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This article is taken from Poetry Nation 6 Number 6, 1976.Philip Larkin - A Stateside View
WITH THE publication in the United States of Philip Larkin's High Windows the eyes of American readers, usually occupied locally, once more turn wonderingly toward England. Wonderingly: in admiration, certainly, but also in inquiry. Is Larkin in fact the best that English poetry has to offer, the only poet whose work is capable of diverting our attention from our own fascinating literary scene? Some not injudicious American readers have thought so. Randall Jarrell's widow has recalled how in the early sixties her husband and Robert Lowell, happening to be passing through London at the same time, sat talking on a bench in Kensington Gardens. 'Cal was for Plath that day, and Gunn - and Larkin. Randall was for Larkin, Larkin, and Larkin: that was normal.' Today only Hughes seems here to command anything like the interest that Larkin does, and Hughes's recent work has met with less than uniform approval. Larkin, at least to academically-minded readers, has been above criticism since the publication of The Less Deceived.
Larkinolatry is an easy condition to succumb to; I have suffered bouts of it myself. During a time in which so many English poets have assumed American mannerisms, Larkin's style has remained stubbornly indigenous. His poems have not been made for export; his achievement, his attitudes, and his deliberation in pursuing a career out of the public eye, all have for us the charm of unfamiliarity. Formal perfection has not been foremost among our poets' concerns since the middle fifties; a poet like Richard Wilbur, who has not significantly altered his style since then, seems an astonishing survivor halfway through the seventies. Larkin has the same sort of tenacity, maintaining standards of craftsmanship whose rigour seems enhanced by an infrequency of publication. One book every decade, a pile of mature poems numbering less than a hundred - what American poet over fifty has been as scrupulous an editor of himself as Larkin has been? If the finish and relative scarcity of these poems seem alien to us, the world view many of them express is even more so. Thoroughgoing pessimism in the manner of Hardy has generally seemed unadaptable to American minds. Our worship of the bitch-goddess Success has proved itself impervious to literary assaults by such men as E.A. Robinson and Robinson Jeffers. Even given a more favourable environment, Robinson's evident provincialism and Jeffers's outright crankiness would have served to discourage emulation. If an all-embracing pessimism were to appear again in American poetry (and perhaps it may, in response to our Asian empire's dissolution) I expect it would be a noisier, more histrionic attitude than it is in Larkin's handling of it. The surfaces of his poems are so quiet, the depths of the best so profound, that one might reread them for a lifetime without having distilled their last drop of melancholy.
The bleakness of Larkin's vision, present in his writing from the beginning, has intensified through time. The almost bottomless bitterness expressed in some of the pieces in High Windows may be taken, depending on one's taste, as signalling either the perfecting of an artist's individual focus or the surrender of his imaginative flexibility. High Windows, like Larkin's other mature collections, is a problematical achievement, and is more readily assessed after a glance back upon its predecessors.
The early verse collected in The North Ship (1945) has almost nothing of the poet's characteristic voice. The poems, as Larkin notes disarmingly in a preface written twenty years after their original publication, are mostly mouthpieces for the 'potent music, pervasive as garlic' of the middle Yeats. Moonlight, drumtaps, and ominous horsemen are frequently and floridly introduced. What now seems prophetic in these pieces is the recurrent appearance in them of the theme of loneliness as a fact of life, a given, against which any struggle can only end in exhausted defeat.
To wake, and hear a cock
Out of the distance crying,
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.
So runs the poem 'Dawn' in its entirety. This is a theme which requires not a florid but a muted music for its most effective rendering; as Larkin concludes in his introduction, it was his defection from Yeats's influence to that of Hardy which allowed his own voice to declare itself in The Less Deceived.
The maturing of his gift was evident in his prose earlier than in his poetry. Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947) are admirable novels, authoritative in style without borrowing any other writer's rhetoric - altogether remarkable productions for a novelist under twenty-five. Both written in the third person, they pursue the theme of loneliness with a satisfying blend of earnestness and amusement, detachment and sympathy. In the traumas suffered by the protagonists of these novels we see vivid anticipations of the disillusionment to be voiced in the later poems. John Kemp, a working-class freshman in wartime Oxford, comes to an acceptance of ultimate meaninglessness after his home town has been bombed and his romantic fantasies, the chief focus of the novel, have been exploded:
Was he not freed, for the rest of his life, from choice? . . . Let him take this course, or this course, but still behind the mind, on some other level, the way he had rejected was being simultaneously worked out and the same conclusion was being reached. What did it matter which road he took if they both led to the same place? . . .
Jill concludes on this note; and in A Girl in Winter the outlook is even more dejected. Katherine, eking out a grim, solitary existence as a war refugee in England, helplessly feels her consciousness to be undergoing a dark conversion:
. . . the world seemed to have moved off a little, and to have lost its immediacy, as a bright pattern will fade in many washings. It was like a painting of a winter landscape in neutral colours, or a nocturne in many greys of the riverside, yet not so beautiful as either. Like a person who is beginning to go physically colour-blind she was disturbed. She felt one of her faculties had died without her consent or knowledge, and she was less than she had been. The world that she had been so used to appraising, delighting in, and mixing with had drawn away, and she no longer felt she was part of it. Henceforward, if she needed comfort, she would have to comfort herself; if she were to be happy, her happiness would have to burn from her own nature. In short, since people seemed not to affect her, they could not help her, and if she was to go on living she would have to get the strength for it solely out of herself.
I wonder if Larkin will not in the end come to be esteemed as much for his novels - especially A Girl in Winter - as for his verse. The persistence of his single prevailing theme allows us to tally the relative advantages each genre has tendered him. The novels are rich in circumstantial detail, in clear, true-coloured depictions of settings (Kemp's Oxford, Katherine's unnamed provincial city) which provide a telling depth to the emotional experience of the characters who inhabit them. In the poems some of this descriptive density has necessarily been sacrificed; and there is, in a deeper sense, less background supplied. The speaker in the poems, whether observing others or himself, spends little time examining the reasons for a malaise which he views as all-pervasive. There is no explaining why the vessels in the 'sparkling armada of promises' we see approaching us never drop anchor. We have picked up 'bad habits of expectancy', the poem tells us:
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
'Beneath it all,' concludes the little poem 'Wants', 'desire of oblivion runs':
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death -
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.
A later, even shorter poem, 'As Bad as a Mile', comments with mordant amusement upon the vulnerability of complacency in an existence which seems at best a tissue of random mishaps:
Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more
Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.
There is no positing of causes, no attempt to trace unhappy effects meaningfully back to a source. The powerful, blank absoluteness of such pronouncements goes beyond anything in the novels. John Kemp's experience of class prejudice, and Katherine's of exile, are credible as provocations of their emotional disorders. The novels partake of a larger, less subjective view of life than the poems attempt or desire to assume. The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings lose something in breadth as they reduce to an eloquent, personalized shorthand the estrangement that is adumbrated in Larkin's fictional prose.
Yet Larkin's poetic material remains more novelistic (to speak of the novel in its classic form) than any other contemporary poet's. The poems frequently present life histories condensed and calcified. Plot and character are dominant elements, however Larkin's mastery of verse technique may enhance the total effect of a poem. One feels that a century ago he might have been a brother in arms of Dickens or Trollope, rivalling them in his cunning exploitation of the unconscious, at times grotesque comedy of which humanity is capable. 'Mr Bleaney', 'Dockery and Son' - these are Dickensian names, Dickensian titles. (The name Dockery appears, offhandedly, in Jill - a sign that Larkin's imagination was very early attracted to a traditionally English [or at least Victorian] poetry of proper names.) Of the poems in his first two mature volumes one's initial question might be: do they successfully realize their narrative impulse within the confines of verse?
In some cases yes, in others no. There are times at which one feels that the dooms of Larkin's characters have been unduly and insistently contrived. At their least convincing the poems recall Hardy's Satires of Circumstance, which lead one to reflect that it is not the Unknown God who has dealt such a miserable hand to the hapless folk involved, but Mr Hardy himself. Recurrently annoying is the busy stage-managing by which Larkin will lull the reader into a false security only to pull the rug out from under him in a last stanza, or a last line. 'Love Songs in Age', for instance, relies heavily on this tactic. In the first two stanzas an elderly widow comes upon a pile of old song-sheets,
One bleached from lying in a sunny place,
One marked in circles by a vase of water,
One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,
And coloured, by her daughter . . .
The songs evoke for the woman memories of days when 'the unfailing sense of being young / Spread out like a spring-woken tree'; yielding to her wave of sentimentality we sail into the final stanza only to shipwreck on its last four lines:
. . . But, even more,
The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,
Broke out, to show
Its bright incipience sailing above,
Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order. So
To pile them back, to cry,
Was hard, without lamely admitting how
It had not done so then, and could not now.
The tone of such downbeat conclusions is mannered and tenuous: while an admirer hears restrained, ironic sympathy, the sceptic detects a note of submerged schadenfreude.
Something similar occurs in two substantial meditative lyrics, 'Church Going' and 'An Arundel Tomb' - not a sudden debunking, to be sure, but a calculated withdrawal at the end from an emotional commitment previously entertained. 'Church Going', while spoken throughout by a secularized voice, nevertheless cultivates an almost Betjeman-like atmosphere, in which old pieties ostensibly extinct may yet flourish. But the poem at last shies away from the religious feeling which, in its understated way, it has been quite consciously exploiting. The secularism shifts from being chiefly a rhetorical tactic to become grounds for a nervous assertion, in which the speaker's concern with his topic, and ours, is reduced to man's habit of 'surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious.' My complaint is not with the agnosticism of this conclusion, but with its insipid, lame, over-generalized effect: the earlier rich detailing of the poem is not aptly followed by this retreat into finicky abstraction. The final line, recalling the churchyard where 'so many dead lie round', just barely manages to restore something of our grasp upon the finely rendered actualities of the setting. Again, 'An Arundel Tomb' describes the marble effigies of a medieval earl and countess, focusing lovingly upon the detail of their clasped hands. The poem meditates on the appetite for significance which leads modern men to freight such a detail with more meaning than the sculptor ever intended, saying at last of the two figures:
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.
How fussy, how unpleasantly officious those two 'almosts' seem. The historical and emotional ironies are sufficiently apparent; Larkin would have done better to let them stand on their own.
'Church Going' and 'An Arundel Tomb' remain memorable poems despite these blemishes. There are others in the middle volumes, many of them cast in the first person, in which the poet's nay-saying is much less restrained. The results vary. 'Reasons for Attendance', 'No Road', 'Self's the Man', 'Dockery and Son' are individually readable, or better than merely that. But the effect of each is vitiated if it is read together with the others; however the tone may alter, the argument is the same and becomes over-familiar. These pieces are all defences of a life lived in estrangement, of a conscious choice of isolation. This way of life is in equal proportions detested and determinedly embraced. In such instances (and one could name several others) the attitude is one which Kierkegaard analysed very precisely in The Sickness unto Death. It is that form of despair which,
revolting against the whole of existence, . . . thinks it has hold of a proof against it, against its goodness. This proof the despairer thinks he himself is, and that is what he wills to be, . . . in order with this torment to protest against the whole of existence.
It is as if, Kierkegaard goes on, a clerical error in a manuscript were to 'revolt against the author, out of hatred for him were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, ''No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer."' So extreme and stylized is this sort of despair, says Kierkegaard, that it is seldom seen in life. 'Such figures generally are met with only in the works of poets . . .' Reading some of Larkin's weaker bits of grumbling, we may be tempted to second the philosopher's critique of this sort of disposition, that it 'lacks seriousness'. The poems in the middle volumes of which this need not be said are often, strangely, openly humorous ones like 'Toads', 'Toads Revisited', and 'Poetry of Departures'. The finest work, however, occurs when argument is consistently carried through not by didactic statement but by a wondrously expressive imagery or scenic description - as in the title poems, 'The Less Deceived' and 'The Whitsun Weddings'.
High Windows appears to advantage against the background just sketched. Larkin's mastery over language is undiminished, and in fact has extended its range towards the colloquial end of the scale, now that prohibitions of obscenity have been relinquished. There are a few pieces which seem excessively slight ('Annus Mirabilis', 'This be the Verse') and yet this collection, the smallest so far, communicates a more unified impact than its predecessors. The tone throughout is consistent and convincing, without the selfconscious drops into didacticism or defensiveness that at times discountenanced the earlier poems. The pieces expounding Larkin's brand of pessimism have become less stagy; it is as if he has fully grown into an attitude which in a younger man had the appearance of being overly willed. I do not like hearing what these new poems have to tell me (as an American, after all, I claim a sunny outlook as a birthright); but I approve them as being more honest on their own terms than several of their precursors. 'The Building' (about a hospital) and 'The Old Fools' (about senility) possess a bitterness more affecting than any Larkin has given voice to before; they are, after all, the poems of a man in his fifties, and are grounded in knowledgeable apprehension rather than distant intuition.
There are two things before which Larkin will relax his toughly critical stance: the beauty of nature and what might be called democratic social rituals. For these subjects he reserves his gentlest tones: the earlier pastorals, 'At Grass' and 'Wedding-Wind', and the brilliant panoramas, 'Here' and 'The Whitsun Weddings' are notable instances of this benignity. Nature is celebrated in two small, impeccable lyrics in the new book, 'The Trees' and 'Cut Grass'. The more considerable poems 'To the Sea' and 'Show Saturday' offer engaging pictures of, respectively, a seaside resort and a rural fair. The poet observes the zest and resilient traditionalism of common people on holiday: 'Still going on, all of it, still going on!' he exclaims with delighted wonder in 'To the Sea'. The colourful bustle captured with a fresh and winning clarity in 'Show Saturday' ends with this petition:
Let it stay hidden there like strength, below
Sale-bills and swindling; something people do,
Not noticing how time's rolling smithy-smoke
Shadows much greater gestures; something they share
That breaks ancestrally each year into
Regenerate union. Let it always be there.
Perhaps because he is so sparing of affirmations, Larkin's moments of expansiveness seem totally felt, and are as moving as they are rare.
Expansiveness of a different sort is operative in the book's title poem and its last piece, 'The Explosion'. One sees in these how Larkin has got beyond reliance on the nervous, over-determined climaxes criticized above. It is not that his treatment has become optimistic - the content of both these poems is vividly sad. But Larkin has provided each with a startling final image, which points beyond all emotion, whether of joy or grief. The marvellous close of 'The Whitsun Weddings' may have provided the cue for this tactic: there, the poet crowns his catalogue of the sights and sounds of his train journey with this vault into featureless, inscrutable distance:
We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
In 'High Windows', the envy of age for youth, and the supposed pleasures envied, are alike transcended and reproved by a stark conclusion which comes out of nowhere and yet seems perfectly in place:
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
'The Explosion' follows its group of miners on their walk to work:
One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark's eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.
The pit disaster itself is presented with an ominous quiet:
At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
Scarfed in a heat-haze, dimmed.
And immediately the poem proceeds to this extraordinary ending:
The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God's house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face -
Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed -
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
One showing the eggs unbroken.
This chilling mixture of numbness and exaltation has few counterparts in poetry of our own or any time; this is one of Larkin's finest and most unusual poems. On the level of meaning his latest work is as austere and uncompromising as ever, but it is subtler in structure, and more flexible in the means by which it makes a difficult, unappealing view of life accessible to the common reader. Instead of being led down corridors to come up against a locked door, we find the door swinging giddily open on to an absolute void. The effect is at once appalling and exhilarating, and should leave the poet's readers in America, as in his own country, looking forward with revived impatience to his next decade's narrow sheaf.
Robert B. Shaw, assistant professor of English at Harvard, edited American Poetry since 1960 - Some Critical Perspectives; and a selection of the poetry of Henry Vaughan for Fyfield Books. Two collections of his poetry have been published in Britain.
This article is taken from Poetry Nation 6 Number 6, 1976.