “Church Going,” the poem is a reverie on the absence of viable religion, but the method of exploration here is associative, not quietly rational and syntactic: Seeing the young couple and imagining their sex life makes the speaker think about his lost youth and how he might have appeared then. In turn, that thought triggers the image of the windows. (The cinematic technique of the skyward fadeout may lie in the background of the poem’s closing effect.) The poem’s unbalanced three-part structure highlights its “middle” section with italicized type.
Formally, the poem is stanzaic but not metrical. Like “Toads,” it intentionally abuses “common meter,” settling into an abab rhyme scheme. A notable, witty irony is that “kids” and “diaphragm” are early nonrhymes.
Reading the poem with established notions about the “Larkin persona” overlaid on it, one thinks inevitably of the librarian of Hull in his university-owned “high windowed” apartment, aging and unmarried. Thus irony dominates—whoever imagined the young Larkin among the youthful “lot” that would eventually “all go down the long slide/ Like free bloody birds” surely misread things. Typically for Larkin, a set of foils operates: While the speaker can now imagine the young couple in “Paradise” and can think of “everyone young going down the long slide/ To happiness,” that destiny seems to have escaped him personally; even his early freedom from a fearful faith has not left him romantically happy or sensually fulfilled. The poem’s image of “an outdated combine harvester” that has “reaped” little is a quiet, innuendo-filled analogue for the poem’s persona.