Where does the mainstream of English poetry lie? Admirers of the contemporary British poet, Philip Larkin, see its source to be Wordsworth, its exponents Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas, those quiet introverted men who refused to follow any but their own individual bent. It is a stream that moves underground when intensely classical or romantic spirits are abroad—an Eliot or a Dylan Thomas—but which is encouraged into the light by the ironic, contemplative aura of the later Auden. It was in the early 1950’s that “The Movement” declared itself again, in Robert Conquest’s anthology, NEW LINES; and the British public revealed itself as ready for Wordsworth’s “real language of men.” Novelists and poets began to take a hard look at changing social patterns: at middle class mentality, suburban mediocrity, the uncaring anonymity of “I’m all right, Jack.” It was a world shorn of metaphor and myth whose poets almost desperately declared themselves as humanists, dedicated to the revelation of “the real person or event.” Honesty or the awareness of honesty was their religion.
Philip Larkin was one of the first, along with Kingsley Amis and John Wain, to reflect the new attitudes. He had started off at the beginning of the war as a promising young novelist. His first novel, JILL, was published in 1940, when he was twenty-one. It depicts the struggles of a scholarship boy thrust into the upper class world of Oxford and resolving his problems through fantasy. However, Larkin’s 1955 book of poems, THE LESS DECEIVED, indicated that he had stripped himself of the dream and was forcing himself to become at home in a world essentially alien to the dreamer. He was seeking a way to deal with things as they are, not as they seem; without distortion. Possibly for this reason the first poem in the book, and one that has been much anthologized, is most revealing of his approach and method. It is titled “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album.”
With its evocation of a real girl in a real place this poem sets the colloquial, self-mocking tone reminiscent of Hardy’s ballads or of Meredith’s lyrics. The structure, too, of this poem is as complicated and controlled as Hardy’s: a loose iambic stanza of five lines with a consistent rhyme scheme, yet contemporary in its use of half-rhymes and assonances.
In his poem, Larkin is not satisfied merely to record, to photograph, even though he can flick out the exact word to create a picture. He can do more by commenting on the scene and involving the listener in his commentary. A purely “imagist” poet would be content to leave the picture objectively before us, implying only its emotional direction. But Larkin plunges right into exposition, and he goes over the scene again, peeling away leaf after leaf to reveal the frustration.
“Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” reveals his control over his vehicle which is a characteristic of all of Larkin’s work. He is an intent craftsman, creating within a set form an amazing variety of rhythmic variations. And he is steadily concerned with the evocative power of assonance and alliteration. This poem is aptly illustrative of Larkin’s nostalgic, ironic mood; of his reasonable acceptance of an unsatisfactory world; and of his angst which never becomes self-pity. There is, in his best work, a stoicism which keeps...
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