Philip Larkin

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Larkin, Philip 1922–

Larkin is a British poet, novelist, and essayist. The subject of his poetry is his personal experience, the setting that of common provincial life. Larkin has consistently rejected what he feels to be the obscure symbolism of contemporary poetry and its focus on aesthetic problems. His concerns are humanistic, and a recurrent theme is man in his relationship to nature. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Anthony Thwaite

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The unanswerable perfection of [Larkin's] best poems, the inevitable finish which leaves nothing to be said, are so apparent that one has heard such comments as, 'Yes, marvellous—but minor', as if perfection implied diminution. Such ladder-ratings get one nowhere. Who is the greater—Mozart or Beethoven?

Innocence, the pathos and grim humour of experience, the poignancy of the past (whether one's own remembered past or the imagined past of another century), the change and renewal of nature, the dread of the future, death and all that leads up to it and away from it: such listing of the subject-matter of Larkin's recent poems quickly runs itself into flat abstractions, totally lacking the precise circumstantial figurativeness and sensitive cadences of the poems themselves. Larkin has said that a good poem is both 'sensitive' and 'efficient'—two more abstractions, but ones that are given flesh when one reads such poems as "Sad Steps", "The Explosion", "The Building", all published during the past few years. "The Building" opens with a typically dense and carefully selected proliferation of impressionist detail, so organised that it is only gradually one realises that the place being described is a hospital: as in the classic "Church-Going" and "The Whitsun Weddings", the detail is an embodiment of the poem, not the casual decoration its colloquial ease at first suggests…. (p. 59)

And in the end, relentlessly poised like the train in "The Whitsun Weddings", the realisation towards which the whole delicate structure has been aimed is achieved:

                    All know they are going to die
        Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end,
        And somewhere like this.
                                                      (p. 60)

The stanzaic and rhymed structure of "The Building", typically, is so unobtrusive, draws so little superficial attention to itself, that only a closer look reveals how tightly organised it is. Each seven-line stanza is completely consistent in its rhyme scheme, but the first line of each stanza picks up the rhyme in the fifth line of the stanza preceding it, so that the whole poem can be seen to be made up of interlinked quatrains (ABCB:DCAD), the 'trailing' rhyme picking up the serpentine movement and running it on. To those who think such considerations trivial, mere fingering of an old-fashioned instrument, there are many possible answers: one is that it works.

Even Larkin's least elevated, most casually light poems have this refined technical skill, able to accommodate colloquial language and colloquial rhythms…. Both serious and light have the distinctive, subtle, sad and palpable flavour of an individual, with the loyalties, exasperations, illuminations and speaking voice of a distinctly irreducible character. Part of Larkin's breadth of appeal comes from the many kinds of poems this character can appear in: variety within unity. From the evocation of 19th-century emigrants (in "How Distant") to the lyrical naturalism of "The Trees", the breadth of sympathies is wide, the voice unmistakable. (pp. 60-1)

Anthony Thwaite, "Larkin's Recent Uncollected Poems," in Phoenix, Autumn & Winter, 1973–74, pp. 59-61.

Alun R. Jones

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For the most part the poets of the 1950s, and particularly Philip Larkin, reject the traditions of their immediate past. Their poetry represents a revival of a tradition associated with Hardy and kept alive only through...

(This entire section contains 1645 words.)

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the vigour and persistence of poets like Robert Graves. Their distrust of political programmes or religious or philosophical ideas is profound; their hatred of the "old gang," whose faith in programmes and ideas led Europe into six years of slaughter, runs deep. In poetry they took pride in their craft, and in experience they felt themselves carefully forward taking nothing on trust—not even themselves. The poetry of Philip Larkin defines the mood of this post-war generation with great sensitivity. (p. 142)

The North Ship was generally regarded as promising but poetically immature and surprisingly Georgian in tone, and his reputation rests on the poems of The Less Deceived together with the few poems he has since published in journals and magazines…. [His novels] Jill and A Girl in Winter, both of which were written before 1946,… are bleak and pessimistic to the point almost of nihilism.

The strength of Philip Larkin's poetry lies in the sheer elegance of his craftsmanship, in the cool detachment of himself from his poetry, and in his tone. It is this sense of tone—in Larkin a delicate but precise irony continually undercutting the composure of the poem, largely self-directed but also used as a defensive intelligence through which to define the ambiguity of his attitude. Larkin is breaking new ground in English poetry; his poetry defines the attitudes of his time in his concern with the world of the individual unwilling to commit himself to ideas—philosophical, social, or even personal—and at the same time a world nonetheless concerned with these issues. He has managed to create a kind of poem in which he can set a space, a tension, between himself and the poem and within this space manipulate, mainly through irony (the holding of two or more often contradictory attitudes simultaneously), a considerable range of attitudes that he clarifies with subtle intelligence and vigour. The ambiguity is removed from image and metaphor … and is clearly suggested through texture and tone. He refuses—even in personal relationships—to commit himself through word and gesture, to lose his freedom by bringing himself to any statement or positive attitude, and his poetry reflects a world in which feeling and intelligence are actively engaged but in the manner of eighteenth-century scepticism. An intense sense of personal integrity, an urbane and sensitive intelligence, and a healthy, honest scepticism combining with a brilliantly polished control of poetic technique are the qualities admired and imitated by his contemporaries. (pp. 142-43)

Larkin's poetry is a direct expression of the sensitive and intelligent mind's refusal to be taken in [by causes]. As a writer he has avoided the literary, the metropolitan, the group label, and embraced the nonliterary, the provincial, and the purely personal. He embraces the uncertainties of life with all its contradictions and refuses illusions even where he would be most willing to accept them. His rejection of the past, the literary past and his own, is part of the pattern of his feeling that we can only honestly know the present, the now, and cannot honestly respond to this if we are at the same time committing ourselves to the future—"the past is past and the future neuter."… There is no self-pity in Larkin and he refuses sentimentality by withdrawing from experience at that point where it is necessary to make a choice, and no disillusion because he refuses all illusion—his ironic detachment is comprehensive. Even the intense beauty that his poetry creates is created by balancing on a keen ironic edge. His subjects in the end are the great commonplaces of life—time, suffering, love and death—and the final beauty is derived from a deep and moving source of melancholy—not pessimistic or cynical or bitter, but temperamental, and indigenous. (pp. 143-44)

["Toads" and "Reasons for Attendance" are] firstly an attack on the romantic illusion by the light of whose unreality so many are led into misery and disillusionment …—and secondly, an explicit statement as to the wholeness of separate worlds in which individuals live. In "Toads" he parodies the W. H. Davies super-tramp kind of romantic illusion…. The irony residing clearly in words like "folk" or "nippers" makes it quite clear that what is being parodied is the bourgeois, suburban dream of escape to some idea of the rustic, idyllic life of nature, and in the term "unspeakable wives" he allows the attitude he is parodying to reveal its own falsity. (pp. 144-45)

The metrical pattern is traditional and dextrously handled [in "Toads"]; the poem is organic and builds towards the last stanza gathering its meaning as it goes. The meaning is always quite lucid, and although with an occasional technical or archaic word or an unfamiliar idiom often suppressed in the line, the vocabulary is simple and informal. The Less Deceived is one of the most important volumes of verses to have been published since the war; "No Road" one of the finest personal love poems, and "Church Going" one of the richest and most intelligent statements of English post-war sensibility….

"Next, Please" is a poem about expectancy, about the way in which we are all expecting the future to compensate for the deficiencies and disappointments of the present, about the way in which the present becomes, in a sense, merely a waiting, a marking time, until the future brings the riches we all hope for and half-expect…. (p. 146)

Characteristically, the abstract idea of expectancy in the first three lines is dramatised through conversation in the fourth, and the whole second stanza is a concrete, visual statement of the abstract idea—except that the idea has become enriched and the irony, detached and sardonic, has begun to play on the idea. In a most beautiful last stanza, Larkin makes clear that of this whole illusory armada only one ship—the ship of death—is really seeking us out…. There is an exactness of description here that minutely follows the accuracy of observation giving the poetry not only a concrete, visual quality of great clarity but also a subtle richness of texture as abstraction and metaphor are precisely overlayed. The poem achieves an immediacy of statement and an almost tactual quality rarely found in poetry—but somehow characteristic of Larkin's poetry. The image here is not mocking or satirical and the irony is completely submerged in this statement of man's tragic destiny.

"No Road" is characteristic of those poems in which he discusses personal relationships. With precision, with honesty, and without nostalgia, he discusses the present relationship existing between those who were once intimate but who now live, think, and feel apart. Time has gradually eroded the intimacy they once created and shared and which will never be restored to them. The poem is without sentimentality and yet suffused with a gentle persuasive melancholy…. [The] whole tone and phrasing is deliberately informal and designed to direct attention away from the poem as a poem towards the feeling for direct speech and intonation, towards almost casual utterance. And yet the poem itself is a very formal and tightly constructed piece of work and its effects could only have been achieved by a poet who is also a superb technician.

"Church Going" is altogether the most overt statement of Larkin's position in the volume, and is in itself a most moving and convincing summary of his intellectual scepticism…. His scepticism leads him to agnosticism, but his attraction towards the historical and religious past, to a time when thought led more easily to action, is weighted against a totally unbelieving future when religion will survive only in superstition and in church ruins…. (pp. 147-48)

The intellectual and emotional honesty necessary to sustain the balance of this courageous scepticism is the centre of Larkin's philosophical position.

In the poems of The Less Deceived he adds also a note of profound compassion for loneliness, for deprivation and for suffering. As a poet his output is small but each poem he has published since that time shows the same technical finish and high achievement of the earlier poems, but also a developing sense of compassion and a wider and more assured confidence in the value of his own personal experience…. Like his earlier poems, both ["The Whitsun Weddings" and "Ambulances"] are reflective, not participating in or even celebrating human experience, but commenting and reflecting upon life as it flows around him. Both poems move towards a larger area of experience than the purely personal and both are remarkable for a growing sense of compassion directed towards the lonely, the deprived, the suffering, and the tawdry…. His remarkable descriptive powers and astonishing acuteness of observation, together with the somewhat astringent tone, lead towards a general and compassionate statement about the human situation [in "The Whitsun Weddings"]…. The irony and fastidiousness drop away in the conclusion as the train and its travellers take on a firm but delicate symbolism. Suggestions of arrival and death are balanced lightly against beginning and rebirth. The passengers, whether poet or newly-wed, are brought together by a 'frail travelling coincidence' and share for a short while their experience as they share the human predicament by virtue of their individual and distinct humanity.

This growing sense of relationships, however temporary or tentative, and his increasing willingness to accept the validity of his own personal world of experience marks a further stage in Larkin's development. He is certainly one of the most accomplished and influential poets now writing and the poems of The Less Deceived largely define the sensibility of English poetry in the 1950s. (pp. 149-51)

Alun R. Jones, "The Poetry of Philip Larkin: A Note on Transatlantic Culture," in Phoenix, Autumn & Winter, 1973–74, pp. 139-51.

Pearl K. Bell

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[In his third collection, High Windows], as in The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings (one small and dazzling book every 10 years), [Larkin] writes with enormously concentrated, incandescent transparency about achingly intimate, precisely observed, familiar figures that fill him at once with parched despair and an affection so tainted with regret that it has all but been stifled….

Not for him the grand gestures of Robert Lowell and Dylan Thomas, the visionary ego of Yeats, the formal revolutions of Eliot and Pound. "Content alone interests me," he declares. "Content is everything." He fits with unresisting precision into traditional structures (and can also stand them hilariously on their heads), filling them with the melancholy truth of things in the shrunken, vulgarized and parochial England of the 1970s.

And what marvelous freshness and wit he bestows on the drab forms! …

What sustains Larkin, this bleak and wintry spirit, is not the cozy backward glance to a better, smaller, greener England. He prefers the past, yet he is not sentimental. Rather, through his fanatically clear-eyed intelligence, refining and defining the shards of ancestral memory and contemporary fact, he offers an extraordinarily powerful, if wholly unaggressive, kind of resistance—the unworldly but perfect triumph of imagination over the dry rot of despair. And because he writes with anguished lucidity, Larkin is not only admired by the critics of Great Britain, he is bought and read by the thousands. Since the death of Robert Frost, whose way of seeing was not unlike his own, Philip Larkin has had no American counterpart.

Pearl K. Bell, "Poets of Our Times," in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), May 26, 1975, p. 5.

Stanley Poss

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The Librarian of Hull gives you recognizably the same product in his latest book [High Windows] as he did in his first, The North Ship, twenty years earlier. If you like that kind of thing, that's the kind of thing you like. I love it. Spare, evocative, heroically lucid, disabused, savage, understated, funny, brutal, subtle, the antithesis of Roethke's Open Houses and Rich's engagements, these are the supreme ordinary language poems, poems of desperate clarity and restraint and besieged common sense. And what they mostly say is, be beginning to despair, despair, despair. If Roethke is the poet of roots and shoots and sheath-wet beginnings, Larkin's the expert on ending up. (p. 398)

Twenty-four poems in ten years: that's a little better than one every six months. But as Virginia Woolf said of Milton, it's what's not written that counts too, it's the depth at which the options were taken, the commitments made, the decisions not to publish. What we do get in High Windows is much in little. These compressed, elegant, laconic poems are a little like the windfall apples Anderson described in Winesburg. Raunchy looking, they contain secret pockets of sweetness that do you more good than the shiny waxed stuff in the supermarkets. (p. 399)

Larkin is tough, even brutal, but also he's subtle and tender. Very much the poet of limitations, of wry, coerced common sense, he nonetheless turns on you frequently to reveal mystery, possibility, infinity. As John Bayley observes, "sun-comprehending glass" is as eloquent, as evocative as Yeats' "rook-delighting heaven," while "The Card-Players" starts as a genre piece—not that this is negligible in itself—but turns unexpectedly at the end from its Flemish interior to a choral comment that puts everything preceding it in a new context…. (p. 400)

When I think of England and English poets, it strikes me that the movement from Yeats to Auden to Larkin is rooted in realpolitik. Progressively more guarded, less willing to risk the grand style or to pronounce roundly on one's soul or others', the poets' very language recapitulates in little the whole anticolonial history of the country…. The energy of [Larkin's] language, the depth at which the decisions were made, the terror and despair and night fears checked by an intelligence that's consecutive and lucid up to the distant point at which being consecutive and lucid is irrelevant: these are virtues that dignify, even transform, the ostensible subjects. Art always affirms. (p. 402)

Stanley Poss, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1975, University of Utah), Autumn, 1975.

Martin Amis

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[After "Jill" and "A Girl in Winter," Larkin's fiction] stopped dead. As Larkin has ruefully explained, he waited for more fiction to come—but it never did.

Why? Well, the two novels we have provide what clues there are. In this respect "Jill" (1946) is the less significant book. It is less significant because anyone could have written it—or, to put the point more exactly, it needn't have been written by Philip Larkin. Blending fantasy and self-absorption in the usual first-novel style, it recounts the gaucheries of a furtive, owlish working-class boy during his first term at Oxford: the hero's queasy sense of social inferiority, his emulation of a dissolute roommate, and his own graceless erotic yearnings combine to bring about his tragicomic humiliation. "Jill" is a funny, confused, likable and quite undisconcerting book.

"A Girl in Winter," published in England in 1947, is something else again: it is Larkinesque. At first it looks like a similar novel—indeed, the same novel, except that it is told from the woman's point of view. (p. 2)

It is a far more enigmatic book than "Jill"; and it is also, somehow, far less of a novel. Haltingly paced and erratically written, "Jill" is at least integrally thought out—its minor characters are assimilated, its questions resolved, its themes dispatched. In "A Girl in Winter" the fictional accessories are no more than listless toys in the glare of the heroine's solipsism. The minor figures are, strictly, mere walk-ons, liable to be shrugged off as soon as they cease to stimulate Katherine's introspection; and the moral appositions of the novel loom and flicker with similar caprice. But these aren't criticisms—they are clues. The answer is, of course, that Larkin is already becoming less of a novelist, and more of a poet.

The process of distillation, of reduction to essences, shows itself in a number of ways, some of them poignant, some of them effortful. Larkin is prepared, for instance, to write an impossibly flat sentence ("It was very solacing to be alone"; "The truth was, she had not been facing facts") if an abrupt mood-swing requires it. Then, too, he will fasten consecutive scenes on some tritely effusive image—there's a symbolic snail, a flock of symbolic pigeons, even a symbolic frog—and almost every other chapter fades out in a kind of neon wistfulness: "She dropped the dead flowers into the wastepaper basket," and the like. Correspondingly, though, "A Girl in Winter" gives us a unique insight into the origins of a remarkable talent. Here we see Larkin getting ready to use his special genius: his ability to make landscape and townscape answer to human emotion. The snow, the shopfronts, the rivers, the blacked-out streets—each gives its own expression to the intense seclusion at the heart of the book.

This is the larval Larkin, displayed more transparently here than in even his earliest verse. If you turn to "The North Ship" (1945) for some lines appropriate to "A Girl in Winter," you will find only a remote evocation:

     To pull the curtains back      And see the clouds flying—      How strange it is      For the heart to be loveless, and as cold as these.

If you turn to "High Windows" (1974), however, you will find the essence of the same story, retold in poem after poem:

    The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow     Loosely as cannon-smoke …     Is a reminder of the strength and pain     Of being young; that it can't come again,     But is for others undiminished somewhere.                                         (pp. 2, 16-17)

Martin Amis, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 26, 1976.

Bruce K. Martin

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Never having felt quite comfortable with the various notions of poetry derived from others, [in the late 1940s Larkin] realized that he could depend on his own feelings for the appropriate manner in which to present such material. He learned from Thomas Hardy that his own life, with its often casual discoveries, could become poems, and that he could legitimately share such experience with his readers. From this lesson has come his belief that a poem is better based on something from "unsorted" experience than on another poem or other art.

The technical key to such poetry is, of course, clarity, while its bane is obscurity. (p. 27)

Larkin's views on art and literature match very closely the general attitudes attributed to a group of writers with which he has been associated, known as The Movement. While critics have debated whether Larkin's poetry is, in fact, "Movement" poetry, and while we can better determine that after examining his poems, there can be no question that his basic stance on the problems of modern poetry, the relationship of the poet to the reading public, and certain directions which British poetry ought to take, suggest a close alliance with the other so-called Movement writers.

The difficulty of determining his relationship to The Movement stems partly from the fact that the authors usually named in this connection never banded together, even informally, as any sort of literary school in the conventional sense. The Movement label, however useful for reference, is at best the invention of critics…. (p. 28)

[All of the authors considered Movement Writers] have called, implicitly in their poetry and fiction and explicitly in critical essays, for some sort of commonsense return to more traditional techniques. The rationale for this antimodernist, antiexperimental stance is their stated concern with clarity: with writing distinguished by precision rather than obscurity…. [They urged] not an abandonment of emotion, but a mixture of rationality with feeling, of objective control with subjective abandon. Their notion of what they felt the earlier generation of writers, particularly poets, lacked, centered around the ideas of honesty and realism about self and about the outside world. (p. 29)

Larkin's reputation as a leading contemporary poet rests mainly on The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings. His earlier poetry and his prose writings are generally regarded as interesting backdrops to the richer and more characteristic work in those two collections of verse. And, though High Windows may signal a departure from those poems published in the 1950s and early 1960s, it probably will not alter the image of Larkin derived from them…. Clearly the kind of poems associated most often with Larkin reflect these two very popular collections.

One reason for the popularity of his poems is the apparent commonplaceness of their subjects. Larkin manages to project a very personal concern for the things which personally concern most people living in the modern world…. The world of his poems is a world to which most readers can readily respond. (p. 31)

Much of Philip Larkin's artistry rests in his ability to concretize—through setting, personality, and diction—many of the questions which have perplexed man almost since his beginning but which in modern times have become the province principally of academicians. In this he especially resembles Thomas Hardy…. [His poetry reflects] his faith in the common reader to recognize and respond to traditional philosophical concerns when stripped of undue abstractness and pretentious labels. (p. 46)

Larkin's concern with a human world caught up in time, desire, and disappointment connects him with the whole line of western philosophy dealing with the distinction between the ideal and the real. His peculiar emphasis upon this distinction has prompted one critic succinctly to label Larkin's viewpoint as "Platonism turned over or inside out," since the true Platonist reality, which is ulterior, becomes fantasy for the characters of Larkin's poems. However, the same critic, while noting Larkin's disbelief in any sort of Platonic Ideal, notes that such an ideal exists for Larkin in that he sees it as essential to the human state; we seem unable to live without positing impossible, unworkable ideals. Because Larkin, despite knowing better, presumably shares this proneness to idealize in the face of unpleasant or unrewarding reality, his attitude toward the idealizing tendency of his characters, or of mankind in general, can only be that of profound sympathy. Because Larkin's realism involves a hard look at life, because reality for him does not give cause for joy, he cannot deride the very natural bent toward escape-through-idealizing.

In fact, he can respond with wonder at the ingenuity with which men color reality. (p. 49)

One quality which both admirers and detractors of Philip Larkin have noticed is the sense of order which almost every one of his poems creates. Although many of his poems have aroused interpretive disputes and disagreement over precisely what happens in them or what is completed by their endings, each gives the impression that something indeed has been completed. As much as more specific technical elements or the operative assumptions of his poems, this sense of form has caused critics to link Larkin with the Augustan tradition in English verse. And, along with diction and syntax, this ready sense of structure has lured many readers into regarding his poetry as easily understood. As with Yeats or Auden, they are frequently surprised by disarmingly subtle implications in poems of seeming simplicty. (p. 63)

[Larkin's] is a style designed to hide itself behind the human situation and emotions revealed in the poems, a style founded on the assumption … that the poet's technique should never assert itself to complicate unnecessarily such understanding or enjoyment….

The impossibility, or at least the folly, of separating style and content, which Larkin has suggested in his critical remarks, is … forcefully demonstrated through his own poetry…. (p. 91)

The speaking voice of his poems comes across as natural, encouraging the reader to believe that the style is indeed the man and that it represents a man with whom one can identify and from whom one can learn. This is not to suggest that Larkin's poetry is formally didactic … but that the reliable personae in many of his poems, as well as the implied authority behind his unreliable speakers, is not only a man speaking to men, but a sensitive and sympathetic sharer of life's pain and joy…. In a larger sense most of Larkin's poems remind us of the novel—and particularly the traditional English novel epitomized by George Eliot, Hardy, or Lawrence—in that their narrators and commentators exhib t both perspective and empathy with what they describe. (pp. 91-2)

One stylistic quality noted by many critics and indicative of the Larkin cast of mind is his tendency toward negative qualifiers, and especially his reliance on the prefix "un." In "Born Yesterday" he wishes the infant an "unemphasized" happiness, while elsewhere he speaks of someone being "untruthful" and "unfingermarked," and of things being "uncustomary," "unrecompensed," and "unclosing." Relatedly, in "The Importance of Elsewhere" he distinguishes between feeling "separate" and feeling "unworkable," citing the latter as his usual situation. Such avoidance of positives reflects a preference for whittling things down to their true dimensions and qualities, even at the risk of understatement. Because, as he implies in all of his poems, man tends to delusion about himself and life and thereby invites personal disaster, perhaps the most valuable service poetry can render as representer of truth is to remind us of this danger even in the very words used to describe the world of the poem. The poet thus teaches by example as much as by precept. (pp. 95-6)

Like his diction and syntax, imagery and figurative language in Larkin's poetry can go unnoticed as such, so much do they operate as natural parts of character and situation. Because of his disdain for the poetic extremes resulting from the modernist rubrics of Imagism and Symbolism, many of Larkin's more figurative poems seem strangely literal—literal because he generally avoids levels of meaning much divorced from the surface situation or problem, and strangely so because almost all of his poetry, even as it appears consistently literal, with equal consistency suggests a universality of reference…. Larkin's poems almost always have the effect of meaning more than they say, and of referring somehow to more than they mention.

The explanation for this subtle nonliteralism—or delusive literalism—lies partly in the subjects with which his poems and characters deal; they literally are a part of the lives of most readers. But even so, to them Larkin adds a measure of symbolic suggestiveness rising out of the very details in the poems themselves. Frequently objects and words take on an extraliteral meaning for the reader because they obviously do for the speaker. (pp. 97-8)

It is ironic to notice, therefore, that by many definitions of figurative or symbolic language such poems, for all of their quiet but intense emotion, are decidedly denotative and transparent. The images which the middle-aged man in "High Windows" carries in his mind as he finally turns his attention—the windows themselves, of "sun-comprehending glass," and the "deep blue air"—immediately represent for us the metaphysical dimension of human questing, the ultimate which religion seeks to embrace, because the character obviously sees them as such…. Having repeatedly insisted that a poet must, above all, be a man, Larkin seems to imply through such poems as these that a man, by virtue of his humanness, will be a poet, at least to himself. In a sense such poems involve the reader's eavesdropping on the unwitting poetic composition of characters. We see the speaker select what for him are satisfactorily representative details. The poem causes us to reconstruct that which they represent.

Equally impressive is Larkin's penchant for integrating conventionally figurative language into his poems…. [Slang metaphors] all appear the perfectly natural result, or indication, of the speaker's station and attitude, so natural that they are scarcely recognizable as metaphors.

Larkin's puns, usually of great significance in their contexts, are likewise camouflaged, so that they work on the reader without his being aware of anything so mechanical as word-play. (pp. 98-9)

Even when Larkin's skill with multiple meanings is more exposed, it operates naturally in the context of the particular poem. (p. 99)

Larkin's restraint in his use of figurative language makes it a telling if subtle tool. On occasion he does not hesitate to build a fairly elaborate metaphorical pattern. In such cases, though, the pattern becomes a self-characterizing device. Thus in "No Road" the speaker's embroidering the obvious metaphor of the unused road as the remnant of the once-thriving friendship, the homely references to bricking up gates and planting trees to enforce their parting, and the progress report of drifting leaves and creeping grass all mark the speaker himself as not only thoughtful, but as skillful in redeeming a potentially trite comparison into a very apt description of the relationship and the dilemma it poses. This kind of serious wit prepares the reader for the telling self-appraisal at the end of the poem. Perhaps exceptional among Larkin's poems in terms of its reliance on metaphor, "No Road" represents further evidence of his refusal to employ metaphor for any narrowly "poetic" effect, his determination to fuse poetic device and extrapoetic significance. (p. 100)

The final lines [of "The Whitsun Weddings"], in which the imminent setting-forth of the train's passengers is likened to "an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain," derive their profundity in part from the absence of such comparisons earlier in the poem. And, as is usual with Larkin, because the comparison is the speaker's and seems a natural result of his increasing emotion, the reader is made to feel that he has observed a plausible evolving of significance through scene and character, rather than the imposition of meaning by the poet.

The principle behind much of the prosodic element in Larkin's verse seems to be an unresolved tension between formal regularity and irregularity, and between subtlety and abrasiveness in the use of various devices. In this way technique parallels ideology, reminding us of various other basic tensions in the poems, such as that between the concern for security and the desire for excitement, or between the value placed on awareness and the need for sustaining illusions in life, or even between the urge to write and an underlying sense of the pointlessness of such activity. Larkin's greater commitment to traditional forms in comparison with other leading contemporary poets is misleading, since a close examination of his techniques reveals an insistent technical skepticism not unlike that with which he treats the more explicit issues of his poetry. He cannot fully affirm a "free-verse" position in his poems because he cannot honestly affirm freedom as a realizable or even fully desirable style of life. Nevertheless he implies a questioning attitude toward traditional technical controls even as he uses them.

His use of the stanza to subdivide his poems exemplifies this principle. Because almost all of his poems are written in stanzas of some sort, to the casual observer they appear very old-fashioned. Yet, the type of stanza is almost never the same from poem to poem, and within a given poem usually there is marked irregularity, even from the beginning, in rhyme or meter. Such is the frequent complexity of the Larkin stanza that it appears to be a satire itself on the whole idea of the stanza. By setting up the stanzaic form and deviating from it in so many ways without abandoning it entirely, Larkin seems to turn the form upside-down, to question its validity even while maintaining a formal appearance. (pp. 102-03)

In many ways the poems in The Whitsun Weddings represent the full flowering of Larkin's poetic talents, the final casting off of his youthful misdirection. It was almost as if he had written a group of poems fully in line with his best writing in The Less Deceived. If not strikingly different from the immediately earlier collection, The Whitsun Weddings is notable in having a higher percentage of third-person poems, and of first-person poems with characters obviously not to be equated with Larkin himself. His bent toward realism, in characterization and setting, is evident in every one of these later poems, more so than in The Less Deceived.

For most readers, though, the poems of The Less Deceived blend into those of The Whitsun Weddings; we recognize these two books as Philip Larkin's central poetic achievement. His latest book, High Windows, clearly represents an extension of that achievement. With one or two exceptions, every one of these later poems recalls in some significant way an earlier poem by Larkin, which is why they fit so comfortably into a discussion of his characteristic attitudes and techniques. Nevertheless, some definite, if not surprising, trends away from The Whitsun Weddings period are evident here.

One of these is Larkin's greater bent in recent years toward contemporary topicality, both of subject and allusion. Perhaps this is a logical outcome of his steady development into realism. (p. 132)

A consequence or corollary to the older perspective in High Windows is Larkin's greater identification with the speaker in his poems, a reversal of his movement in the 1950s and early 1960s toward greater dramatization and irony even in first-person poems. Larkin comes closest to the self-deprecation of "Church Going."… Where the speaker achieves wisdom only at the end of those earlier poems, here he displays it from the beginning. (p. 134)

"High Windows" celebrates a stoic disavowal of simplistic envy for the young…. [Poems] like "To the Sea" and "Show Saturday" demonstrate his deep respect for those events and practices linking individuals and generations despite the onslaught of time, an onslaught perhaps presented most forcibly in the ephemera of fashion and commercialism separating us in death and threatening to isolate us in life. (pp. 134-35)

Perhaps the most startling thing about this last volume is its variety. Even though recalling others by him, each poem differs markedly from such predecessors, and in none of the earlier books has Larkin collected so many differing types of poems. (p. 135)

Larkin has extended the range of his wit to black humor, and revealed that element perhaps of despair, but certainly of cynicism, which may have lurked just behind his other humorous poems. As an interpretive allusion to all paintings with similar titles and subjects, ["The Card Players"] represents, for Larkin at least, a further means of weighing life, of showing the gap between reality and appearance, and perhaps of exploring the relationship between art and life. In projecting his viewpoint onto the stock materials of the genre painting, he has moved his poetry farther from concrete reality than before, and farther into the subconscious and nonrational. Perhaps more than any of his other recent poems, "The Card-Players" represents the kind of poem Larkin lately has wished to write, a kind not ordinarily associated with him. In this regard the whole of High Windows rewards his readers by reminding them of the range of his wit and talent sometimes forgotten by readers eager to praise or criticize his purely realistic writings. (p. 137)

Bruce K. Martin, in his Philip Larkin (copyright © 1978 by G. K. Hall & Co.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G: K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne Publishers, 1978.


Larkin, Philip (Arthur)


Larkin, Philip (Vol. 18)