Ian Hamilton (interview date 1964)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3424
SOURCE: "Four Conversations," in The London Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 6, November, 1964, pp. 71-77.
[In the following interview, Larkin discusses his attitudes towards modernist poetry, as exemplified in a number of his own poems.]
[HAMILTON]: I would like to ask you about your attitude to the so-called 'modernist revolution' in English poetry; how important has it been to you as a poet?
[LARKIN]: Well, granted that one doesn't spend any time at all thinking about oneself in these terms, I would say that I have been most influenced by the poetry that I've enjoyed—and this poetry has not been Eliot or Pound or anybody who is normally regarded as 'modern'—which is a sort of technique word, isn't it? The poetry I've enjoyed has been the kind of poetry you'd associate with me, Hardy pre-eminently, Wilfred Owen, Auden, Christina Rossetti, Williams Barnes; on the whole, people to whom technique seems to matter less than content, people who accept the forms they have inherited but use them to express their own content.
You don't feel in any way guilty about this, I imagine; would you see yourself as rebelliously anti-modern—you have talked about the 'myth-kitty' and so on …
What I do feel a bit rebellious about is that poetry seems to have got into the hands of a critical industry which is concerned with culture in the abstract, and this I do rather lay at the door of Eliot and Pound. I think that Eliot and Pound have something in common with the kind of Americans you used to get around 1910. You know, when Americans began visiting Europe towards the end of the last century, what they used to say about them was that they were keen on culture, laughably keen—you got jokes like 'Elmer, is this Paris or Rome?' 'What day is it?' 'Thursday.' 'Then it's Rome.'—you know the kind of thing. This was linked with the belief that you can order culture whole, that it is a separate item on the menu—this was very typically American, and German too, I suppose, and seems to me to have led to a view of poetry which is almost mechanistic, that every poem must include all previous poems, in the same way that a Ford Zephyr has somewhere in it a Ford T Model—which means that to be any good you've got to have read all previous poems. I can't take this evolutionary view of poetry. One never thinks about other poems except to make sure that one isn't doing something that has been done before—writing a verse play about a young man whose father has died and whose mother has married his uncle, for instance. I think a lot of this 'myth-kitty' business has grown out of that, because first of all you have to be terribly educated, you have to have read everything to know these things, and secondly you've got somehow to work them in to show that you are working them in. But to me the whole of the ancient world, the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little, and I think that using them today not only fills poems full of dead spots but dodges the writer's duty to be original.
You are generally written up as one of the fathers of this so-called Movement; did you have any sense at the time of belonging to a group with any very definite aims?
No sense at all, really. The only other writer I felt I had much in common with was Kingsley Amis, who wasn't really at that time known as a writer—Lucky Jim was published in 1954—but of course we'd been exchanging letters and showing each other work for a long time, and I think we laughed at the same things and agreed largely about what you could and couldn't write about, and so on. But the Movement, if you want to call it that, really began when John Wain succeeded John Lehmann on that B.B.C. programme; John planned six programmes called First Readings including a varied set of contributors—they weren't all Movementeers by any means. It got attacked in a very convenient way, and consequently we became lumped together. Then there was an article in The Spectator actually using the term 'Movement' and Bob Conquest's New Lines in 1956 put us all between the same covers. But it certainly never occurred to me that I had anything in common with Thorn Gunn, or Donald Davie, for instance, or they with each other and in fact I wasn't mentioned at the beginning. The poets of the group were Wain, Gunn, Davie and, funnily enough, Alvarez.
To what extent, though, did you feel consciously in reaction against Thomas, the Apocalypse, and so on?
Well, one had to live through the forties at one's most impressionable time and indeed I could show you, but won't, a lot of poems I wrote that you wouldn't—well, that were very much of the age. I wrote a great many sedulous and worthless Yeats-y poems, and later on far inferior Dylan Thomas poems—I think Dylan Thomas is much more difficult to imitate than Yeats—and this went on for years and years. It wasn't until about 1948 or 9 that I began writing differently, but it wasn't as any conscious reaction. It's just that when you start writing your own stuff other people's manners won't really do for it.
I would like to ask you about reviews of your work; do they bore you, do you find any of them helpful? In general, how do you react to what is said about you?
Well, one can't be other than grateful for the kind things that are said. They make you wish you wrote better. Otherwise one tries to ignore it—critics can hinder but they can't help. One thing I do feel a slight restiveness about is being typed as someone who has carved out for himself a uniquely dreary life, growing older, having to work, and not getting things he wants and so on—is this so different from everyone else? I'd like to know how all these romantic reviewers spend their time—do they kill a lot of dragons, for instance? If other people do have wonderful lives, then I'm glad for them, but I can't help feeling that my miseries are over-done a bit by the critics. They may retort that they are over-done by me, of course.
You usually write in metre, but now and then you have rather freer poems. I wonder if you have any feeling of technical unrest, of being constricted by traditional forms. Do things like syllables, projective verse, for instance, have any interest for you?
I haven't anything very original to say about metre. I've never tried syllablcs; I'm not sure I fully understand them. I think one would have to be very sure of onself to dispense with the help that metre and rhyme give and I doubt really if I could operate without them. I have occasionally, some of my favourite poems have not rhymed or had any metre, but it's rarely been premeditated.
I'd like to ask you about the poem "Church Going," which has been taken fairly generally as a kind of 'representative attitude poem, standing for a whole disheartened, debunking state of mind in post-war England. How do you feel about that poem, do you think that the things that have been said about it are true? How do you feel about its enormous popularity?
In a way I feel what Hardy is supposed to have said about Tess; if I'd known it was going to be so popular I'd have tried to make it better. I think its popularity is somewhat due to extraneous factors—anything about religion tends to go down well; I don't know whether it expresses what people feel. It is of course an entirely secular poem. I was a bit irritated by an American who insisted to me it was a religious poem. It isn't religious at all. Religion surely means that the affairs of this world are under divine superveillance, and so on, and I go to some pains to point out that I don't bother about that kind of thing, that I'm deliberately ignorant of it—'Up at the holy end', for instance. Ah no, it's a great religious poem; he knows better than me—trust the tale and not the teller, and all that stuff.
Of course the poem is about going to church, not religion—I tried to suggest this by the title—and the union of the important stages of human life—birth, marriage and death—that going to church represents; and my own feeling that when they are dispersed into the registry office and the crematorium chapel life will become thinner in consequence. I certainly haven't revolted against the poem. It hasn't become a kind of Innisfree, or anything like that.
I have the feeling about it—this has been said often enough, I suppose—that it drops into two parts. The stanza beginning 'A serious house on serious earth it is' seems significantly different in tone and movement to the rest of the poem and it is almost as if it sets up a rejoinder to the attitudes that are embodied in the first part. And that the first part is not just about religious belief or disbelief, it's about the whole situation of being a poet, a man of sensibility, a man of learning even, in an age like ours—that it is all this exclusiveness that is being scoffed at in the first half—it is seriousness in general. Somehow the final stanzas tighten up and are almost ceremonial in their reply to the debunkery; they seem to affirm all that has been scoffed at, and are deliberately more poetic and dignified in doing so. In this sense it seems a debate between poet and persona. I'd like to know if you planned the poem as a debate.
Well, in a way. The poem starts by saying, you don't really know about all this, you don't believe in it, you don't know what a rood-loft is—Why do you come here, why do you bother to stop and look round? The poem is seeking an answer. I suppose that's the antithesis you mean. I think one has to dramatize onself a little. I don't arse about in churches when I'm alone. Not much, anyway. I still don't know what rood-lofts are.
A number of poems in The Less Deceived seem to me to carry a final kick in the head for the attitudes they have seemed to be taking up. In a poem like "Reasons for Attendance," say, where you have that final 'Or lied'; somehow the whole poem doubles back on itself. What I want to know is how conscious you are of your poems plotting a kind of elaborate self-imprisonment. Do you feel, for instance, that you will ever write a more abandoned, naïve, kind of poetry where you won't, as it were, block all the loopholes in this way? I think this is why I prefer The Whitsun Weddings book, because it doesn 't do this anything like as confidently.
Well, I speak to you as someone who hasn't written a poem for eighteen months. The whole business seems terribly remote and I have to remember what it was like. I do think that poems are artificial in the sense that a play is artificial. There are strong second act curtains in poems as well as in plays, you know. I don't really know what a 'spontaneous' poem would be like, certainly not by me. On the other hand, here again I must protest slightly. I always think that the poems I write are very much more naïve—very much more emotional—almost embarrassingly so—than a lot of other people's. When I was tagged as unemotional, it used to mystify me; I used to find it quite shaming to read some of the things I'd written.
I didn 't mean that there is not strong personal feeling in your poems, or that they don't have a strong confessional element. But what I do rather feel is that many of them carry this kind of built-in or tagged-on comment on themselves, and I wonder if you will feel able to dispense with this. I can see how this might mean being less alert, in a way, less adult and discriminating even. It's probably a stupid question.
It's a very interesting question and I hadn't realised I did that sort of thing. I suppose I always try to write the truth and I wouldn't want to write a poem which suggested that I was different from what I am. In a sense that means you have to build in quite a lot of things to correct any impression of over-optimism or over-commitment. For instance, take love poems. I should feel it false to write a poem going overboard about someone if you weren't at the same time marrying them and setting up house with them, and I should feel bound to add what you call a tag to make it clear I wasn't, if I wasn't. Do you see what I mean? I think that one of the great criticisms of poets of the past is that they said one thing and did another, a false relation between art and life. I always try to avoid this.
I would like to ask you about your novels, and why you haven't written any more.
Well, because I can't. As I may have said somewhere else, I wanted to be a novelist. I wrote one, and then I wrote another, and I thought, This is wonderful, another five years of this and I'll be in the clear. Unfortunately, that was where it stopped. I've never felt as interested in poetry as I used to feel in novels—they were more theatrical, if you know what I mean, you could do the strong second-act curtain even better. Looking back on them, I think they were over-sized poems. They were certainly written with intense care for detail. If one word was used on page 15 I didn't re-use it on page 115. But they're not very good novels. A very crude difference between novels and poetry is that novels are about other people and poetry is about yourself. I suppose I must have lost interest in other people, or perhaps I was only pretending to be interested in them.
There was a review recently in the Times Literary Supplement which gave this portrait of you as being some kind of semi-recluse, almost, deliberately withdrawing from the literary life, not giving readings, talks, and so on. I wonder to what extent this withdrawal from literary society is necessary to you as a writer; given that it is true, that is.
I can't recall exactly what the TLS said, but as regards readings, I suppose I'm rather shy. I began life as a bad stammerer, as a matter of fact. Up to the age of 21 I was still asking for railway tickets by pushing written notes across the counter. This has conditioned me against reading in public—the dread that speech failure might come back again. But also, I'm lazy and very busy and it wouldn't give me much in the way of kicks. I think if there is any truth in this rumour or legend, it's because I do find literary parties or meetings, or anything that considers literature, in public, in the abstract rather than concretely, in private, not exactly boring—it is boring, of course—but unhelpful and even inimical. I go away feeling crushed and thinking that everyone is much cleverer than I am and writing much more, and so on. I think it's important not to feel crushed.
Following on, really, from the last question, I was going to ask you about that poem, "Naturally the Foundation Will Bear your Expenses … "
Well, that was rather a curious poem. It came from having been to London and having heard that A had gone to India and that B had just come back from India; then when I got back home, happening unexpectedly across the memorial service at the Cenotaph on the wireless, on what used to be called Armistice Day, and the two things seemed to get mixed up together. Almost immediately afterwards Twentieth Century wrote saying that they were having a Humour number and would I send them something funny, so I sent that. Actually, it's as serious as anything I have written and I was glad to see that John Wain has picked this up, quite without any prompting from me, in an article in The Critical Quarterly. Certainly it was a dig at the middleman who gives a lot of talks to America and then brushes them up and does them on the Third and then brushes them up again and puts them out as a book with Chatto. Why he should be blamed for not sympathising with the crowds on Armistice Day, I don't quite know. The awful thing is that the other day I had a letter from somebody called Lai in Calcutta, enclosing two poetry books of his own and mentioning this poem. He was very nice about it, but I shall have to apologise. I've never written a poem that has been less understood; one editor refused it on the grounds, and I quote, that it was 'rather hard on the Queen'; several people have asked what it was like in Bombay! There is nothing like writing poems for realizing how low the level of critical understanding is; maybe the average reader can understand what I say, but the above-average often can't.
I wonder if you read much foreign poetry?
Foreign poetry? No!
Of contemporary English poets, then, whom do you admire?
It's awfully difficult to talk about contemporaries, because quite honestly I never read them. I really don't. And my likes are really very predictable. You know I admire Betjeman. I suppose I would say that he was my favourite living poet. Kingsley Amis I admire very much as a poet as well as a novelist; I think he's utterly original and can hit off a kind of satiric poem that no-one else can (this is when he is being himself, not when he's Robert Graves). Stevie Smith I'm very fond of in a puzzled way. I think she's terribly good but I should never want to imitate her. Anthony Thwaite's last book seemed very sensitive and efficient to me. I think one has to be both sensitive and efficient. That's about as far as I can go. I don't mean I dislike everyone else, it's just that I don't know very much about them.
What about Americans?
I find myself no more appreciative of Americans. I quite liked Lowell's Life Studies but his last book was all about foreign poets—well, I think that is the end; versions of other people's poems are poor substitutes for your own. Occasionally one finds a poem by Donald Justice or Anthony Hecht, but I don't know enough about them to comment. Actually, I like the Beat poets, but again I don't know much about them. That's because I'm fond of Whitman; they seem to me debased Whitman, but debased Whitman is better than debased Ezra Pound.
Do you have many poems you haven't collected? Are you more prolific than you seem to be?
I'm afraid not. There was a whole period between The North Ship and The Less Deceived which produced a book with the portentous title of In the Grip of Light, which went round the publishers in the middle and late forties, but thank God nobody accepted it. Otherwise I hardly ever finish a poem that I don't publish.
One final, rather broad question. How would you characterize your development as a poet from The North Ship to The Whitsun Weddings?
I suppose I'm less likely to write a really bad poem now, but possibly equally less likely to write a really good one. If you can call that development, then I've developed. Kipling said somewhere that when you can do one thing really well, then do something else. Oscar Wilde said that only mediocrities develop. I just don't know. I don't think I want to change; just to become better at what I am.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750
Philip (Arthur) Larkin 1922–1985
English poet, novelist, essayist, and critic
A major poet of the post-World War II period, Larkin attempted to capture ordinary experience in realistic and rational terms. Larkin's poetry both avoids romanticizing experience and moves away from the abstract, experimental language of Eliot and the modernists. Although Larkin's poetry follows the cadences of everyday "plain speech," it is composed in strict meters and forms. It is executed in the poet's own voice, which can be self-deprecatingly humorous or cynical, thoughtful or softly humorous. To some critics, his poetry, reflective of the life of a near-recluse, seems too grim, "bleak, if not black," but to Clive James, "It made misery beautiful…. the voice was unmistakable."
The son of Eva Day and Sydney Larkin, a city treasurer, Larkin was born in Coventry, England. While he claimed that his childhood was happy, he was extraordinarily shy, due in part to his stammering and near-sightedness, which went unnoticed for a long time. In 1940 he began undergraduate studies at St. John's College at Oxford, where he formed close friendships with Kingsley Amis and John Wain, and wrote and published poems in student literary magazines. It was at Oxford that he finally felt that he was among peers, that he could excel, and he did. After completing his degree in English with high honors, Larkin took a post as librarian in Shropshire, and the two years that followed were so productive for Larkin that he composed his first two volumes of verse and his two novels. In 1955 Larkin moved to Hull to become university librarian at the Brynmor Jones Library. There he established the solitary, private lifestyle for which he became well-known, avoiding participation in literary circles and refusing public appearances. With the publication of The Less Deceived, his critical reputation took seed, and he was honored with many awards in his lifetime. Larkin remained at Hull for thirty years, writing poetry and criticism in the evenings, and travelling little, until he died in 1985 at 63 after surgery for throat cancer. His Collected Poems continue to be a best-seller in Britain; and his popularity, especially since his death, has brought him acclaim as England's "unofficial poet-laureate" and the "poet laureate of the common man."
Before Larkin moved to Hull, he wrote and published The North Ship (1946) and a pamphlet, XX Poems (1951), which
he published himself. The former book is widely considered to reflect the poet's early influences, W. H. Auden and W. B. Yeats; the latter, his emergent mature voice. "I felt for the first time," he said, "that I was speaking for myself." In his next work, The Less Deceived (1955), the poet expressed his lifelong need to expose false ideals and illusions. The Whitsun Weddings (1964) has been said to express the prosperity of Britain's post-war mass culture and is colored by a wide range of tones. In High Windows (1974), the poet, ever cynical and introspective, had now entered middle-age and was poised to look at death, or, as he wrote in the final lines of "High Windows," eternity. After High Windows Larkin wrote no new poetry except for the famous "Aubade." Required Writing (1983) is a compilation of prose written between 1955 and 1982. One who could not "live a day without jazz," Larkin contributed music reviews to the Daily Telegraph, which were collected in All What Jazz (1970). His two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), featuring naive, female protagonists, were for Larkin "oversized poems." Collected Poems (1988) appeared posthumously, edited by fellow "Movement" poet Anthony Thwaite, who decided to include some of Larkin's unpublished verse to demonstrate his editorial ability, his development as an artist, and problems he solved over days, months, or even a decade, in various verses.
Larkin has been viewed largely as a gloomy poet, misanthropic, and pessimistic about human endeavors. Although the author of only four volumes of verse, these, along with his two novels, continue to be reprinted, and Larkin finds British rivals only in Ted Hughes and Dylan Thomas. His accessible style, which often uses concrete images to move to symbolic celebration and expression of freedom, as well as the first-person speaker of many of his poems, have won him his following over the years. He is the "urban modern man, the insular Englishman," as Seamus Heaney remarked in Critical Inquiry, whose "tones are mannerly but not exquisite, well-bred but not mealy-mouthed. If his England and his English are not as deep as Hughes's or as solemn as Hill's, they are nevertheless dearly beloved."
Anthony Thwaite (essay date 1970)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5664
SOURCE: "The Poetry of Philip Larkin," in The Survival of Poetry: A Contemporary Survey, Faber and Faber, 1970, pp. 37-55.
[In the following essay, Thwaite weaves Larkin's own commentary on his work into a chronological overview of his corpus.]
There is a certain irony about sitting down to write a critical paper on the poetry of Philip Larkin, when one remembers some remarks of Larkin's about 'poetry as syllabus' and 'the dutiful mob that signs on every September.' Larkin needs no prolegomena, no exegesis: there is no necessary bibliography, no suggested reading, except the poems themselves. In a straightforward Words-worthian sense, he is a man speaking to men (though his detractors might put it that he is too often simply a chap chatting to chaps). Although few of the poems need any background knowledge beyond that which any reader of English may be supposed to command, when such knowledge is necessary Larkin himself has generally provided it, in his rare but always relevant and commonsensical statements about his work. Beyond that, I can only stand witness to my conviction that he is our finest living poet—and not in any 'Victor Hugo, hélas' sense—and go on to draw out and underline what seem to me to be his themes, his special voice and his peculiar excellences.
Although Larkin made little impact as a poet until the publication of The Less Deceived in 1955, when he was 33, he had started to write and to publish much earlier. In a fugitive essay in the Coventry arts magazine, Umbrella (Vol. I, No. 3, Summer 1959), he spoke of writing ceaselessly in his schooldays: 'now verse, which I sewed up into little books, now prose, a thousand words a night after homework.' His first publication, apart from the school magazine of King Henry VIII School in Coventry, was a poem in The Listener of November 28th 1940, when he was 18. This (titled 'Ultimatum') was one of four poems he had sent in the summer of 1940:
'I was astonished when someone signing himself J.R.A. wrote back saying that he would like to take one (it was the one I had put in to make the others seem better, but never mind).'
Here, as so often, the late J. R. Ackerley showed himself to be a perceptive judge; during his quarter of a century as literary editor of The Listener, that periodical probably published more good poetry than any other in England. As it has never been reprinted, it is worth noting this consummately Audenesque piece:
But we must build our walls, for what we are
Necessitates it, and we must construct
The ship to navigate behind them, there.
Hopeless to ignore, helpless instruct
For any term of time beyond the years
That warn us of the need for emigration:
Exploded the ancient saying: Life is yours.
For on our island is no railway station,
There are no tickets for the Vale of Peace,
No docks where trading ships and seagulls pass.
Remember stories you read when a boy
—The shipwrecked sailor gaining safety by
His knife, tree trunk, and lianas—for now
You must escape, or perish saying no.
Later appearances were in the Fortune Press's anthology, Poetry From Oxford in Wartime, edited by William Bell in 1944, and in his own first volume of poetry, The North Ship, published by the Fortune Press in July 1945. In the republished version of The North Ship, Larkin wrote a characteristically wry and humorous account of the book's original struggle for birth, assisted by that same L. S. Caton (the owner of the Fortune Press) who makes fleeting and protean appearances in several of Kingsley Amis's novels, for Amis's own first book of poems, Bright November, was published by the same press and no doubt with some of the same attendant difficulties. Later, in 1946, the Fortune Press published Larkin's first novel, Jill, a book which had a minor underground reputation at Oxford when I was an undergraduate in the early and mid-1950s: it was difficult to get copies at that time (though I think it has never actually been out of print), and those few there were were passed round and read with great respect and interest, not chiefly for the authentic-feeling atmosphere of 1940 Oxford but for the extraordinary way in which Larkin manages to present the central character's growing and gradually enveloping fantasy about 'Jill' with a clear narrative and realistic dialogue. This is not the place to deal properly with Jill, or with its more professional successor, A Girl in Winter, published by Faber in 1947; but they mark the brief flowering of Larkin the novelist, and both of them are so memorable that one can imagine him having staked out, if he had continued, an area and a reputation comparable with, say, Forster's up to Howards End.
The North Ship is now gently and self-deprecatingly dismissed by Larkin. Indeed, I want to make no great claims for it. It is interesting in the way that any considerable poet's juvenilia are interesting, with a phrase here, a line there, suggesting or prefiguring what was to come. Larkin has written:
Looking back, I find in the poems not one abandoned self but several—the ex-schoolboy, for whom Auden was the only alternative to "old-fashioned" poetry; the undergraduate, whose work a friend affably characterized as "Dylan Thomas, but you've a sentimentality that's all your own"; and the immediately post-Oxford self, isolated in Shropshire with a complete Yeats stolen from the local girls' school.
I find few traces of Auden; certainly nothing as Audenesque as 'Ultimatum,' though 'Conscript' has something of 'In Time of War' about it, particularly the first two stanzas:
The ego's county he inherited
From those who tended it like farmers; had
All knowledge that the study merited,
The requisite contempt of good and bad;
But one Spring day his land was violated;
A bunch of horsemen curtly asked his name,
Their leader in a different dialect stated
A war was on for which he was to blame …
I can find nothing at all of Dylan Thomas; perhaps the friend whom Larkin quotes was commenting on poems which did not in fact get selected for The North Ship. It is true that a good deal of Poetry Quarterly and Poetry London in that 1943-53 decade was taken up with Dylanism, and it might be thought surprising that Larkin escaped it; but as he has said:
'The principal poets of the day—Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Betjeman—were all speaking out loud and clear, and there was no reason to become entangled in the undergrowth … except by a failure of judgement.'
Admiration for Dylan Thomas didn't then, and doesn't now, necessarily carry in its wake base imitation.
But of Yeats there is a predominance in The North Ship:
'Not because I liked his personality or understood his ideas but out of infatuation with his music … In fairness to myself it must be admitted that it is a particularly potent music, pervasive as garlic, and has ruined many a better talent.'
Larkin has said that the edition of Yeats's collected poems he had at the time was the 1933 one, so that he 'never absorbed the harsher last poems.' This might be guessed from such lines as these:
Let the wheel spin out,
Till all created things
With shout and answering shout
Cast off rememberings;
Let it all come about
Till centuries of springs
And all their buried men
Stand on the earth again.
A drum taps: a wintry drum.
For the first time I'm content to see
What poor mortar and bricks
I have to build with, knowing that I can
Never in seventy years be more a man
Than now—a sack of meal upon two sticks.
The beauty dries my throat.
Now they express
All that's content to wear a worn-out coat,
All actions done in patient hopelessness,
All that ignores the silences of death,
Thinking no further than the hand can hold,
All that grows old,
Yet works on uselessly with shortened breath.
Yet though these poems are derivative, their technique is generally quietly assured; their infatuation is self-aware enough to stop short of mere pastiche. And here and there another voice comes through:
The cadences are mellifluous, but not in a middle-Yeatsian way; and the sense of time, its preciousness and its passing, is there. Four lines from 'Songs: 65° N.' directly point forward to 'Next, Please' in The Less Deceived, where they are put more sharply in focus:
I am awakened each dawn
Increasingly to fear
The birdless sea.
(The North Ship)
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
(The Less Deceived)
In the 1966 re-publication of The North Ship, Larkin included an additional poem 'as a coda.' Rather, it is a prelude. In his preface to the Faber edition, he tells how in early 1946 he began to read Hardy's poems, having known him before only as a novelist: 'as regards his verse,' Larkin says:
I shared Lytton Strachey's verdict that "the gloom is not even relieved by a little elegance of diction." This opinion did not last long; if I were asked to date its disappearance, I should guess it was the morning I first read "Thoughts of Phena At News of Her Death."
Larkin's added poem ("XXXII" in the re-published The North Ship) first appeared in the little pamphlet, XX Poems, which Larkin brought out at his own expense in 1951. (There were 100 copies of this pamphlet, most of them—as ruefully described by Larkin—sent to well-known literary persons, the majority of whom failed even to acknowledge it, presumably because he had under-stamped the envelopes at a time when the postal charges had just been increased. It was still possible to order it in early 1954, as I did through Blackwells in Oxford, and to pay 4/6d for it. Its present dealers' value has been quoted at £20.) The first stanza of the new poem immediately establishes not just the new presence of Hardy (it is in fact much less like Hardy than the Yeatsian pieces are like Yeats) but a new way in Larkin of finding and using material. The observation is exact, the framing of mood and incident within description makes a perfect fit:
Waiting for breakfast, while she brushed her hair,
I looked down at the empty hotel yard
Once meant for coaches. Cobblestones were wet,
But sent no light back to the loaded sky,
Sunk as it was with mist down to the roofs.
Drainpipes and fire-escape climbed up
Past rooms still burning their electric light:
I thought: Featureless morning, featureless night.
What Hardy taught Larkin was that a man's own life, its suddenly surfacing perceptions, its 'moments of vision,' its most seemingly casual epiphanies (in the Joycean sense), could fit whole and without compromise into poems. There did not need to be any large-scale system of belief, any such circumambient framework as Yeats constructed within which to fashion his work: Larkin has dismissed all that as the 'myth-kitty.' Like Parolles in All's Well, he seems to say: 'Simply the thing I am shall make me live.' As Larkin himself put it in a radio programme on Hardy:
When I came to Hardy it was with the sense of relief that I didn't have to try and jack myself up to a concept of poetry that lay outside my own life … One could simply relapse back into one's own life and write from it.
Looking again at 'Waiting for breakfast,' one sees that what it turns into is an address to the Muse, though in no sense that that habitual Muse-invoker, Robert Graves, would accept. The 'I' of the poem has spent the night with a girl, and his mood is one of almost surprised disbelief that he is so happy:
Yet whatever sparks the poet into writing poems doesn't seem to start from such a mood. 'Perfection of the life, or of the work': one is pushed back to Yeats again, to the sort of conundrum he poses there. Will absorption in the girl and in the happiness she seems to bring stifle his poems?
This is the first poem of Larkin's maturity, and it links interestingly with the earliest poem in The Less Deceived: 'Wedding-Wind,' which also dates from 1946. But there is one large difference. The voice of the poem here is in no useful sense that of the poet: a woman on the morning after her wedding night is wonderingly turning over the fact of her happiness, with the force of the high wind 'bodying-forth' not only the irrelevance of such violent elements to the new delight she has found, but also the way in which the whole of creation seems somehow to be in union with her state:
Can it be borne, this bodying-forth by wind
Of joy my actions turn on, like a thread
Carrying beads? Shall I be let to sleep
Now this perpetual morning shares my bed?
Can even death dry up
These new delighted lakes, conclude
Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters?
'Wedding-Wind' is the only completely happy poem of Larkin's, the only one in which there is a total acceptance of joy. Perhaps that is why it is liked by some people who otherwise find him too bleak a poet for their taste. Yet it is happy, joyous, without being serene: it implies, in its three closing questions, the impermanence of the very happiness it celebrates, the possibility of its being blown and scattered, made restless as the horses have been and
All's ravelled under the sun by the wind's blowing.
The poem's three questions remind one of the three questions at the end of 'Waiting for breakfast,' suggesting that the balance of 'sheer joy' can as easily be tipped in the other direction.
This emotional wariness, which can too easily—and inaccurately—be labelled as pessimism, is at the roots of Larkin's sensibility. Its fine-drawn expression can be found in most of the poems in The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings. And it is at this point, when Larkin in 1946 wrote 'Waiting for breakfast' and 'Wedding-Wind,' that it seems unprofitable to go on examining his poems in a supposed chronological order of composition; for from now on the personality is an achieved and consistent one, each poem re-stating or adding another facet to what has gone before. Critics who tried to sniff out 'development' when The Whitsun Weddings followed nine years after The Less Deceived, or who showed disappointment when they found none, were wasting their time or were demonstrating that Larkin was at no time their man. The sixty-one poems in these two books, and the handful that have appeared in periodicals since, make a total unified impact. There have been rich years and lean years (Larkin's remark that he writes about four poems a year shouldn't be taken too literally in any statistical sense), but only quantitatively.
Yet though there has been no radical development in Larkin's poetry during these years, the number of tones and voices he has used has been a great deal more varied than some critics have given him credit for. The 'emotional wariness' can in some of the poems be better defined as an agnostic stoicism, close to the mood (though not to the origin of that mood) of Arnold's 'Dover Beach.' And what he is both agnostic and stoical about is time, the passing of time, and 'the only end of age': death. Indeed, if it had not been used perfectly properly for another literary achievement (and in any case Larkin might reject it as being too presumptuously resonant), 'The Music of Time' could serve as a title for all Larkin's post-1946 poetry.
There are poems in which time, and death as the yardstick of time, are seen in an abstract or generalized context: 'Ignorance,' 'Triple Time,' 'Next, Please,' 'Nothing to be Said,' 'Going,' 'Wants,' 'Age.' They are abstract or generalized in that they don't start from some posited situation, though their language and imagery are concrete enough: the street, sky and landscape of 'Triple Time,' the 'armada of promises' of 'Next, Please,' the quickly shuffled references ('Small-statured cross-faced tribes / And cobble-close families/In mill-towns on dark mornings') of 'Nothing to be Said.' All our hours, however we spend them,
This great blankness at the heart of things has to be endured—that is what I meant by stoicism. We bolster up our ignorance, and make ourselves able to bear our long diminution and decay, by being busy with the present and—when we are young—dreaming about the future:
An air lambent with adult enterprise.
So, too, we look at the past, and cling to and preserve those bits of it that belong to us, which we call our memories. It is no accident that of the jazz which Larkin regards with such enthusiasm, it is the blues that he writes about with most feeling (in his prose pieces, that is; for example, in his record reviews in the Daily Telegraph. Only one poem, 'For Sidney Bechet,' celebrates this 'natural noise of good'). For the blues are thick with the searchings and regrets of memory.
In an often-quoted statement made in 1955, Larkin said:
'I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others, though I feel that my prime responsibility is to the experience itself, which I am trying to keep from oblivion for its own sake. Why I should do this I have no idea, but I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.'
More recently, commenting on The Whitsun Weddings in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin, he wrote:
'Some years ago I came to the conclusion that to write a poem was to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.'
Though he went on to qualify this, the 'verbal pickling' (as he put it) is seen to be the process at work in many of his best and best-known poems: in his two most sustained efforts, 'Church Going' and 'The Whitsun Weddings,' and also in 'Mr Bleaney,' 'Reference Back,' 'I Remember, I Remember,' 'Dockery and Son,' and elsewhere. All of these start from some quite specifically recalled incident which becomes, through the course of the poem, 'an experience' in the sense intended by Larkin in that prose note. A casual dropping-in to a deserted church; a long train-journey on Whit Saturday; the taking of new lodgings; a visit home to one's widowed mother; another train-journey, which takes one through one's long-abandoned birthplace; a visit in middle age to one's old college at Oxford—these 'human shows' inhabit an area Hardy would have recognized, and each both preserves the experience and allows it to move out into other areas not predicted by the casually 'placing' opening lines. Indeed, in several of them the placing, the observation, is steadily sustained for a great part of the poem, as if the 'impulse to preserve' were determined to fix and set the moment with every aspect carefully delineated, every shade faithfully recorded. I remember Larkin writing to tell me, when I was about to produce the first broadcast reading (in fact the first public appearance) of 'The Whitsun Weddings,' that what I should aim to get from the actor was a level, even a plodding, descriptive note, until the mysterious last lines, when the poem should suddenly 'lift off the ground':
'Impossible, I know,' he said comfortingly; though I think that first reader (Gary Watson) made a very fair approximation to it.
If 'The Whitsun Weddings' is a poem of one carefully held note until the very end, 'Church Going' is more shifting in its stance and tone. Both poems are written in long, carefully-patterned rhyming stanzas (Larkin once said to me that he would like to write a poem with such elaborate stanzas that one could wander round in them as in the aisles and side-chapels of some great cathedral), but whereas each ten-line stanza of 'The Whitsun Weddings' seems caught on the pivot of the short four-syllable second line, pushing it forward on to the next smooth run, the nine-line stanza of 'Church Going' is steady throughout, the iambic pentameter having to hold together—as it successfully does—the three unequal sections: the first two stanzas, easy, colloquial, mockingly casual; then the four stanzas of reflection and half-serious questioning, becoming weightier and slower as they move towards the rhetorical solidity of the final stanza's first line:
A serious house on serious earth it is….
'Church Going' has become one of the type-poems of the century, at the very least 'the showpiece of the "New Movement",' as G. S. Fraser put it; much discussed in every sixth-form English class and literary extension-course, anthologized and duplicated, so that I sometimes feel it has become too thoroughly institutionalized and placed. Larkin has quoted Hardy's supposed remarks (on Tess) on the subject: 'If I'd known it was going to be so popular, I'd have tried to make it better,' and one senses a wry surprise in that, as one does in his comment that after it was initially published in the Spectator (after first being lost, and then held in proof, for about a year), he 'had a letter from one of the paper's subscribers enclosing a copy of the Gospel of St John':
In fact it has always been well liked. I think this is because it is about religion, and has a serious air that conceals the fact that its tone and argument are entirely secular.
Here Larkin is perfectly properly fending off the common misconception that it is a 'religious' poem. It is not so, in any dogmatic or sectarian sense. It dips not even the most gingerly of toes into metaphysics, makes not even the most tentative gestures towards 'belief ('But superstition, like belief, must die'). What it does do is to acknowledge the human hunger for order and ritual (such as go with 'marriage, and birth, / And death, and thoughts of these'), and to recognize the power of the past, of inherited tradition, made emblematic in this abandoned piece of ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
But 'Church Going' is not a perfect poem, though a fine one, and it is not Larkin's best. Donald Hall has maintained that it would be a better one if it were cut by a third, and without accepting that kind of drastic surgery (American editors have a reputation for being the 'heaviest' in the world, leaning on their authors in a way that has more to do with power than with support) it is fair to say that it has some amusing but distracting divagations—particularly in the middle section—of a sort which one doesn't find in the equally circumstantial but more unified 'Whitsun Weddings.' That Irish sixpence, for example—many readers don't know whether they are supposed to laugh here or not (many do in any case); but if the ruined church which started the poem off was in Ireland, as Larkin in a broadcast said it was, wouldn't it make a difference? Does he mean to demonstrate the sort of unthinking piety that agnostics hold to out of habit, or is he chalking up another mild self-revelatory bit of schoolboyish japing, as in the mouthing of 'Here endeth' from the lectern? (What Larkin intends of that performance comes out very clearly in his Marvell Press recording.) One doesn't know; and in a poem so specific this is a flaw.
To go on about the Irish sixpence at such length may well seem absurdly trivial, but the uncertainty it suggests is not unique in the poem. One has the feeling that Larkin knows more than he chooses to admit, with the pyx brought in so effortlessly and the rood-lofts sniggeringly made much of: naming them implies knowledge of what they are, and one doesn't need to be a 'ruin-bibber, randy for antique' to recognize such things. They are part of one's general store of unsorted knowledge, like knowing who A. W. Carr or Jimmy Yancey (or, indeed, Sidney Bechet) were. Here, without much relish, I am drawn into mildly deploring what might be called the Yah-Boo side of Larkin's work—a side not often apparent, which he shares sporadically with his admired (and admiring) fellow-undergraduate and old friend from St John's, Kingsley Amis. (Incidentally, XX Poems was dedicated to Amis, and Amis dedicated Lucky Jim to Larkin.) The 'filthy Mozart' type of jeer is never given the extended outing with Larkin that it is with Amis, and one has to be aware of personae and so forth, but the edgy and gratuitous coarseness of 'Get stewed. Books are a load of crap' and 'What does it mean? Sod all' have always made me wince a bit. This might show a feeble prudishness in me, but rather I feel that Larkin's poems can get by without such manly nudging.
It could be argued that these things are part of Larkin's apt contemporary tone; certainly he has such a tone, more usefully heard in 'Mr Bleaney,' 'Toads,' 'Toads Revisited,' 'Reasons for Attendance,' 'Poetry of Departures,' and most startlingly in 'Sunny Prestatyn.' In this last poem the calculated violence seems exactly and inevitably matched with the brutalizing of the language: those lunging monosyllables are dead right—and 'dead' is right too. Ά hunk of coast' is drawn into the stabbing words that follow—'slapped up,' 'snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed,' 'Huge tits and a fissured crotch,' 'scrawls,' 'tuberous cock and balls,' 'a knife / Or something to stab right through.' Like the faded photographs that must lie behind 'MCMXIV,' like the medieval figures in 'An Arundel Tomb' that 'Time has, transfigured into … untruth,' the blandishments of the girl on the poster have (with the help of human agency) been reduced to the wrecks of time. As in the lines of the body, in 'Skin,' she is the end-product
Of the continuous coarse
Sand-laden wind, time.
'Sunny Prestatyn' is the most extreme of Larkin's poems about diminution, decay, death. Elsewhere, he more often brings to them what—in a review of Betjeman's poems—he has called 'an almost moral tactfulness.' 'Faith Healing,' 'Ambulances,' 'Love Songs in Age,' 'At Grass,' 'An Arundel Tomb,' the more recent and uncollected 'Sad Steps'—all, with perhaps the exception of the last, stand at a reserved but certainly not unfeeling distance from their ostensible subjects. In the broadcast I have already quoted from, Larkin said:
'I sometimes think that the most successful poems are those in which subjects appear to float free from the preoccupations that chose them, and to exist in their own right, reassembled—one hopes—in the eternity of imagination.' And he went on to say, introducing 'Love Songs in Age':
'I can't for the life of me think why I should have wanted to write about Victorian drawing-room ballads: probably I must have heard one on the wireless, and thought how terrible it must be for an old lady to hear one of these songs she had learnt as a girl and reflect how different life had turned out to be.' 'How different life had turned out to be'—here time is shown as the gradual destroyer of illusions. Like the advertisement hoardings in 'Essential Beauty,' showing us serenely and purely 'how life should be,' the old sheet music summons up and sets blankly before us two things: that lambent air which the future promised, and that present which has hardened 'into all we've got / And how we got it.' ('Dockery and Son.') Christopher Ricks (who has written particularly well on Larkin) has pointed out how in 'Love Songs in Age' the three sentences of the poem gradually narrow down, from the expansive openness of the first, with its careful proliferation of detail and its almost mimetic lyricism ('Word after sprawling hyphenated word'), through the briefer concentration on 'that much-mentioned brilliance, love,' to the blank acknowledgement that love has indeed not solved or satisfied or 'set unchangeably in order':
That last sentence, so much less serpentine than the others, seems the last brief twist of the knife.
Ricks has also pointed out one of the hallmarks of Larkin's style: those negatives which define the limits and shades of the world, and which coldly confront our flimsy illusions. Un, in, im, dis—with such small modifiers Larkin determines the edges of things, which blur into
So we find unfakable, unspoilt, undiminished, unmolesting, unfingermarked, unhindered, unchangeably, set against unsatisfactory, unlucky, unworkable, unswept, uninformed, unanswerable, unrecommended, untruthful and untruth. Imprecisions, imperfect, incomplete and inexplicable jostle with disbelief, disproved, disused and dismantled. They seem to share something—in their modifying, their determination to record an exact shade of response rather than a wilder approximation—with another hallmark: those compounds which one begins to find as early as the poems in The North Ship. Laurel-surrounded, fresh-peeled, branch-arrested, Sunday-full, organ-frownedon, harsh-named, differently-dressed, luminously-peopled, solemn-sinister—there are over fifty others in The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings alone.
Compound-formations bring Hopkins to mind, though his are of course a good deal more strenuous and draw more attention to themselves than Larkin's. Yet Hopkins is, perhaps curiously, a poet Larkin much admires. Indeed, though he has been at some pains to admit how narrow his tastes in poetry are, Larkin's acknowledged enthusiasms show a wider range of appreciation than he seems to give himself credit for. Without at all being a regular pundit in the literary papers, he has written with warmth and depth about not only Hardy but also William Barnes, Christina Rossetti, Wilfred Owen, and among living poets, Auden (pre-1940), Betjeman and Stevie Smith. Not much of a common denominator there, and of them all it is only Hardy who seems to have left any trace on Larkin's own work, and that in no important verbal way. In fact Larkin is very much his own poet. His impressment into the Movement, in such anthologies as Enright's Poets of the 1950s and Conquest's New Lines, did no harm and may have done some good, in that it drew attention to his work in the way that any seemingly concerted action (cf. The Group) makes a bigger initial impact than a lone voice. But really he shares little with the 'neutral tone' of what have been called the Faceless Fifties: anonymity and impersonality are not at all characteristics of his work, and the voice that comes across is far more individual than those of such properly celebrated poets as Muir, Graves and R. S. Thomas, to pick three who have never (so far as I know) been accused of hunting with any pack or borrowing anyone's colouring.
The case against Larkin, as I have heard it, seems to boil down to 'provincialism' (Charles Tomlinson), 'genteel bellyaching' (Christopher Logue), and a less truculent but rather exasperated demur that any poet so negative can be so good (A. Alvarez). Well, he is provincial in the sense that he doesn't subscribe to the current cant that English poets can profitably learn direct lessons from what poetry is going on in Germany or France or Hungary or up the Black Mountain: poetry is, thank heaven, a long way from falling into an 'international style,' such as one finds in painting, sculpture, architecture and music, and such validly 'international' pieces as I have seen (e.g. in concrete poetry) are at best peripherally elegant and at worst boring and pointless. 'Genteel bellyaching' and 'negative' are really making the same objection, the first more memorably and amusingly than the second. There is a sense in which Larkin does define by negatives; I have made the point already. He is wary in front of experience, as who should not be: one doesn't put in the same set of scales Auschwitz and the realization that one is getting older, or the thermo-nuclear bomb and the sense that most love is illusory. Yet the fact that Larkin hasn't, in his poems, confronted head-on the death camps or the Bomb (or Vietnam, or Che Guevara) doesn't make him, by definition, minor. His themes—love, change, disenchantment, the mystery and inexplicableness of the past's survival and death's finality—are unshakably major. So too, I think, are the assurance of his cadences and the inevitable rightness of his language at their best. From what even Larkin acknowledges as the almost Symbolist rhetoric of
Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!
to the simple but remorseless
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so
is a broad span for any poet to command. And those haunting closing lines to many poems ('Church Going,' 'The Whitsun Weddings,' 'No Road,' 'Next, Please,' 'Faith Healing,' 'Ambulances,' 'Dockery and Son,' 'An Arundel Tomb,' 'Sad Steps'—the list becomes long, but not absurdly so): they have an authentic gravity, a memorable persistence. I think that Larkin's work will survive; and what may survive is his preservation of 'the true voice of feeling' of a man who was representative of the mid-20th century hardly at all, except in negatives—which is, when you come to think about it, one way in which to survive the mid-20th century.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 58
The North Ship 1946; revised edition, 1966
XX Poems 1951
The Fantasy Poets No. 21: Philip Larkin 1954
The Less Deceived 1955; revised edition, 1958
The Whitsun Weddings 1964
High Windows 1974
Collected Poems 1988; revised edition, 1989
Other Major Works
Jill (novel) 1946
Girl in Winter (novel) 1947
All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961-71 (essays) 1970; revised edition, 1985
Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (essays) 1983; revised edition, 1984
Selected Letters: 1940-1985 1993
Calvin Bedient (essay date 1974)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8343
SOURCE: "Philip Larkin," in Eight Contemporary Poets, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 69-94.
[In the essay below, Bedient praises Larkin's poetic voice, claiming "[h]is achievement has been the creation of imaginative bareness, a penetrating confession of poverty."]
English poetry has never been so persistently out in the cold as it is with Philip Larkin—a poet who (contrary to Wordsworth's view of the calling) rejoices not more but less than other men in the spirit of life that is in him. Frost is a perennial boy, Hardy a fighter, by comparison. The load of snow, soiled and old, stays on the roof in poem after poem and, rubbing a clear space at the window, Larkin is there to mourn once again a world without generative fire. Well, it is just as he knew it would be, though now and then something surprising—a sheen of sunlight, some flutter of life—almost makes him wish for a moment that he could frolic out of doors.
Not that Larkin has wholly a mind of winter. A neighbourly snowman, he sometimes wears his hat tipped jauntily, and smiles and makes you laugh. Notice the drooping carrot nose in the mockingly titled 'Wild Oats':
About twenty years ago
Two girls came in where I worked—
A bosomy English rose
And her friend in specs I could talk to.
Faces in those days sparked
The whole shooting-match off, and I doubt
If ever one had like hers
But it was the friend I took out,
And in seven years after that
Wrote over four hundred letters,
Gave a ten-guinea ring
I got back in the end, and met
At numerous cathedral cities
Unknown to the clergy. I believe
I met beautiful twice. She was trying
Both times (so I thought) not to laugh …
In fact this is more lively than (say) the typical poem in The Oxford Book of English Verse. A witty and amiable snowman, then, with a clown's rueful sense of himself, and a clown's way of asking a genial tolerance for, indeed an easy complicity in, his ancient familiarity with defeat.
Yet where the clown, however little and stepped on, is indefatigably hopeful, Larkin is unillusioned, with a metaphysical zero in his bones. Larger than his world, outside it, he bears it before him, in chagrin, like a block of ice. While the clown is merely done to, Larkin in a sense does in the world, denying it every virtue in advance. Behind the paint a countenance of stone ….
This dismissal of the world, at the same time as it ensures his nullity, is a proud, self-affirming act. Yet at times his complaint against life is precisely that it has never attempted to lure him. Its very indifference, its failure to have any use for him, makes him want to reject it. 'Life is first boredom', he writes in 'Dockery and Son', speaking of his own life but (so overwhelming is the tedium) generalizing, too. And in 'I Remember, I Remember', he elaborates devastatingly:
By now I've got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn't spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
'Really myself. I'll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,
Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist'.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,
Who didn't call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead …
Yet it is just this accident of temperament that brings Larkin into line with contemporary history—not with its actual resilience and stubborn energy but with its contagious fears: his very cells seeming formed to index the withering of the ideal, of romance, of possibility, that characterizes post-war thought. If Larkin is not merely admired but loved, it is partly because, finding poetry and humour even in sterility, he makes it bearable: he shows that it can be borne with grace and gentleness. He arrived at the right time to blend in with the disenfranchised youth of the Second World War ('At an age when self-importance would have been normal', he writes in the Preface to his novel Jill, 'events cut us ruthlessly down to size'). And although his depression, like Hardy's, is as if from before the ages, he has continued to seem the poet mid-century England required, his dogged parochialism reflecting the shrunken will of the nation, his bare details the democratic texture of the times.
Larkin's distinction from other nihilists lies in his domestication of the void: he has simply taken nullity for granted, found it as banal as the worn places in linoleum. Other nihilists, by comparison, are full of emotional and technical protest. With frighteningly poised hysteria, a Donald Barthelme dips his readers into a whirlpool of received pretensions that have just been dissolved by parody; a Robert Lowell is tragically grand, a Samuel Beckett savagely sardonic, a Harold Pinter sinister as a toyed-with knife … Larkin is plain and passive. Yet these qualities, far from letting him down, prove almost as striking as brilliant inventiveness—striking for their very simplicity. Characteristically Larkin presents not a 'world elsewhere' but life 'just here', denuded of libido, sentiment, obvious imaginative trans valuation. Like Hardy and Frost he uses imagination precisely in order to show what life is like when imagination is taken out of it.
'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him'. Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand'.
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook
Behind the door, no room for books or bags—
'I'll take it' …
In everything except effect, Larkin is thus the weakling of the current group of nihilists, or the pacifist, the one who never stands up to the niggling heart of existence, throwing down even the stones of fantasy, technical dazzle, fierce jokes—the devices of an adventurous imagination—as being in any case useless against the Goliath of the void. His achievement has been the creation of imaginative bareness, a penetrating confession of poverty.
This achievement came only with difficulty, Larkin respecting bareness so much and misapprehending the function of imagination so greatly that at first he tried to keep the two apart, like honour from shame. Imagination? The dubious water spilling over the dam the world erects in front of the ego. From the beginning Larkin was the sort of young man, old before his time, whose stern wish is to put aside childish things. 'Very little that catches the imagination', he says in The London Magazine of February 1962, 'can get its clearance from either the intelligence or the moral sense'. 'There is not much pleasure', he adds, 'to be got from the truth about things as anyone sees it…. What one does enjoy writing—what the imagination is only too ready to help with—is, in some form or other, compensation, assertion of oneself in an indifferent or hostile environment, demonstration … that one is in command of a situation, and so on'. The imagination, moreover, is a fetishist, 'being classic and austere, or loading every rift with ore … with no responsible basis or rational encouragement'.
Larkin's problem, then, has been to write in the grim countenance of these views, with their pride in naked endurance, their fierce modesty—his limited output no doubt confessing to the difficulty. And if at first he took up fiction as well as poetry, it was because of its traditional alliance with 'the truth about things'. His fiction became the exercise ground of his lucidity. Both Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947) creep coldly to their conclusions. Though necessarily works of imagination—works conceived—their conceptions are unexcited, even numb. Imagination, they imply, is nugatory, a nail scratching a dream on ice. And so they labour against themselves. Virtually nothing happens to their youthful protagonists; crocuses doomed to fill with snow, they have only to sense futility to give way to it. The pale Oxford undergraduate in the first learns from a visit to his home town, recently bombed, 'how little anything matters', 'how appallingly little life is'. Then a dream tells him that, 'whether fulfilled or unfulfilled', love dies. This is enough to destroy his desire for the innocent Jill. He decides to die, as it were, before his death, so as to die as little as possible. In A Girl in Winter, too, wartime lends plausibility to a disillusionment that in fact seems pursued. And again the most ordinary relationships fail, as if there were something radically wrong with the human heart. The heroine, Katherine, finally repudiates 'the interplay of herself and other people'. With resolution, not in self-pity, beyond calling back, even gratefully, she steps out into a lucid solitude. At the close she envisions the 'orderly slow procession', as of an 'ice floe', of her permanently frozen desires: 'Yet their passage was not saddening. Unsatisfied dreams rose and fell about them, crying out against their implacability, but in the end glad that such order, such destiny, existed. Against this knowledge the heart, the will, and all that made for protest, could at last sleep'. And so she chooses to abstain from life, convinced that the fruit is anyway infested.
Given not only these passive protagonists but a starved-sparrow manner and a merely determined disenchantment, totally lacking in the passion either of truth or regret, the novels could not help seeming too long, indeed superfluous after the drain pipes, the snow. Larkin had yet to see that his thorough disbelief in adventure—even a Beckett shows a taste for mock adventure—necessitated the briefest of literary forms, and that the surest way to make the humanly sterile emotionally forceful is to place it in the midst of a poem, where, dwarfed by the glorious remembrances of the medium, it can have a shivering significance.
Meanwhile his poetry was the lyrical run-off of his lucidity. The poems in The North Ship (1946) treat the same themes as the novels—a world eaten through at the root by time, the wisdom of taking 'the grave's part', the failure of love—with all the runaway outcry that the novels stiffly restrained. Seeking at once the altitudes of the great lyrists of his youth, Yeats and Dylan Thomas, Larkin rises too high for his leaden themes:
I was sleeping, and you woke me
To walk on the chilled shore
Of a night with no memory,
Till your voice forsook my ear
Till your two hands withdrew
And I was empty of tears,
On the edge of a bricked and streeted sea
And a cold hill of stars.
And in their blazing solitude
The stars sang in their sockets through the night:
'Blow bright, blow bright
The coal of this unquickened world'.
So Larkin sings as the blade comes down, is ardent about the ice in the fire of youth. Fulsomely embracing poetry as a legitimized form of 'compensation', he wrote as if it were unnecessary to be sensible in it, permissible to speak of 'bricked and streeted' seas or of stars that, while blazing, begged to be ignited. A remarkable discrepancy: the novels prematurely grizzled, the poems puerile.
Larkin had yet to reconcile the supposed unpleasure of truth with the pleasure of imagination. This he was now to do abruptly, being one of those poets who undergo an almost magical transformation between their first and second volume. It was Hardy who showed him that imagination could treat 'properly truthful' themes truthfully yet with acute delicacy, deliberate power. Never mind that Hardy's poems are greyly literal: they get into you like a rainy day. 'When I came to Hardy', Larkin says, 'it was with the sense of relief that I didn't have to try and jack myself up to a concept of poetry that lay outside my own life—this is perhaps what I felt Yeats was trying to make me do. One could simply relapse back into one's own life and write from it'. Again: 'Hardy taught one to feel … and he taught one as well to have confidence in what one felt'.
In truth, Larkin's themes belong to that great negative order of ideas that has always proved the most potent in art. We cannot help ourselves: we home to tragedy—optimism in art commonly leaving us feeling deprived of some deeper truth. Nothing is of more initial advantage to a poet than a horizon of clouds. For pathos makes us irresistibly present to ourselves, silhouettes us against a backdrop of fate, renders us final for the imagination. And to achieve it Larkin, as he now saw, had only to 'feel'—feel simply, without exaggeration. This itself meant that he had to measure ordinary life, life as he knew it, with the rigour of regret. In his novels he had passed beyond protest into a limbo of resignation. In The North Ship, on the other hand, he had exhibited a preposterous surprise and anguish—as if sterility were not, after all, the scene on which his blind rose every morning. Now he needed to find a manner at once warm and cold, steeped in futility but not extinguished by it. He had to open bare cupboards that would speak of all that might have been in them.
And so he does in his second volume, The Less Deceived (1955), and again in his third and most recent, The Whitsun Weddings (1964). Here is 'As Bad as a Mile':
Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more
Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.
What redoubtable depths of acceptance in the calm of that unraised hand. Even so, the close-up of the unbitten apple proves affecting: if the poem is stoic about the end, it is without prejudice to the pleasure preceding it; it is stoic with regret. What is more, here Larkin brings the lofty literary sorrow of The North Ship down from 'black flowers', 'birds crazed with flight', and wintry drums, to the level of the everyday, where, no longer diffuse, it can be felt like pain in a vital organ. And, neither egoistic nor fetishistic, imagination has now become only a way the truth has of entering us all at once, swiftly and completely, in a context of value. Far from being an evasion of the truth, it is a hammer for the nail, the poignancy secreted in the prosaic.
Larkin's poems now take on the brute force of circumstantial evidence. Like sour smoke, the odour of actual days hangs about them. They have an unusual authenticity; they form a reliving. Even when the naming is general, it can have bite:
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
The final articles are as blunt as pointing fingers and, with the adjective that, the series ends in a conclusive jab. It amounts to instant trial and conviction. The vase stands exposed, empty as the atmosphere around it, coldly reduced to its potential function—a failure, a thing without love.
Many of Larkin's poems, however, have the specific density of descriptive detail—often autobiographical. Consider the first portion of 'Dockery and Son':
Here again pleasure and truth meet effortlessly. How casually the lawn and then the moon, both unhindered in beauty, set off hindered humanity. The detail is at once natural (though 'Death-suited' forces perception) and resonant. The poem has the simple fascination of an honestly reported life—even suggesting the moment to moment flow of consciousness. It possesses also a humble appeal of personality, a tone as unpressingly intimate as the touch of a hand on one's arm.
So it was that Larkin took the path of Edward Thomas, of Frost, of Hardy, and became a poet who looks at ordinary life through empty, silent air. His poems now sprang like snow-drops directly from the cruel cast of things, yet in themselves attaining beauty. And just as they now found their pathos in everyday things, so the void now spoke, in part, where day by day Larkin heard it, in the trite though sometimes pert and piquant language of the streets. Here was a language as sceptical as it was hardy, soiled with disappointment. Of a certain billboard beauty, 'Kneeling up on the sand / In tautened white satin', Larkin writes:
She was slapped up one day in March.
A couple of weeks, and her face
Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed;
Huge tits and a fissured crotch
Were scored well in, and the space
Between her legs held scrawls
That set her fairly astride
A tuberous cock and balls
Autographed Titch Thomas, while
Someone had used a knife
Or something to stab right through
The moustached lips of her smile.
She was too good for this life …
By contrast, Larkin's words will not be too good for this life. They make room not only for the colloquial 'Or something' but—sympathetically—for words betraying the fascinated disgust of adolescent sexual emotion. Still, Larkin's regret that anything should be too good for this life shines through his contempt for the meretricious poster. He makes the common words sorrier than they know.
Larkin thus renews poetry from underneath, enlivening it with 'kiddies', 'stewed', 'just my lark', 'nippers', 'lob-lolly men', 'pisses', 'bash', 'dude', and more of the same. And yet his manner rises easily from the slangy to the dignified; its step is light, its range wide. Here it is as vernacular caricature, amused at itself:
When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size …
A degree up from this we find the almost aggressive slang of the poem on the billboard girl. Then comes the perky, street-flavoured simplicity of 'Toads', 'Wild Oats', 'Send No Money', or 'SelPs the Man':
Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.
He's married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she's there all day …
A step higher and the style rises from self-consciousness and begins to leave the street:
Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest …
This is the plain style of most of Larkin's poems. And this plainness is sometimes heightened by rhythmical sculpturing, syntactical drama, or repetition, as in 'MCMXIV':
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word—the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again …
Whatever its degree of formality, the peculiarity of Larkin's style is an eloquent taciturnity: it betrays a reluctance to use words at all. If, as 'Ambulances' says, a 'solving emptiness … lies just under all we do', then Larkin's words, as if preparing to be swallowed up, will make themselves as lean as they can—nothingness, they assert, will not fatten on them. Indeed, they seem to have soaked a long age in a vinegar that dissolves illusions. Such is the impression they make in 'As Bad as a Mile', and here again in 'Toads Revisited':
Walking around in the park
Should feel better than work:
The lake, the sunshine,
The grass to lie on,
Blurred playground noises
Beyond black-stockinged nurses—
Not a bad place to be.
Yet it doesn't suit me …
The short lines and clipped syntax suggest an almost painful expenditure of language. A head with a wagging tongue, they say, is time's fool. Larkin, of course, also writes in somewhat freer rhythms, as at the end of 'An Arundel Tomb'. But he always counts before he pays, and his more expansive effects bank on their moving contrast with his usual, slightly tough laconicism.
Larkin's laconicism also conveys the poverty of the sayable. That 'Life is slow dying', it implies, 'leaves / Nothing'—or almost nothing—'to be said'. He says little because he sees too much. Like Ted Hughes, he feels pressed back into himself by a vision of an unjustified and unjustifiable reality, but where this has finally provoked Hughes into desperate garrulity, it has all but frozen Larkin's mouth—two slender volumes since 1946; two interruptions of silence.
If Larkin relies on traditional form, it is partly out of the agreement of numbness and caution that we find in his style. Why seek new forms, he seems to ask, when there is nothing new under the sun? In any case, 'Content alone interests me', he says. 'Content is everything'. Like a man freezing to death in a snowstorm, refusing to be distracted by the beauty of the flakes, he resolves to be lucid to the last, his mind on the truth alone. And, paradoxically precisely this is why he writes in form. For, by virtue of its familiarity, traditional form, skilfully used, is all but transparent. (Only experiments, antiformalists, and writers of verse make an issue of form.) At its finest, prosody is anyway meltingly one with the content; and Larkin is frequently a fine craftsman. So nothingness stares out of Larkin's poems undistracted, with a native starkness. Even the bodily warmth conveyed by rhythm is often restrained by nicely calculated metrical irregularity.
Yet form has also for Larkin its traditional function: not modest after all, it is an attempt at the memorable. If he writes, the reason is to silence death, if only with the fewest possible words. In a statement contributed to D. J. Enright's anthology, Poets of the 1950's, Larkin says: 'I wrote poems to preserve things I have seen / thought / felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others, though I feel that my prime responsibility is to the experience itself, which I am trying to keep from oblivion for its own sake. Why I should do this I have no idea, but I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art'. Nihilist though he is, he thus raises against nothingness—like every other literary nihilist, if more moderately—the combined plea and protest of his constructions, with their exemplary inner necessity, their perfection.
In sum, his forms are at the same time sorry to be there and insistently there. In his use of words and form alike, Larkin both defies and skulks before his nihilistic 'content', like an animal that, while shrinking back, offers to fight.
So it was that, without betraying his scruples, Larkin became a poignant and cohesive poet, his means the functional intelligence of his ends. More sophisticated writers have chided him for his poetic provinciality, but he is right, I think, to be as simple as he is. His poetry seems not only the necessary expression of his temperament but the very voice of his view of things, the pure expression of his aim—his purpose being not to make sterility whirl but precisely to make it stand still, freed from confusion, from the human fevers that oppose it. Far from adhering piously to English poetic tradition, he uses it for his own ends. The result, in any case, is a poetry of mixed formality and informality, mixed severity and charm, mixed humour and pathos, that carries a unique personal impress—a poetry that, for all its conservatism, is unconsciously, inimitably new.
Even The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings, however, are somewhat subject to the 'poetic' toning up of The North Ship, and poems corrupted by self-pity appear side by side with the mature poems just described. A void with an ashen pallor—how resist rouging it, giving it dramatic visibility? Regret, in any case, touches us so nearly that it slips at the slightest urge into self-commiseration. At his weakest Larkin exploits this readiness for sorrow-suckling, for the histrionic; he tries for pathetic effects.
Of course, when a poem is so delightful as 'Days', criticism hesitates:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
But those men in their long coats are too easy to summon over the fields: they border on the animated cartoon. Throwing us on the wretchedness of being passive before them, in need of them, they are more melodramatic than the truth. For all that its subject is 'days', the poem places itself so far from the quotidian that it can say, can picture anything without fearing contradiction from itself. The often admired 'Next, Please' also steps off from life into self-pity. The poem figures expectancy as a 'Sparkling armada of promises' that leaves us 'holding wretched stalks / Of disappointment'. But whatever were we waving at those ships? In the intoxication of its chagrin, the piece neglects propriety and probability. Even the final stanza, though grand, begets uneasiness:
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
This is a trifle too awesome, Death in makeup. Another admired poem, 'No Road', begins:
Since we agreed to let the road between us
Fall to disuse,
And bricked our gates up, planted trees to screen us,
And turned all time's eroding agents loose,
Silence, and space, and strangers—our neglect
Has not had much effect.
Leaves drift unswept, perhaps; grass creeps unmown;
No other change …
What is really 'unmown' is the conceit—its leaves, grass, bricks, and trees lacking specific reference as metaphors. As in 'Next, Please', the vehicle is too much an end in itself. All three poems are rhetorical, written in emotional generality. Like still other pieces, including 'Whatever Happened?', 'Age', 'Triple Time', 'Latest Face', 'If, My Darling', and 'Arrivals, Departures', they stand at a remove from the literal, on a swaying rope bridge of tropes, dramatic but ill-supported.
Yet virtual fact is liable to the cosmetic impulse, too, as witness so ostensibly autobiographical a poem as 'Church Going'. The first two stanzas, it is true, are everything these other poems are not:
Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new—
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Pungently detailed, this has a wonderful air of verisimilitude and candour. Except for 'Someone would know: I don't', the lines are free of padding, and the symbolism, as in the brownish flowers and 'Here endeth', is like an afterthought to the forcefully literal. Compare the middle of the poem, with its speculation about the time when churches will be out of use:
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gowns-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh? …
It is hard to say what is more forced here—the questions, or the assertions that 'power of some sort or other will go on' and that the church will be 'less recognizable each week', or the effort to imagine 'the very last' to seek its purpose. Like the consciously colourful detail at the close, all this is essentially idle, a fabrication. The poem picks up again as Larkin confronts the church in discovery and wonder:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies …
But the effect is partly to make us regret all the more the triviality of the middle stanzas.
The impression of falseness is sometimes just as strong when Larkin sets his imaginative paints aside and attempts serious thought. Indeed, without much exaggeration it might be said that he is only poised and intelligent with particulars—abstractions tend to spill out of his hands. When he thinks, he often seems to be frowningly struggling to create a philosophical intricacy and importance. Here he is in 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album':
With 'Yes, true', you can virtually hear his voice leaving its natural home in particulars, growing thin and subject to confusion. As if driven to manufacture complexities, the lines suddenly snarl up what had been plain from the descriptive life of the poem. To say that the past leaves us 'free to cry' is to make a false conundrum of what has already been said simply: that it excludes us. The truly subtle idea in the passage—namely, that the past is forlorn because excluded from us—is obscured by the fussy thought. And meanwhile grace and measure are aban doned—'yowl' being especially awkward, an attempt to bring the blanched thought back into poetic animation.
'Dockery and Son' similarly gravels in 'philosophy'. Why, asks the speaker, did Dockery
Reasoning this through is at first like trying to put on a shirt with sewn sleeves—and finally we can only grant that such assumptions are 'innate' or distant from what we 'think truest'. (Innate assumptions are usually not all we have but what we wish we had: eternal life, supreme importance, a guiltless being….) The simile of the sandclouds is slipshod also. Until the last line, we are far from the brilliant beginning.
In the final stanza of 'Deceptions', the self-pity that permits such laxity lies still more forward, spoiling an even more exquisite poem. At the same time, it compares weakly with the epigraph from Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, a statement of bald power almost beyond art itself: 'Of course I was drugged, and so heavily I did not regain my consciousness till the next morning. I was horrified to discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable, and cried, like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt'. The stanza comments:
Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
Console you if I could. What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfilment's desolate attic.
The final phrase, 'fulfilment's desolate attic', bears a Johnsonian indictment, irrevocably disabused, of the delusions of desire. But even granting the romantic assumption that the seducer made too much of his desire, what is its brief match flame compared to the conflagration of the girl's young life? We can hardly care either that the girl was the less deceived. The poem treats the misreading of desire as a tragedy. But nothing it says or implies supports so extravagant and self-condoling a view.
Yet, serious as they are, Larkin's defects are easily outbalanced by his virtues. Thus, though he may abandon an imaginary scene for questionable thought, he is also likely to have put us into that scene with as piercing a dramatic immediacy as any poet now writing. We have witnessed this in 'Church Going' and 'Dockery and Son'; and here is the first stanza of 'Deceptions':
Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun's occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.
Imagination, said Emerson, is a sort of seeing that comes by 'the intellect being where and what it sees', and this happy definition highlights what is remarkable in the stanza. For the lines virtually are the original moment, as well as a beauty beyond it and compassion for it. 'Print', it is true, is lost in ambiguity (footprint? a picture-shape on the wall?) and indefinite in relation to the light described later; and 'scar' rather rushes a fresh wound. But almost everything else tells keenly—'The brisk brief/ Worry of wheels' poignantly commenting on the girl's inconsolateness, 'bridal London' on her social ruin; 'Light, unanswerable and tall and wide' being unimprovable; and the simile of the drawer of knives, though risking melodrama, properly savage.
We touch here on gifts more specialized than the dramatic imagination, gifts for epithet and metaphor. Of course, in their own way, these too are dramatic, restoring a primal power to the language. We are all bees trapped behind the spotted glass of usage till the poet releases us to the air. And so Larkin releases us in these lines of 'Coming':
On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork …
'Chill and yellow' and 'fresh-peeled' are especially happy inventions. So again at the beginning of a recent poem, 'Dublinesque': 'Down stucco side-streets, / Where light is pewter…." In another recent poem, 'The Cardplayers', the trees are—magnificently—'century-wide'. Spring, in the poem of that title, is 'race of water, / Is earth's most multiple, excited daughter'. Delightful in 'Broadcast' is the 'coughing from / Vast Sunday-full and organ-frownedon spaces'. And what could be at once more homely and endearing than the 'loaf-haired secretary' of 'Toads Revisited'?
Larkin's imagination has also, of course, a turn for wit. At times he instinctively inhibits the sobbing in his strings by playing staccato. Consider the lover in 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album':
From every side you strike at my control,
Not least through these disquieting chaps who loll
At ease about your earlier days:
Not quite your class, I'd say, dear, on the whole …
Or take the comic candour of 'Annus Mirabilis':
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP …
Next time around the parenthesis reads, 'Though just too late for me', which gives the playfulness a fine grimace. These poems have the good grace of self-irony, a civilized lightness. Better still is the comedy—vigorous with universal truth—in 'Toads' and 'Toads Revisited'. With rising bravura the first begins:
The second, with toad-eating helplessness, concludes:
No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
What else can I answer,
When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.
Entertaining though they are, these are works of the full imagination, more quickened than compromised by caricature. They are true and touching as well as spirited. One would be tempted to call the poisoning toad and the pitchfork the best comic conceit in modern poetry were not that of the old toad on Cemetery Road consummate to the point of tears. We are not far here from the world of fairy tales and have only to hear of Cemetery Road to fancy that, like the way through the woods to Grandmother's house, it has existed in the imagination for ever.
An unusual poet, reminding us on the one hand of the grand classical tradition and on the other of Beatrix Potter and Dorothy Parker, and all the while sounding like no one so much as himself! And Larkin has still other virtues. To begin with, there is, as we have seen, the instinctive adjustment of his means to his end, so that, for instance, he is one of the most pellucid of poets because nothing to him is more self-evident than nothingness. Then the unconscious Tightness of his forms, 'Toads' being, for example, appropriately restless in alternating uneven trimeters and dimeters, 'Toads Revisited' properly more settled in its trimeters; 'Toads', again, troubled with alternating off-rhyme and 'Toads Revisited' calmer in off-rhymed couplets, full rhyme kept in reserve for the entente cordiale of 'toad' and 'Road'. There is the frequent perfection of his metrical spacing; the easy way his words fall together; the tang and unsurpassed contemporaneity of his diction and imagery; the fluent evolution of his poems. There is also his beautifully mild temper and his tenderness for those pushed 'To the side of their own lives'. Nor finally should we fail to add his facility at opening that scepticism about life which everyone closets in his bones.
Still, only at his best does Larkin make us grateful for what a human being can do with words. It is above all in 'Coming', 'Toads', 'Toads Revisited', 'At Grass', 'Here', 'The Whitsun Weddings', and 'An Arundel Tomb' (with two fairly recent poems, 'High Windows' and 'To the Sea', pressing near) that he puts experience under an aspect of beauty, gracing and deepening it with the illusion of necessary form and producing the privileged sensation—perhaps illusory, perhaps not—of piercing through to a truth. It is in these poems, too, that, at once detached and concerned, he most frees us from self-pity without destroying feeling.
With the exception of 'Here' and 'Toads', these pieces display an exquisite stoic compassion for the littleness, the fragility, indeed the unlikelihood, of happiness. Even in 'Here', however, tenderness is implicit in the perception, the diction, the syntax. For instance, in 'Isolate villages, where removed lives / Loneliness clarifies', the lives are considerately enfolded by the clause at the same time that the line break removes and isolates them. But such tenderness is like water under ice. Where life is as raw, insufficient, and essentially lonely as it is in 'Here', better (so the poem implies) keep yourself inwardly remote, like the 'bluish neutral distance' of the sea. Though 'Here' is all one travelling sentence till it brakes in short clauses at the end, 'Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows' out finally to the 'unfenced existence' of the sea, emotionally it is one continuous 'freeze', since each successive 'here' is as barren, as without self-justification, as the rest. 'Here' leads us as far from ourselves, as far into objective reality, as we can go—to the sea that has nothing for us, 'Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach'—then leaves us there, all but freed from desire and too well schooled by the accumulated evidence, too guarded, to be appalled. The poem is a masterpiece of stoicism.
The equally fine 'Coming' is as remarkable for its original conception as for the felicity (already sampled) of its similes. Indeed, the two prove inseparable in the second half of the poem:
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon—
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.
Throwing us back into the vulnerable heart of childhood, into an ignorance not ignorant enough, the simile redeems an inevitably romantic subject by abrading it, complicating it with domestic truth. Nor could any comparison be at once so unexpected and convincing, giving exactly, as it does, the situation of being drawn into an emotion neither understood nor trusted yet beyond one's power to refuse, since the moment it comes it reveals itself as all, nearly all, of what was needed. The poem, if complete in itself, is also an expressive elaboration of its most poignant word, 'starts'. Too doubting and perplexed for rhyme or a long line, as slender as the inchoate joy it evokes, it is like the 'chill and yellow' light described at the outset, lyrically lovely yet inhibited—its recurring two beats like a heart quickened but still at the tentative start, the mere threshold, of happiness.
There is nothing tentative about 'At Grass', which celebrates the profound peace, the cold joy, in the relinquishment of labour and identity. The retired racehorses in the poem have stolen death from itself:
The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane;
Then one crops grass, and moves about
—The other seeming to look on—
And stands anonymous again …
The early, strenuous days of the horses, full of 'Silks at the start' and 'Numbers and parasols', are later evoked with the same classical directness as this shaded scene, which has a clarity that leaves nothing between us and the subject. Like the horses the poem exists quietly, is envyingly 'at ease' in a pace slowed often enough by stressed monosyllables to seem tranced beyond all care. The rhyme, too, is spaced out placidly, making the stanzas like the 'unmolesting meadows'. (It does, however, cause an awkward syntactic inversion at the close: 'Only the groom, and the groom's boy, / With bridles in the evening come.') Because of its distanced subject and because the horses have both lived out and outlived their swiftness, the poem takes the sickness out of the desire for oblivion, offering in place of weariness a paradise of shade.
An even more exquisite poem is 'An Arundel Tomb', which begins:
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.
The lines rise to the ceremony of their occasion. So 'Side by side', each syllable royally weighted, is balanced by the four syllables of 'their faces blurred', the two phrases equal and graceful in their partnership but immobile as the effigies they describe. Through rhyme, the third line offers its arm to the second as they move in iambic procession. Then the time-softened long i stiffens into the short one, and the little dogs break into the sentence like an after-thought (which in fact they may originally have been). Modelled and exact in its rhythms, lovely, fresh, and affecting in its detail, tender in its deeply deliberated tone, holding the slow centuries in its hands, the poem is indeed very lovely, very moving. Unfortunately, it has need to be in order to humble its one defect: its manipulation of the subject for the sake of pathos. Nothing 'with a sharp tender shock' that the earl and countess are holding hands, the poet says:
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base …
But why would they not think to lie so long? If Larkin denies them intention, it is evidently to press his own, which is to view faithful love through the ironic and brittle glass of accident. One balks at this, censures it, and at the same time acknowledges, 'This is Larkin's most beautiful poem'.
Less exquisite but more substantial than 'An Arundel Tomb', 'The Whitsun Weddings' is distinguished for ease, poise, balance, and inclusiveness.
It has even more of England in it than 'Here', similarly taking us by train through the country and making its breadth and variety, its unfolding being, our own. The very movement is that of a leisurely if inexorable journey, the lines frequently pausing as if at so many stations, yet curving on in repeated enjambements past scenes swiftly but tunelessly evoked, as though the stanzas themselves were the wide windows of a moving train:
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars …
This is deft, light in depiction but strongly evocative. And the English themselves are as vividly present as their towns and countryside, indeed man himself is here in his several ages: the children in the platform wedding parties frowning as 'at something dull', the young men 'grinning and pomaded', the brides' friends staring after the departing trains as 'at a religious wounding', the married couples themselves boarding the carriages in distraction, the uncles shouting smut, the fathers looking as if they had 'never known / Success so huge and wholly farcical', and the mothers' faces sharing the bridal secret 'like a happy funeral'.
And the poet? By chance, he himself is there on the train that Whitsun as the eternal witness of the contemplative artist, inward with what he sees yet outside it precisely to the extent that he sees it. Single amid the married couples in the carriage, he is yet caught up by them, caught up with them ('We hurried towards London'), quickened into a sense of physical existence in time. On the other hand, with his indisplaceable knowledge of failure, absence, endings, he is the loneliness of contemplation lucid before the happy blindness of the body and its emotions. He knows he might well envy this happiness and yet he dwarfs it:
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say I nearly died.
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl—and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:
There we were aimed. And as we raced across Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The poem throughout links beginnings to ends, ends to beginnings—as in its wedding parties 'out on the end of an event / Waving goodbye', its mingling of generations, and the stops and starts of the journey itself. And here at the close, at the same time that it gives the energy of life and the fruition of time their due, even as arrows speed and rain promises germination, it also makes us aware of inevitable dissolution, as arrows fall and rain means mould, dampness, the cold, the elemental. Like certain romantic poems—'The Echoing Green', 'Kubla Kahn', 'Intimations of Immortality', 'Among School Children'—the poem thus brings together, irreducibly, life in its newness and power and life in its decline and end. Nowhere else in his work (though 'To the Sea' marks a near exception) is Larkin so irresistibly drawn out to observe with an emotion close to happiness the great arena of life in its diversity and energy, undeluded though he is, doomed though he feels the energy to be.
'Poetry', St.-John Perse remarks, 'never wishes to be absence, nor refusal'; and certainly in The Whitsun Weddings Larkin grants it the presence of the world, as he grants the world its presence. Yet even apart from The Whitsun Weddings we would be without Larkin's poems the poorer by that much presence and that much love. Poet though he is of the essential absence of life from itself, he yet makes himself present as regret that it must be so; and for all his defeatism it is easy to find him a sympathetic figure as he stands at the window, trying not to cloud it with his breath, mourning the winter casualties, concerned to be there even though convinced beyond all argument that, like everything else, his concern is gratuitous.
Lolette Kuby (essay date 1974)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7767
SOURCE: "Style and Language," in An Uncommon Poet for the Common Man: A Study of Philip Larkin 's Poetry, 191 A, pp. 19-42.
[Below, Kuby examines Larkin's place among British poets, specifically his relationship to the modernist school.]
Facets of Larkin's style point to several progenitors. In many ways his differences from the modern tradition resemble Ben Jonson's differences from his own contemporaries. Both tend to avoid extended metaphor, strings of similes, and other rhetorical elaborations which in Jonson's time were called 'conceits', or 'bravery' of language. The poems of both have prose sense and a ready surface intelligibility due, in part, in both cases, to the fact that the poems are organized by rational rather than by emotional or imagistic sequences. Both express themselves succinct ly, attempting, as Jonson put it, "what man can say / In a little", the poetic impulse being toward reduction and condensation rather than expansion and extension ["Epitaph on Elizabeth, L.H."]. Neither depends on single, striking lines and memorable phrases to carry the meaning. Jonson's couplets, even the final couplets of epigrams, do not explain the poem. And of Larkin, G. S. Fraser says [in Vision and Rhetoric, 1959]: "[the] poem moves us as a complex whole…. There is nothing, or almost nothing, that we 'apprehend' in the poem before we have 'comprehended' it. There are no single lines and images that flash out at us." Moreover, he is a moralist like Jonson who
makes of his theater a kind of complicated moral machine for projecting human behavior onto a screen so constituted as to reveal the true nature of that behavior, a nature always kept hidden by the distorted perspectives of mundane interests and commitments.
[John Hollander, Ben Jonson, 1961]
From Jonson one traces many of Larkin's general qualities through Dryden and Pope, the Augustans, down through the early nineteenth century poet, Praed, whom Larkin admires and whose best poems are "vers de société" written in the Augustan vein and character sketches reminiscent of the Spectator Papers:
Some public principles he had
But was no flatterer, no fretter
He rapped his box when things were bad,
And said "I cannot make them better!"
What accounts perhaps more for Larkin's admiration of Praed are a number of poems in the form of gossipy verse letters, a species of less profound dramatic monologue which satirize the prejudices or mannerisms of the fictional writer. In "The Talented Man", for example, a young woman claims to be enchanted with a "clever, new, poet" whose talent, she avers, compensates for his physical unattractiveness: "He's lame,—but Lord Byron was lame, love, / And dumpy,—but so is Tom Moore." Yet, she concludes, he has a defect for which talent cannot compensate:
P.S.—I have found, on reflection,
One fault in my friend,—entre nous
Without it, he'd just be perfection;—
Poor fellow, he has not a sou:
Larkin, too, writes a type of dramatic monologue, though less obviously sarcastic, far more complex than Praed's, and directed to the middle class as opposed to the leisured, fashionable, late Augustan sophisticates and their provincial imitators whom Praed addressed.
Praed's poetry, according to Kenneth Allott [in Selected Poems of Winthrop Mackworth Praed, 1953], contains exactly that world which Wordsworth says he ignores:
The things which I have taken, whether from within or without, what have they to do with routs, dinners, morning calls, hurry from door to door, from street to street, on foot or in carraige; with Mr. Pitt or Mr. Fox, Mr. Paul or Sir Francis Burdett, the Westminster election or the borough of Honiton? … What have they to do … with a life without love?
It may come as a surprise then, one of those unsettling critical contradictions, to find Larkin's name linked also with Wordsworth's. There is, however, some resemblance to both poets. Robert Spector and Christopher Ricks say correctly that "Larkin is committed to portraying life in the language of people, presenting the ordinary in an unusual way" [Spector, "A Way to Say What a Man Can See," Saturday Review, Vol. XLVIII, Feb. 13, 1965]. "They have a Wordsworthian subject, the ordinary sorrow of man's life" [Ricks, "A True Poet," N.Y. Review of Books, Vol. III, Jan. 14, 1965]. Certainly Larkin, like Words-worth, presents the ordinary sorrows of ordinary life, and his tone (perhaps better defined as undertone) is like Wordsworth's, tender and serious. With some exceptions, it is without Praed's briskness and assertiveness, soft while Praed's is loud. And his vocabulary, like Wordsworth's, is highly suggestive, whereas Praed's is highly denotative. On the other hand, Larkin's wry humor and self-mockery, utterly absent in Wordsworth, are found in Praed:
Our love was like most other loves;—
A little glow, a little shiver,
A rose-bud, and a pair of gloves,
Some hopes of dying broken-hearted;
A miniature, a lock of hair,
The usual vows, and then we parted.
["The Belle of the Ballroom"]
Most unlike Wordsworth, however, is Larkin's treatment of the ordinary. No matter how average Wordsworth's characters are, or how simple their pursuits, they come "trailing clouds of glory". That combination of the ordinary and the glorious is what makes Wordsworth Wordsworth. He invests triviality with a luminescence derived from a spiritual universe. Larkin's universe is bleak if not black. His vision is more like Frost's than Wordsworth's, and uncannily like Hardy's.
Among the Victorians, there is a resemblance of Larkin to Browning, though, indeed, disregrading the Aesthetes, there is a resemblance to the moral seriousness which distinguishes Victorian novels and poetry alike. "Seriousness", [A. O. J.] Cockshut says of George Eliot, was one of her "key words, and is, in general, a word indicating a thread of continuity between eightteenth century piety … firmly based on a religious faith … and the unreligious morality of George Eliot" [The Unbelievers, 1966]. As much could be said of Larkin. In fact he says it himself at the end of "Church Going":
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious.
With Browning Larkin shares not only moral seriousness but the method of revealing it through dramatic monologue. The speakers in "Mr Bleaney", "Selfs the Man", "Dockery and Son", to mention a few, expose their limitations, their self-centeredness, the flaws in their morality or vision in much the same way Browning's "Bishop" or "duke" or "Fra Lippo Lippi" do by dramatizing their personalities in response to a situation, idea, or event.
But it is Hardy that occupies a special place among Larkin's literary forebears. Lumping Larkin together with the 'Poets of the Fifties' again, [D. J.] Enright says they "represent a revival of a tradition associated with Hardy and kept alive only through the vigour and persistence of poets like Robert Graves" [Conspirators and Poets, 1966]. Similarities of other poets of the Fifties to Hardy is debatable, but Larkin admits his strong influence. After The North Ship, he says, "I looked to Hardy rather than Yeats as my ideal, and eventually a more rational approach, less hysterical and emphatic, asserted itself. Though there remains some 'Yeatsian music' in Larkin's poetry, it occurs as climax or emphasis in contrast to preceding more halting conversational rhythms. A comparison of several lines of Larkin's "Mr Bleaney" with several lines from "Sailing to Byzantium" reveals that the music in both depends, to a great extent, on the frequent repetition of identical vowel sounds (in Larkin's case, nine high front vowels, (i), in a total of forty syllables; and in Yeats' case, six mid back vowels, (o), in the same number of syllables), and on the close correlation between poetic meter (varied iambic) and prose meter (closely approximating varied iambic). In the following scansion, primary prose stresses are below the line, and those indicating the patterned meter above:
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread …
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
This passage, however, is not typical of Larkin's later style which is less regular metrically and less repetitive of sound:
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. "Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand".
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook
Behind the door, no room for books or bags—
"I'll take it". So it happens that I lie …
From Hardy, Larkin may have learned colloquialness, restraint of lyricism, and the inclusion within the poem of its motivating setting or situation (although many of Larkin's later poems, "Next, Please", "Going", "Wants", are thoughts with no situational specifics, and some that precede Hardy's influence, "XXXII", "XX", present, as Hardy's often do, stage settings for the poetic action). Also, occasionally, direct echoes of Hardy's language or imagery can be traced. For example, the dialogue in Hardy's "Two Houses":
"—Will the day come",
Said the new one, awstruck, faint,
"When I shall lodge shades dim and dumb—"
"—That will it, boy;
Such shades will people thee …"
sounds like the dialogue in Larkin's "Send No Money":
Tell me the truth, I said,
Teach me the way things go.
So he patted my head, booming Boy
There's no green in your eye.
In the same poem Hardy uses a house to represent a human being upon whom others "print … their presences". Larkin uses the same image in "Home is So Sad" in which a house, like a person, is "Shaped to the comfort of the last to go / As if to win them back". Again, echoing Hardy's "The Minute Before Meeting":
And knowing that what is now about to be
Will all have been in O, so short a space!
I read beyond it my despondency.
Larkin says in "Triple Time":
This is the future furthest childhood saw
And on another day will be the past,
A valley cropped by fat neglected chances.
And again, Larkin's
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
is reminiscent of Hardy's "He Abjures Love":
—I speak as one who plumbs
Life's dim profound,
One who at length can sound
Clear views and certain.
But—after love what comes?
A few saw vacant hours,
And then, the Curtain.
What the above quotations make clear, beyond similarities of style, mood, diction, is that either Hardy had a profound influence on Larkin's view of life, or that Larkin found mirrored in Hardy a startling coincidence to his own view. For Larkin, as for Hardy, it is a view of the "tragic groundwork of existence".
Although the poems of both appeared when their respective era's doubts and anxieties were widely, if not universally, felt, their negativism (Hardy's expression of the 'breakdown of Victorianism', and Larkin's of the emptiness of the mechanical age, which is, in fact, a continuation and intensification of the same breakdown) is singled out for critical reproach. Hardy became extremely sensitive to what he felt was both misreading and adverse moral judgment, and in Winter Words (1928) devoted a section of his preface to denying the allegation that he was an unrelieved pessimist whose "anecdotes and episodes … reveal a perverse preoccupation with 'life's little ironies' and a prepossession with gloom". Larkin's critics sound a variation on the same theme: "typical of a younger group of self-snubbers and self-loathers…. It is another turn on that petty bitterness about life" [M. L. Rosenthal, The Modern Poets, I960]; "determinedly and successfully glum" [Enright]. Interestingly, the terms of critical approbation applied to one, can, with little alteration, apply to the other:
Life's meaningless and man's ignorance are in some obscurely moving way celebrated by being recorded.
["Undeceived Poet," London Times Literary Supplement, Vol. LXIII, March 12, 1964]
Its chief characteristic is a 'satisfying flatness'. It is 'satisfying' because it presents the interesting spectacle of a mind continually probing and exploring; while its 'flatness' is produced by the persistent pressure of the Spirit of Negation.
[A. C. Ward, Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901-1960, 1964]
Larkin would not quarrel with Hardy that "the road to a true philosophy of life seems to be in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced on us by chance or change" [Harold Child, Thomas Hardy, 1916]. Their poems do not present, perhaps do not derive from, a unified philosophy. But both have a habitual way of looking at things which certainly amounts to a philosophy. They share an anguished view of an unspiritual universe in which the terms 'good' and 'evil' have no applicability outside of the small cage of man's cranium, and in only one small portion of even that. Nature, history, society, the other portion of man himself move in accordance with an inexorable and unconscious law whose goal, it seems, is nothing less absurd than movement itself. Hardy's idea of a "Vast Imbecility", a "neutral Spinner of Years", a "sightless Mother", occurs in Larkin too. But whereas Hardy conceived of nature as blind Will seeking only its own perpetuation, Larkin sees it as blind cycles, caring not for its own preservation but moving through endless revolutions of generation and extinction that "shift to giant ribbing, sift away". To Larkin, it is not so much in conflict with man's reason as with man's ability to conceive the impossible—his idealism. In contrast with Hardy, it is the idealizing capacity of man's mind not his reason that makes him a "freak of nature".
Larkin's negativism is, if anything, more pervasive than Hardy's, but then the times in which he lives are more negative. Certain strengths of Hardy's world which occur in his poetry and novels, in Larkin's world no longer exist. The ruins of an old Roman Theater and an old Roman road, traces of the Napoleonic Wars, folk customs and superstitions, the permanence of natural objects, ponds, rocks, trees, were to Hardy poignant reminders of the individual's oblivion in time and of the absence of moral progress in nature; but they were also evidence of continuity and of man's identification with his past. Larkin too sees nature as non-evolving, but sees the environment as having changed for the worse. The very landscape of the twentieth century bespeaks an insuturable cut from the past: "I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign / That this was still the town that had been 'mine' / So long." Event is not anchored in place as it so forcefully is in Hardy's poems; memory loses its referent in the external world, while the quick and easy transportability of things and the extreme mobility of people further intensifies the sense of disconnection: "Hurrying to catch my comet", "traffic all night north", we "met at numerous Cathedral cities". Not living in a fully mechanized, technological society, Hardy, in his world, was surrounded by artifacts that retained the values of durability and association with human personality, though even at that time Rilke (whose life span corresponds to the later fifty years of Hardy's) could say [in a letter to von Hulewicz, quoted in Stephen Spender, The Struggle of the Modern, 1963]:
For our grandfathers, a house, a fountain, a familiar tower, their very clothes, their coat, was infinitely more, infinitely more intimate…. The lived and living things, the things that share our thoughts, these are on the decline and can no more be replaced.
In Larkin's world, Rilke's prediction has come completely true. The 'decay of values' applies not only to moral and religious values but to the universal cheapening and vulgarization of those material things that are prized or desired. The sleazy quality of objects built not to last; the "comic Ford", "Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes", the saucer-souvenir" are the artifacts which surround Larkin.
Hardy sets his characters down in geological time, time measured by the formation of the moors and hills, Stonehenge, the Bible. Larkin's characters measure time by a photograph album, a train ride, an old phonograph record. The quality of eternal permanence about the places and things in Hardy's world has given way to a madly accelerated tempo in which present things, experiences, places, ideas 'turn to past'. Larkin's world partakes actively of oblivion, emphasizes death.
In a sense, the negativism of Larkin's view is greater because his characters do not willingly succumb. Often Hardy's poems sink under the pressure of a pre-vision, the dark shape of the universe which exists in Hardy's mind and of which the poems are small exterior models. He boxes his personae into contrived situations which seem superimposed upon reality and not ordinarily experienced in the terms in which he presents them by the average life. And he freezes them in Laocoon-like anguish which offers no possibility of escape from their author's labels, "Time's Laughingstocks" and "bond-servants of chance". Larkin, by recreating the building processes rather than the accomplished model of a dark universe, presents to the realist no easy exit. Whatever cynicism and despair is expressed grows out of situations so mundane and universal; misinterpreted laughter, a room that signifies penury, routine domesticity, an invitation to a houseparty, that no one fails to recognize them. Within these situations the embattled minds of his personae grapple with questions of free will and fate, neither one of which is accepted as the final answer. No sooner is one emotion or idea proposed as the truth, then it grimaces at the speaker with the leer of a lie. No sooner is another discarded as a lie then it buds into a small truth. Both in their mental vacillations and in the audacious humor with which they often confront despair, Larkin's characters resist the idea of their own victimization which Hardy's characters too often appear to welcome. What keeps Larkin's poems afloat is that continuous, convoluted movement of minds which press through self-deception, rationalization, recrimination, and defense, exposing the partiality of every 'position', toward what the poems discover as the fundamental ambiguity—man's fate and his will.
Perhaps the broadest definition of the Movement, one that would include Larkin, is to call it exactly what Dylan Thomas is not (in fact Thomas is a frequent favorite target of theirs). Larkin's poetry is not visionary, vatic, subjective, emotional, or wordy. It continues that strain of British poetry that emphasizes thoughtfulness, plain language, moral consciousness, and reason. It is skeptical rather than optimistic: it sees the universe as physical process rather than as sacred harmony; and it sees humanity as small, unheroic, selfish, anxious, pathetic, and conflicted. Its plainness of language and reasonableness of style reflect skepticism in a way that lyricism and poetic diction cannot. Larkin regards his own worst fault as "lack of resonance". To the extent that resonance in poetry implies lyricism, one can see that Larkin's 'lack' is an inescapable part of his unillusioned view; for irrespective of the meaning of the words involved, the sound of resonance, its musical and rhythmic force, is the nonsemantic sound of faith, optimism, harmony.
The reason behind Larkin's plain style, what may be called its "raison d'éthique", is implicit in his poems and is based upon the condition of the world as he sees it. Orwell made a statement of that condition in the mid 1940's:
Since about 1930 the world has given no reason for optimism whatever. Nothing is in sight except a welter of lies, hatred, cruelty and ignorance, and beyond our present troubles loom vaster ones which are only now entering the European consciousness. It is quite possible that man's major problems will never be solved.
[Kenneth Allsop, The Angry Decade, 1958]
Rejection of a style that employs eloquence, exhalted emotionalism, baroque diction, is less a rejection of these rhetorical items per se than it is a recognition that they imply optimism and hope. They ring false to contemporary poetic sensibility. They seem an attempt to will into existence, or to shout into existence through sheer power of voice, universal harmony that does not exist. In Larkin's poems there is little of the type of resonance heard in Thomas's "Heads of the characters hammer through daisies; / Break in the sun till the sun breaks down" to cover the roar of what is to Larkin cosmic emptiness: "Oh attics cleared of me. Oh absences!"
That is not to say that there is no lyricism in Larkin's poems, but his persistent refusal to allow the individual voice to be swallowed by eternal harmonies is reflected in their dialogical mode as well as in their imagery. Moustached women, puking boys, cart-ruts in mud-lanes resist transformation into something wonderful and strange. And the perplexed, argumentative, searching talk of the poems: "It may be that through habit these do best", "The difficult part of love is being selfish enough", "Too subtle that, too decent too. Oh hell", unlike the voice of celebration or reverie is a sour, off-key note in the close harmony of the spheres. Yet when Larkin's voices move from the idiosyncracies of speech with maximal voice print into the lyrical endings of The Whitsun Weddings, "Dublinesque", or "At Grass", the movement is felt by contrast to be of great weight and significance, inherently both a loss and a gain which the paradoxical life-death imagery of the closing of the poems reinforces.
Perhaps both Hardy's influence and the unavoidable truth of Orwell's statement are accountable for the fact that Larkin has skipped over or rejected the more startling innovations in English literature as practiced by Pound, Eliot, Sitwell, Joyce—the leaders of the Poetic Revolution. Although he is associated with a group of poets called the 'New Formalists' or 'New Traditionalists', Larkin's brand of modernism seems less a throw-back to earlier principles, as the term 'neo' would imply, than new growth on an old traditional tree, with differences resulting naturally in its adaptation to new forces in the environment. The more radical departures of the Poetic Revolution—the disappearance of a clear element of rational meaning; cryptic, esoteric, and erudite allusions; disconnected collage of images; eccentric vocabulary—are not characteristics of Larkin's poetry. 'Modern' elements that do appear—irregular meter, diminished melodiousness, irony, puns, and idiomatic language—while promoted by Pound, Eliot, et al, certainly are not innovations.
Structurally, Larkin's poems combine the traditional and the modern. He occasionally writes in a manner that resembles free verse, but the form is never entirely freed. For example, "Water", which is metrically and syllabically free, retains strict stanza divisions that conform to thought moving logically:
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes.
"Coming", which is as close as Larkin gets to free verse, employs a basic five syllable line and three rhymed pairs, two of them widely separated, in a poem of nineteen lines: "reconciling / nothing", "evenings / sings", "serene / scene".
For the most part, however, his poems are basically iambic, basically rhymed, and basically stanzaic; and his most telling formal characteristic is to free the poems from these bases. Formal tension exists not only between prose and poetic meter, but between symmetry and asymmetry throughout the poem. For example, freed rhythm might return to the iambus as a touchstone:
Well, useful to get that learnt.
In my wallet are still two snaps
Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.
Unlucky charms, perhaps.
Or stanza divisions will be strictly even but conclude in a run-on line so that the stanza's conventional function of thought or image shift is combined with non-stanzaic continuity:
… Surely, to think the lion's share
Of happiness is found by couples—sheer
Inaccuracy, as far as I'm concerned.
("Reasons for Attendance")
Or slant rhyme or the repetition of final consonants only will settle into hard rhyme:
The lake, the sunshine,
The grass to lie on, …
Blurred playground noises
Beyond black-stockinged nurses—
Not a bad place to be.
Yet it doesn't suit me.
But it is Larkin's language rather than his forms that breaks most sharply with the modernisms practiced not only by the leaders of the Poetic Revolution but by their successors, Empson, Auden, Thomas, who are alike, as different from each other they are in other respects, in employing a language composed of extraordinary phrases, uncommon words, and confounding combinations of ordinary words. Although Larkin states that The Movement, "if it had any real core at all, was essentially a reversion to the virtues of the thirties", and that his own poetic education was "in the Auden tradition—objective, outward-looking, political, materialist, unpretentious", his language is of the variety "kept alive by Graves" [Judith Anne Johnson, unpubl. thesis]. And it is [Robert] Graves, after all, who most vocally attacks modernist language as "cloacinal ranting, snook-cocking, pseudo-professional jargon" and "incrustations of nonsense … double talk" ["These be your Gods"]. Whether or not The Movement was a reversion to "something of the style of Empson" [Johnson thesis] as Larkin says, in view of certain other of his statements it seems he would have to agree with [Charles] Tomlinson that Empson's "development has consisted largely of a retreat into style…. The object of the poems tends to disappear, as in the early Letter II and the later Bacchus with its crossword puzzle approach and its six pages of notes, and we are left with a handful of conceits" ["Poetry Today," The Modern Age, 1961]. Tomlinson's objection to Empson's style may be more specifically directed against Empson's choice and combination of words:
Roll not the abdominal wall; the walls of Troy
Lead, since a plumb-line ordered, could destroy.
Roll rather, where no mole dare sap, the lawn,
And ne'er his tumuli shall tomb your brawn.
Larkin's own disenchantment with Auden is largely an exasperation with linguistic conundrums. Auden changed, Larkin says [in "What's Become of Wystan," The Spectator, Vol. CCV, July 15, 1960],
from a social poet full of energetic, unliterary knock-about and unique lucidity of phrase [to one who is] too verbose to be memorable.
For some time he has insisted that poetry is a game, with the elements of a crossword puzzle; it is 'luck of verbal playing'. One need not be a romantic to suspect that this attitude will produce poetry exactly answering to that description.
It is unfortunate that Robert Conquest dragged out the banner, "the language of men", to wave over the poets in New Lines. It was already soiled when Wordsworth used it, and is by now so tattered and splattered as to make the poets who march under it indistinguishable. The language of men is, after all, all language, and if Conquest meant by that phrase the words and rhythms of average conversation then he means a language that has been attributed to Pope, Browning, Frost, Wordsworth, Whitman, and many others. The phrase unquestionably applies to Larkin but it does little to indicate his uniqueness or the nature of his linguistic break with modernism. Larkin writes poetry which communicates primarily to the mind, not to the intellectual mind, but to the understanding, the mind that apprehends idea in experience. To do so requires a language that derives from thought rather than from dream or from the Freudian or Jungian unconscious. It cannot be a language which by its very nature resists being understood. It is exactly that language which defenders of modernism object to. In an oblique negative reference to The Movement, Spender says:
Poetry itself is invaded by the prose idea, the reaction against what is dismissed as a period of 'experiment'. The reaction is called 'consolidation' or the revival of 'traditionalism', or 'correctness' or 'clarity'. But of course behind these labels is the assumption that it is possible to be clear in a period of confusion, that it is possible to be traditional when the line of tradition has been fragmented, that it is possible to consolidate the 'experiments' of Joyce.
A similar explanation is offered by G. S. Fraser for Surrealistic poetry such as the following by J. F. Hendry:
Cast in a dice of bones I see the geese of Europe
Gabble in skeleton jigsaw, and their battered anger
Scream a shark-teeth frost through splintering earth and lips.
"The obscurity of our poetry", Fraser says, "its air of something desperately snatched from dream or woven round a chime of words, are the results of disintegration, not in ourselves but in society" [Quoted by Tomlinson].
The point of Larkin's "traditionalism", "correctness", "clarity", to use Spender's words, is not that these are formalist "causes célé bres" but that they are the means of writing communicative poetry. The point of Joyce's (novels), Pound's, Eliot's, often Thomas's and Yeats's, the post Symbolists' and Surrealists' poetry is that in their search for the prophetic, or mystical, or subconscious-tapping word, the word which in some way was to harmonize or reintegrate cultural disintegration, they tended to compound that disintegration. Not only were their results often not understandable with reference to experience but their efforts led to highly subjective poems which were finally understood only by the writer. On this score, Larkin comments [in All What Jazz, 1970]:
Modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound or Picasso … helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying and more outrageous.
One trend of Modernism, typified by Joyce and Thomas (following Hopkins), has been the baroque piling up of words with the aim of arriving at the 'whatness', or 'essence', or 'inscape' of whatever is perceived or felt:
After the funeral, mule praises, brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
[Dylan Thomas, "In Memory of Ann Jones"]
With futurist onehorse balletbattle pictures
Ben Dollard's voice barreltone … Croak of vast manless moonless womoonless marsh.
(Lines from Finnegan's Wake and Ulysses)
The search for the right word, the perfect word, is, in these examples, part of the piece itself, a component of the finished product. Larkin's traditionalism, or what may be called 'classicism' in this respect, is that the search for the word goes on outside the poem. The process of groping, paring away, discarding, comparing remains in the author's mind. What appears in the poem is the final word, convincing because it is decisive:
A snivel on the violins: …
On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar.
Even these fragments expose by comparison with the quotations from Thomas and Joyce a quality of frenzied search for the always elusive word. In contrast, Larkin's language demonstrates the usability of usual words. The ease and simplicity of his language implies faith in the communicability of words existing in the common idiom which, in spite of the poems' expressions of despair, resignation, or absurdity, serves as a reintegration of values.
Larkin also diverges from the effect on its language of the Poetic Revolution's loudly proclaimed reaction against Victorian 'narcissism', and 'romantic egotism'. Again the reaction tended to become an exaggeration and extension of the fault elaborately hidden behind a surface of new techniques. No Victorian carried narcissism or subjectivity so far as Joyce, Pound, or Yeats in their inventions of language so private and symbolic images so personal as to be indecipherable even to a highly educated audience. The outer limits of egotism are reached in Finnegan's Wake which insists that all men learn one man's language; in Pound's Cantos in which the images insist, "it is so because I say it is so, no referential proof necessary"; and in those of Yeats's poems which refer to privately invented mythology.
Larkin's language avoids just such subjectivity. His most personal poems are universalized by speaking in the vernacular. He obviously eschews sentimentality and the other 'excesses' that fill the Victorian Golden Treasury, but he does not make the modern error of confusing sentimentality with subjectivity. Though sentimentality seems egotistically to assume that the writer's own emotions will be shared by all, its success with the public proves that it is quite right in that assumption. In one sense sentimentality is the farthest extreme from subjectivity since what it taps into is the norm of a universal or cultural pat response with none of the complications of individual responses. Stock response is evoked by the use of the most commonplace language and the most commonplace images possible. In "I Remember, I Remember", as elsewhere, Larkin counters sentimentality on its own grounds. In contrast with Modernists who escape sentimentality by using private languages and esoteric imagery, he shows stock response to be false by presenting an alternative viewpoint in common language. In doing so he revalidates the effectiveness of the language men speak:
Our garden first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn't spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest.
One of the possible pitfalls of language as simple as Larkin's is pointed out by [David] Daiches [in The Present Age in British Literature, 1965]:
A superficial clarity may be the result of depending too heavily on shop-worn words and idioms which appear to have a poetic meaning but which in fact on repeated and careful reading can be seen to lack all precision, and individuality.
Larkin often uses "shop-worn words" as the above quotation and the one following indicate:
No, I have never found
The place where I could say
This is my proper ground,
Here I shall stay;
Nor met that special one
Who has an instant claim
On everything I own
Down to my name.
("Places, Loved Ones")
But the meanings of the poems do not ride on individual words. Phrasing, the unique turn of thought, dialectic between thoughts, and fluctuations in tone of voice renew shop-worn words. At any rate the pitfall of clarity is less dangerous, and certainly less an affront to the reader, than the pit that is emptied of meaning once the riddle of diction is removed.
Larkin also departs from modernist practices that attend closely to Pound's warning, "go in fear of an abstraction ". "Days", "Ignorance", "Places, Loved Ones", "Next, Please", among many others, are full of abstract language:
Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching: every day
Till then we say.
Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is true or right or real,
But forced to qualify or so I feel,
Or, Well, it does seem so:
Someone must know.
Such abstract language is appropriate to the subject which is the Never Happened, the Always Wished For, the tragic discrepancy between the ideal and the real.
Larkin's reversion to pre-modernist use of language allows him to achieve, in addition to objectivity and communicativeness, tonal range. Using as his base a median, conversational English, he can ascend and descend without climbing too high or dropping too low. Slight modulations suffice to create dramatic shifts in mood and tone. In "Wedding Wind", for example, rising emotion is suggested without exaggeration by the lines: "Shall I be let to sleep / Now this perpetual morning shares my bed?" because they have been preceded by the easy prosiness of "a stable door was banging, again and again / … and I / Carry a chipped pail to the chicken-run". In "Church Going", for another example, a tone of flippancy, "some brass and stuff / Up at the holy end", is altered to one of gravity, "A serious house on serious earth it is", without departing radically from the linguistic norm of the poem: "Wondering what to look for; wondering, too, / When churches fall completely out of use / What we shall turn them into".
Larkin's language may be called both democratic and moral. It is democratized by its intelligibility to the general reading public, and moral in not "blarneying its way'. It is not the language of the intellectual elite, nor that of the confidence man. It is morality that 'squats' in the language of the poems which, as Larkin puts it in another context in "Toads", "will never allow me to blarney / My way to getting / The fame and the girl and the money / All at one sitting", and which, in an important way, separates it from the language of the Poetic Revolution.
The second most important aspect of Larkin's 'traditionalism' is his shifting away from another Modernist dogma—the absolute importance placed on concreteness, 'thinginess', or Dinglichkeit. Pound decreed that the vehicle of poetry was to be things: objects, whether taken from dream, fancy, or reality, were to stand in for states of mind or emotion. Pound's contemporary English Symbolists, the Imagists, the later Surrealists, and virtually all poetry since then, as the following recent examples show, have served that principle with unquestioning allegiance. Presentation of idea without its embodiment in the 'objective correlative' of a Thing practically vanished from poetry:
The month of the drowned dog. After long rain the land
Was sodden as the bed of an ancient lake,
Treed with iron and birdless. In the sunk lane
The ditch—a seep silent all summer—
[Ted Hughes, "November"]
White, these villages. White
their churches without altars. The first snow
falls through a grey-white sky
and birch-twig whiteness turns
whiter against the grey. White
the row of pillars.
[Charles Tomlinson, "In Connecticut"]
The disappearance of the speech of thought, as such, and its replacement by what in a broad sense must be called 'description' contributes, along with experiments in language, to the obfuscation of meaning in modern poetry. Except in the greatest of Dinglichkeit poetry such as "Prufrock", the importance of tone of voice in the dramatization of human personality has been usurped by things. In Larkin's poems, tone of voice, above all, is important. He verifies human personality by liberating speech from things. He can write lines in which not a 'thing' appears:
Therefore I stay outside
Believing this; and they maul to and fro,
Believing that; and both are satisfied,
If no one has misjudged himself. Or lied.
("Reasons for Attendance")
Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn,
And easily bored to love.
Not that Larkin avoids imagistic writing, but he brings it into conjunction with that straight speech of thought-without-pictures which is all but absent in modern tradition but which is part and parcel of the tradition before 1914. Larkin's descriptions are vivid and accurate:
Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
But description is there for the purpose of grounding a state of mind in reality. The poem goes on to what is humanly important, a question, an answer, a speculation:
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature.
The great emphasis on things in modern poetry seems to spring from the same source as the fear of the failure of language. In a world of dissolving values, things—the sensible properties of sheer materiality—become the bases of psychic security. Yet, paradoxically, things are emptied of psychic value. Fear seems evident in such statements as the following [by William Dickey, "Poetic Language," Hudson Review, Vol. XVII, 1964-65]:
This ability to see is neither easy nor usual, and it represents one of the most important ways in which the floating world of poetic language can be given a persistent human relevance, a persistent reference back to the solidities of existence.
That statement refers to Ciardi's lines in "Person to Person":
Morning glories, pale as a mist drying
fade from the heat of the day, but already
hunchback bees in pirate pants and with peg-leg
hooks have found and are boarding them.
Similarly, [Anne] Stevenson praises Elizabeth Bishop's "pre-occupation with the surfaces of things", and with "what can be suggested by a selection and presentation of surface" [Elizabeth Bishop, 1966]. Typical of the resulting poetry are these lines from "Fish":
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
And Rosenthal says of Tomlinson [in The New Poets, 1967], comparing him with Larkin to the latter's disadvantage:
The mood, the readiness for perception, requires a certain restraint of personality … so that the eye … may be as responsive as possible…. Tomlinson holds the advantage of making his poem a discovery of concrete phenomenon.
Rosenthal's example of Tomlinson's "eye" is:
Larkin himself comes in for both praise or censure depending upon how closely he conforms to the contemporary critical bias in favor of 'things'. Rosemary Dean praises the authenticity of "bleached / Established names on sunblinds" [Commonweal, Vol. LXXXI, Dec. 25, 1964]. And Enright applauds the concreteness of "the reek of buttoned carriage seats". Starting with a similar premise, Rosenthal censures "Here" because, he says:
It is as though Larkin had suddenly remembered his gloomy tenets and snapped himself out of delighted absorption in reality … in the excitement of sense-awareness as Williams might have done.
In its fear of the absence of shared values or of universally similar states of mind, modern poetry's attempts to find a common objective ground in the things of the external world has tended to become more subjective on less common ground. Ciardi's striving for concreteness in the image of bees quoted above, for example, results in the subjectivity he probably was trying to avoid. To some eyes, bees may look hunchbacked, and in the "impossible endlessness of observation" the balloon-shaped protrusions of fuzz on their legs may be seen as resembling pirate pants [A. Alvarez, The Shaping Spirit, 1958]. But they may also be seen as resembling harem pants, or Dutchboy pants, or what have you. The critical question must be: what has made Ciardi see them as pirate pants and not as something else which fancy can equally justify? How does the meaning of the poem—if it has a meaning beyond fanciful, imagistic simile—justify that particular fancy? How is significance built out of the image he has chosen? Another question must be: beyond the rather far-fetched visual resemblance, what is there about the nature of bees and the act in which they are engaged which is like the act of pirates? Though they 'board' their object and carry off something from it, it is difficult to think of a life activity that cannot be seen in the same way. And unlike pirates, they neither ravage nor destroy. The nautical word "board" is used in an effort to validate the metaphor by extending it, but it remains, along with the peculiar vision of "Morning glories" as ships, arbitrary and subjective.
The resemblance between these fragments by Hughes, Tomlinson, Bishop, and Ciardi to the touchstone of imagist poetry, the complete fragment, Pound's "Station of the Metro": "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough", is that they are provocative sensory stimuli which evoke in the reader an emotion or idea that may or may not be the one the author buried in the image. Larkin's reintroduction of thought into the surface of the poem produces a symbiotic relationship between idea and image which recreates connectedness between the internal and external world, not only of the speaker, but of the reader. The lines from "Mr Bleaney", quoted above, show how Larkin picks out of the event or environment those details which contribute to an experience that involves not only seeing, but cognition. With few exceptions ("Age", "If, My Darling"), Larkin's imagery is not psyche symbolizing itself, projecting from itself a subjective psychological landscape, but verifiable reality to which mind and mood react. The terms of the poetic image testify to a certain state of mind; but approached through the additional avenues of tone of voice and articulated thought, the state of mind verifies the image, disallowing idiosyncratic sight.
One other by-product of the modern slogan "no ideas but in things" which Larkin avoids is the tendency for emphasis on concreteness to deteriorate into emphasis on sight at the expense of the other senses. The modern poet keeps his eyes open. He is visually aware of his environment. When Donald Hill praises Richard Wilbur's "close disinterested observation", he means his visual perceptiveness—his ability to describe that which is seen. When Rosenthal finds that Larkin's "Send No Money" suffers from "the obvious fact that its mood is anchored in no justifying referent … a voice without a body; there is no dive into the specifics of observation", he is saying that the poet has not embodied his mood in the visual properties of a concrete object. When Stevenson approves Elizabeth Bishop for the "accuracy of her perceptions", she means the accuracy of her eyes.
"Dinglichkeit" in Larkin's poems is not confined to the visual properties of things. There is not only a mind that thinks about what the eyes see, but also olfactory, auditory, and kinesthetic senses. Concreteness includes smell:
A smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage cloth.
Within the terminate and fishy-smelling
Pastoral of ships
I changed, / And ate an awful pie
The boy puking his heart out in the Gents
An uncle shouting smut
That note you hold, narrowing and rising
Their heads clasped abruptly
sensing the smoke and sweat,
The wonderful feel of girls
Palsied old step-takers,
Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters
… as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling.
Larkin is more accurately described as a non-conformist to modernism than as a traditionalist. His poems sound modern: they capture contemporary sensibility and deal with contemporary problems. In his non-conformism, he avoids esoteric language of all kinds—that which is privately invented, and that which is taken from less known classics, mythology, religion. He also avoids over-burdening his poems with 'things' at the expense of thought and tone of voice. At bottom his non-conformism is a return to communicative poetry: there is someone talking and the assumption of someone listening and understanding. It implies faith both that there is an audience and that the audience shares a common tongue viable enough to communicate the full range of experience.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405
Kuby, Lolette. "Bibliography." In An Uncommon Poet for the Common Man: A Study of Philip Larkin's Poetry, pp. 181-90. Paris: Mouton, 1974.
A detailed bibliography citing some of Larkin's lesser-known works.
Jacobson, Dan. "Profile 3: Philip Larkin." The New Review I, No. 3 (June 1974): 25-9.
A profile based on biographical questions, with some literary commentary.
Motion, Andrew. Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life. New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1993, 570 p.
A teacher at Hull, literary executor to Larkin, and friend, the author states that the poet lived simply, "in the strictest sense, a writer's life," so that he could concentrate on his craft.
Heaney, Seamus. "Now and in England." Critical Inquiry III, No. 3 (Spring 1977): 483-88.
Considers Larkin's language as "rational music," "rational light," comparing it to that of many of his English forebears.
Kissick, Gary. "They Turn on Larkin." The Antioch Review LII, No. 1 (Winter 1994): 64-70.
Explores "Larkin-bashing" in the wake of the publication of his letters and Andrew Motion's biography. Kissick cites Larkin's racism, misogyny, and "confused and morose" attitudes toward sex.
Kuby, Lolette. An Uncommon Poet for the Common Man: A Study of Philip Larkin's Poetry. Paris: Mouton, 1974, 190 p.
Comprehensive overview placing Larkin among his contemporaries.
Martin, Bruce. Philip Larkin. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978, 166 p.
Approaches Larkin from two perspectives: American New Criticism and the British "men of letters."
Osterwalder, Hans. British Poetry between the Movement and Modernism: Anthony Thwaite and Philip Larkin. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1991, 299p.
Re-evaluates Larkin's work vis-a-vis his own antimodernist stance and the French symbolists.
Perloff, Marjorie. "What to Make of a Diminished Thing." Parnassus: Poetry in Review XIX, No. 2 (1994): 9-30.
Reviews Selected Letters of Philip Larkin and Philip Larkin, A Writer's Life, providing a less harsh appraisal of Larkin's right-wing tendencies than Kissick's article.
Phillips, Robert. "The Art of Poetry XXX." The Paris Review XXIV, No. 84 (Summer 1982): 45-72.
Interview in which Larkin speaks of his personal life and development as a writer.
Whalen, Terry. "Philip Larkin's Imagist Bias: His Poetry of Observation." Critical Quarterly XXIII, No. 2 (Summer 1981): 29-46.
Aligns Larkin with the Imagists as "a poet of sensation and impression."
Additional coverage of Larkin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960 to Present; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 117; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 24; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 5, 8, 9, 13, 18, 33, 39, 64; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; and Major Twentieth-Century Writers.
Merle Brown (essay date 1977)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7362
SOURCE: "Larkin and His Audience," in The Iowa Review, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Fall, 1977: 117-33.
[Here, Brown focuses on Larkin's "absences, " not solely as symbols from nature, but as referents for his audience.]
Readers of Philip Larkin's poetry keep writing about it, even though they recognize how simple and clear it is, because they also sense that its most distinctive aspect is indefinable, not just in criticism of the poetry but in the poetry itself. Because this aspect of Larkin's poetry seems by its very nature to be inexpressible, it needs speaking of in as many ways as possible, if the very sense of it is not to lapse. It seems that only the obvious can be said of Larkin, and that everyone who has written on him has said it again and again, in one way or another, since it is as simple and clear as a glass of water. Yet, because it cannot be defined, doubts remain as to whether either his most sympathetic critics, like John Wain, David Timms, and Alan Brownjohn, or his more severe, like Colin Falck, Donald Davie, and Calvin Bedient are responding to what makes Larkin's poetry of distinctive value.
Of Larkin himself, however, there can be no doubt. His choice of "Absences" as his own favorite poem for the anthology, Poet's Choice, as early as 1962, indicates that even then he had a sure sense of the indefinable aspect of his poetry that gives it its value. For "Absences" comes closer than any other of Larkin's poems to being explicit about what is inexplicable.
Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,
A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
Where there are no ships and no shallows.
Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,
Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.
Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!
John Press uses "Absences," in a recent article, as an instance of those of Larkin's poems which "evoke a world transcending the contingencies and imperfection of daily existence," a world "whose nature can be hinted at by the medium of images drawn from the inexhaustible realm of nature—sun, moon, water, sky, clouds, distance" ["The Poetry of Philip Larkin," The Southern Review, Vol. XIII, Jan. 1977]. Donald Davie's unarguable claim that Larkin buys "sympathy with the human, at the price of alienation from the non-human" should insure that Press is not misheard as saying that "Absences" is a nature poem, a poem sympathetic with the nonhuman [Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, 1973]. For Press says only that Larkin uses images from nature, and it is clear that the phrase, "the inexhaustible realm," is the critic's, not the poet's. Press is, however, wrong to attribute a transcending world to the poet. Larkin himself is more precise. He says of the poem [in Poet's Choice]:
I fancy it sounds like a different, better poet than myself. The last line, for instance, sounds like a slightly unconvincing translation from a French symbolist.
If "Absences" does evoke a transcendent world, it is only in the shape of an unconvincing translation. That is what Larkin likes about the poem. What remains, in the place of that disbelieved, denied world, is the indefinable aspect of his poetry to which I have been pointing. The poem is "cleared of me," the biographically identifiable ego is absent from it. Yet it is no world, natural or supernatural. It is a very human attending and exclaiming; it is nothing, that unobjectifiable, un-delimitable act of observing, thinking, and speaking. The act itself cannot be seen or heard; in truth, it cannot even be thought, because to think it is to objectify it, to treat it as a mental object or fact, whereas its essential nature, as an act that arches over and assimilates both self and world, is to be irreducible to that which is other than itself, to the posited, to the factual. There is, however, nothing superhuman, Teutonic, or metaphysical about it, even though it is no part of the world as it is thought about in the Tractatus. By alliterating "absences" with "attics," Larkin calls attention to its humanness, even its commonness. It is awesome only in the sense that it is invulnerable, but it is available to any and all who will simply pull back from the existent world and live the invisible, inaudible, inarticulable attending aspect of their humanity along with whatever else they may have to do and suffer in the real, existent human and nonhuman world. Larkin is very careful to help his audience hear the last line in just this, the proper way. The conspicuous alliteration in the last line of the first stanza insures that, as the absence of all human beings is being affirmed, their presence as the indefinable act of viewing the sea as free of all human beings is gently suggested. The sea is made to remind one of a funhouse, with its collapsing floors, its tiltings and drops, its playfulness. The indefinable aspect of the poem, the saving, indefinable aspect of humanity, to which even the vast images of the sea and the sky are inadequate, is safe and homey. It has nothing to do with the fearfulness of nihilism or existentialistic absurdity. It is that absolute security into which the poem leads one to retreat from the meaninglessness of existence, of everything objective, whether ideal or real.
It is not otherworldly, only nonworldly. The "yet more shoreless day" does, of course, have its shores, as does everything in the objective world, whatever its expanse. Even the final exclamation, "Such absences!", is pressed into a delimited shape by the verbal imagining of the undelimitable nothing who does not give himself up even to the poem as object, offering it as a self-consuming artifact, to be broken down along with all selves as entities, and assimilated into the perfect freedom of being invisibly pleased. In such freedom, there is no respect for persons, there is no hierarchic stratification, one and all are anonymous. The most authentic statement Larkin has made outside his poetry is: "I think it's important not to feel crushed" [The London Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 6, Nov. 1964]. That is the essence of the inexplicable freedom that gives his poems their distinctive value. However silly Larkin is willing to make himself seem within his poems, he is never crushed, because he has his true life in that undelimitable, uncrushable act of attending, of imagining, of speaking. His poems make an appeal, it is true, as though Larkin were an entertainer, who would as a result be subject to anxieties concerning the ups and downs of audience response. If the appeal fails, however, the loss is the reader's, not Larkin's, for he is never fully engaged in any objective situation or encounter, whereby he might be hurt or crushed. The same sort of aloofness indeed is what he offers to all, not as a way of life, but as an aspect of whatever way of life one may be connected with. It is easy of access, and priceless because invulnerable.
"Solar," a poem in Larkin's most recent volume, High Windows, is enough like "Absences" to indicate how steady his fidelity has been. It is quite clearly "a slightly unconvincing translation from a French symbolist."
Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single, stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.
The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin:
Your petalled head of flames
Heat is the echo of your
Coined there among
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.
Actually, this poem is an unconvincing translation not of a French symbolist, but of the final poem in Thorn Gunn's Moly, "Sunlight." Gunn works to be precise about the sun in its nonhuman remoteness and otherness, and yet he also strives to be precise about the exact nature of the sun as an image of our desires. The poem ends in a highly individual address to the sun taken doubly, as it is and as it "outlasts us at the heart."
Great seedbed, yellow centre of the flower,
Flower on its own, without a root or stem,
Giving all colour and all shape their power,
Still recreating in defining them,
Enable us, altering like you, to enter
Your passionless love, impartial but intense,
And kindle in acceptance round your centre,
Petals of light lost in your innocence.
Although Gunn seems to be in accord with Alvarez's claim that "since Freud the late Romantic dichotomy between emotion and intelligence has become totally meaningless," he is emphasizing the stress between what one knows and what one desires ["The New Poetry, or Beyond the Gentility Principle," The New Poetry, 1962]. It is the pain of holding the known and the desired up against each other that gives "Sunlight" its power. That power, moreover, is enhanced by the way Gunn's sunlight refracts light coming to him from "Burnt Norton IV" ("After the kingfisher's wing / Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still / At the still point of the turning world") as well as from the last canto of the Paradiso. Gunn's "Sunlight" disproves Donald Davie's claim that, along with its violation of the non-human, mass industrialization and suburbanization has so damaged the traditional language of celebration that images like water and wheat have lost their poetic potency.
For Larkin, on the contrary, no object, not even the sun, deserves such adoration. He accepts the debasement of all objects and images and uses even the supreme object, the sun, in such a way as to reduce it to mere words in the service of his special kind of human freedom. That freedom entails a recognition that one cannot rely on anything outside himself as an origin, as a source of value, and that, if one separates himself off from his needs and from those aspects of himself which are visible, which "exist openly," he himself can be that which no object, real or ideal, can be, inviolably self-originative. To accomplish this, one must split himself as intelligence off from his needs and emotions. Larkin is willing to do it in order to be uncrushable. When he snaps out "Sod all" or "Books are a load of crap," when he reduces "essential beauty" to a picture slapped up on a billboard, he is not just being mean and nasty, but is insisting that all objects are ultimately unconvincing.
In "Solar," instead of a beholding of the sun with adoration, Larkin offers the hilarious shenanigans of a verbal artist whipping the silly sun about with metaphorical abandon, shaking it like a baby toy. The word "Solar" itself makes the sun small, shrunken by commerce and science. It is just something hung up there, suspended in a room with no furniture, a naked bulb, but magical, without wires. It may be a "lion face," but it is a comic one, spilling like a sack of wheat, pouring like a salt shaker. "Continuously exploding" set against "petalled head of flames" is all show, fireworks. The sun's gold is coined, it is just legal tender, solar coinage. The sun, at bottom, is like a picture on a billboard, an illuminated hand unclosing over and over, to which we send our needs and receive them back, unchanged. In its dismissiveness, its mildly sad contempt, the poem is jovial. There is hidden laughter at the loss of one more source of security, for there is such security in one's own self-source. Larkin feels that modernist jazz must be all wrong, because it comes across so clearly as not "the music of happy men" [All What Jazz]. If Larkin's poetry is at times tedious and irritating, it is not because of its chronic sadness, but because of what lies behind it, making it a sham sadness, that is, its gaiety, its jollity, won without effort and held to so jauntily.
In the introduction to the 1966 reprint of his pre-poetic volume of verse, The North Ship, Larkin says he woke up poetically when he realized that Hardy's "Thoughts of Phena At News of Her Death" was not a gloomy poem. He also admits that, because the volume of Yeats which so influenced The North Ship stopped at "Words for Music Perhaps," he "never absorbed the harsher last poems." If Larkin did, in his maturity, overcome Yeats's influence and write under Hardy's, just as important is the fact that the gaiety which charges Larkin, as it nowhere charges Hardy, resembles that of late harsh poems of Yeats like "Lapis Lazuli," which ends:
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
Yeats says it and aspires to it; Larkin does it. There is nothing heroic in Larkin, because it requires no effort. The heroic aspect of "Lapus Lazuli" comes from Yeats's feeling that that gaiety is out of his reach, that he is still tied to the natural, dying animal.
It bears repeating, I think, to say that Larkin does not write symbolic poems, only unconvincing translations of them. There are no objective correlatives in his poetry. The sun of "Solar" is shown up as deserving dismissal, as incapable of bodying forth indefinable value. Just so, the sea and "shoreless day" of "Absences," instead of symbolizing mental spaciousness, are made to seem amusingly confined and inadequate, in comparison to the illimitable act of seeing them so. Many of Larkin's poems elude the crushing condescension of unsatisfied critics by crushingly dismissing each and every symbol as inadequate. Alvarez, who quite regularly has the courage to appear in vulnerable ways, called the last poem of The Less Deceived, "At Grass," (which Larkin considers his first good poem), "a nostalgic re-creation of the Platonic (or New Yorker) idea of the English scene, part pastoral, part sporting. His horses are social creatures of fashionable race meetings and high style." Alvarez's dismissive tone echoes crudely the delicately dismissive tone of Larkin him-self, in the very poem Alvarez is dismissing, "At Grass." It is true that the two horses of the poem are better off at grass than when winning races. At grass they have a freedom not unlike that which is the joy of Larkin's poetry. They stand anonymous, they
Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the groom, and the groom's boy
With bridles in the evening come.
Alvarez moves away from the poem uncomprehendingly as a result of placing it next to Hughes's "A Dream of Horses." If it is placed next to "A Blessing" by James Wright, the exquisite edge of "At Grass" will become available, if still invisible. Wright and a friend enter a field where two Indian ponies "come gladly out of the willows" to welcome them. There is a genuine encounter, where the nonhuman and the human momentarily fuse in a joy so delicate that it cannot quite bear the triumph of the poem's ending:
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
In "At Grass," Larkin does not approach the horses, but keeps his distance, the eye just barely picking "them out / From the cold shade they shelter in." If the horses were being offered as representative of a perfect human joy, if a fusion of the human and nonhuman did occur, then the edge of that moment would turn ironically against the poet, who as author of this poem is not slipping his name but making it, winning the poetry race in England. Larkin, however, is aware that by putting these horses into his poem, he is halting their escape into perfect invisibility and anonymity, their "going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly." He is holding them up, a catch, still alive, but corralled within the fence of the poem. Their joy, their freedom, is entirely dependent on the groom and the groom's boy, who "With bridles in the evening come." Even if the reader is merely puzzled by the last two lines, that will be enough to pull him away from the horses, and the poem itself, as objectified, into that condition of aloneness which is identical with oblivion, an identification almost made explicit in the curious little poem, "Wants," also printed in The Less Deceived. What often seem like endings that qualify the rest of the poem, the poet turning on himself and getting the whole truth out so that the poem is perfect, are really working in the opposite way, like trick endings which will insure that the reader not take the poem, or the existence within "the garden" of the poem, too seriously. Imagine a dismissive wave of the hand fading out of sight, and you can sense a generosity in Larkin not matched by Marvell, even if their wit is comparable. Larkin wants to be sure that no reader takes his images too seriously. Highly-wrought language, a dazzle which might draw a reader swooning and yet alert into the imaginative experience of a poem, as a refuge where he could live happily apart from the pressures of the daily grind, Larkin will never imperil a reader with such a gawdy trap. What Larkin would share with his reader, ultimately, is the act of dismissing all images, all symbols, all realizations, all artifacts, the world itself, as inadequate, as inferior to the freedom of looking, imagining, thinking dismissively.
What makes not just Larkin's poems, but also his ataraxic stance, his sustained act of looking, imagining and thinking dismissively, so unstable is that there is only one form of response appropriate to them. Larkin has said that, of "the two tensions from which art springs … the tension between the artist and his material, and between the artist and his audience … the second of these has slackened or even perished," during the past seventy-five years or so, in the works of those artists and poets known as modernists. Although some poets do unquestionably write poems with no sense of how they will be heard, I should have thought that this was characteristic, not of modernist poets, but of romantic or neo-romantic poets. Modernist poets, in contrast, are, if anything, excessively concerned with their audience. They sense an extreme diversification of the ways in which poetry and art are being responded to, not just hostile ways along with sympathetic ones, but, even more challenging, ways which come out of radically different life conceptions. In both The Wasteland and Mercian Hymns, the difficulty of the poetry results from its being responsive to conflicting modes of reading, to what, in the visual-auditory experience of poetry, is like a multiple perspectivism in the visual arts. Much of the genius of Eliot and Hill goes into their shaping the poetry so precisely that the unique way in which each hears his words is realized in sharp and often opposing relation to alternate ways in which those words can be heard. As a result, much of the delight of modernist poetry comes from hearing it in several ways at once, in the poet's own unique way, in the ways from which he has differentiated his own, and in one's own way. The poetry is made to allow for, even to encourage and thrive on, multiple modes of hearing and responding. Such charged vitality—in contrast to the relaxed vitality Larkin admires—is not quite the same as Empsonian ambiguity, Wheelwright's polysignificance, or even Umberto Eco's notion of the open work, for it emphasizes the poet's own unique mode of listening as the creative edge of the poem that evokes and keeps alive all the alternate and opposed ways of listening. In modernist poetry the reader feels responsible for listening as the poet listens, but this requires that he also listen in ways the poet sets himself against, and, ultimately, also in his own way.
The strain of creating such polyphonic poetry must lead even the strongest of modernist poets to the verge of disintegration and breakdown. For weaker aspirants it has no doubt led to what Larkin erroneously describes as typically modernist products, "poems resembling the kind of pictures typists make with their machines during the coffee break, or a novel in gibberish, or a play in which the characters sit in dustbins." Collapsing great modernist works, as Larkin does here, with weak evasions from the strain of the modernist predicament into a single junkheap seems, however, to be itself a perilously evasive move. It is, however, consistent with the poetry Larkin writes, a poetry for a single audience, which listens in a single way determined by Larkin as his way. Claiming falsely that all modernist poetry is like so much, say, of Robert Creeley's, not heard at all, Larkin feels even righteous about writing a poetry which is preeminently hearable, in a single, sopo rific way, indifferent to all other ways, especially thought ful, reflective, critical ways. The aim is pleasure in the form of ease and comfort. One is invited to set aside his larger, human self in its relations with others and with the complexities of his actual situation and to assume the dreamidentity of a single, secure audience, a fictitious cloud of unknowing that takes on real existence only as that into which actual readers and listeners escape. Collingwood was warning forty years ago that entertainment could become so important a part of a person's day that he would cease to live at all except in a make-believe way.
There is, in sum, a weakness in the generosity with which Larkin offers poems that will not disturb his readers. The unstableness of his achievement, moreover, stems from its dependence on his readers' being generous in the same way. The poem "Wants" suggests that Larkin is aware of the instability of the conditions of his poetry:
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff—
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death—
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.
The latent appeal of the poem is that one accept the not quite stated identification of being alone and being in oblivion without reflecting on it or criticizing it. The condition of oblivious aloneness is, to be sure, a delicate one, is, indeed, an aspect of that aloof, dismissive attentiveness which is the inner value of all Larkin's poetry. To be alone but aware of being alone is the painful state of loneliness. In truth, one is not really alone, since he has doubled up into an inner society of being alone and being aware of it. The real aloneness which one desires is an oblivious aloneness, a condition in which others are unaware of one and one is himself unaware of himself as well as of others. The self, moreover, of which one would be unaware is not just the self as one entity among many in the objective world, but also that unidentifiable, unobjectifiable, larger self which is the sustained act of looking at everything dismissively. In the condition of oblivious aloneness, that is, one is dismissive even of one's quintessential dismissiveness.
One is not, of course, to think about this condition, only to experience it, and Larkin, writing from within this condition as from an impregnable fortress, lures the reader who wants what he has with a strikingly subtle technique. At bottom, the technique is the casual lightness of the assertorial tone of the middle three lines of both stanzas. The alternatives to oblivious aloneness are presented not as irritants that make one want to escape into that state and not as attractions in spite of which one wants to make that escape, but as items waved aside and dismissed as negligible. As a result, unless one has read against the grain of the poem, by its end one is himself in the state of oblivious aloneness, unable to remember exactly what it is that he is now beneath and beyond. Properly read, therefore, six of the ten lines of the poem are so forgettable as to be forgotten by the end of the poem: friends, love, family, living with care in time and in thoughtful relation to one's mortality, all such matters are as nothing compared to the comfort of ataraxic aloofness. To think of them would, in fact, destroy the poetic experience, a crucial part of which is the condition of obliviousness.
If a reader begins to fuss, recognizing that there is no hint in the poem that the nature of any of these aspects of living as a human being in the world has been experienced or even thought about by the large, untouchable, uncrushable self dismissing them, so that the dismissal is totally uncompelling and unconvincing, then one will be breaking the implicit contract of the poem, the assumption that the reader shares the poet's wants and will raise no questions if the poem fulfills them. Larkin's own response to such a reader of bad faith is implicit in the following comment which he made in his interview with Ian Hamilton:
There is nothing like writing poems for realizing how low the level of critical understanding is; maybe the average reader can understand what I say, but the above-average often can't.
His "average reader" is, in my terms, one who keeps the faith, holding to the contract, submissively. His "above-average" reader is one who raises questions. In Larkin's terms, to raise questions is to read without understanding, to lack the generosity necessary for the reading of his poetry. He remains invulnerable, no matter what the carping of the critic. Yet that critic raises questions because he has read the poems not only with sympathetic understanding, but also with a reflective, critical understanding of their limitations. His discomfort with the poems, his not understanding them Larkin's way, coincides with his understanding them truthfully.
Even though all Larkin's poems share the instability of being dependent on his actual readers' willingness to occupy unquestioningly the passive position he has reserved for them, it is possible to distinguish the more successful from the less. The more successful will be those poems in which the devices used to bring the reader up to the ataraxia of the poet are inconspicuous. For if the reader notices the devices, as devices, he will become more rather than less alert, a ruinous turn for such poetry. Also, those poems will weather best in which Larkin has most effectively hidden the troublesome moral implications inherent in the dismissive attentiveness into which he would lure his audience, for his sort of euphoria cannot tolerate anything worrisome.
On the grounds, then, of the effective concealment of tricks in the means and of moral disturbances in the end, it should be evident that "Here," the opening poem of The Whitsun Weddings, will prove more durable than the title poem of that volume. Both poems depend on strategies and a moral flaw which must go unnoticed, if the reader is to enjoy the oblivious aloneness of the poems fully. Above all, readers must be kept from puzzling about the nature of the act of observing which is the basis of both poems. That critics of "Here" have already come close to such puzzling without actually lighting on it is a sign that it has the better chance of surviving undamaged.
The very obviousness of the main device of "Here" has perhaps kept it unnoticed. Grammatically, the first nine lines are a compound dangling modifier. The grammatical "error" goes unnoticed, however, because what dangles grammatically does in truth modify an unspecified, unspecifiable act of aloof attentiveness into which the reader obliviously escapes. Once there, once at one with that anonymous act, he will almost certainly ride out the poem in comfort. Although no critic has to my knowledge noted this quirk in grammar in relation to the invisible act of unreflective awareness, only one, Calvin Bedient, has betrayed a failure to experience it by improperly specifying it as taking place on a train [Eight Contemporary Poets, 1974]. A casual reading should bring out the inappropriateness of such placement.
Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
And traffic all night north; swerving through fields
Too thin and thistled to be called meadows,
And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river's slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud,
Gathers to the surprise of a large town:
Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster
Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water,
And residents from raw estates, brought down
The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys,
Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires—
Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies,
Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers—
A cut-price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling
Where only salesmen and relations come
Within a terminate and fishy-smelling
Pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum,
Tattoo-shops, consulates, grim head-scarfed wives;
And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges
Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,
Isolate villages, where removed lives
Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.
Though Larkin does ride a train in other poems, in this one, his swerving from "traffic all night north" suggests that his vehicle is a bus, turning off the M-1 in the direction of Hull. The "harsh-named halt" would not be a railway station, but a sheltered bus stop. The vehicle needn't have halted at the halt, however, so it could as well be a car. What is important, however, is the lack of specification, a lack intended to help one feel unseen as he views the scene.
A more sensitive error is John Wain's saying that Larkin's life is one of those "removed lives // Loneliness clarifies," for it nudges one in the right direction, even though it does not bring him to oblivious aloneness, which is altogether superior to anything involving loneliness ["Engagement or Withdrawal? Some Notes on the Work of Philip Larkin," Critical Quarterly, Vol. VI, 1964]. Loneliness is a social condition, for the lonely are set apart from the "cut-price crowd"; whereas, as oblivious and alone, Larkin or you or me, any and all aloof, anonymous observers, are secure and at home, though radically alienated, wherever they may be, in the city or in an isolate village. The lonely, it is true, are closer to the alone than the crowd is; that is why they come after the crowd in the movement of the poem, which is meant to lead the reader in a gentle swerve to that condition in the objective world which most nearly resembles the condition of the anobjectifiable act of observing which accompanies invisibly the lines of the poem from beginning to end.
Donald Davie commits an even more sensitive error in suggesting that Larkin has been imprecise in the lines "Here leaves unnoticed thicken, / Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken." Larkin, he claims, does clearly notice the leaves, and so forth, so how can he call them unnoticed? Perhaps, Davie speculates, he meant to say that they go unnoticed by that "cut-price crowd." But Larkin is not so sloppy as that. What does not get mentioned throughout the poem, the unmentionable anonymous act of noticing, that is the only noticing the leaves get. Larkin himself does not notice them, for he has slipped his name by the time he is at one with that act of noticing. These lines, moreover, are part of Larkin's subtly non-symbolic technique of luring his reader unreflectively into a oneness with that hidden act of negligent noticing. In the last stanza he is simply setting down what is seen, just as he did in the other three stanzas, and what he sees does not in fact seem as interesting, at least in its details, as what has already been observed. But the tone rises, as though something important is happening. Larkin effects the rise in tone mainly by beginning the three sentences of the stanza (the other sentence of the poem covers the other three stanzas) with the title word "Here." "Here" by the end of the poem is "bluish neutral distance," is "unfenced existence: / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach." The proper response to that is a brief, bemused "Hm, so what?" after which one goes about his business, without further thought. This casual, dismissive attitude is what is truly unfenced, even if "bluish neutral distance" comes closer to such freedom than anything else in the objective world does.
Davie, however, almost blows the poem apart with his last comment on it:
In Larkin's poem one detects a perverse determination that the ultimate ("terminate") pastoral shall be among the cut-price stores, and nowhere else. And the pity felt for the denizens of that pastoral, the "residents from raw estates," is more than a little contemptuous.
From the start of the poem, Larkin's aim has been to ease his reader into the condition of that true "Here" which is nowhere, that hovering, unspecifiable attending with which the reader is to identify himself unawares. From such an unlocatable locus, the attitude taken toward every object, toward everything objectifiable, not just toward that "cutprice crowd," will be a mixture of pity and contempt. Except that, in principle, every member of that crowd might himself be truly at one with the uncrushable act of observing dismissively, so that, as part of that act, one may be enjoying a false sense of superiority by looking down, as he does, upon the crowd. Even so, it is Larkin who has lured him into that falseness, by contrasting the movement of the observing as a "swerving" to the straight line of the "traffic all night north," and then emphasizing the straightness of the crowd by having it "brought down / The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys." He is the one who has made one feel different from and superior to the crowd. He might well weasel, if confronted with this, saying that he did not really mean the contrast, that it was only a manner of speaking. Even admitting the truth of that, one may wonder if it is necessary to the sense of the value of unfenced attending that it be kept in constant contrast to the fenced quality of everything seen, imagined, or thought. One might even wonder whether it isn't a moral uneasiness which makes Larkin come out of the sure comfort of his aloof attentiveness to write poems. Perhaps he writes them so that he can feel superior to them. Or perhaps his comfort is unstable enough to need the reassurance of the belief that others are also of his way of thinking. Perhaps, however, "Here" would not have given rise to any questions at all, if Davie had not come at it with the idea that Larkin values the human scene more than the nonhuman scene. The truth, rather, is that Larkin values the human seeing as equally superior to the human and the nonhuman scenes. His weakness is that, because of the oblivious nature of that seeing, he must keep his preference itself hidden, so that it is imperative that his critics keep making mistakes.
Although "The Whitsun Weddings" was intended by Larkin as the centerpiece of The Whitsun Weddings, it is vulnerable as "Here" is not, and, for that matter, as its own counterparts in The Less Deceived and High Windows, "Church Going" and "The Building" are not. Because of his deep revulsion for the objective, existent world, Larkin cannot put himself as an identifiable human being into a poem except as an object of revulsion or at least as the butt of his anonymous mockery. In contrast to what he does in those other poems, in "The Whitsun Weddings," Larkin puts himself into the poem as an individual, observable entity, but without the slightest hint of mockery or revulsion. Even worse, toward the end of the poem, because attention is called to the breadth of the "I"'s awareness, in contrast to the self-absorption of those just married, and because of the ostentatious metaphorical flourish with which the poem ends, this "I," who as an entity existent within the objective world of the poem must have limits like its every other entity, is presented as possessing, as a poet, the value which only the illimitable, anonymous act of attending dismissively can have. As a result, the poem is tainted by smugness.
Instead of remaining safely hidden as in "Here," in "The Whitsun Weddings" Larkin recklessly seats himself in a train heading south for London. In his characteristic way of noticing things, he first flattens nature with nature violated by industry, ("Wide farms" and "short-shadowed cattle" with "canals with floatings of industrial froth" and "acres of dismantled cars,") and then proceeds to view the wedding participants in the same way he has viewed nonhuman nature and its man-caused violations. The participants are all presented as types ("The fathers with broad belts under their suits / And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat," and so forth) just as animals are noticed according to species and cars lumped together as dismantled. The first direct reference to the brides and bridegrooms, "Fresh couples climbed aboard," might rather be a reference to cattle, and "A dozen marriages got under way" is a manner of speaking more fit for fruit than individual human beings. In themselves, such references scarcely warrant remark, since they are typical of Larkin's attitude toward every object and entity in the existent world.
In this poem, however, they do deserve remark, because of the presence alongside them of the poet himself as just one more such entity who inexplicably and undeservedly escapes any and all dismissive glances and remarks. The reader cannot but observe Larkin looking and looking without ever being looked upon in return. Out the window, as the train leaves another station, he sees girls
The "as if is just a hint that perhaps nothing of a wedding does survive the event. The hint is corroborated two stanzas later; with all the couples aboard, the weddings have turned into "a dozen marriages." The real moral problem, however, does not lie in Larkin's cynicism, but in his observing without being observed. The "us," of course, of "watching us go" is impersonal, referring to the whole train; if those on the platform focus at all, it will be on the married couple they have just seen off. Larkin is in a situation like that of Dante, in the thirteenth canto of the Purgatorio, where he and Vergil come upon those doing penance for their envy. They are seated in a row with their backs against the mountainside, the eyelids of each sewn together, so that they cannot see others, about whom they would then say belittling, cynical things, out of envy. Dante turns away from the view, because to him it seems a moral outrage to be looking at others without being looked back upon in turn. Though he may be proud, there is no streak of envy in Dante. In contrast, Larkin keeps staring at people who are unaware he is looking at them and who do not, as a result, gaze back at him. The anonymous, illimitable act by which the "cut-price crowd" of "Here" is dismissively attended to is, in essence, invisible and unobservable. In "The Whitsun Weddings," however, Larkin takes on the sovereign privileges of such invisible, unnameable observing even though he also presents himself as a visible, existent, individual entity. He should have recognized that such a hybrid is inadmissible in poetry the likes of his. By bringing the act of attending into the scene, he has unknowingly committed an obscenity, in the sense that he has brought on stage what by its nature must occur offstage.
The vice is compounded by the self-congratulatory professionalism of the end of the poem.
It is stated as a fact that not one of the dozen couples gave a moment's thought to any of the others. After the statement, however, its unsettling grounds are provided, inadvertently: "I thought of London spread out in the sun, / Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat." The thoughtlessness of the twelve couples is not, then, a fact, but rather the claim of this thoughtful "I", who is calling attention to his own attentiveness by way of contrast with all those others, who are much like cattle, self-absorbed, looking without seeing. The unsettling aspect of this contrast can be sensed even in John Wain's praise of it:
The human actors in this scene, who will set up homes and mate and keep the human spectacle going, are unreflective: their world is the concrete and the immediate; if we are to have any such things as 'art'—whether poetry or any of the other arts—their actions need to be completed and interpreted by a brooding imaginative vision playing over them from a point of detachment. In a sense the poet's involvement is greater than theirs….
The trouble in the passage lies in the turn from art, poetry, a brooding imaginative vision, to "the poet's involvement," at which point one realizes that Wain is speaking in praise of his friend at the expense of all those others. If Larkin, as I believe, is making for himself, within the poem, the very same claim which Wain makes for him, then the last six lines of the poem should be read as follows. Sad it may be, but no significant change has occurred to the married couples. The specialness, the joy, the sacredness of the weddings does not survive the event. The show, the fireworks, the "arrow-shower," turns to rain. It fructifies, there are droppings of human babes, the populace grows and grows, naturally and thoughtlessly, like wheat. The couples copulate, reproduce, and in time will be fathers and mothers on station platforms, waving goodbye to their just married off-spring. But the rain which the arrow-shower becomes is also the tears of us superior people, who observe "the association of man and woman / In daunsing, signifying matrimonie— / A dignified and commodious sacrament" and think of the unchanging cycle: "Feet rising and falling. / Eating and drinking. Dung and death" [T. S. Eliot, "East Coker I"]. The change that truly gives power is not that of marriage, but that of poetry. Consider, as the example of the poem, the change from the weary worker whose "three-quarters-empty train" pulled out "about / One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday" to the "I" of this ending, loosing from his magnificently broad vision this grand metaphorical display. From just a weary one he has huffed and puffed till he is so big as to include all of England from Hull to London, all of London, and indeed a vision of all of life too. It is a very fine thing to be a poet.
Larkin, it is true, wrote the poem for the comfort of his audience, unreflective viewers rather than unreflective actors and carping critics. In the long run, however, even his own audience will prefer his unpretentious poems, those in which Larkin does not make the mistake of trying to define what is indefinable, of exhibiting what cannot be put on exhibit, that impersonal, invisible, never even quite audible act of observing dismissively.
Richard Brookhiser (review date 1989)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1616
SOURCE: A review of Collected Poems, in The American Spectator, Vol. XXII, No. 10, October, 1989, pp. 46-8.
[In the following review of Collected Poems, Brookhiser examines the language and content of Larkin's poems, concluding that "his world looks severly limited."]
The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin, editor, jazz critic, and librarian at the University of Hull, have appeared four years after his death in a volume edited by Anthony Thwaite. The first thing that strikes the reader is the photograph of Larkin on the jacket, which is notable for its aggressive ugliness. Aggressive implies will, and I use the word advisedly. We are not responsible for our baldness or our wrinkles, which God gives us, but we can choose our glass frames. Larkin's—black, square, heavy—look like a prop from a Monty Python sketch on chartered accountancy, or a spare pair of General Jaruzelski's. He wanted, in other words, to look this way. It suggests the attitude he brought to his art, his career, his life—I'm the way I am, and if you don't like it, who asked you?—the attitude responsible for shaping the slim output preserved in this book.
The chief benefit of Mr. Thwaite's selection is that it will put Larkin in the bookstores. I live in Manhattan, supposedly the publishing and bookselling capital of the country. But I remember the time I had, a few years back, trying to get all of Larkin's individual volumes together. It took months, and I never did find a copy of The Less Deceived. Now we can lay hands on him.
Apart from this, the volume is a curious enterprise. "Many poems," the flap copy boasts, "are collected here for the first time." But with a poet as severe and self-censoring as Larkin that is not necessarily a good thing. In an introduction to a reissue of The North Ship, his first volume, Larkin recalled a "hint" one of his literary mentors had given him years earlier: "Yesterday I destroyed about two thousand poems that mean nothing to me now." Larkin obviously didn't destroy the poems that are here exhumed, but that doesn't mean they are any good. If anything, Larkin should have destroyed a number of the poems he did publish.
One use for the clunkers is a game of Spot the Influence. Here is Auden pottiness, there is a whiff of Yeats.
What lover worries much
That a ghost bids them touch?
A drum taps: a wintry drum
For technicians, they provide a study of development. It's good to see the young man who is satisfied with
But we are pledged to work alone,
To serve, bow, nor ask if or why
becoming the older man capable of
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
The poems are arranged in chronological order, with an appendix of early poems at the end. Pieces that have been previously published are identified by volume initials. The best thing a curious nonspecialist can do is begin with "At Grass," the twenty-first poem in the book and the first good one, then read on, ignoring all poems labeled TNS (for The North Ship) and skipping the appendix entirely.
Larkin began writing as the last bright, clear-aired peak of English poetry, the high modernism of Eliot, Yeats, and Pound started to recede to landmark distance. His problem was what to do next. It's been everyone's problem for fifty years.
One course he might have taken, which is an option open to all poets at all times, would have been to write "poetically"—to model his work on the rhythm and the ring of some great predecessor. This method is probably responsible for more bad poetry than any other. Sometimes, the style of genius is simply unique: Yeats's music, of all the high moderns, was most elusive—so much so that not even he always got it right. Even if a style is classical and replicable, what the imitator gains over his model in skill he is sure to lose in freshness, unless he brings some transforming element of his own to the task.
Another possibility, one which many of the great revivers of the language have thought themselves to be exploring, is plain speaking. If trying to write like a poet leads you astray, then write like a man. Eliot spoke of purifying the "dialect of the tribe"; John Dryden shucked off Baroque magnificence and encrustation. But the most dogged apostles of plain speaking who also happened to be Titans were probably William Wordsworth in England and Walt Whitman here. Don't make faces at me, they say, I'm only telling you how the leech gatherers/roughs talk.
Of course, no one actually talked like Wordsworth or Whitman. What they were really doing, when they were writing at their best, was partaking of that experience which every great poet shares, and around which critics write and write without ever quite explaining it, when the passion for truth lifts a man up to beauty. You know it when you see it done. If you don't, the future will; it's all the future will have to see, because everything else will have fallen by the wayside.
But plain speaking is not only a means of self-hypnosis for geniuses, it is a good way of getting honest, modest work done, and this, after a few youthful fumbles, is the path Larkin chose to pursue. That doesn't mean his best poems aren't crafted. A little looking uncovers elaborate skeins of rhymes or half-rhymes, sometimes running through quite long stanzas. But Larkin is almost never interested in drawing attention to his labor. Conversational rhythms and enjambments smudge the outlines. When he does give us something unmistakably structured, it's usually in the jog trot of hymns and jingles: forms for which familiarity has bred indifference. These little packages he fills with his bitterest sentiments, so as to profit by the contrast.
Metrically, it could be Hallmark, but don't look for it on Mother's Day.
And what, with his consonances and his glasses, did Larkin write about? The answer is surprising, but unavoidable. Larkin was a love poet.
The love comes in two kinds. There is a vein of affection for things and creatures that, perhaps because they can't be held responsible for failing to return it, never flags. "At Grass" is a description of old racehorses.
Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads….
Almanacked, their names live they
Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy.
Larkin may turn these feelings to furniture, to old clothes, to a dead hedgehog. So Robert Herrick wrote about his lares and penates.
Big-L love means love of other people, and this is trickier. In fact, it is impossible. We have already seen what a mess parents make of it. Larkin's men and women don't do any better.
Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn,
And easily bored to love.
Well, useful to get that learnt.
The closest a couple in Larkin's poems come to love is not a real couple at all, but a pair of centuries-old stone effigies.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
The poem "An Arundel Tomb" ends with the line, "What will survive of us is love." But, in offering the thought, Larkin first tells us that it is only "almost true"; that is, false. The gesture we set so much store by was only an artistic detail:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
Loveless lives can make us as depressed as a bachelor considering a rented room.
… how we live measures our nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better.
Sometimes, as in "Love Songs in Age" or "Faith-Healing," the contemplation of lovelessness breaks out in real rage. But there is nothing to be done about it.
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes
And leaves what something hidden from us chose.
If you don't like it, who asked you?
Here and there, rarely, we get a glimpse of a third mood, a rapture higher than affection and, unlike love, fulfilled. Where jazz was concerned, Larkin was what is called a moldy fig: a fan of jazz before be-bop got to it, and he writes in one poem of Sidney Bechet that "On me your voice falls … / Like an enormous yes" (you won't find a better phrase-long definition). Or nature, in its impersonal totality, gives a similar lift: "… that high-builded cloud / Moving at summer's pace." But summer ends, or the record does, and we're back in the hired box: forerunner of the box we never vacate.
It is only fair to a poet who moves us to consider him on his own terms. But it's only fair to us to consider him on ours as well. Get a few steps back from Larkin's seductive plain speaking, and his world looks severely limited: whether by the fate of his character, as he would say, or by choice, as of glass frames, as I would, doesn't matter. He does us the favor, however, of not trying to be us. He lived in a kind of perpetual four o'clock in the morning, and that's what he presents. When we hit that hour, as we regularly do, he is there, to show us around.
J. D. McClatchy (review date 1989)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1545
SOURCE: "Songs of a Curmudgeon," in The New York Times Book Review, May 21, 1989, pp. 24-5.
[The following review commends poet Anthony Thwaite for including much of Larkin's unpublished work in Collected Poems, thereby revealing the careful editing and revising Larkin performed, and the deliberation with which he practiced his craft.]
Once, some years ago, when he was asked what he thought about the prospect of becoming Britain's poet laureate, Philip Larkin replied, "I dream about that sometimes—and wake up screaming. With any luck they'll pass me over." They didn't. The story goes that in 1984, by which time he had long been the most admitted poet of his generation in England, Larkin was offered the laureate's post—and refused it. Perhaps by then he knew his health was precarious. (He died of throat cancer on Dec. 2, 1985, at the age of 63.) But the refusal was also characteristic.
Larkin seemed to have led a life of refusals. He was an unmarried university librarian in a provincial town who described himself as looking "like a balding salmon," and who was used to renting rooms at the top of a house. He shied from publicity, rarely consented to interviews or readings, cultivated his image as right-wing curmudgeon and grew depressed at his fame. His art, too, refused both the glamorous technical innovations and myth-mongering of Modernism as well as the will to transcendence that empowered many of his peers. He preferred to write, in clipped, lucid stanzas, about the failures and remorse of age, about stunted lives and spoiled desires. "Desolation," he once remarked, "is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth." But from such refusals he fashioned a rich body of work likely to stand as the most enduring of mid-century British poetry.
The publication of his Collected Poems, then, is an auspicious event, but one accompanied by some controversy. Larkin left ambivalent instructions about his unpublished work. One clause in his will asks that it be destroyed; another clause gives his executors some discretion in the matter. To the consternation of purists, one of those executors, the poet Anthony Thwaite, has fortunately decided to ignore Larkin's doubts. Of the book's 242 poems, 83 appear in print here for the first time. This swells the small output considerably, and may alter an opinion of Larkin—who published just four volumes of verse, one per decade—as a skimpy miniaturist.
Mr. Thwaite has made other decisions that will annoy other purists. The book is arranged chronologically but the early writing, from before 1946, is placed last, to one side of the poet's mature poems. And Mr. Thwaite has made only a "substantial selection" from Larkin's prodigious early work. With the later work, though the original order of each book's contents is listed in an appendix, we lose in this volume the canny force of Larkin's own arrangements, the juxtaposition of tones and themes. But to compensate, because of this edition's precise dating, we can now watch Larkin work out a problem over several adjacent poems, written within months of one another. In any case, whatever reservations some readers may have, Mr. Thwaite has done his task with an exemplary fastidiousness, and he has given us a fascinating and indispensable text.
I turned first to the "new" poems. They range from apprentice exercises of the late 1930's to occasional squibs from Larkin's last years. The general impression one takes away from reading them in bulk is an increased respect for Larkin's editorial judgment. None of these suppressed poems will detract from his reputation, but little here will add to it. There are, though, a few surprises—among them several marvelous poems, most of them late (the already famous "Aubade" and the haunting "Love Again" are two of them). And some unfinished poems from his notebooks, including "The Dance" from 1963-64, a sweet-and-sour narrative in a dozen 11-line stanzas which, if completed, would have stood with the poet's best.
The earliest poems—"pseudo-Keats babble," Larkin once called them—date from his schooldays, and their pastiche soon gives way to more serious imitations, demonstrating how thoroughly he absorbed the strongest initial influences on his imagination, Auden and Yeats. The menaced tone and vivid rhythms of Auden pulse in lines from a 1941 poem, "Observation":
Only in books the flat and final happens,
Only in dreams we meet and interlock,
The hand impervious to nervous shock,
The future proofed against our vain suspense….
Range-finding laughter, and ambush of tears,
Machine-gun practice on the heart's desires
Speak of a government of medalled fears.
This was soon after replaced by the austere plangencies of Yeats; warnings yielded to yearnings, and it is Yeats's voice that dominates Larkin's first collection, The North Ship (1945). But one is also struck now by tentative, muffled versions of what we have come to recognize as Larkin's own distinctive voice. Even with its affected teenage weariness, his apprentice sonnet "Nothing Significant Was Really Said" sounds a note we will hear clearly throughout his career. "What was the rock my gliding childhood struck, / And what bright unreal path has led me here?"
Even more curious is to discover startling anticipations. A poem from 1943, "A Stone Church Damaged by a Bomb," seems now like a practice effort for the more famous "Church Going" of 1954. In "Spring Warning," written in 1940 and published in Larkin's school magazine, the troubling onset of spring is greeted by some who, muttering they are neither simple nor great enough to feel, "refuse the sun that flashes from their high / Attic windows." The phrase, of course, anticipates the great poem Larkin wrote a quarter-century later, "High Windows," the title poem of his final collection. It is both ironic and rueful about the brave new world of easy sex the young seem joylessly to enjoy, and the poet wonders about the happiness his elders once thought he'd laid claim to just by being young. But, in the eerie last stanza, his speculation drifts into a memory, an image that accuses what it laments:
Rather than words comes 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.
The stark revelation of this endless nothing that overlooks and underlies experience is strangely offset by the nearly religious hush of the rhetoric. It is not the opposition between categories of knowledge—a relentless self-scrutiny on the one hand, and the perspectives of memory and desire on the other—that animate Larkin's best poems, but the tension between them.
The small book that first brought Larkin to prominence as a poet, and established his particular reputation, was The Less Deceived (1955). He chose that title, he once explained in a letter, for its "sad-eyed realism." The deception he conjured in order to cast it out was largely a self-deception: that romantic love or good intentions can save us from "singleness." What art exalts as "the individual," Larkin reminds us, is only isolation. The best poems in his two major collections, The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974), return to this work of disenchantment. The tone of later poems is darker, often more embittered, but throughout both books he casts a cold eye on love that always promises to solve and satisfy:
Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.
The pathos of Larkin's work lies in that link with his losses, in his sense of having been obscurely betrayed. "Elsewhere underwrites my existence," he writes. The lost paradise of innocence obsesses him and his poems. Only because of the forlorn; noisy, mean clutter of our lives does this innocence seem a "solving emptiness" for which we hunger and are sickened by.
"Larkin's poetry is a bit too easily resigned to grimness don't you think?" Elizabeth Bishop once wrote to Robert Lowell. It is true that his range is rather narrow, but within its confines is a beguiling variety of tones and forms. He never repeats himself to make the same point, and his poems are more readily memorized than those of almost any other postwar poet. His wit can be at once mordantly satirical and unnervingly sadhearted:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
Larkin first wanted to be a novelist, and early on wrote two novels that still give wry pleasure. His poems, too, are built from finely observed details and portraits of the England of council flats and tea towels.
Thomas Hardy, the poet from whom Larkin learned the most, said it was his melancholy satisfaction to have died before he was out of the flesh, to have taken the ghost's view of things. "To think of life as passing away is a sadness; to think of it as past is at least tolerable." Per haps Larkin viewed this world so astutely because he wrote as if from the other side. And when most of the flashier, more blustery contemporary literature has passed away, his poetry—ghostly, heartbreaking, exhilarating—will continue to haunt.