Larkin, Philip (Vol. 5)
Larkin, Philip 1922–
Larkin, an English poet, novelist, critic, and essayist, has been called the finest British poet of his generation. Although he has little in common with Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and the other "Movement" writers, Larkin contributed his well known Words-worthian poem "Church Going" to Robert Conquest's New Lines anthology and so is often associated with "the Movement." Larkin's brooding meditations, sometimes likened to work by Hardy, are loosely constructed around his personal everyday experiences in his provincial home in Yorkshire. Anthony Thwaite has said that there is an "agnostic stoicism in his work which confronts change, diminution, death with sardonic resignation." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
If Larkin is minor, then it must only be because of the small size of his body of work: he has published [few] collections of verse. The first, The North Ship (1945), though it contains some good poems, and is certainly worth detailed consideration, is perhaps more interesting as the early work of someone who became a very good poet indeed than for its intrinsic merits….
Larkin is not only a poet: he has written two fine novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). His penetrating and witty literary criticism makes one wish he wrote more—unless it took up time he would otherwise write poems in…. (p. 1)
Larkin has been considered by many to be the best of the Movement poets…. I cannot agree … partly because I think Larkin does not share the faults of the Movement, and partly because Larkin's poetry does not seem to me to be so typical of that produced by the Movement that it may be picked out to epitomise its virtues. (pp. 9-10)
Technically, Larkin is an extraordinarily various and accomplished poet, a poet who uses the devices of metre and rhyme for specific effects, not just because, in Robert Frost's phrase, he likes to play his tennis with a net. His language is never flat, unless he intends it to be so for a particular reason, and his diction is never stereotyped. He is always ready, like Thomas Hardy, to reach across accepted literary boundaries for a word that will precisely express what he intends: into archaism, as in the 'accoutred' of 'Church Going'; into Americanism, as in the 'store-bought clothes' of the recent 'How Distant'; into coarse colloquial, in such phrases as 'books are a load of crap' from 'A Study of Reading Habits'; and even into the extremely uncommon usages of another poet, as in the 'prinked' brasswork of the ships in 'Next Please', a word surely used in the sense in which Hardy uses it in 'Beeny Cliff', where the tops of waves are 'prinked' by the sun.
Larkin has a sympathy with the different that is lacking in the work of many of his Movement contemporaries. (pp. 19-20)
Most important, perhaps, Larkin's attention is not turned inwards upon himself and his art—at least, this is true of his poetry after The North Ship. Though … twenty-five per cent of the poems in New Lines use the words 'poem', 'poet' or 'poetry', Larkin's mature poems do not include any of those words. And this is true of all the poems of The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings, not just the selection printed in New Lines: poetry is his medium, not his subject. The Movement was a valuable force, and from it emerged a body of excellent writing. But Larkin's poetry seems to me better and more important than what was generally produced. (p. 20)
He has said that poetry is 'born of the tension between what [the poet] non-verbally feels and what can be got over in common word-usage to someone who hasn't had his experience or education or travel-grant'. In common with Dr. Johnson, Larkin sees in life 'much … to be endured and little to be enjoyed'; and like the blues singer's art, Larkin's poetry mediates between this experience and his audience. His forms are 'traditional' rather than 'modern', though they are various, and unmistakably a full response to contemporary life. (p. 21)
Larkin has written only two novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter…. [It] seems to me that the more worthwhile thing for Larkin to do is to write poems. He is certainly a better poet than novelist, on the evidence we have before us. (p. 36)
Jill is not so much about conflicting social situations, and the stresses attendant on crossing class boundaries, as about our reactions to life and our expectations of it. John [the protagonist] is unable to cope with life when he has no fixed context within which to live. He demands continuity, and fixed objects by which to determine his position. The question, 'How shall I behave?' is always answered for John by reference to his place in a scheme. The lesson he learns is that life's landscape really has no such fixed points, no constant pattern. We cannot expect anything from life because in the end we have no control over it, no more than the trees have control over the way they bend. (p. 43)
Larkin has commented that both his novels are really extended poems: he was careful, he said, if he used a word on page 15, not to use it again on page 115. Certainly, we may criticise Jill for being too 'poetical'. Sometimes detail is so fine as to be pedantic, and not at all illuminating. It may flesh out John's background for us to know that his mother tied his sandwiches 'firmly, but not tightly'; but we are no better off for knowing that the apple eaten by the clergyman who shares John's railway carriage as he travels to Oxford is russet, nor that it is peeled with a silver pen-knife. In this first novel Larkin was too often lured into description for the sake of showing how well he can do it. Similarly, the young novelist is often carried away into drawing comparisons through similes that in no way advance the story or illuminate the theme…. Such similes are striking, but, not being organic, stand out unnaturally from the narrative. (p. 44)
But if Larkin's description of particular objects is sometimes over-precise, it seems that his general presentation of war-time Oxford is less precise than it should be…. Though there are many of the real trappings of war-time—black-outs, rations, and so on—many of the events of the novel … belong to an earlier, gayer decade. (pp. 44-5)
It is unfortunate, too, that John's character is not consistent. Larkin wanted to present us with a naïve young man, quite out of things in the company of a group of young sophisticates…. And yet when he becomes involved with the fantasy Jill, he has a perfect command of the idiom appropriate to a girls' boarding school.
These points are niggling, perhaps in view of the novel's many good qualities. (p. 45)
Like Jill, A Girl in Winter is a novel about maturing, coming to terms with the facts of our lives, accepting what is real, rather than depending on false expectations to make living worthwhile. (p. 46)
A Girl in Winter is a better novel than Jill, largely because of the stylistic improvements on the earlier work. As a story, it is slighter—much more an 'over-sized poem', which Larkin now considers both novels to be. But the prose, in the main, is much sparer. There is still the occasional redundant simile, as when Katherine's vacillating emotions are compared at length to a flock of birds swooping first to one corner of a field and then to another. Really, for a state already fully described, we do not need to be given an explanatory image that adds nothing new. There is much less self-conscious 'fine writing' than in Jill [and] Larkin has a firmer grasp of the complexities of character in A Girl in Winter. (pp. 51-2)
Larkin's critical writings, mainly in the form of reviews of poets he likes, have outlined the concept of poetry Hardy gave him—a set of beliefs that have remained remarkably constant over the years. The most important of those beliefs is that a poem should directly depend on actual experience. (p. 59)
Moreover, these experiences should be 'unsorted'. One of the chief defects of modern and contemporary poetry, Larkin believes, is that poetry is losing touch with life because the experiences that inform it are too often of a rarefied kind…. This explains one of Larkin's most widely quoted, and most widely misunderstood remarks…. 'I … have no belief in "tradition",' Larkin wrote, 'or a common myth-kitty or casual allusions in poems to other poems or poets, which last I find unpleasantly like the talk of literary understrappers letting you see they know the right people.' The statement has been taken again and again by those who dislike Larkin's poetry as evidence of a 'provincial', even philistine frame of mind. The charge has no substance if we appreciate fully what Larkin is saying: he is objecting to '"tradition"' (the quotation marks are important), the 'myth-kitty' and those 'casual allusions' in so far as they are considered separate from other experience. Of course, reading a poem or knowing a poet is as much a part of experience as what happens at work, or watching two horses grazing; but that is the point: poems and poets are not things apart. He objects to '"tradition"' considered as something above and beyond life; to a 'mythkitty', a stock of special 'poetic' myths which are to poetry as stage properties are to drama; to 'casual allusions', which are not organic to the poem, and are not really casual at all, but a way of showing off. Poetry should have a direct relationship with life, then, in that it should be regarded as being a part of life, not separate from it, and it should look to life for its subject matter.
More than this, Larkin has consistently maintained that a poet should write about those things in life that move him most deeply: if he does not feel deeply about anything, he should not write. This explains his small poetic production, and his conviction that a poet should not make his living by writing. He believes that poetry will only be written well when it has to be written…. (pp. 60-1)
It is surprising, perhaps, to consider that Larkin's suggestions are in the same spirit as Wordsworth's, that 'poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'. Surprising, in view of the fact that Larkin has been singled out as a poet who has little emotional intensity in his verse…. Larkin himself is puzzled by critics' finding his work unemotional….
The feeling of responsibility to the experience justifies Larkin's conviction that content in poetry is more important than form. (p. 62)
Larkin has [no] … contempt [for] form…. It is just that originality, for Larkin, consists not in modifying the medium of communication, but in communicating something different. (pp. 62-3)
But though Larkin considers his prime responsibility to be to the experience he is trying to preserve, he has a keen sense of the audience for his poems. (p. 63)
Larkin seeks the general audience. He has commended Kipling, Housman and Betjeman for their 'direct relation with a reading public', obtained by being 'moving and memorable'…. [He] deplores the obscurity of the moderns, taking as their representatives Pound in poetry, Picasso in painting, and in jazz Charlie Parker, the saxophonist who did most to engineer the divergence of jazz into 'modern' and 'traditional'. Larkin considers ours 'an age so determined to make hard work out of reading poetry', and complains that this is to a large extent the fault of critics…. Larkin … considers it nonsense for a critic to claim to know a poem's meaning more accurately than its author. (pp. 64-5)
Larkin is certainly anti-intellectual pretension, anti- that kind of cleverness designed not to enlighten but to confuse and exclude; but not anti- the intellectual in itself. (p. 65)
Larkin has never condemned Yeats for his difficulty, though Yeats is at times a difficult poet. So is Larkin himself, one might add. (p. 66)
Larkin's concern is not that poetry be read merely for pleasure, but lest study by the 'dutiful mob' replace poetry's enjoyment by the wider audience. Such study is 'no substitute' for that enjoyment; but it is not wrong in itself. The critics are damaging only when they abstract poetry from life…. Larkin objects to 'culture in the abstract', not to culture; indeed, he wishes to see 'culture' in its narrower sense restored to its place in our 'culture' as a whole. (pp. 67-8)
When Larkin's poems do strive after a universal statement, they work best when they grow out of the kind of experience Larkin evokes in 'Myxomatosis'. His themes are almost always personal or perennial ones, and he is sometimes criticised for not writing about the impact of such specifically contemporary phenomena as Hiroshima and Auschwitz…. He is a contemporary man, and his observation of life is deeply influenced by the phenomena of contemporary life; but these things are part of the texture of his vision. He does not need to write about them directly to show that he is aware of them. (pp. 72-3)
Larkin showed in The Less Deceived that he did not write poetry that blows off the top of one's head, to use Emily Dickinson's metaphor; but the collection did show that he wrote movingly and memorably about aspects of life that were of great importance to his readers as well as to himself. He showed that he was a witty poet with immense verbal facility, capable of the most subtle modulations of tone, speaking a language vitalised by its relationship with the idiom we speak. He showed above all, to use his own phrases, that he was a poet 'capable of strong feeling' and 'of conveying strong feeling in poetry'. (pp. 90-1)
David Timms, in his Philip Larkin (copyright © Text David Timms 1973; by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., Barnes & Noble Import Division), Barnes & Noble, 1973.
Larkin collections come out at the rate of one per decade: The North Ship, 1945; The Less Deceived, 1955; The Whitsun Weddings, 1964; High Windows, 1974. Not exactly a torrent of creativity: just the best. (p. 65)
Now that the latest Larkin [High Windows] is finally available,… [one finds] that it all adds up even better than one had expected: the poems which one thought of as characteristic turn out to be more than that—or rather the character turns out to be more than that. Larkin has never liked the idea of an artist Developing. Nor has he himself done so. But he has managed to go on clarifying what he was sent to say. The total impression of High Windows is of despair made beautiful. Real despair and real beauty, with not a trace of posturing in either. The book is the peer of the previous two mature collections, and if they did not exist would be just as astonishing. But they do exist (most of us could recognise any line from either one) and can't help rendering many of the themes in this third book deceptively familiar.
I think that in most of the poems here collected Larkin's ideas are being reinforced or deepened rather than repeated. But from time to time a certain predictability of form indicates that a previous discovery is being unearthed all over again. Such instances aren't difficult to spot, and it would be intemperate to betray delight at doing so. Larkin's "forgeries" (Auden's term for self-plagiarisms) are very few. He is more original from poem to poem than almost any modern poet one can think of. His limitations, such as they are, lie deeper than that. Here again, it is not wise to be happy about spotting them. Without the limitations there would be no Larkin—the beam cuts because it's narrow.
It has always seemed to me a great pity that Larkin's more intelligent critics should content themselves with finding his view of life circumscribed. It is, but it is also bodied forth as art to a remarkable degree. There is a connection between the circumscription and the poetic intensity, and it's no surprise that the critics who can't see the connection can't see the separation either. They seem to think that just because the poet is (self-admittedly) emotionally wounded, the poetry is wounded too. (pp. 65-6)
It ought to be obvious that Larkin is not a universal poet in the thematic sense—in fact, he is a self-proclaimed stranger to a good half, the good half of life…. What's missing in Larkin doesn't just tend to be missing, it's glaringly, achingly, unarguably missing. (p. 66)
["The Building,"] I think, is the volume's masterpiece—an absolute chiller, which I find myself getting by heart despite a pronounced temperamental aversion. The Building is the house of death, a Dantesque hell-hole—one thinks particularly of Inferno V—where people "at that vague age that claims/The end of choice, the last of hope" are sent to "their appointed levels." The ambience is standard modernist humdrum: paperbacks, tea, rows of steel chairs like an airport lounge. You can look down into the yard and see red brick, lagged pipes, traffic. But the smell is frightening. In time everyone will find a nurse beckoning to him. The dead lie in white rows somewhere above. This, says Larkin with an undeflected power unique even for him, is what it all really adds up to. Life is a dream and we awake to this reality. (p. 69)
There is no point in disagreeing with the man if that's the way he feels, and he wouldn't write a poem like "The Building" if he didn't feel that way to the point of daemonic possession. He himself is well aware that there are happier ways of viewing life. It's just that he is incapable of sharing them, except for fleeting moments—and the fleeting moments do not accumulate, whereas the times in between them do. The narrator says that "nothing contravenes/The coming dark." It's an inherently less interesting proposition than its opposite, and a poet forced to devote his creative effort to embodying it has only a small amount of space to work in. Nor, within the space, is he free from the paradox that his poems will become part of life, not death. From that paradox, we gain. The desperation of "The Building" is like the desperation of Leopardi, disconsolate yet doomed to being beautiful. The advantage which accrues is one of purity—a hopeless affirmation is the only kind we really want to hear when we feel, as sooner or later everybody must, that life is a trap.
There is no certain way of separating Larkin's attitude to society from his conception of himself, but to the extent that you can, he seems to be in two minds about what the world has come to. He thinks, on the one hand, that it's probably all up; and on the other hand that youth still has a chance. On the theme of modern life being an unmitigated and steadily intensifying catastrophe he reads like his admired Betjeman in a murderous mood—no banana blush or cherry telly teeth, just a tight-browed disdain and a toxic line of invective. "Going, Going" is particularly instructive here. (pp. 69-70)
Larkin loves and inhabits tradition as much as Betjeman does, but artistically he had already let go of it when others were only just realising it was time to cling on. Larkin is the poet of the void. The one affirmation his work offers is the possibility that when we have lost everything the problem of beauty will still remain. It's enough. (p. 71)
Clive James, "Wolves of Memory," in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), June, 1974, pp. 65-71.
Debate about what Philip Larkin's high windows actually are, and why they qualify as the title of this profoundly beautiful and remarkable book, could go on endlessly; missing the fact that they have had a special significance in his poetry from the beginning. In this title-poem, as is already well-known, the equivalent found for the speaker's ambiguous envy of the new sexual liberty of the young (their long downward slide to happiness) is the envy his elders possibly felt about his own new freedom, when young, from religious fears and constraints. But then comes the sudden switch away: no more of sex or religion, no more analogies, no rueful last twist—simply the one lucid, scaringly serene image:
the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
That 'deep blue air', standing powerfully beyond, is one of those inscrutable spaces, pure because they are so empty and still, which arrive somewhere in every Larkin volume. Whether showing up as an 'unearthly dawn', or a 'padlocked cube of light', as 'attics cleared of him', as moments by the 'unfenced existence' of the sea or when simply staring into clear water, as solitary hours under clear, unhindered moonlight, or in High Windows, as blank pages in a diary or 'flawless weather', Larkin is repeatedly turning aside to them from the soiled territory of living: living among others, or private living with its fears and shames, or the insoluble anguishes of any living. Such areas of chaste emptiness open up as eerily important mental experiences.
Despite his disavowal of a poet's obligation to develop, High Windows does show an indisputable development in Larkin. The early North Ship, and The Less Deceived, were building up steadily to that overwhelmingly sad sense in The Whitsun Weddings (it was the predominant statement of that volume) that nearly all human expectations were pathetic delusion and folly, betrayed by the hidden forces pushing death inexorably closer. The most positive feeling was that some kinds of ritual observance (work in 'Toads Revisited', nuptial customs in the weddings poem) made sense for staving off death, or as excuses for very limited hope. Also that love, commemorated on the Arundel tomb (under light, incidentally, which 'thronged the glass' each summer) did justify our existence, perhaps.
The difference and development in High Windows is partly in Larkin's breaking away from that one dominant theme. Here, all the different Larkin motifs have come together in precisely adjusted balance, in a collection in which all his well-known virtues and skills are enhanced, validated and drawn together by the ethereal and compelling image providing the title. Once again there is consummate control of the various verse forms. Accurate details are summoned and ordered with astonishing ease: nostalgic in 'To the Sea', or made harrowingly cumulative in his hospital poem, 'The Building'. And there is that same unalterable exactness—other words would not have fitted—about a diction which everyone must surely now realise as authoritative because of its reticence, not somehow in spite of it; response to its finest effects is an index of awareness of the undiminished resourcefulness of modern English (and response to its magnetic quality and sheer serviceability is seen in critics' constant use of phrases from Larkin to help them when writing about Larkin.)
But it is the new emphases which are interesting and which might provide clues as to whether, for Larkin, the pull of the deep blue air is towards life or death: ultimately the most important question to resolve. Clearly new here is the greatly strengthened fascination with the value of habits and rituals: he has never given these things a more arresting dimension. And it is all intimately linked with the ways, the places, the times in which Larkin sees life as having meaning and fulness. (p. 854)
Larkin's lack of personal hope and expectations for any of us finally leaves him resting faith in the continuance of some good, habitual things just as they are (though sometimes they can only be remembered, since the catastrophes of 1914 and 1929 destroyed so much innocence). It is about the seaside always being there, the Show always going on—though the hotel furnishings now exist only in wistful recall. these things represent the concealed values in the poems. When Larkin states this underlying conservatism openly, the whole thing gets oddly weakened ('Going, Going') or blimpishly absurd ('Homage to a Government'). We might be thankful that Larkin is so rarely explicit about what he believes; on the other hand, very thankful that he isn't fitting stained glass into the high windows to complete the syndrome.
It's doubtful whether a better book than High Windows will come out of the 1970s…. [Almost] every Larkin poem grows larger and clearer as the years go by. (pp. 854, 856)
Alan Brownjohn, "The Deep Blue Air," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 14, 1974, pp. 854, 856.
Taken as a whole, Philip Larkin's poetry has the effect of a sustained attack upon the philosophical idealism of romantic literature, and more specifically upon its "decadent" stepchild, modernism. For virtually his entire career he has been writing at least implicitly on this subject, sometimes openly attacking modernism in poetry and jazz music, presenting himself as a skeptical, "less deceived" observer of contemporary life. (p. 331)
The traditional view of his development has him casting aside romanticism in favor of an empirical, Movement poetic; thus the British critic Colin Falck [in The Modern Poet, edited by Ian Hamilton,] has described the progress of his poetry since The North Ship as a repudiation of an "impossible idealism" and an "ever-deepening acceptance of the ordinariness of things as they are." This view needs qualification to the extent that Larkin was probably never a romantic in the technical, philosophical sense…. From the beginning, Larkin's work has manifested a certain coolness and lack of self-esteem, a need to withdraw from experience; but at the same time it has continued to show his desire for a purely secular type of romance, a romance he must have felt in Vernon Watkins' "impassioned and imperative" readings [of Yeats, at the Oxford English Club in 1943] even if he could enjoy it only at second hand. (p. 333)
Larkin's problem is that in his apparent rejection of philosophical idealism he has become wary of all romance, including the passion and the sense of active rebellion which gives modernist literature much of its humanity. If the right-wing, visionary poetry of Yeats represents a flawed thesis, then Larkin's poetry, which has its own conservative instincts, represents a flawed antithesis. Colin Falck seems to be addressing this problem in his essay on Larkin, which concludes with a call for a poetry of "lucid barbarism"; my chief disagreement with Falck is that I resist having to choose such an unhappy alternative as he presents. Surely we can have the "passionate intensity" which is often missing in Larkin, but without the antihuman barbarism, obscurity, or escapism which is the repellent side of modernist literature.
In any case, poems such as "The Whitsun Weddings" show that Larkin is trying to assert his humanity, not deny it…. They also suggest that the greatest virtue in Larkin's poetry is not so much his suppression of large poetic gestures as his ability to recover an honest sense of joy and beauty. There are times when Larkin's skeptical, disillusioned self takes over entirely; he seldom presents himself as anything but an onlooker, and his collections are full of bitter poems about failure. He can make us feel the pain of an empty life, as in a poem like "Home is so Sad"…, but such verses would not hurt so much if Larkin did not retain the desire for a "lost world," a yearning for the way things ought to be. Beneath his irony and his potential lack of feeling, there is a sympathy which now and then breaks through to create a powerful effect. Thus some of his best poems are purely secular epiphanies, "tender visitings"; his Movement style is thrown into relief by his occasional discoveries of strong feeling, and the moments of light, always highly qualified by the grey that surrounds them, become extremely valuable. Perhaps that is why, in the last lines of the last poem in The Whitsun Weddings, Larkin cautiously offers an "almost-instinct" which he has found "almost true": "What will survive of us is love." (p. 344)
James Naremore, "Philip Larkin's 'Lost World'," in Contemporary Literature (© 1974 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 331-44.
Philip Larkin's book of poems, High Windows,… has sold out its first edition of 6,000 copies. My guess is that, for a living English poet, only a collection by the Poet Laureate will have topped that figure. Larkin's runaway success confounds those who assert that the general reader will not buy good poetry and yet it will dishearten the many lesser poets or publishers of little magazines who are struggling to approach anything like a sale of 60, let alone 600. Larkin is a withdrawn, inaccessible poet; unlike Betjeman he needs to be read with concentration, and repeatedly, to find the meaning behind the surface words. To get some idea of his method of working, it is illuminating to look at his worksheets of 'At Grass' (now part of the British Museum Collection of Modern Literary Manuscripts), … over 40 verse variations, some of them abandoned altogether, some worked over again and again, for the final five verses of the poem. (p. 125)
Elizabeth Brownjohn, in New Stateman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 26, 1974.
All is not well with Larkin. The poems have revealed a personality both wry and self-deprecating; after a dull childhood ('I Remember, I Remember'), he seems to have arrived at his current situation and attitudes through no very conscious choice ('Dockery and Son', 'Send No Money', etc.), and can only expect now 'age, and then the only end of age'. But if life is slow dying and love solves nothing, at least in the past he has always viewed the human condition with some compassion. What seems to have happened now [in High Windows] is that he, or his poetic persona, has come to feel so out of touch with the world around him that his capacity for looking at it sympathetically has largely disappeared.
Perhaps one might have guessed at something of the kind. The Less Deceived, published in 1955, contained two poems—'Coming' and 'Wedding Wind'—which were in their different ways direct celebrations of joy. Ten years later The Whitsun Weddings marked something of a retreat. 'First Sight', true, is about the surprise of pleasure to come—for lambs; but one or two low-keyed poems have crept in, and one rather coarse one. Dramatic monologues of the 'Wedding Wind' type have disappeared. Emotionally, Larkin has played progressively safer. But there is a difference between emotional caution and lack of any emotional life at all; and whereas, poem for poem, The Whitsun Weddings was the equal of The Less Deceived, [High Windows] is much less good than either. The manner and strategy are recognisable; but for the most part the longer poems are lifeless, the lyrical ones don't work, and both language and subject-matter have become coarser and more banal. The only development is along the lines of 'A Study of Reading Habits'. (p. 13)
I re-read Larkin constantly. From this volume I shall want to turn to 'Vers de Societé'—the theme of 'Wants', rather in the manner of 'I Remember, I Remember', witty and exact and 'Dublinesque', an Irish street-scene almost in the old delicate, lyrical manner. Perhaps while the book is out I shall read the title-poem. And then—a sigh, and back with relief to the two earlier volumes. It is intensely sad. (p. 17)
Humphrey Clucas, "Unsatisfactory Age," in Agenda, Autumn, 1974, pp. 13-17.
Philip Larkin is the other English Poet Laureate, even more loved and needed than the official one, John Betjeman. To the literary English now, with their thinned, overwatched sensibility, Larkin is grateful proof that at least one plangent "English" string can still be sounded, thrill through them. Ted Hughes is like an ephebe of Shakespeare run wild in the woods; Charles Tomlinson like a staid valley tree, with philosophical murmurings. Where in these is that grand sweetened pathos most readily recognizable as English poetry? But Larkin's small infrequent volumes—once a decade—read like prudent petitions to a National Anthology Committee. With well-behaved order—here are the stanzas, there the rhyme—he speaks to the heart and says of the world: Is this all there is? Is this what we deserve? He takes one back to Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy. Indeed, despite his hangdog air, his wised-up verse, he takes one back to Keats.
Like Robert Lowell, Larkin endears himself, in a deflected age, by feeling inward with life as "tragedy." His all but "passive apprehension of suffering"—his phrase for Hardy—gives him an unignorable intimacy with pain. He locates the sore spots and presses them tenderly. How he presses them—his liability is sentimentality. If he is not so formidable as Hardy, if for all his exquisiteness he approximates mass entertainers like Rod McKuen and Leonard Cohen, it is because his feeling swells protectingly before the situations he describes. He escapes them through compassion—tames them into pathos.
Indeed, Larkin force-feeds his pity, as if regret were all he could feel, and feel he must. His poems are not discoveries but bashes of sympathy. Reading him is like being stroked during a bereavement….
In its black-draped guise as the might-have-been, Larkin's Romanticism, which is like Hemingway's gone softer still, gives us the stature of a scarcely utterable, voided capacity for happiness. Reading him, we mourn ourselves. No matter that, again like Hemingway, he throws to the Cerberus of total self-consciousness, of our aggressive moral skepticism against the feelings, the sop of an unaspiring idiom. ("I just think it will happen, soon," "However we mess it about," "And this is all right," "in a pig's arse, friend.") His language is not the denigration of high expectations that it seems: it is the paring of Romantic overreaching, a paring redolent of the pulp it has lost. (p. 3)
There is not and (since his second volume, "The Less Deceived") never has been any question of Larkin's skill, and more: he has, often enough to confound, that superlative felicity, that hard-to-explain strong effect, that makes the best poets finally useless as models—wonders apart. Though "High Windows" suffers from repeating the tones and tricks of "The Less Deceived" and "The Whitsun Weddings," it is nonetheless a trove of pleasures. Even if you want to cash in the sad, generous feeling, what undoubted poetry remains.
To begin with, there is, with occasional lapses, that piercing, "bleakened" quality to the word, the line, that makes one think: "Why, of course it took Larkin 10 years to write these twenty-four poems." Again one thinks of Hemingway—of the bullfighter's "purity of line." Impressions are cleanly made, firm, immediate…. Only what Larkin wants us to see is there, utterly distinct, everything else fallen away….
[How] he can write! His hard, laconic, evocative style pulls against his obvious desire to drown everything euthanasically, in tears of defeat. His descriptions are not "loving," but just for that reason, like Hemingway's, they will last. They are, as it were, what the world will say for its own beauty and interest—even through a poet disenchanted with it.
Larkin's management of poems is no less superb. A Larkin poem does not just happen; it is as concentrated as heart surgery. Everything, from the voice that takes you in through its matey casualness only to lead you unawares into naked solemnity, from the modulation of wryness into awful personal need, to the fresh notations, the subtle metrical pulls, and the unforced consummations—everything, as a rule, is precisely judged. And how Larkin's characteristic rhythm, with its unhurried emphases, as if to assert, "There is not much to note, but note it, we owe it that"—how this assured movement works with the rhyme and plain diction to give a compelling presence to what he says.
There is slightly more variety in "High Windows" than in the earlier volumes, considerably more attachment to public union and ongoingness: summer beaches, country shows, "The secret, bestial peace" of the "lamplit cave" in "The Card-Players." But who will predict for Larkin a new beginning? Indeed, his poetic identity is so sharply flavored that—for all his emotional limitations and excesses—a change could scarcely help seeming a dilution. His sad tenderness is the condition of his strength. Let him appeal, then, as he is—rather unadventurous, a disciple of tradition—to that committee on anthologies. Few could be admitted more deservedly. (p. 14)
Calvin Bedient, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1975.
Larkin first came to critical attention when New Lines was published in 1956. This was an anthology of young poets (quickly labeled "The Movement" by the media) whose bond of union was their hatred of Eliot's obscurity and the lush romanticism of Dylan Thomas's besotted followers. They aimed at clarity, directness of language, communication from one civilized and literate being to another. Larkin seemed to fulfill the credo of the Movement better than anyone else, and he was often singled out, as much for damnation as for praise, by those looking for the ultimate Movement poet.
Now comes High Windows, a niggardly 42 pages of well-leaded print. Is there a new Larkin? No. The one conspicuous change is that today he is not shy about using an occasional four-letter word, but even this bow to more permissive standards is severely controlled by a taste that is impeccable. He turns to the people's Anglo-Saxon only when some poetic purpose is served.
In the new book, Larkin continues his quiet exploration of the daily human scene, but simply does it better than ever before. The poet's sense of the exactly right combination of words is uncannily accurate, as when in one poem he refers to "A white steamer stuck in the afternoon" and in another to "Lit shelved liners" that "Grope like mad worlds westward."…
If the book has one central subject it is the advance of age, viewed without joy but also without sentimental self-deception…. He is as somber as Thomas Hardy, but more nimble with language.
Larkin, like Eliot, Yeats, and a number of others, is emotionally something of a conservative. He sees an England in which meadows, lanes, and carved choirs will disappear into museums while concrete and pollution cover the land….
Larkin's conservatism shows up also in his unashamed fondness for the traditional poetic workhorses, iambic pentameter and rhymed stanza forms. Any young poet, cutting his poetic teeth on verse of the "open form" type, would do well to take a prayerful look at High Windows before dismissing the ancestral tools of the trade. In the hands of Larkin, they are as fresh as though just invented.
Having showered this poet and his newest book with praise, what is there to say against it? Certainly, for the most part it consummately does what it attempts. At times, though not often, the wit and verbal cleverness become just a little cute. And some subjects are more suitable for Larkin than others. Though he can put together a nature poem exceedingly well, the Wordsworthian territory is not his best base of operations. One senses less of his distinctive voice even in such a good poem as "The Trees."…
All in all, High Windows is cause for rejoicing; the sheer success of poem after poem lifts the spirit. And it is also heartening to find this major achievement scored by a poet who quietly goes his own way, at his own pace, paying little attention to changing poetic fads and trends. By being himself he has written one of the few books of verse certain to survive and gleam from a lackluster period of British poetry.
Chad Walsh, "Long Slide to Happiness," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 12, 1975, p. 3.
It is only now, by hindsight, that [Larkin's two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947)] seem to point forward to the poetry. Taken in their chronology, they are impressively mature and self-sufficient. If Larkin had never written a line of verse, his place as a writer would still have been secure. (pp. 383-84)
[The] novels are at ease with a range of sympathies that the later poems, even the most magnificant ones, deal with only piecemeal, although with incomparably more telling effect.
Considering that Evelyn Waugh began a comic tradition in the modern novel which only lately seems in danger of dying out, and considering Larkin's gift for sardonic comedy—a gift which by all accounts decisively influenced his contemporaries at Oxford—it is remarkable how non-comic his novels are, how completely they do not fit into the family of talents which includes Waugh and Powell and Amis. Jill employs many of the same properties as an Oxford novel by the young Waugh—the obscure young hero is casually destroyed by his socially superior contemporaries—but the treatment is unrelievedly sad. Larkin's hero has not an ounce of the inner strength which Amis gave Jim Dixon…. All the materials of farce are present and begging to be used, but tragedy is what Larkin aims for and what he largely achieves….
[A Girl in Winter] is as disconsolate as its predecessor, leaving the protagonist once again facing an unsatisfactory prime.
A contributory grace in both novels, but outstanding in A Girl in Winter, is the sheer quality of the writing. Larkin told [Philip Oakes in a Sunday Times profile] that he wrote the books like poems, carefully eliminating repeated words. Fastidiousness is everywhere and flamboyance non-existent: the touch is unfaltering….
Why, if Larkin could write novels like these, did he stop? To hindsight the answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin. In a fictional texture featuring a sore tooth and a fleeting kiss as important threads, Zen diaphanousness always threatened. (What is the sound of one flower being arranged?) The master lyric poet, given time, will eventually reject the idea of writing any line not meant to be remembered. Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting. Chopin is not too farfetched a parallel. Larkin's two novels are like Chopin's two concertos: good enough to promise not merely more of the same, but a hitherto unheard-of distillation of their own lyrical essence. (p. 384)
Clive James, "Sad Steps," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 21, 1975, pp. 383-84.
Centrality—other than in a parodied middle-class myth—[Larkin] has not; in volume his work remains slight; in range it narrows as it deepens; in metrics, diction and form it develops with shrewd tactics and without strategy. High Windows offers the refinement and toughening of a talent which thrives on being peripheral, even eccentric, but in the process its true uneveness is revealed. Here Larkin's readiness to speak without the protection of wit can expose his banality and integrity in equal measure. His honest and moving awareness of wider perspectives of spirit and desolation can leave him at the mercy of plangency….
His bluff-realist anti-self can be toughened to the point where it moves from crass modishness … to crass moralising….
But in thus pushing against the boundaries of his talent and submitting to far more open tones in this volume Larkin draws more than sympathy from the reader. In several of the shorter pieces his subtlety is made to gravitate around the poet's own attitudes without the defence of a puppet persona. His new stridency, "Groping back to bed after a piss" ("Sad Steps"), clears the air for a debate on pretentions and nervous unease, for which he takes full responsibility…. Making the joke at his own expense "Posterity" colours clichéd satire with warmth and leads to real discovery; and even more valuable, Larkin has found his way towards celebrations which are not conditioned by archaic diction. The young survive his own losses in "Sad Steps"; in "Solar" fastidiousness of phrase accumulates a true praise of giving; and in "Cut Grass" Larkin's profound restraint allows sensitivity quietly to overwhelm the sense of defeat….
If High Windows leaves no doubt of the dangers to which Larkin's art is exposed it also proves how valuable are its hard-won achievements. (p. 76)
Desmond Graham, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 16, No. 2, 1975.
High Windows is the most exciting literary event since Larkin's last collection, The Whitsun Weddings 1964, and we should make the most of celebrating Larkin now, for if his pattern of publication continues, his next collection will appear in 1984. That is, if anyone is still reading poetry then.
For the moment Larkin's few detractors, critics who applaud his technical mastery while deploring his negative pessimism are silent, and if Larkin ever chucks himself off the new Humber bridge even Al Alvarez might rush forward to canonise him. Does Larkin's gloom exceed that of Houseman, Hardy, Eliot or Edward Thomas? I'm sure it doesn't and anyway it is so often set off by a quality they, on the whole, lack, a very healthy sense of humour. "Vers de Société" (in this collection) for instance is a poem that makes one laugh out loud despite its gloomy conclusion.
High Windows is as excellent in total as the two previous collections but in its balance between the plain unadorned style he developed in The Whitsun Weddings and the more poetical side of his talent it is like The Less Deceived. Some poems, like "Solar" and the middle section of "Livings" recall the richer imagery he was using from The North Ship 1945 to his pamphlet XX Poems 1951. Change and development in Larkin's work is not willed change, as it often seems to be in Auden or Lowell, but a slow evolution, a gradual deepening of themes and variations already stated. Technically Larkin is still a traditionalist but his forms, metres, rhythms and syntax are as effortless and varied as ever. There are some new departures, "The Explosion" retrieves for serious purposes a meter that had seemed unusable since Longfellow; the form and metre of the last poem in the sequence "Livings" recalls his love of Praed; in "Cut Grass" the beautiful but melancholy cadences are as moving as anything in Christina Rossetti. But all have the stamp of Larkin's unique voice. In one of the longest poems in the book "Show Saturday" massive stanzas easily carry the sprawl of apparently random details in a way that is new but pure Larkin. Although it is true that parts of the poem bring to mind earlier successes, it doesn't seem like self-imitation. (p. 87)
In Larkin's last book, age, decay and death, though prominent were inclined to be abstract. Now, ten years on, they have become horrifyingly concrete in one of the finest poems in the book "The Old Fools". A model for any poet [is] its mastery of tone, long line and long stanza…. [One] of his strongest qualities is his skill in re-enacting rather than re-creating emotion. As he said himself 'poetry is emotional in nature, theatrical in operation'.
Throughout High Windows the pessimistic side of Larkin is more compelling than the affirmative side, perhaps because his emotional responses are now much stronger, because he is that much nearer to old age and death. Very fine as the affirmative poems, "To the Sea" and "Show Saturday" are, they lack the poetic resonance of poems like "Church Going" and "The Whitsun Weddings". (pp. 90-1)
George Hartley, "The Lost Displays," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), Spring, 1975, pp. 87-92.
[In 'High Windows,' the title poem of Larkin's new collection,] two speculations are juxtaposed, the first on the younger generation, whose sexual freedom Larkin envies, the second on Larkin's generation, whose emancipation from religious constraints may have been envied by his elders…. The poem's point is not whether freedom is real, or one more real than the other, since both are matters of the observer's guesswork; rather that imagined freedom is always located as if in an unreachable elsewhere seen through 'high windows'…. Given the nature of Larkin's world, one may think of a university tower, a high-rise block of flats, a hospital. But wherever the windows are, they define the limits of human life; real freedom is on the other side and, man not being a bird, his 'long slide / To happiness' would mean a quick drop to extinction. In the face of that total freedom whose other name is death, human 'freedom'—choice and responsibility—extends no further than 'the right', in Kenneth Allott's phrase, 'to decide in no question'.
More sharply and sombrely than before, what this volume confronts is 'last things'. Death has always haunted Larkin's poetry, but now it looms inescapably distinct; no longer 'a black-sailed unfamiliar' or 'the only end of age' (chilling as those euphemisms were), it stares in "The Old Fools", through the lineaments of senility. (p. 96)
Some poems make me suspect that Larkin gains release, even a sense of exhilaration, by expressing so openly his blacker moods. (p. 97)
In terms of shape and definition, each poem in this fine collection is a distinct entity; there is an impressive technical range (no form is used twice) and an equally impressive range of tones and voices, the most striking that of the defiantly lonely lighthouse-keeper of "Livings (II)"…. But what is perhaps more impressive is the sense that develops of the volume as a thematic totality. The effect of reading and re-reading is stereophonic, as cross-references of word and feeling clarify and deepen one's initial response. Larkin's picture of life and death is not all-inclusive—the loneliness that sharpens his vision leaves some things outside the frame; but what he does see is both real and important, and he speaks of it with an authority based on skill and the determination to be completely honest.
He also speaks with compassion. Central to the unity of this volume, as it is central in position, is "The Building"…. The 'building', it becomes clear, is a hospital; but nowhere is that word used, perhaps because Larkin wishes to leave the reader's mind unbiassed by 'scientific' preconceptions (which might suggest false hope) and open to his investigation of its essential hopeless purpose, which is 'a struggle to transcend / The thought of dying'. The building is in fact a secular cathedral, where medicine replaces religion and individuals, their 'homes and names / Suddenly in abeyance', are reduced to their fundamental frightened humanity…. The 'intensely sad' vision which Larkin attains to here is his most moving achievement in this volume, and the fusion he can bring about between the ordinariness of his subject-matter and its inherent pathos has rarely been so poignantly exemplified…. The view we see is drab and local; the regret we feel, universal. (pp. 99-100)
Philip Gardner, "Bearing the Unbearable," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), Spring, 1975, pp. 94-100.
A glass case in a room called "The English Tradition" is where some people, Americans especially, think that Philip Larkin's poetry belongs: they imagine he is a kind of old-fashioned taxidermist who fluffs up the wings of dead ducks, like the iambic pentameter and the rhymed quatrain, for a public devoted to almost extinct birds. His admirers, mostly British, feel that he writes with more precision than any other living poet about real people in real places; they can quote him, because his mastery of rhyme and meter enables him to write memorably; and they count among their favorite books of the century The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings….
What he does in High Windows is the most difficult thing of all, and it only looks easy because he does it so well: he makes poetry out of common situations in ordinary lives…. [These are] poems about living and dying in a farcical, sad, and constricted world, in which he finds less to celebrate now than ten or twenty years ago. Metaphysical despair consoled by an earthy sense of humor pervades his poetry. Time, fertility, and death remain his underlying themes, and oblivion is nearer than ever. But he still enters each poem empirically through actual experience, "letting the door thud shut," keeping all his wits alert for what's going on inside.
He avoids speaking as a "poet," preferring to sound like a man of common sense, or some familiar recognizable type. He seems to be saying with unaffected modesty, "These thoughts go in verse because that's the way they feel right to me"; and he leaves it to us to decide if we wish to treat what he's written as poetry. His language is plain conversational English, not mandarin, not literary…. Attached to things as they are, he enjoys debunking with mockery, and even self-mockery, any notions he thinks are unintelligible, untenable, or absurd. Religion, magic, and mythology are not his concern, but there is a kind of magic one can believe in, which he often employs: free of hocus-pocus, it concerns the tangible world of jobs and food and clothes and journeys we're disagreeably lumped with by fate, and it consists of naming them so accurately that they seem to be changed into objects or gestures or motions we can love. (p. 30)
The renewal of a style so translucent and so richly complex as that of the "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" or later "The Whitsun Weddings" is probably no less difficult than the invention of a different style; especially since the world Larkin writes about, in which "life is slow dying," has enjoyed no radical change, rebirth or revolution in this period. England, without her empire, is still his paradise, more regrettably lost than ever, under "bleak high-risers" and motorways with no foreseeable chance of being regained….
He seems in [High Windows] to have reached that dangerous period in a writer's life where Bergotte was stranded by the time we meet him in Proust's novel, trapped in the limitations he needed to perfect his early style. Larkin's real achievement first came from a deeply resolved acceptance of life's limits, and from always being "the less deceived."… [His] writing was deeply distrustful of all gods, heroes, myths, ideologies, and foreigners (which, among poets, included Yeats as an Irish Celt and Pound as an American "culture-monger"). The annulling and the distrust have continued without letup or development. (p. 31)
The title poem, "High Windows," is worth examining closely; since youth, sex, time, and oblivion all come together in the space of a few lines. In true Larkin style, it contains a couple of interior dramatic arguments, which tend to cancel each other out, "each one double-yolked with meaning and meaning's rebuttal," themselves put down by an astounding conclusion. It begins with human farce, and ends with a note about the universe. It starts in free verse and evolves quite naturally (gathering more and more life as it grows) into a lyrical rhymed quatrain. The opening lines are brutally coarse; and the last four as pure as anything in modern poetry. This itself is a puritan dichotomy: the poem is truly in the tradition of the regicides against the martyrologists….
It's a poem in which Larkin gives us a look down one of those "long perspectives" of time. He uses idiom to convey a sense of utter remoteness between the post-Chatterley Anglo-American classless voice of the present and the old-fashioned lower-class puritanical English voice of the past, both of which are suddenly transcended by the true voice of the imagination (modulating from a minor into a major key) giving us the crystal image of the last quatrain, a celebration of the void. One could scarcely predict the poem's surprising destination from its beginning: from murky roots it grows with genuine mystery up into the "deep blue air."…
I think Larkin is [close] to E. M. Forster in what he thinks poetry ought to do: what matters for him is to make separate lives, or fragments of life, connect in a work of art. The best of these poems are "connectors" in this sense: "To the Sea," which brings families together at an annual ritual; "Solar," which assembles most fertile and generous images in a celebration of the sun, almost in free verse, a fine achievement; and a bewildering triptych called "Livings." (p. 32)
Larkin's finest lines—and how easy they are to remember!—earn their freedom by submission to that ancient tyranny ["of rhyme," as Proust wrote]; and they do it so well that I believe he is one modern poet who has really confuted by practical demonstration a famous dictum of William Carlos Williams: "I say we are through with the iambic pentameter as presently conceived, at least for dramatic verse; through with the measured quatrain, the staid concatenations of sounds in the usual stanza, the sonnet": advice which has misled a whole generation in America into thinking that freedom in poetry may be attained directly by writing in free verse. High Windows shows in a living way that meter and rhyme, when skillfully handled by an artist who knows how to conceal his art, can still have useful and noble functions to perform in poetry. (p. 33)
Richard Murphy, "The Art of Debunkery," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), May 15, 1975, pp. 30-3.