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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's relationship to nature. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, 9, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1991
Stylistically [the] thirty-two poems [in The North Ship (1945)] differ from Larkin's mature work in two ways: they are dominated by the influence of Yeats, and they lack "local texture", the air of having proceeded out of a particular experience: only eight of them have titles. Larkin frankly describes them as "a mixture of Yeats and having nothing much to write about". It is not proposed to comment here on the influence of Yeats, except to say that it is not so much a matter of deliberate pastiche as of a kind of ventriloquism, with Larkin as the dummy (or, perhaps, the medium) through whom the dead poet speaks in accents uncannily his own. Yet, despite the Irish accent, many of the sentiments are—as seen with the hindsight afforded by his later poetry—obviously Larkin's: throughout Poem I—a youthful celebration of spring, love, and resurrection—a sinister note recurs:
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.
[The] "wintry drum" itself is Larkin's own property: the awareness of sadness at the back of things, of the passing of time and the inevitability of death.
The "wintry drum" also represents the dreariness of reality which obtrudes into romantic illusion. This contrast is one of Larkin's most insistent preoccupations, and it appears for the first time in Poem XX of The North Ship where, despite his Yeatsism disguise as "a sack of meal upon two sticks", we recognize the poet made familiar to us by his later work as "an indigestible sterility". His attitude is polarized between the "wild" and "glad" girl whom he sees in the snowy fields, whose vitality he cannot match even with an equally-vital jealousy, and the "two old ragged men", clearing snow, who demonstrate the beauty of day-to-day survival, of "all actions done in patient hopelessness." Larkin sees himself as akin to these, rather than to the girl…. And yet this vision of affinity is itself a gesture towards life, a grasping at a kind of belief and pattern which transcends the ordinariness of the image.
I must repeat until I live the fact That everything's remade By shovel and spade; That each dull day and each despairing act Build up the crags from which the spirit leaps.
At this stage of his poetry, Larkin is capable of seeing everyday reality as a foothold for the spirit; but obvious in the lines is a sense of the effort involved in this view…. In Larkin's later work the arguments of reality are blunt instruments, the "despairing act" truly gets nowhere, and the spirit leaps from the crags not to fly but to fall flat on its face. Illusion is impossible, reality is a Yeatsian "desolation", and, whatever life one is allowed, the end is the same. (pp. 28-9)
Although an interval of nine years separated the publication of The Less Deceived from that of The Whitsun Weddings , to consider them in chronological order would be to try to tear apart the close fabric which,...
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together, they compose. The same themes occur in both; a poem in one will continue, comment on, or dissent from a poem in the other; and the only essential difference is that the second volume is more pessimistic than the first. Their joint strength is two-fold: their themes are universal—time, failure, love, death; and their context, the detail of one man's experience in a "real place", gives them a sharp contemporary relevance.
It is this combination of universal and particular, rather than an ironic tone of voice, that would account for the strong impact that Larkin's poetry has made…. The basic point is that Larkin is an emotional poet: the irony of his tone may sometimes be the self-protection of a man who guiltily feels himself to be on the edge of life, but more often it is there to control strong feeling. Where irony is absent, as in "Going", the strength of this feeling is frighteningly apparent, but the presence of irony in other poems should not distract our attention from the emotion which is also there. (pp. 30-1)
Larkin's original intention was to call his 1955 volume simply Various Poems. Asked for something more striking, he transferred from the poem now called "Deceptions" its former title "The Less Deceived" and used it for the whole book. This title, though an improvement on its colourless predecessor, was perhaps a mistake, in that it suggested a clever, cool refusal to be "take in": it chimed too easily with the fashion for intellectual suspicion and wariness of the grand gesture—to be "less deceived" by everything was the "In" thing in poetry, even when the poet was an undergraduate who had not very much experience to be "less deceived" about. (p. 31)
Two deductions can be made from ["Deceptions"] about Larkin's attitude to life: the first is that his sympathies are likely to be as much for crudely actual sufferings as for loss of mental illusions; the second (assuming the girl as the poet's surrogate) is that to be without illusions, or at least to be "less deceived", is not much comfort, far less something to congratulate oneself on.
As an example of disenchantment accepted ruefully rather than brandished gleefully one may consider "I Remember, I Remember", which purports to be a debunking of the "literary" childhood in which the future poet goes through the stages of Dylan Thomas pantheism, Betjeman hero-worship, Lawrentian sexual awakening, and eventual local recognition of his budding genius by "a distinguished cousin of the mayor." This kind of childhood Larkin did not have, and his parodic humour implies at first that the lack of it was no loss:
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".
Yet the ending hints that the satire is more bitter than it first appeared, and that, though the poet may not be sorry that his childhood was not like this, he would have been glad had it been something more than what he calls elsewhere "a forgotten boredom":
"You look as if you wished the place in Hell", My friend said, "judging from your face". "Oh well, I suppose it's not the place's fault", I said. "Nothing, like something, happens anywhere". (pp. 31-2)
The consolations of religious belief are no more available to Larkin than they were to Matthew Arnold; the "sea of faith" has ebbed, leaving only the "accoutred, frowsty barn" whose residual influence he tries to account for in "Church Going". His inability to believe seems to have nothing more to back it up than had Arnold's in "Dover Beach": the feeling, simply, that religion may have been possible once but is now outmoded. Larkin describes himself as "Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt / Dispersed", and one is inclined to question precisely how he comes by this arguable knowledge. The poem itself, not being a theological inquiry, gives no answer; agnosticism is the premise, modified only by a subdued hope, as in Hardy's "The Oxen", that belief might be possible. The church which Larkin at first describes with a mixture of pity and ironic levity comes gradually to be recognized as a monument to that serious nexus of human concerns, "marriage, and birth, / And death, and thoughts of these". But the conclusion is ambiguous: wisdom is taught, not perhaps by the church as a symbol of faith, but by the churchyard where "so many dead lie round", their graves reminding us of our own eventual fate.
In a world without order or religion, Matthew Arnold's remedy was "Ah love! let us be true / To one another." The poignancy (when it is not ruefulness) of Larkin's poems about love is not that of appeal, but of denial: "that much-mentioned brilliance, love" may forever promise "to solve, and satisfy, / And set unchangeably in order", but the promise is never fulfilled. We are left, as in "Next, Please", "holding wretched stalks / Of disappointment". The bitter pathos of this is nowhere more apparent than in "Faith Healing", where the ironic sketch of the American evangelist in his neat executive suit only underlines the deprivation of the "patients" who find in his businesslike twenty-second morsels of "loving care" a substitute for the love they have missed. (pp. 34-5)
[Presented in this poem] is not only the sadness over lost, or missed, love; it is also the persistent delusion, despite "all time has disproved", that to love or be loved would bring a happier and more successful life. The tension between these two feelings, in Larkin's first-person poems of love and marriage, takes the form of a bachelor's debate on the motion, "Am I, in not marrying, missing anything, or not?" (p. 35)
The final implication [of "No Road"] is both that renunciation, though hard, is the sensible decision for him, and that there is perhaps something wrong with a man who will permit the loss which it entails…. The siren-call of events is always "Come and choose wrong". The choice of marriage and the choice of singleness are equally empty: neither offers any consolation in a life in which inevitably, "time will be the stronger."
Choice, it would seem, is only one more of our illusions. Larkin's universe is a deterministic one…. The search for pattern or "truth" in life is futile; everything we do is rendered meaningless by the cancellation of death.
Yet, though life is short, Larkin realizes the force of his own question: "Where can we live but days?" (pp. 37-8)
Of all Larkin's poems, it is "Dockery and Son" which expresses most comprehensively his various tones of voice and the tension in his thinking between the attempt to evaluate different life-styles and awareness of the ultimate futility of all of them…. Whether a thing be consciously sought or accidentally found, it becomes, when reached, inescapable. Larkin's muted envy of Dockery's fatherhood is held in equipoise with the recognition that their fates are, sub specie mortis, essentially the same: "a son" and "nothing" treat those to whom they belong with equally "harsh patronage"—both father and bachelor are pushed "to the side of their own lives"…. The Oxford which Larkin revisits in this poem is a symbol of the "home" from which we all began our differently-routed journeys towards the common terminus of death. When we attempt to return to it, it mocks us sadly with memories, preserved as in a museum, of our original "joyous shot at how things ought to be, / Long fallen wide."
Charles Tomlinson has spoken disparagingly of Larkin's poetry as the embodiment of "his own inadequacy" and a "tenderly-nursed sense of defeat". If there is such a sense, it springs from clear-sighted observation of the amount of sadness and disappointment in life, and the determination not to burke its expression: far from being "tenderly-nursed", it is unflinchingly admitted. And what Tomlinson sees as Larkin's personal inadequacy can surely rather be said to be the statement, not only of his own, human limitations in a deterministic universe, but of the limitations of many. To find the expression of such limitations unpalatable is not to invalidate them; and even if Larkin's ideas are open to the counter-arguments of Christian belief, that is not to deny the poet his right to put down what he honestly sees. (pp. 38-9)
Those who … recognize their own faces in this mirror will admire Larkin for his scrutiny of their daily situation, and his expression of it in language that, in blending the contemporary with the dignified tradition of elegiac poetry, raises that situation to a higher power. (p. 39)
Philip Gardner, "The Wintry Drum," in Phoenix (reprinted by permission of the publisher), Nos. 11-12, Autumn-Winter, 1973–74, pp. 27-40.
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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 … or his more severe … 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! (p. 117)
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…. 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 meaninglessless 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." 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. (pp. 117-19)
[Larkin] accepts the debasement of all objects and images and [in "Solar,"] 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. (p. 120)
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…. 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. (pp. 120-21)
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…. (p. 121)
There are no objective correlatives in [Larkin's] 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…. 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. (pp. 122-23)
Larkin feels … righteous about writing a poetry which is preeminently hearable, in a single, soporific way, indifferent to all other ways, especially thoughtful, 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 dream-identity 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. (pp. 124-25)
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 latent appeal of ["Wants"] 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. (p. 125)
Larkin, writing from within this [aloof] condition as from an impregnable fortress, lures the reader who wants what he has with a strikingly subtle technique. [In "Wants"], 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…. 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 …:
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. (pp. 126-27)
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…. 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 [Donald 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. (pp. 129-30)
The real moral problem … does not lie in Larkin's cynicism, but in his observing without being observed…. In "The Whitsun Weddings," however, Larkin takes on the sovereign privileges of 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…. 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 offspring. 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." 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-quartersempty 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. (pp. 131-33)
Merle Brown, "Larkin and His Audience," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1977, by The University of Iowa), Vol. 8, No. 4, (Fall, 1977), pp. 117-34.
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The question of the two profiles in Larkin's poetry—the implacable skeptic and the visionary manqué—is best considered in connection with those poems which explore the meaning of death. There emerges gradually a distinction between a view of personal death, which is seen as inevitable and unmitigated, and a view of death in relation to a world which perpetually renews itself. In this latter view—and it is one increasingly exemplified in his latest work—a quiet trust is sometimes apparent, a trust in continuity, a belief in something "undiminished somewhere" …, which will survive beyond his individual "extinction". There is, in addition, a significant body of work which illustrates the proposition that "life is slow dying"…. This fundamental idea shapes much of Larkin's perspective on human experience, a perspective, above all, on the habitual deceptions and failures with which our lives are composed, on life which is a succession of deaths, a "repeated fraying of the thread". (p. 80)
In Poem XXIX from Larkin's first published volume, The North Ship … the poet advises himself to "Take the grave's part, / Tell the bone's truth," and to "Walk with the dead / For fear of death." This commitment to the "bone's truth" manifests itself in various ways throughout Larkin's work, but one of the earliest forms it takes is an attempt to visualize the ghostly figure of Death itself, and to imagine the awesome and arbitrary change from life to oblivion which its presence heralds. Poem II … introduces us to "The stranger who will never show his face, / But asks admittance." In this sonnet the movement from birth through life to the urgent proximity of death is delicately balanced between the known and the experienced, the clear ability to look back and remember, and the unknown which can only be met with questions and uncertainty…. Unlike the "lighted tenement scuttling with voices" in "Age" …, the image of the life experience as a light-filled building is positive and almost utopian in its detail. "Sunbeams", with photographic effect, pick out representative poses: "pausing at a picture's edge / To puzzle out the name, or with a hand / Resting a second on a random page—." But the supremacy of light is threatened in the eighth line which is separated from the body of the octet and cuts the sonnet dramatically in two: "The clouds cast moving shadows on the land." The spell is broken, the miraculous mirage of life dissolves, and desperation begins. In a manuscript poem dated 14 September 1946 the same phenomenon is recorded and presented in the form of a definition: "Death is a cloud alone in the sky with the sun." The eclipse, it seems, is inevitable.
The interior settings which begin Poem II are obliterated by this sudden switch to a landscape and a skyscape combined, but they return, negatively, in the sestet. Space narrows, from the "palace" and "hall" to the claustrophobia of one chamber and the mysterious room adjoining it. The poet asks: "Are you prepared for what the night will bring? / … will you greet your doom / As final; set him loaves and wine; knowing / The game is finished when he plays his ace, / And overturn the table and go into the next room?" The answer seems to be that there is no adequate preparation for this last move in a predictable game of chance. Appeasing the stranger with ritual offerings is a recognition only of the consistent skill of a player who never loses. The "next room" contains the secret of what "the night will bring" and we will not likely "go gentle" into it. There is a self-taunting quality to these last lines; the poet pursues a relentless inquiry which tests an impossible courage. (pp. 80-1)
In the poems which confront death in The Less Deceived there is a movement away from allegorization, from the traditional visitation by a death figure. In the opening poem of that volume, "Wedding-Wind", a celebration of a wedding night spoken by the new bride, the sense of the "silver" of life is strong. The marriage bonds signify the central passage of life, and on the morning after the first night of that journey the winds blow in harmony with a newly discovered strength and liberation. Yet in the midst of the bride's elemental happiness comes an inevitable question, one which, significantly, concludes the poem and leaves an air of foreboding and threat:
Can even death dry up These new delighted lakes, conclude Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters?
In "Going" that same power of extinction and conclusion assumes a larger shape. Oblivion comes in the guise of evening, "one never seen before, / That lights no lamps." In the second short stanza it metamorphoses again into a burial shroud, a constriction of space from the fading vision of a landscape of "fields" to the black intimacy of the grave where there are no more perspectives. Time seems to be measured in terms of this growing and changing apprehension. In our younger days, perhaps, death is only a hint in the landscape; over the passage of time, death becomes all…. Death is now portrayed as an alien and powerful force which can disguise itself, come upon us from the most familiar of surroundings, and deprive its victims steadily of sensory and intellectual response. The pictorial rationalization of death by means of traditional figures with their intimate summonses is replaced by a kind of blank nightmare lacking in all familiarity. (pp. 82-3)
In "Ambulances" …, "The Old Fools" and "The Building" …, the apprehension of death becomes more generalized and more readily located in a contemporary world, though the note of individual desperation still sounds strongly in "The Old Fools". This poem acts, in a sense, as a sequel to "Dockery and Son" …, which ends: "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." In a poem which compares and reflects upon the illusory choices made by the poet and a near contemporary at Oxford following their student days, the inevitable progression of life is seen as an experience which sharpens from "boredom" to "fear", and that fear is the growing sense of age and death, the final act not mentioned by name in "Dockery". Death is mentioned in the second stanza of "The Old Fools" …:
At death, you break up: the bits that were you Start speeding away from each other for ever With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true: We had it before, but then it was going to end, And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower Of being here. Next time you can't pretend There'll be anything else.
The oblivion which descends in "Going" is here rationalized as a process which should be made less terrible when considered with the oblivion from which we journeyed at birth, but this parallel is seen to offer scant comfort; the second darkness is an epilogue not a prologue. (pp. 83-4)
One gets the strong sense in "The Old Fools" of Larkin trying to keep his head above water, trying to find the most secure lifeline, and finding it in the very articulation of his fear.
Stanza one begins with a series of frightened questions, behind which lurks a mixture of disgust for those who are unfortunate enough to be old, and self-loathing for one whose fate this will also be. What appears most disturbing is the likely state of consciousness in old age; how differently is death envisioned when the faculties begin to weaken, when "you keep on pissing yourself" and you behave as if you were "crippled" or "tight"? How much does age and ageing block out from the mind? The process of disintegration which preoccupies Larkin in some of his earlier poems—what happens when you are actually dying?—is now enlarged to include senility and the total ageing process. How does one cope with the knowledge of death when one's own decay—"ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines"—stares back day by day?
The second stanza, as we have seen, tries to grasp and elaborate upon a metaphysical apprehension of death and birth. The poem, in effect, begins again. Yet another starting point is evident in stanza three, where a calmer and more compassionate imagination seeks to describe the surviving private world of memory: "Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms / Inside your head, and people in them, acting." The saving grace of old age, conjectures Larkin, is an ability to recreate the past and to live there, but this possibility is rendered doubtful…. (p. 85)
The poem moves into its final phase now reluctantly sure of its direction, heading back to the fear which impressed itself in the first verse. We return to the "old fools" after a brief lyric interlude in the rooms and among the furnishings of this much changed "daytime palace", with the occupants "setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair," and find them now ignominiously "crouching below / Extinction's alp," unaware of the "peak" which we, and the poet, hold in view, and only conscious in their fading years of "rising ground". If the coming of old age means a decline of imagination and awareness does this decline represent a merciful release? How precious is the freedom to see, to know, and to be afraid; the freedom to write a poem like this? And so Larkin ends with a series of questions which worry their way around this central issue. There is also an ironic echo of the "stranger's" summons, but here the "strangers" do not come to lead away the victims but simply gather to say farewell, and are perhaps people they once knew but no longer recognize:
Can they never tell What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night? Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well, We shall find out.
That cryptic final sentence does not terminate [the] panicky debate, but merely suspends it for the time being. The poem stops itself just short of breakdown. The cool colloquial intrusion effects a dramatic shift and closes off the poem brilliantly, but it is not the shrugging calm of resignation—let us wait and see—but a clenched effort at self-control.
There is nothing of the "solving emptiness" [as in "Ambulances"] in this contemplation of death and how it may or may not be perceived by the very old and the senile. The poem stands out as Larkin's cri de coeur and carries with it an unusual hint of disorder. (pp. 85-6)
Larkin's "preoccupation … with mortality" is both a specific and a generalized concern. The poems illustrated … show the specific interest in the "subject" of death, as an inevitable departure or process, as the mysterious experience of our second and final oblivion. Many of his other poems, as I have already indicated, discover the presence and spirit of death in the habits and routines of our ordinary daily lives. Our ways "Of building, benediction, // Measuring love and money" are all "Ways of slow dying." Life, as Larkin says in "Arrival", impounds itself until it becomes a "style of dying only."… What makes death so difficult to prepare for, and certainly to transcend, is the absence of fulfillment in life, and the omnipresent shadow of failure. (p. 87)
The fear of death which seems so acute in "Going" and "The Old Fools" is only a recognition that in this secularized world we can only approach that blankness with the definition of self which comes from the relationship between who we are and what we can achieve. In an unpublished poem about Autumn and the decay of Nature's year,… Larkin hints in one line at a predicament which is identifiable in his later work and especially so in The Less Deceived: "I am ashamed to face death with empty hands." There is a shadow of heroic endeavour in this confession, a remnant of a long dead faith in an ordered and coherent universe where death could indeed promise reward for virtue and effort—and success. In Poem XX in The North Ship the poet prays that he may keep the "image of a snow-white unicorn" and that it may descend and put into his hand "its golden horn". But from the moment of Larkin's conversion and commitment to the kind of poetry which exacts a "full look at the worst", the reader is made consistently aware of empty hands; the "golden" horn seems never to be grasped.
Throughout The Less Deceived the weight and authority of those prescriptions italicised in "Vers de Societé" …—"All solitude is selfish" and "Virtue is social"—is illustrated relentlessly. The poet dwells on separation, loss, and the sense of a life lived apart from the lives, with all their social, sexual, and familial commitments and choices, of most other people. With this sense of difference comes guilt, unease, and self-consciousness…. In detecting, with effective satire, the misjudgments and self-deceptions of others, Larkin moves toward a final reckoning with these same weaknesses; the lie he has exposed may be his own. (pp. 88-9)
The Whitsun Weddings, for the most part, carries over the habit of self-scrutiny from the second volume and re-echoes the mood of self-doubt. Poems like "Self's the Man", "Wild Oats", "Send No Money", and the more substantial "Dockery and Son" pursue the old debates and worry still about who might, after all, really be the less deceived. There is noticeable, however, a shift towards an awareness of a shared disillusionment, shared with people who made, perhaps, very different choices in their lives…. Fulfilment, in its various personal and social forms, may indeed be a "desolate attic", but Larkin now seems to realize increasingly that desolation and disillusionment await us all no matter what paths we tread. The urgency of comparison—my life and the lives of others—seems to give way now to an interest in survival—how do we allcope, what measures may be taken? In moving from a struggle to ascertain the inadequacies of self by setting up comparisons of choice in the lives of those around him to a more generalized curiosity in a common plight, Larkin is able to come to terms with a good deal of the habit of his own life…. He is also, consequently, far less conscious of all the possible ramifications of social and personal failure. In the title poem he can look upon these Whitsuntide weddings with a compassionate interest and not become preoccupied with himself as the solitary traveller cut off from experience; there are no "reasons for attendance" given, no comparison suggested. And in the volume's last poem, "Arundel Tomb", he can address himself to the subject of death, his perceptions uncluttered by examples of life's "slow dying". (pp. 89-90)
In ["Arundel Tomb"] he records the "sharp tender shock" at seeing the Earl's hand withdrawn from its gauntlet, "holding her hand". Admittedly this death has taken place across the centuries but something new is registered here in Larkin's response: it is his first poem about death which seeks to suggest the possibility of some form of meaningful survival. Larkin is careful to separate the dead couple from any awareness of their own "supine stationary voyage"; what matters is that countless survivors "through lengths and breadths / Of time" have seen the effigy of their "faithfulness", and have borne witness to their love. In the final stanza Larkin is still circumspect and cautious, but what he finally concedes, in the context of his work to this date, is significant:
Time has transfigured them into Untruth. The stone fidelity They hardly meant has come to be Their final blazon, and to prove Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.
Two deaths in the distant past have been rendered something less than inexorable; a present-day observer can confirm that death has been cheated. A past love and a past death are translated in the final line into an assertion about the future, a belief in some kind of spiritual survival.
Larkin's most recent volume, High Windows …, is still illustrative of his "preoccupation with mortality" and his belief in the "inevitability of his own extinction", but the tendency suggested at the conclusion of The Whitsun Weddings, this need to "transcend the thought of dying", this quest for means of survival, becomes more apparent…. There is a discernible movement outward and upward in some of these poems, including the title piece which, in its last lines, as one critic has suggested, escapes "suddenly and involuntarily from an oppressive sense of bafflement at human sexuality to what might almost be called a vision of pure spirit"…. The last poem in the volume, like "Arundel Tomb" in The Whitsun Weddings, returns us to Larkin's abiding subject and the theme of this investigation. As with "Arundel Tomb" Larkin registers the same faith in spiritual survival, but here the affirmation is stronger if not complete. "The Explosion" recounts a mining disaster whose victims "in beards and moleskins, / Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter," pass before us on the way to their work "on the day of the explosion"…. The poem's narrative is interrupted in the sixth stanza, and a voice from the scriptures places the reader in a chapel funeral service: "The dead go on before us, they / Are sitting in God's house in comfort, / We shall see them face to face—"…. The faith and the vision of the dead miners' wives is not questioned; the mystical proof of survival, a survival which has its source in love, is presented uncritically. (pp. 90-2)
Larkin has throughout his career as a poet refused to back away from exploration of [the word death], and his attempts to "grasp" the word and the idea have lent force and direction to a major part of his work. To concentrate on this quest for the unknowable is to illuminate the problem of divided poetic self…. To view Larkin's oeuvre to date it would probably be fair to say that the definition of the poet as a modern anti-hero governed by a sense of his own mortality seems … justified. But, beginning with some early signs in The Whitsun Weddings, and considerably more evidence in High Windows, a sense of vision and a quiet voice of celebration seem to be asserting themselves. This is not a return to the Yeatsian imitations of The North Ship, but something new and earned. (pp. 92-3)
Roger Bowen, "Death, Failure, and Survival in the Poetry of Philip Larkin," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 58, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 79-94.
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[Larkin] has not, apparently, coveted the praise that has been lavished on him—praise he neither fully merits nor, perhaps, relishes. And nor has he been prolific. His entire oeuvre to date, if we take into account The North Ship, consists in collected form of 117 poems, thirty-two of which he has republished on sufferance. (p. 331)
Frequently he presents himself in the poems as an outsider, a man without a past to be nostalgic for and without much faith in the future, a man on the fringe of the academy and literary life, an isolated bachelor, a provincial, rejecting all that is not English, refusing to travel beyond the British Isles. Denial and self-deprecation are recurrent themes. However, this stance must be increasingly difficult to sustain in view of the fact that he is, willy nilly, the darling of the London literary establishment, has been crowned by journalists and honoured by the Queen, and has edited the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973). This has placed strains on the poet. He no longer speaks with confidence as outsider and provincial. He has been spirited inside. The best poems in his fourth book, High Windows (1974), abandon the old stance altogether. 'The Explosion', 'How Distant', and 'The Old Fools'—poems of observation—take their tone from the experience. If Larkin is to avoid self-parody in future (something he fails to do in several poems in High Windows) he will have either to assume impersonality de rigueur, or find himself a new stance.
In the poems, people are illuminated by the objects they collect about them—their possessions reveal their ambitions, self-deceptions, unfulfilments. The industrial and the pastoral landscapes tell us about the minds of the urban and rural communities that made or sustain them, just as the particular vase or the lack of bookshelves in a room describes the inhabitant. Objects thus lend a reality to the person, not the person to the objects. This inverted romanticism is one of Larkin's characteristic and compelling effects.
Though the poems are subtly made, they are self-contained—we can grasp the allusions without footnotes, without consulting any document beyond the daily paper. The poems are replete with the small tragedies, losses and frustrations which add up to the large gradual tragedy of lives in a thousand furnished rooms, in a particular country at a particular time. (pp. 332-33)
Though he learned only little from Hardy's technical practice, except perhaps his formal experimentation within traditional limits, he learned from him about time. Hardy juxtaposes the impoverished present and the unrealized past, where Larkin juxtaposes the impoverished present and the blighted future—and death. The blues are his music—indeed, he is a jazz critic.
His ostensible aesthetic motivation is 'to preserve things I have seen / thought / felt'. His poems are 'verbal devices' to reproduce in the reader the experience—'verbal pickling' as he calls it. The poems generally are cumulative—the scene is set, details assembled, until there is a point of lift-off, a modulation of tone or a deepening of seriousness. From the evocation of externals, the poet proceeds to release their composite meanings. When the 'lift-off' fails the poems are sometimes vivid verse catalogues only, as in 'To the Sea' and 'Show Saturday'.
Time does not destroy his illusions—it intensifies his disillusion. For him—in contrast to Hardy—things somehow could not have been different. We did not look away, or make a specific wrong choice in the past—for all choices are partly wrong. (p. 334)
His use of negatives is a central part of his technique. But usually, except in a few poems such as 'I Remember, I Remember', his negatives do not suggest what could have been. They simply draw a black circle around what is, the tight frontiers of being. His apparently negative words do not always carry a negative meaning, however: 'unfakeable', 'unpriceable' and 'unignorable' are obliquely positive. He tries to extend language by making hybrid words or hyphenated kennings. (pp. 334-35)
The themes in The North Ship—unwilling capitulation to the system of things, love's unsuccess, frustration, boredom, loneliness, and especially Time, 'the echo of an axe / Within a wood'—inform the later books. All that is lacking is the Larkin scenario to make the emotions or lack of emotions come alive memorably, through particulars. The early problem may have been that the 'I' was not a voice but a fabricated poetical persona, much as the 'I' in High Windows is sometimes an outdated 'I' who no longer sounds true.
The adjustment of style between The North Ship and his second book, The Less Deceived (1955), is complete. The first poem in the second collection, 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album', is Betjemanesque, though more sinewy than Betjeman, with an Edwardian archness. The poet's attraction to the young lady is strongly sexual. The images are not symbolic—they are evocative particulars. 'Next Please', in the same book, is perhaps Larkin's most haunting 'time' poem, formally varied. 'Wants' has something of the power of MacNeice, though it is more condensed in expression. (pp. 335-36)
Another change came in The Whitsun Weddings (1964). The perspective widens, the images derive from broader experience, and the vision becomes social. In a world heavy with late capitalism, a world of transactions and relationships which time renders senseless, the tragedy of ephemerality and unfulfilment moves out from the 'I'. (p. 336)
In High Windows there seem to be more Larkins at work than at any time since The North Ship. The Larkin of 'Here' reappears—without his earlier power—in 'To the Sea' and 'Show Saturday'. His attempt to celebrate certain social customs and rites is hampered by his native temperament. He knows the rites, too, have their date. The voice of Browning can be heard in 'Livings (iii)': perhaps Larkin will embark on dramatic monologues. There are, too, some notable successes in essentially new tones. 'High Windows' itself has, in all but the first stanza, assurance, candour, and an unresolved suggestiveness only seldom found in the earlier work. The same quality, but a different tone, informs 'The Explosion', about a pit disaster. 'The Old Fools' has a brutality and asperity which are tempered into tenderness. Age is treated with more sense of immediacy.
A disturbing aspect of High Windows is that six of the poems are cheap in some of their effects. The poet hankers to be one of the chaps, to speak their sort of language…. [The] fake bonhomie results in an entirely gratuitous vulgarity. Is Larkin trying to embody the process of degeneration he sees in society within the very language of the poem? His power in the past derived from an unwillingness to compromise form and voice with subject matter: they at least remained clear and powerful. Here language begins to ape experience, to unfortunate effect. (p. 337)
If The Whitsun Weddings opened into a wider social and topographical perspective, High Windows looks to the future of society and the polluted landscape. It is Larkin's most civic-minded display. There is fatalistic prophecy, even as he celebrates recurrences, however trivial. The loss or the wastage—of empire, landscape, values, rites, and so on—are a dominant concern in High Windows and may be further developed in its sequel. (p. 338)
Michael Schmidt, "Philip Larkin," in his A Reader's Guide to Fifty Modern British Poets (copyright © Michael Schmidt 1979; by permission of Barnes & Noble Books, a Division of Littlefield, Adams & Co., Inc.), Barnes & Noble, 1979, pp. 330-38.