Philip Larkin, an eminent writer in postwar England, was a national favorite poet who was commonly referred to as "England's other Poet Laureate" until his death in 1985. Indeed, when the position of laureate became vacant in 1984, many poets and critics favored Larkin's appointment, but the shy, provincial author preferred to avoid the limelight. An "artist of the first rank" in the words of Southern Review contributor John Press, Larkin achieved acclaim on the strength of an extremely small body of work—just over one hundred pages of poetry in four slender volumes that appeared at almost decade-long intervals. These collections, especially The Less Deceived,The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows, present "a poetry from which even people who distrust poetry, most people, can take comfort and delight," according to X. J. Kennedy in the New Criterion. Larkin employed the traditional tools of poetry—rhyme, stanza, and meter—to explore the often uncomfortable or terrifying experiences thrust upon common people in the modern age. As Alan Brownjohn notes in Philip Larkin, the poet produced without fanfare "the most technically brilliant and resonantly beautiful, profoundly disturbing yet appealing and approachable, body of verse of any English poet in the last twenty-five years."
Despite his wide popularity, Larkin "shied from publicity, rarely consented to interviews or readings, cultivated his image as right-wing curmudgeon and grew depressed at his fame," according to J. D. McClatchy in the New York Times Book Review. To support himself, he worked as a professional librarian for more than forty years, writing in his spare time. In that manner he authored two novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, two collections of criticism, All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961-1968 and Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982, and all of his verse. Phoenix contributor Alun R. Jones suggests that, as a wage earner at the remote University of Hull, Larkin "avoided the literary, the metropolitan, the group label, and embraced the nonliterary, the provincial, and the purely personal." In Nine Contemporary Poets: A Critical Introduction, Peter R. King likewise commends "the scrupulous awareness of a man who refuses to be taken in by inflated notions of either art or life." From his base in Hull, Larkin composed poetry that both reflects the dreariness of postwar provincial England and voices "most articulately and poignantly the spiritual desolation of a world in which men have shed the last rags of religious faith that once lent meaning and hope to human lives," according to Press. McClatchy notes Larkin wrote "in clipped, lucid stanzas, about the failures and remorse of age, about stunted lives and spoiled desires." Critics feel that this localization of focus and the colloquial language used to describe settings and emotions endear Larkin to his readers. Agenda reviewer George Dekker notes that no living poet "can equal Larkin on his own ground of the familiar English lyric, drastically and poignantly limited in its sense of any life beyond, before or after, life today in England."
Throughout his life, England was Larkin's emotional territory to an eccentric degree. The poet distrusted travel abroad and professed ignorance of foreign literature, including most modern American poetry. He also tried to avoid the cliches of his own culture, such as the tendency to read portent into an artist's childhood. In his poetry and essays, Larkin remembered his early years as "unspent" and "boring," as he grew up the son of a city treasurer in Coventry. Poor eyesight and stuttering plagued Larkin as a youth; he retreated into solitude, read widely, and began to write poetry as a nightly routine. In 1940 he enrolled at Oxford, beginning "a vital stage in his personal and literary development," according to Bruce K. Martin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. At Oxford Larkin studied English literature and cultivated the friendship of those who shared his special interests, including Kingsley Amis and John Wain. He graduated with first class honors in 1943, and, having to account for himself with the wartime Ministry of Labor, he took a position as librarian in the small Shropshire town of Wellington. While there he wrote both of his novels as well as The North Ship, his first volume of poetry. After working at several other university libraries, Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 and began a thirty-year association with the library at the University of Hull. He is still admired for his expansion and modernization of that facility.
The author's Selected Letters, edited by Larkin's longtime friend Anthony Thwaite, reveals much about the writer's personal and professional life between 1940 and 1985. Washington Post Book World reviewer John Simon notes that the letters are "about intimacy, conviviality, and getting things off one's heaving chest into a heedful ear." He suggests that "these cheerful, despairing, frolicsome, often foul-mouthed, grouchy, self-assertive and self-depreciating missives should not be missed by anyone who appreciates Larkin's verse."
In a Paris Review interview, Larkin dismissed the notion that he studied the techniques of poets that he admired in order to perfect his craft. Most critics feel, however, that the poems of both William Butler Yeats and Thomas Hardy exerted an influence on Larkin as he sought his own voice. Martin suggests that the pieces in The North Ship "reflect an infatuation with Yeatsian models, a desire to emulate the Irishman's music without having undergone the experience upon which it had been based." Hardy's work provided the main impetus to Larkin's mature poetry, according to critics. A biographer in Contemporary Literary Criticism claims "Larkin credited his reading of Thomas Hardy's verse for inspiring him to write with greater austerity and to link experiences and emotions with detailed settings." King contends that a close reading of Hardy taught Larkin "that a modern poet could write about the life around him in the language of the society around him. He encouraged [Larkin] to use his poetry to examine the reality of his own life. . . . As a result Larkin abandoned the highly romantic style of The North Ship, which had been heavily influenced by the poetry of Yeats, and set out to write from the tensions that underlay his own everyday experiences. Hardy also supported his employment of traditional forms and technique, which Larkin [went] on to use with subtlety and variety." In his work Philip Larkin, Martin also claims that Larkin learned from 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 [came Larkin's] belief that a poem is better based on something from 'unsorted' experience than on another poem or other art."
Not surprisingly, this viewpoint allied Larkin with the poets of The Movement, a loose association of British writers who "called, implicitly in their poetry and fiction and explicitly in critical essays, for some sort of commonsense return to more traditional techniques," according to Martin in Philip Larkin. Martin adds that the rationale for this "antimodernist, antiexperimental stance is their stated concern with clarity: with writing distinguished by precision rather than obscurity. . . . [The Movement 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." King observes that Larkin "had sympathy with many of the attitudes to poetry represented by The Movement," but this view of the poet's task antedated the beginnings of that group's influence. Nonetheless, in the opinion of Washington Post Book World contributor Chad Walsh, Larkin says "seemed to fulfill the credo of the Movement better than anyone else, and he was often singled out, as much for damnation as for praise, by those looking for the ultimate Movement poet." Brownjohn concludes that in the company of The Movement, Larkin's own "distinctive technical skills, the special subtlety in his adaptation of a very personal colloquial mode to the demands of tight forms, were not immediately seen to be outstanding; but his strengths as a craftsman have increasingly come to be regarded as one of the hallmarks of his talent."
Those strengths of craftsmanship and technical skill in Larkin's mature works receive almost universal approval from literary critics. London Sunday Times correspondent Ian Hamilton writes: "Supremely among recent poets, [Larkin] was able to accommodate a talking voice to the requirements of strict metres and tight rhymes, and he had a faultless ear for the possibilities of the iambic line." David Timms expresses a similar view in his book entitled Philip Larkin. Technically, notes Timms, Larkin was "an extraordinarily various and accomplished poet, a poet who [used] the devices of metre and rhyme for specific effects. . . . His language is never flat, unless he intends it to be so for a particular reason, and his diction is never stereotyped. He [was] always ready . . . to reach across accepted literary boundaries for a word that will precisely express what he intends." As King explains, Larkin's best poems "are rooted in actual experiences and convey a sense of place and situation, people and events, which gives an authenticity to the thoughts that are then usually raised by the poet's observation of the scene. . . . Joined with this strength of careful social observation is a control over tone changes and the expression of developing feelings even within a single poem . . . which is the product of great craftsmanship. To these virtues must be added the fact that in all the poems there is a lucidity of language which invites understanding even when the ideas expressed are paradoxical or complex." New Leader contributor Pearl K. Bell concludes that Larkin's poetry "fits with unresisting precision into traditional structures, . . . filling them with the melancholy truth of things in the shrunken, vulgarized and parochial England of the 1970s."
If Larkin's style is traditional, the subject matter of his poetry is derived exclusively from modern life. Press contends that Larkin's artistic work "delineates with considerable force and delicacy the pattern of contemporary sensibility, tracing the way in which we respond to our environment, plotting the ebb and flow of the emotional flux within us, embodying in his poetry attitudes of heart and mind that seem peculiarly characteristic of our time: doubt, insecurity, boredom, aimlessness and malaise." A sense that life is a finite prelude to oblivion underlies many of Larkin's poems. King suggests that the work is "a poetry of disappointment, of the destruction of romantic illusions, of man's defeat by time and his own inadequacies," as well as a study of how dreams, hopes, and ideals "are relentlessly diminished by the realities of life." To Larkin, Brownjohn notes, life was never "a matter of blinding revelations, mystical insights, expectations glitteringly fulfilled. Life, for Larkin, and, implicitly, for all of us, is something lived mundanely, with a gradually accumulating certainty that its golden prizes are sheer illusion." Love is one of the supreme deceptions of humankind in Larkin's worldview, as King observes: "Although man clutches at his instinctive belief that only love will comfort, console and sustain him, such a hope is doomed to be denied. A lover's promise is an empty promise and the power to cure suffering through love is a tragic illusion." Stanley Poss in Western Humanities Review maintains that Larkin's poems demonstrate "desperate clarity and restraint and besieged common sense. And what they mostly say is, be beginning to despair, despair, despair."
Larkin arrived at his conclusions candidly, concerned to expose evasions so that the reader might stand "naked but honest, 'less deceived' . . . before the realities of life and death," to quote King. Many critics find Larkin withdrawn from his poems, a phenomenon Martin describes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography thus: "The unmarried observer, a staple in Larkin's poetic world, . . . enjoys only a curious and highly limited kind of communion with those he observes." Jones likewise declares that Larkin's "ironic detachment is comprehensive. Even the intense beauty that his poetry creates is created by balancing on a keen ironic edge." King writes: "A desire not to be fooled by time leads to a concern to maintain vigilance against a whole range of possible evasions of reality. It is partly this which makes Larkin's typical stance one of being to one side of life, watching himself and others with a detached eye." Although Harvard Advocate contributor Andrew Sullivan states that the whole tenor of Larkin's work is that of an "irrelevant and impotent spectator," John Reibetanz offers the counter suggestion in Contemporary Literature that the poetry records and reflects "the imperfect, transitory experiences of the mundane reality that the poet shares with his readers." Larkin himself offered a rather wry description of his accomplishments—an assessment that, despite its levity, links him emotionally to his work. In 1979 he told the Observer: "I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any. . . . Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth."
Critics such as Dalhousie Review contributor Roger Bowen find moments of affirmation in Larkin's poetry, notwithstanding its pessimistic and cynical bent. According to Bowen, an overview of Larkin's oeuvre makes evident "that the definition of the poet as a modern anti-hero governed by a sense of his own mortality seems . . . justified. But . . . a sense of vision and a quiet voice of celebration seem to be asserting themselves" in at least some of the poems. Brownjohn admits that Larkin's works take a bleak view of human existence; at the same time, however, they contain "the recurrent reflection that others, particularly the young, might still find happiness in expectation." Contemporary Literature essayist James Naremore expands on Larkin's tendency to detach himself from the action in his poems: "From the beginning, Larkin's work has manifested a certain coolness and lack of self-esteem, a need to withdraw from experience; but at the same time it has continued to show his desire for a purely secular type of romance. . . . Larkin is trying to assert his humanity, not deny it. . . . The greatest virtue in Larkin's poetry is not so much his suppression of large poetic gestures as his ability to recover an honest sense of joy and beauty." The New York Times quotes Larkin as having said that a poem "represents the mastering, even if just for a moment, of the pessimism and the melancholy, and enables you—you the poet, and you, the reader—to go on." King senses this quiet catharsis when he concludes: "Although one's final impression of the poetry is certainly that the chief emphasis is placed on a life 'unspent' in the shadow of 'untruth,' moments of beauty and affirmation are not entirely denied. It is the difficulty of experiencing such moments after one has become so aware of the numerous self-deceptions that man practices on himself to avoid the uncomfortable reality which lies at the heart of Larkin's poetic identity."
Timms claims that Larkin "consistently maintained that a poet should write about those things in life that move him most deeply: if he does not feel deeply about anything, he should not write." Dedicated to reaching out for his readers, the poet was a staunch opponent of modernism in all artistic media. Larkin felt that such cerebral experimentation ultimately creates a barrier between an artist and the audience and provides unnecessary thematic complications. Larkin's "demand for fidelity to experience is supported by his insistence that poetry should both communicate and give pleasure to the reader," King notes, adding: "It would be a mistake to dismiss this attitude as a form of simple literary conservatism. Larkin is not so much expressing an anti-intellectualism as attacking a particular form of artistic snobbery." In Philip Larkin, Martin comments that the poet saw the need for poetry to move toward the "paying customer." Therefore, his writings concretize "many of the questions which have perplexed man almost since his beginning but which in modern times have become the province principally of academicians. . . . [Larkin's poetry reflects] his faith in the common reader to recognize and respond to traditional philosophical concerns when stripped of undue abstractions and pretentious labels." Brownjohn finds Larkin eminently successful in his aims: "It is indeed true that many of his readers find pleasure and interest in Larkin's poetry for its apparent accessibility and its cultivation of verse forms that seem reassuringly traditional rather than 'modernist' in respect of rhyme and metre." As Timms succinctly notes, originality for Larkin consisted "not in modifying the medium of communication, but in communicating something different."
"Much that is admirable in the best of [Larkin's] work is felt [in Collected Poems]: firmness and delicacy of cadence, a definite geography, a mutually fortifying congruence between what the language means to say and what it musically embodies," asserts Seamus Heaney in the Observer. The collection contains Larkin's six previous volumes of poetry as well as eighty-three of his unpublished poems gleaned from notebooks and homemade booklets. The earliest poems (which reflect the style and social concerns of W. H. Auden) date from his schooldays and the latest close to his death. Writing in the Chicago Tribune Books,Alan Shapiro points out, "Reading the work in total, we can see how Larkin, early and late, is a poet of great and complex feeling." Larkin "[endowed] the most commonplace objects and occasions with a chilling poignancy, [measuring] daily life with all its tedium and narrowness against the possibilities of feeling," adds Shapiro.
Larkin's output of fiction and essays is hardly more extensive than his poetry. His two novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, were both published before his twenty-fifth birthday. New Statesman correspondent Clive James feels that both novels "seem to point forward to the poetry. Taken in their chronology, they are impressively mature and self-sufficient." James adds that the fiction is so strong that "if Larkin had never written a line of verse, his place as a writer would still have been secure." Although the novels received little critical attention when they first appeared, they have since been judged highly successful. Brownjohn calls Jill "one of the better novels written about England during the Second World War, not so much for any conscious documentary effort put into it as for Larkin's characteristic scrupulousness in getting all the background details right." In the New York Review of Books, John Bayley notes that A Girl in Winter is "a real masterpiece, a quietly gripping novel, dense with the humor that is Larkin's trademark, and also an extended prose poem." Larkin's essay collections, Required Writing and All What Jazz, are compilations of critical pieces he wrote for periodicals over a thirty-year period, including the jazz record reviews he penned as a music critic for the London Daily Telegraph. "Everything Larkin writes is concise, elegant and wholly original," Bayley claims in the Listener, "and this is as true of his essays and reviews as it is of his poetry." Elsewhere in the New York Review of Books, Bayley comments that Required Writing "reveals wide sympathies, deep and trenchant perceptions, a subterraneous grasp of the whole of European culture." And in an essay on All What Jazz for Anthony Thwaite's Larkin at Sixty, James concludes that "no wittier book of criticism has ever been written."
Larkin stopped writing poetry shortly after his collection High Windows was published in 1974. In an Observer obituary, Kingsley Amis characterized the poet as "a man much driven in upon himself, with increasing deafness from early middle age cruelly emphasizing his seclusion." Small though it is, Larkin's body of work has "altered our awareness of poetry's capacity to reflect the contemporary world," according to London Magazine correspondent Roger Garfitt. A. N. Wilson draws a similar conclusion in the Spectator: "Perhaps the reason Larkin made such a great name from so small an oeuvre was that he so exactly caught the mood of so many of us. . . . Larkin found the perfect voice for expressing our worst fears." That voice was "stubbornly indigenous," according to Robert B. Shaw in Poetry Nation. Larkin appealed primarily to the British sensibility; he remained unencumbered by any compunction to universalize his poems by adopting a less regional idiom. Perhaps as a consequence, his poetry sells remarkably well in Great Britain, his readers come from all walks of life, and his untimely cancer-related death in 1985 has not diminished his popularity. Andrew Sullivan feels that Larkin "has spoken to the English in a language they can readily understand of the profound self-doubt that this century has given them. He was, of all English poets, a laureate too obvious to need official recognition."
In 2002, a notebook containing unpublished poems by Larkin was found in a garbage dump in England, and the notebook's current owner consulted with auction houses in preparation for selling it. The Society of Authors was to look into legal issues involved in the matter. Then in 2004 came publication of another Collected Poems, again edited by Thwaite. While the first Collected Poems from 1989 was arranged chronologically, this was not the order that Larkin himself had used when first publishing them. Additionally, Thwaite published previously unpublished poems and fragments in the earlier volume, drawing some criticism from Larkin scholars. With the 2004 Collected Poems, such matters were corrected. One hundred pages shorter than the earlier volume, and ordered to Larkin's original desires, this second version "does give the verse itself a better shake," according to John Updike writing in the New Yorker. Yet it is hard to please everyone, as Melanie Rehak noted in a Nation review. "Just as some quibbled when Thwaite diverged from Larkin's chosen path in his previous collection," Rehak noted, "there are absences in this new edition that also diminish it." However, for Daniel Torday, reviewing the second Collected Poems in Esquire, the book was a success. "Twenty years after [Larkin's] death," wrote Torday, "a newly revised [version]...has arrived to remind us that Larkin was more the man's poet of the 20th century than [Charles] Bukowski or [Jack] Kerouac." Torday also felt that Larkin was able to ignore "any audience but himself.... That crass, stubborn, and yet unavoidably lovable curmudgeon who tends to poke his head out at the most inopportune times."
Larkin, Philip 1922–
British poet, novelist, essayist, and jazz critic, Larkin is a poet of disillusionment, of timid, inhibited characters easily resigned to defeat. If his concerns appear too narrow and his style too conventional, Larkin more than compensates for his limitations by his wit and his intelligence. Many critics consider him the finest poet in England today. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
High Windows has been allowed to set the terms of its own discussion, as if there were no criteria beyond its own criteria, as if it was a book above criticism.
If only Larkin had given us another collection on the level of The Less Deceived or The Whitsun Weddings, we would indeed have cause to be grateful, deeply so. High Windows, alas, is not nearly so consistent an achievement as they were, and for reasons which are important, and seem to contradict Larkin's own avowed belief that a poet does not need to develop. For the lesson of this book seems to be that in poetry you cannot stand still: if you do not move forwards, then you begin to move backwards, or slip sideways.
Larkin himself has said that he doesn't know how he writes well, and looking at the best poems in High Windows one can see to what an extent the impulse is involuntary. The title poem gives us the clue:
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.
Rather than words, the image. Perhaps Larkin's most distinctive poems are those which achieve themselves by a sudden dislocation of the argument into a visual image that 'leaves/Nothing to be said.' In The Less Deceived 'Wedding Wind', 'Next, Please' and 'Deceptions' all use this technique, in very different ways. In The Whitsun Weddings a visual image initiates the movement of 'Dockery And Son': in 'Days' another sharply concludes it. In his new collection Larkin relies on this technique more than ever before, and the conclusive images of 'High Windows', 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel', 'Money' and 'The Explosion' are, I suspect, what we will chiefly remember from it. Other poets, Auden, for instance, can conjure up any number of apt, illustrative images, snap-shots and vignettes, as Larkin himself can: but only Larkin produces, as if by a jerk of the unconscious, images at once so plangent and so final. (p. 112)
Larkin's previous work should remind us how much is missing. Looking back to 'Here', 'The Whitsun Weddings', 'An Arundel Tomb', one sees that the visual haunting was there alright, but as part of a much broader, more inclusive structure. The effort of style that this implies, supporting and extending, even, perhaps, evoking the involuntary impulse, is central to Larkin's achievement in his best work. The procedure of these poems is as much metaphysical as visual. Indeed, they have a strong sense of being thoroughly argued through. Their assimilation of the reality that surrounds them is equally thorough. It was these poems, after all, that altered our awareness of poetry's capacity to reflect the contemporary world. As deliberate as Larkin's self-restriction to idiosyncrasy elsewhere is his assumption here of a communal voice, which continues through such poems as 'Ambulances', 'Faith Healing' and 'Essential Beauty'. Wasn't there, in fact, a very real development from the totally private world of The Less Deceived, only falteringly foreshadowed in 'Church Going', and stylistically perhaps in 'I Remember, I Remember'? 'The Whitsun Weddings' could almost be seen as a translation into contemporary speech of the final sonorities of 'Church Going'. Perception, colloquialism, and humour are welded together into what is, as much as anything, a triumphant technical resolution.
Where in High Windows would one look to find anything approaching this marriage of humanity and technique? Only to 'The Old Fools' or 'Vers de Société', and they're unequal marriages. One should be able to look to 'To the Sea' or 'Show Saturday', but set either of those beside 'The Whitsun Weddings' and they look pretty inert. Or compare 'Ambulances', whose verse form binds its ironies so tightly, with the pedestrian pace of 'The Building'.
That the weakness of High Windows should reveal itself as a technical weakness is not surprising, though it is surprising that it hasn't been the subject of comment. Technical advance, surely, results from a poet's engagement and recalcitrant material, and there's abundant evidence in High Windows to show that there's been no such engagement. In this respect, the way in which 'Show Saturday' fails to clinch its 'regenerate union' is symptomatic. Larkin's stylistic unity, of the colloquial and the sacramental, is falling apart, because his two mental worlds have fallen apart. We are either among 'the rusting soup-tins', with a strong sense of déjà-vu, or, more often, we are back pre-1914, before innocence had left the country…. 'The Trees', 'Dublinesque', 'How Distant', 'Cut Grass', 'The Explosion' all suggest a quick answer to the old charge that Larkin is a neo-Georgian: one can discard the neo-, and simply say Georgian. This is a step back in every sense: compare the stiff monotone of 'Forget What Did' or 'Cut Grass' with the subtlety of 'Coming' in The Less Deceived.
Nowhere, outside the journeyman 'Going, Going', do the England of Larkin's imagination and the England in which we really live come into the sort of conflict that could generate further advance. High Windows shows a talent in retreat to the edges of its concern. The edges of a talent are strange regions. 'Solar' or 'The Explosion' suggest that Larkin may continue to write poems in whose quality there is an element of the miraculous: but he will no longer be, he is not already, the Larkin we have valued up till now, a man writing out of the centre of his talent, making poetry from the world in which he and his readers actually live. (pp. 113-14)
Roger Garfitt, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), October-November, 1974.
Larkin is really one of the best poets now writing, a somewhat bitter swan plunging down the waters of the so sad Thames. He is a dangerous satirical poet, killing where Betjeman is comfy. And yet he is an inheritor of the sweetest strains of English poesy, at times as lucid and airy and heartening as Wordsworth, Spenser, or Shakespeare. He deserves to be, human and lovely as he is, a classic. (p. 50)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring, 1976).
Philip Larkin describes ["Jill," his] first novel, originally published in 1946, as "in essence an unambitious short story." This is a modest remark, and the modesty is not misplaced, for "Jill" is indeed a quiet, gray, inconclusive little book, with a gray hero, and a plot so slight that readers might be forgiven for thinking, as I did, that the final blank pages of the volume were a mistake of the printers, and that some dramatic denouement had been accidentally omitted. But this is not so: the inconsequential ending is deliberate. Some might expect this of Larkin, the poet of half-tones and gray moods, suburban melancholy and accepted regrets, but in fact the poet is much better at conclusions than the novelist: most of Larkin's poems, at least in his last three volumes, are remarkable for their devastating and bitter punch lines. In "Jill," there is much of the gloom, little of the bitter precision of wit.
Nevertheless, it is an interesting book for several reasons. It was written when the author was 21, and has some most accomplished passages of descriptive prose—notably the hero's visit to his bombed hometown, Huddlesford. (Larkin's own birthplace was Coventry, one of the most heavily bombarded towns in Britain.) At the least, it is a noteworthy piece of juvenilia by one of England's finest poets. It also has, according to the American critic James Gindin, the first example of "that characteristic landmark of the British postwar novel, the displaced working-class hero."…
As a working-class hero, in fact, John is singularly spineless: unlike the defiant and ambitious characters that people the novels and plays of Amis, Wain, Braine, Osborne, Wesker, he seems all too keen to learn the ways of his social superiors, even when those ways [are] repulsive…. None of the joys, all the embarrassments of youth are carefully catalogued. Maybe this is Larkin's point. Being young was not much fun in those days, for that kind of boy. In a poem published recently, "Annus Mirabilis," the older Larkin deplores the fact that the younger Larkin missed out on the good times, and was too old for the wonderful year of 1963, when the Beatles and sexual intercourse were invented. Times have changed, and "Jill" is certainly a useful sociological record by which to date those changes.
But perhaps the most curious section of this volume is Larkin's own introduction. There are, in fact, two introductions, one written in 1963, and a postscript to it, composed specially for this edition in 1975. Anyone interested in the history of attitudes and ideas will find these compelling reading. In the 1963 section, Larkin sets out, ostensibly, to explain wartime Oxford to the American reader. This was not, he says, the rowdy lavish Oxford of Evelyn Waugh's "Decline and Fall," where young bloods threw champagne parties and threw one another in fountains: it was a more serious, sober place, and was far less concerned with class distinctions. This seems a curious preface to a novel in which people do indeed drink too much (admittedly beer), throw one another in fountains and appear to be more class conscious than would seem conceivable to the average 18-year-old today. Larkin then goes on to tell us that he himself was not at all like his protagonist John, and that he had a lot of lovely friends. This passage I found wholly mystifying. Until I read it. I thought I knew what Oxford was like; after finishing it, quite bemused by a string of Christian names—Norman who? Bruce who? Kingsley who? Ah yes, thank goodness one can spot that one, Kingsley Amis—I felt that Oxford was, after all, an exclusive clique about which the outsider could never learn a thing. So much for explanations for foreigners and youngsters.
In the 1975 addendum, Larkin remarks that despite all efforts to dissociate himself from the feeble John, he still finds readers identify him with his own creation. This annoys him, as does, apparently, the passing of the collegiate system that his own novel renders so unattractive. And, finally, he disclaims the myth that he was himself a scholarship boy: "thanks to my father's generosity," he says drily, "my education was at no time a charge on public or other funds." This may be a dry joke: it may be a genuine disclaimer of virtues of effort he never possessed; but it is worth remarking, (in Larkin's words "American readers may need reminding") that it is an extraordinary thing for an Englishman to say. The phrase "a charge on public funds" rings very oddly. One wonders what the 1984 introduction will have to say about British education. (p. 5)
Margaret Drabble, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 16, 1976.
No living poet can equal Larkin on his own ground of the familiar English lyric, drastically and poignantly limited in its sense of any life beyond, before or after, life today in England. Within these limits the life is registered with superb economy and immediacy. So much so that when reading Larkin one often feels that no poet could write much closer to the quick of post-Christian, post-imperial England without also surrendering to those of its elements (mainly commercial but civic and political too) which, a few years ago in a poem called 'England', Davie was attacking with clipped invective as obscene, false and vandalistic…. Yet in spite of 'lapses' which outside their ironic context sound like total capitulations to the enemy ('Books are a load of crap'), Larkin shares just as much of Davie's lower-middle/professional-class sense of pudeur and care for politeness as is consistent with his, less frontal, way of caring for social truth—that is, by not respecting sacred cows or underwriting any promises of pneumatic bliss. The most 'common' feature of his work is a recurrent cautionary tale of frustrations beforehand and desolations afterwards which we all suffer because of the expansive fantasies we pay, twice over, to share with our various pundits and image-makers. If in Larkin's England the fantasies are unusually timid and cozy (as compared with those of, say, Emma Bovary or Jay Gatsby), they just as often, and more cruelly, betray. At the same time, though, Larkin frequently exposes the funny Walter Mitty side of the picture and discovers not merely a few minor beans-and-bangers satisfactions in the only life we have but also, in himself and others, shy tendernesses and risible family likenesses which do help brace one for the inevitable one-way excursion down Cemetery Road.
Larkin himself is now the nation's most successful maker of poetic images, and his work surely must become increasingly important and consolatory for an England of still-diminishing expectations. For within the limits of his expectations of poetry and people, Larkin is a great and even national poet, and few poets who work outside those limits—Ted Hughes is a partial exception—can hope to match his popular value and appeal. (pp. 45-6)
George Dekker, in Agenda, Summer, 1976.
Philip Larkin's most irreverent revision of John Keats rejects the famous dichotomy of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." "I have always believed," Larkin writes, "that beauty is beauty, truth truth, that is not all ye know on earth nor all ye need to know."… Yet Larkin's achievement as a poet demonstrates a more profound reappraisal of romantic values than is evident in any of his wryly dogmatic critical pronouncements. In particular, "The Whitsun Weddings" may be viewed as a searching revaluation of Keats's art in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
Larkin himself discourages such comparative treatment of his work. He has stated that one of the pleasures of writing poetry is the release it bestows "from reading poems by other people," and that "experience makes literature look insignificant beside life."… Life would seem to have wholly displaced art as a source for this poet's inspiration.
Yet his persistent choice of traditional poetic forms creates an undeniable link between his work and that of previous poets, even as his comments disclaim any connection…. Especially in so highly accomplished a poet as Larkin, traditional form actively contributes to the poem's experience, enlarging its range of meaning instead of acting merely as a "transparent" means of expression. Thus, when Philip Larkin chooses to write "The Whitsun Weddings" in the stanzaic form that Keats evolved for his great odes, his decision allows a wider frame of reference to enrich and interact with the experiences that his poem conveys—whether or not that frame of reference is uppermost in his reflections about the process of composition.
This characteristic resonance of traditional form gives warrant for an interpretation of "The Whitsun Weddings" that takes account of its distinctive formal context. I take further warrant from a critical principle that is more appreciative than formalist, one voiced most memorably by Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead." The approach may represent what Larkin derisively calls "poetry as syllabus," but I believe that it allows us to achieve a fuller valuation of at least one of his poems. (pp. 529-31)
[Keats's odes] share a common goal: the attainment of timelessness through art, a romantic theme that they carry to its highest pitch…. For Philip Larkin, however, "our element is time." Instead of inhabiting some untrodden region of the poet's mind and encouraging him to "leave the world unseen," poetry has the task of recording and reflecting on the imperfect, transitory experiences of the mundane reality that the poet shares with his readers.
Like his acknowledged master, Hardy, Larkin roots his poems deeply in the world of time, and documents its effects on us. For Keats's images of pastoral detachment and transcendent ecstasy, he substitutes material sights and sounds: sixty-watt bulbs, jabbering (TV) sets, tin advertisements, cheap suits, and man caught for good or ill in the middle, laden with his "depreciating luggage." Given this extreme difference in emphasis, it is remarkable that Larkin should have chosen to adopt Keats's form for one of his poems; but what is more remarkable is the extent to which he has both subtly answered the form's romantic challenges and made it assume, with great vitality and appropriateness, a shape that expresses his own values. A detailed comparison of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "The Whitsun Weddings" reveals the complexity of Larkin's revision.
The ode has traditionally been an atemporal form, tending to remove its subjects from specific contexts of time and place, and to celebrate them in structures whose organization is spatial or musical rather than temporal. The organization of Keats's stanzas reinforces this characteristic…. Such stanzas accord perfectly with Keats's desire to present an ideal of beauty beyond the reach of time, and they condition us to accept it through their own playing of a kind of timeless "music," "For ever piping songs for ever new."
The Keatsian stanzas of "The Whitsun Weddings" underline that poem's thematic concerns in an equally masterful way, but Larkin's structure is as different from Keats's as his themes are. A succession of similarly rhymed stanzas (all ababcdecde) leads the reader on an unbroken movement through time that mirrors the narrator's progress on the train. The unfolding of this narrative action links the stanzas into a tight sequence, and this effect is furthered by Larkin's characteristic habit of running his stanzas into each other…. As both narrator and newly married couples are picked up and carried along on a fixed, timetabled journey—over whose speed and direction they can exercise no control—so the reader is drawn by these stanzas into a steady temporal progression. We become predisposed towards viewing time as "our element," rather than as a frame that can be transcended.
The presence of a foreshortened line in each stanza would break this pattern if Larkin used it as Keats did in the "Ode to Psyche" and "Ode to a Nightingale." But where Keats introduced shorter lines towards the ends of his stanzas, which quicken through this overturning of our expectations, Larkin shortens the second line of every stanza. This burst of energy, offering the possibility of other directions, loses itself in the seven pentameter lines that follow; its life is absorbed into the regular flow of each stanza, soft sift in an hourglass. "A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept": Larkin's stanzas direct us to the unrelenting flow of time as surely as Keats's proclaim the remoteness of art from its course. (pp. 531-33)
Keats approaches the urn's supramundane essence through a mode of description that, appropriately, abounds in unanswerable questions (seven in the first stanza) and paradoxes; and the word "ever" sounds a constant leitmotif to remind us that the urn or, by implication, art itself, does not essentially belong to our world of time.
"The Whitsun Weddings" roots us at once in time ("That Whitsun") and manifests a concern with time ("I was late getting away"). Larkin sets the train in a context of precise calculation ("One-twenty," "three-quarters-empty") appropriate to this central symbol which is both poetically and literally a vehicle in motion rather than a fixed mark. In opposition to the mysterious otherworldliness of Keats's first stanza, Larkin's involves our senses in a situation: "we" feel the hotness of the cushions, are blinded by the glare of windscreens, and smell the fish-dock. Soon a noise of "whoops and skirls" appeals to yet another sense, in contrast to the silence of the urn's unheard melodies. The train proceeds on its journey, advancing by means more solid than Keats's questions and paradoxes: it picks up a cargo of sympathetically observed human details—uncles shouting smut, children frowning, girls gripping their hand-bags tighter. These details represent what John Wain has called a "connoisseurship of the particular," and they show how much this poet has learned from the novelist he once was.
Larkin realizes, however, that we must pay a price for such full involvement in the world of time: the urn exists in a perpetual morning, but the train moves gradually from "short-shadowed cattle," past the "Long shadows" of poplars later in the afternoon, until finally walls of blackened moss "Came close, and it was nearly done." The wedding days are coming to an end, and the train's progress realizes the full emotional ambiguity of a word—prominent in the titles of two earlier Larkin poems—that captures this mingling of happy beginnings and poignant endings: departures. This poem's leitmotif consists not of "ever," but of words and phrases that recall us to the ticking of the clock: "late," "hurry," "At first," "next time," "at last," "in time," "long enough," "this hour."
Keats instead suggests, through a series of references to the supernatural, that the urn's proper sphere is more divine than mortal…. The constant renewal and transcendent permanence of religion suggest and symbolize that of art.
Nothing like this overtly religious setting appears in Larkin's poem, even though its title refers to both a holy day and a sacrament. Faithful to his own vision and the values of his age, Larkin places us "out on the end of an event": his brides and grooms emerge from cafés and banquet halls rather than from churches…. "The Whitsun Weddings" would seem to testify not only that art serves life, but that life serves a time unquickened by transcendent impulses; and the contrast between this view and that of the ode is so great that Larkin's poem would seem to share only a rhyme scheme with Keats's. Near the end of the poem, however, we witness an experience that transforms this impression.
In the last stanza of "The Whitsun Weddings," Larkin creates his version of the vital moment of fulfillment at the center of the ode, where Keats conveyed an ecstatic vision of ideal beauty…. Larkin's dénouement is as much descriptive as visionary, yet it does not lack intensity. Instead of being animated by the thought of permanence, it gathers strength from "the power/That being changed can give." As the train journey comes to an end, the poem fills with words that generate an image of consummation: "loosed," "tightened," "took hold," "swelled," "sense of falling," "arrow-shower." But to pick out these words and list them is to distort the poem's effect while trying to explain it: in its context, the sexual symbolism moves us profoundly without calling attention to itself; it works as inconspicuously as Larkin's syntax in the last sentence, which carries us effortlessly from literal brakes to metaphorical rain:
We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The train's entrance to the tunnel and arrival at its destination carries, ever so gently, overtones of the most personal and lifegiving of human "arrivals." This beautiful fulfillment resolves a slight element of suspense created by the poised images of the previous stanza's landscape, where "An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,/And someone running up to bowl." More important, it releases the "power" of the marriages that the train has steadily taken on during the course of the afternoon and informs that power with shape and purpose.
The connotations of this fulfillment are not only sexual. As one responds to the swelling sense of falling that envelops the "dozen" couples "sitting side by side," one recalls with a sharp tender shock that these are Whitsun weddings; and the recollection confirms one's feeling that another kind of consummation is also being imaged here…. The "power" that Larkin depicts in the final stanza is a profoundly spiritual one, like the "power" bestowed on the apostles at Pentecost, after Christ had been taken "out of their sight"…. That the poem should turn towards a religious experience after portraying the wedding parties in overwhelmingly secular terms, may be explained in part by Larkin's own conclusion in "Church Going":
someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground….
Keats conceives an absolute separation between the visionary and mundane experiences…. Larkin's vision is not one which fades, however, when we step back into the world of time. Rather, it is a product of that world, and the structure of "The Whitsun Weddings" underlines its nature by letting us experience it at the end of the poem—as a destination, not a flight.
Probably no other aspect of "The Whitsun Weddings" reflects more clearly the extent to which Larkin has revised the romantic outlook of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." When Keats set stanzas 3 and 4 apart from the rest, even giving them a different rhyme scheme, he emphasized the remoteness of the visionary moment from the world around it. Larkin's final stanza moves through the same rhyme scheme as all those before it; by making the stanzaic pattern that of the poem's liberating vision he expresses a belief that the moment of fulfillment comes about through time rather than in spite of it. Even though the short second line of each stanza has subsumed its freedom and energy into a steady temporal progression, it turns out that the latter movement brings "all the power" of the incomparably greater sense of release which concludes the poem and informs its passengers. Time has transfigured them. (pp. 536-37)
[The] whole experience depicted here, of arrival at a terminus, points to the most irrevocable of "departures." All of these associations both qualify and accompany the poem's vision of fulfillment. The last stanza unfolds as a moving elaboration of an oxymoron formed earlier: "happy funeral." The poem brings us to an awareness of time as simultaneously both a destructive and a creative force. The ecstasy of Keats's "happy, happy boughs" is achievable, but such happiness is inseparable from the recognition that the boughs do shed their leaves.
The magnitude of Larkin's revision of Keats may perhaps be best appreciated by comparing it with one more widely celebrated. In the last stanza of "Sunday Morning," Wallace Stevens echoes the ending of Keats's ode "To Autumn."… The great strength of Stevens' revision derives from its use of a similar landscape to capture and convey a mood of mixed ripeness and decay that masterfully approximates the mood of Keats's poem, even as Stevens varies the tone to emphasize not so much the poignancy as the voluptuousness of the scene. Larkin sets himself a still more formidable task. While Stevens chose to echo a poem that expressed ideas rather close to his own, replaces the more typical romantic urge towards transcendence with an acceptance of mutability that strikingly anticipates Stevens' more modern view; but the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" embodies in every respect the romantic viewpoint repudiated by both Stevens and Larkin. "The Whitsun Weddings" is a revision in the fullest sense of the word, a critical second look at the validity of an earlier approach.
One might ask what Larkin gains from formally associating his poem with Keats's ode. Besides acting as a contrasting ground against which Larkin can define his own position, the ode offers an ideal of ecstatic fulfillment for him to aim at—and to approach from a different direction. By leaving "All breathing human passion" behind, the ode's central stanza arrived at one of the most perfect romantic expressions of visionary joy; but "The Whitsun Weddings" shows how an acceptance of the world abandoned by Keats can bring a profound spiritual fulfillment that stands the test of comparison with Keats's. In Larkin's poem, joy is found in the consummation of love rather than in an infinite postponement always "near the goal" but never reaching it. In keeping with its leitmotif of temporal allusions mentioned above, "The Whitsun Weddings" rejects both the ever ("For ever wilt thou love") and the never ("never canst thou kiss") of Keats's poem; instead it accepts without reservation the "changes" that time brings to its fresh couples. These couples are living, breathing mortals ("I nearly died"), not marble men and maidens. (pp. 538-39)
His art incorporates far more of that world than did Keats's exclusively "sylvan" historian; yet the movement and details of "The Whitsun Weddings" revitalize Keats's form—what other modern poet has used it so successfully?—as they criticize its purpose. Larkin has shone new light on a traditional form, and in doing so, has illuminated and probed some of the most moving experiences of contemporary life. Far from selling poetry short [as some critics claim], such an approach redefines and, for many readers, widens the boundaries of the art. (p. 540)
John Reibetanz, "'The Whitsun Weddings': Larkin's Reinterpretation of Time and Form in Keats," in Contemporary Literature (© 1976 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 17, No. 4, Autumn, 1976, pp. 529-40.
Between The Less Deceived ([Philip Larkin's] first mature collection) and The Whitsun Weddings there had been no essential change in either thematic material or style. Yet, despite the success of The Whitsun Weddings, one wondered whether Larkin could go on like this, working the same thin vein. How long could he make poetry from the conviction that none of the choices of life is really preferable, that all the ways one spends a life are not ways of living but "ways of slow dying"? Already in The Whitsun Weddings a few of the poems had seemed a little too familiar. Would not the problem become more severe now that there were even more poems behind him? Without some major breakthrough, would not Larkin become entrapped in sterile repetition and self-imitation? But what development was possible? The very condition of Larkin's success was his rejection of most of the materials of poetry, his conviction that there were only a few subjects worth talking about and that these subjects might leave, in the words of one of his poems, "nothing to be said."
A new collection, High Windows, has now appeared and it is at once exciting and disappointing: exciting because Larkin, by viewing his familiar materials from a slightly different perspective, has found a way to renew his poetry; disappointing because that new perspective at times reveals a distasteful side, hitherto concealed, to all Larkin's poetry. This new perspective may be described by the words ritual and habit. Larkin's central theme has always been survival in a world without value, a world with all coherence gone. His strength as a poet has been his ability to confront this world and describe it without lament. Behind the modest surface of his poems there was always an intellectual fearlessness. In High Windows Larkin explores the ways in which ritual and repeated domestic events may give some slight meaning and coherence to the world. In the best poems in this volume, this sense of ritual exists side by side with Larkin's earlier, unflinching vision; in the weaker ones, ritual becomes an escape and Larkin becomes nostalgic, launching simplistic attacks on the commercial values of modern England and lamenting the loss of the aristocratic and hierarchical values of merry old England. Fortunately, the good poems in High Windows far outweigh the weak ones. (pp. 481-82)
In his overinsistence upon the commercialization of the modern world [as in "Show Saturday"] Larkin betrays a hankering for an idealized past that is disappointing after all those earlier poems in which he faced the empty present so courageously. (p. 483)
[In the title poem] there is an implicit lament for those "Bonds and gestures" now lost which once made life coherent. Instead of presenting this as positive doctrine, Larkin crystallizes it in a beautiful and terrifying image:
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 pristine image comes as a shock after the brutal concreteness of the earlier stanzas (a device Larkin has used successfully in the past). Those high windows may indeed be part of an Anglican church but the image renders the emptiness of a world without value-giving ritual in a way unattainable through explicit social commentary.
The concern of High Windows with the survival of ritual is by no means a totally new element in Larkin's poetry. In a sense, it has always been present as the obverse of Larkin's conviction that all our individual hopes prepare the way for disappointment. As early as the poem, "Church Going," he had predicted that the meaning of the church and of the rituals it held, "marriage, and birth,/And death, and thoughts of these," would never be completely lost. In the title poem of The Whitsun Weddings Larkin handled these themes in a way which foreshadows "Show Saturday" and the present volume generally. But in the earlier collections, the concern with the shared experiences of life is a minor note and is balanced by the fear that death empties even these moments of their meaning. In High Windows the poet, either with increased confidence or in increased desperation, concentrates again and again on the possibilities offered by vestigial ritual.
Through this concentration, Larkin escapes the mere repetition of his earlier achievements. Indeed this new focus seems to free his imagination as he develops an impressive series of strategies for exploring his ideas. In "To the Sea," the first and one of the best poems in the volume, Larkin follows a format similar to that of "The Whitsun Weddings," observing "the miniature gaiety of seasides" and speculating
It may be that through habit these do best,
Coming to water clumsily undressed
Yearly; teaching their children by a sort
Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.
Through such habit, no matter how clumsy, the parts of life are drawn together once more. In the first and third parts of the triptych, "Livings," and again in "The Card-Players," historical vignettes are used to contrast the security of an habitual present with the sort of cold, empty exterior seen through the high windows. In "Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel" the same contrast is made in a contemporary setting…. With a deceptive lightheartedness the same themes are developed in "Vers de Société" in terms of the unpleasant partying of social occasions. Even of these trivial occasions the poet can ask:
Are, then, these routines
Playing at goodness, like going to church?…
From poem to poem, Larkin shifts his angle of vision, presenting new sides of his central concern. The result is a volume even stronger as a whole than as separate poems.
Not all the poems in High Windows focus on these concerns but most of the best do and where others appear, such as "The Old Fools" and "The Building," which harken back more completely to earlier stances, they are made more interesting by the juxtaposition. (pp. 484-86)
Stephen David Lavine, "Larkin's Supreme Versions," in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1976), Fall, 1976, pp. 481-86.
Admittedly, Larkin's laconic, scaled-down, wryly pessimistic poems are not to everyone's liking, and there are times when his determinedly plain style comes to seem rather forced; but the achievement of such collections as The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974) is incontestable. I know people who can quote passages from "Church Going" and "The Whitsun Weddings" with a zest that would have astonished Dylan Thomas, and must now astonish those who believe that poetry, in order to be loved, must celebrate rather than condemn, and must strive to approximate music rather than to give us back, with very few distracting flourishes, the rhythms and nuances of "ordinary" speech. (p. 38)
Willing himself to be unexceptional, taking for his own a provincial English landscape writ painfully small, Larkin has created a number of nearly perfect poems and two very interesting novels which address themselves to the question of what to make of a "diminished thing" (to use Frost's helpful terminology). Larkin might say that the "diminished thing" is life itself—
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
—but an impartial observer might speculate that the true subject of Larkin's poetry is England: the waning of English civilization: the paralysis of the spirit when it is confronted by historical changes beyond its ability to gauge. In his preface to Jill (1946), Larkin's first novel, he has said: "At an age when self-importance would have been normal, events cut us ruthlessly down to size." Though he is speaking of wartime England in this case, his sentiment holds true for present-day England, and both Jill and A Girl in Winter will strike readers as absolutely contemporary—perhaps even prophetic.
A Girl in Winter … is a highly sensitive, rather meditative and slowly moving novel, a work of deliberately modest proportions reminiscent of Virginia Woolf and the early Elizabeth Bowen: a poet's novel, one might be inclined to say, in which a not-extraordinary provincial town in the depths of winter is lovingly reconstructed. Perhaps not lovingly: Larkin is never sentimental. But there is an unmistakable pleasure in his descriptions of ugly old buildings and wan, joyless people and crowded buses and insufferable dentists' offices and the futile, hopeful, and ultimately doomed gestures people make toward one another. His heroine, a young woman named Katherine Lind, shares with the Larkin of the poems a readiness to accept limitations and even to welcome the frustration of desire—a perverse eagerness to celebrate the failure of the world's enchantment. It is not other people, after all, who disappoint us, but rather our own foolish expectations: and so we are better off when, like Katherine, we turn resolutely aside from the entanglements of human emotion. We should make of the deadening winter an ally, and see in its relentless chill our own icy souls. (pp. 38-9)
The novel's central weakness lies in its characters, who are so without motivation and purpose that one finds it difficult to care very much for them. Katherine Lind is shadowy and vaporous, lacking distinctive features…. Unless the young woman is a zombie, or a near-catatonic, her failure to think or feel anything is quite improbable.
It is possible, of course, to read A Girl in Winter as a prose-poem in which nothing happens, and to insubstantial people, because such is the nature of life in the 20th century in England. Larkin has the ability to evoke, in a few bleak images, a sense of waste and disillusion and emptiness that is as profound as the similarly barren vision of Beckett; but one might argue that so minimal a vision is perhaps best rendered in non-naturalistic terms, in parody or absurdist drama or in brief poems. The fleshing-out of a novel requires human blood and warmth, the interplay of personalities, the possibility of change and surprise. At the conclusion of "Church Going" the poet concludes that "the place was not worth stopping for" and—whether this cynical observation strikes the reader as true or not—a place not worth stopping for is best investigated, if investigated at all, as quickly as possible.
The negation of feeling so brilliantly dramatized in Larkin's poetry stimulates the reader to believe that here, at last, in these drab merciless terms, is life driven into a comer and justly assessed: less is not more, surely, but it is at least more truthful …? Yet the conviction is a false one. Larkin's studied nihilism is as florid in its way as the too-generous affirmation of a Whitman, and there is no reason to think that there is more "truth" in diminished things than there is in inflated things: for the poet expresses his interior landscape primarily…. [It] does not seem surprising that Larkin himself never attempted another work of fiction. "Novels are about other people," he has said, "and poetry is about yourself." One might amend that to allow for the probability of his poetry being about his nation, his culture, his heritage: which accounts for the enthusiasm with which his poetry is always received in an England ready to believe that it has been at last cut down "ruthlessly" to size. (pp. 39-40)
Joyce Carol Oates, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 20, 1976.
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…. 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. (pp. 100-01)
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. (pp. 101-02)
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…. There is no positing of causes, no attempt to trace unhappy effects meaningfully back to a source. The powerful, blank absoluteness of [his] 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. (pp. 102-04)
The finest work … 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'….
The tone throughout [High Windows] 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. (p. 106)
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'…. 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 [a] vault into featureless, inscrutable distance…. 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…. 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…. (pp. 107-09)
Robert B. Shaw, "Philip Larkin: A Stateside View," in Poetry Nation (© Poetry Nation 1976), No. 6, 1976, pp. 100-09.
Philip Larkin, like Tennyson, has the power to make poetry out of material that might seem to be unpromising and intractable. Most of us live in urban or suburban landscapes among the constructions and the detritus of an industrial society. Larkin distills poetry from the appurtenances of this society—an Odeon cinema, advertisement hoardings [British billboards], scrap heaps of disused cars, hospital waiting rooms, cut-price stores—which he presents without falsification or sentimentality. And, again like Tennyson, he delineates with considerable force and delicacy the pattern of contemporary sensibility, tracing the way in which we respond to our environment, plotting the ebb and flow of the emotional flux within us, embodying in his poetry attitudes of heart and mind that seem peculiarly characteristic of our time: doubt, insecurity, boredom, aimlessness, and malaise. (p. 131)
Larkin is, like Tennyson, an artist of the first rank, who employs language with a rare freshness, precision, and resonance, and whose verse records with lyrical purity his experience of loneliness and anguish. He is both the unofficial laureate of post-war Britian and the poet who voices most articulately and poignantly the spiritual desolation of a world in which men have shed the last rags of religious faith that once lent meaning and hope to human lives. (p. 132)
The 1966 edition of The North Ship is a reprint of the 1945 edition, plus one poem, numbered "XXXII," of which Larkin writes: "As a coda I have added a poem, written a year or so later, which, though not noticeably better than the rest, shows the Celtic fever abated and the patient sleeping soundly." The first stanza of this poem leads us at once into a world far removed from the artificial, literary stage set of The North Ship:
Waiting for breakfast, while she brushed her hair,
I looked down at the empty hotel yard
Once meant for coaches. Cobblestones were wet,
But sent no light back to the loaded sky,
Sunk as it was with mist down to the roofs.
Drainpipes and fire-escape climbed up
Past rooms still burning their electric light:
I thought: Featureless morning, featureless night.
Already in this stanza we can observe many of the hallmarks of Larkin's mature poetry: the ability to evoke not only the specific appearances of things but the atmosphere that surrounds them; the power of discovering poetry in objects or in situations that most people would regard as dull or unremarkable; a rare skill in making slight, unobtrusive departures from the dominant metrical pattern—the last line deviates from the expected beat of the iambic pentameter and, despite its irregularity, paradoxically conveys the impression of weariness and monotony: "I thought: Featureless morning, featureless night."
It is instructive to compare this poem with Poem XX from The North Ship, which begins, "I see a girl dragged by the wrists/Across a dazzling field of snow," and speedily moves on to the contemplation of the poet as "a sack of meal upon two sticks," and of "two old ragged men," before concluding with an "image of a snow-white unicorn." The girl exists merely as a prologue to a brilliant evocation of Yeatsian cadences and personae.
The theme of poem "XXXII" is also Yeatsian in its speculation about the poet's being forced to choose between the Muse and the mortal girl, but although there is no description of her physical or emotional characteristics, we are convinced that, like the young lady in the photograph album, "this is a real girl in a real place." It is not easy to determine to what extent the poem reflects Larkin's newly-born admiration for Hardy. The diction and the tone are quite unlike Hardy, and indeed Larkin seldom imitates or verbally echoes him. Yet he is present in the poem, even though we cannot locate him precisely, for as Larkin himself remarked, "Hardy taught me to feel rather than to write." From 1946 onward Larkin has remained faithful to the belief that poetry can be made out of any situation or incident, however odd or trivial, that genuinely stirs the poet. Conversely, he must write only about those matters that move or excite him and not about subjects that he feels ought to form the themes of his poetry. This belief Larkin owes in part to his study of Hardy. (pp. 134-35)
The awareness of suffering and the brooding spirit of compassion that inform so much of Hardy's poetry are widely diffused throughout The Less Deceived. I believe also that there is a close kinship between the emotional pattern of this collection and the complex attitude of mind delineated by Hardy in the Apology, dated February 1922, with which he prefaced Late Lyrics and Earlier. Poems such as "Deceptions" and "Myxomatosis" embody Hardy's desire that "pain to all upon [the globe], tongued or dumb, shall be kept down to a minimum by loving-kindness." And the best introduction to "Church Going," the most celebrated poem in The Less Deceived, is Hardy's Apology, with its conviction that "Poetry and religion touch each other, or rather modulate into each other; are, indeed, often but different names for the same thing." Although Larkin has remarked of "Church Going" that its tone and argument are entirely secular, the power of this poem is largely generated by the tension between the ironical mistrust of orthodox Christianity expressed by the poet and his intuitive reverence for the church as a place where our intimations of mystery and destiny are enshrined…. Hardy, despite his atheism, regarded himself as a "churchy" man, and in the Apology acknowledges the potentialities of the Anglican Church…. Although Larkin is, like Hardy, an unbeliever, he suggests in "Church Going" that "this accoutred frowsty barn" of a church will continue to be worthy of respect…. (p. 138)
If The Less Deceived can be called Tennysonian because of the notes of lyrical intensity, loneliness, and longing that resound so plangently in its pages, The Whitsun Weddings (1964) reveals the other side of the Tennysonian medal on which the lineaments of contemporary England are depicted. Larkin evokes for us, in poem after poem, the postwar English landscape, rural, urban, and suburban; and his verse takes on the central, representative character that marks the poems of Tennyson in the years after 1850 and of Auden in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. (p. 139)
Whereas T. S. Eliot regards the modern world with horror and catalogues, with a mixture of disdain and disgust, golfballs, abortifacient pills, women's underwear, false teeth, cigarette ends, and "other testimony of summer nights," Larkin is moved to a wry tenderness…. Even the enormous hoardings that most of us find so distasteful awaken in Larkin a rueful compassion, since he sees them as the media whereby the urban masses are led to contemplate ideal Forms in the Platonic sense, (although they are deluding Forms). The title of the poem, "Essential Beauty," in Whitsun Weddings is not entirely ironical: the figures on the hoardings transport simple people into a pure, otherworldly realm, and in an age when the Christian pantheon has lost its power to comfort and uphold, they may bring a kind of consolation to those on their deathbed…. (pp. 139-40)
The volume's title poem, "The Whitsun Weddings," evokes a series of impressionist pictures that capture the appearance and the atmosphere of our heavily urbanized landscape. Larkin manages to combine a curt exactness with a Tennysonian delicacy and amplitude…. Larkin's eye is acute and unsentimental; his portrayal of the wedding guests clustered on the railway station platforms is so accurate that it verges on cruelty…. Yet these rather coarse, ridiculous figures are aware that marriage, like birth and death, has a sacred quality…. And as the train approaches London the poet feels that in some mysterious way the Waste Land of the metropolis is fertilized not by a dying god or a mythical redeemer, but by the newly married couples sitting in the railway carriages. (pp. 140-41)
High Windows contains more overt comment on the state of England than any of Larkin's previous volumes. Twenty years earlier he had remarked that "the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art," and such an impulse colors his entire political and social philosophy, which is profoundly conservative and pessimistic. Larkin's feeling for tradition and continuity is very strong: one of the most beautiful poems from The Whitsun Weddings, "MCMXIV," is an elegy for those who rushed to volunteer at the outbreak of the First World War, and for a vanished England; another poem from that volume, "Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses," flays a literary intellectual who despises the London crowds on Armistice Day. (p. 141)
"Homage to a Government," written in 1969 and included, like "Going, Going," in High Windows, has angered some readers by its reactionary sentiments. Just as "MCMXIV" is a lament for lost innocence, "Homage to a Government" is a lament for a sense of responsibility submerged beneath a tide of materialism…. It is a mark of Larkin's superb technical skill that in "Homage to a Government" he can make a virtue of monotony and give tonelessness a strong flavor. (p. 142)
The poems on public themes in High Windows are counterbalanced by poems that evoke a world transcending the contingencies and imperfection of daily existence. Larkin has always been aware of such a world, which corresponds to the needs of human loneliness and longing, and whose nature can be hinted at by the medium of images drawn from the inexhaustible realm of nature—sun, moon, water, sky, clouds, distance. (p. 143)
[Although Larkin] has repeatedly deplored the post-Symbolist revolution inaugurated by Eliot and Ezra Pound, [there is] a quality that has been present in his poetry from the very start, a quality that manifests itself in High Windows with an intensity of feeling and of utterance fiercer than Larkin has ever previously attained. The language takes on at times a concentration and density so intricate and compressed that they incur the charge of obscurity, a vice strongly reprehended by Larkin in twentieth-century poetry:
By night, snow swerves
(O loose moth world)
Through the stare travelling
This kind of concentrated Iyrical purity coexists in certain poems with vulgarisms and obscenities that have become more frequent and more coarse with every successive volume. There are precedents for this in modern English verse. Eliot's "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" foreshadows the strategy, though not the vocabulary, of Larkin's more outspoken poems; and Yeats shocked some of his older admirers with his Crazy Jane sequence and with Last Poems (Larkin still owes more to the rhetoric of his first master than he may care to admit). The collocation of musical intensity and poignant longing with the employment of four-letter words more commonly found in taprooms and barracks than in poems occurs in several places in High Windows. The title poem opens with a brutal reflection on youthful sexuality, but ends in a meditation that transcends the impulses of sweating carnality…. The title of another poem, "Sad Steps," lulls us into a mood of high romance where Sir Philip Sidney looks questioningly at the heavens: "With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!" We are in for a shock:
Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.
Then, after a precise delineation of the cloudy sky through which the moon dashes, the poem modulates into a series of invocations that might be the climax of a Symbolist poem, were it not for the irony underlying the apostrophes. The moon shifts again, the rhetoric is dispersed, and the poem ends with a bare statement that, like so many of Larkin's closing lines, strikes home with unerring accuracy and gravity:
One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
I began this essay by suggesting that Larkin is, like Tennyson, at once the public laureate of contemporary England and the solitary poet of human isolation, fear, and longing. One poem in High Windows, "The Trees," is more reminiscent of Tennyson than anything else that Larkin has written. This is partly because it employs the metrical and stanzaic form of In Memoriam, but mainly because it recalls and re-creates the older poet's extraordinary responsiveness to the emotional significance no less than to the sensuous properties of the English landscape. (pp. 143-45)
We find in Larkin as in Tennyson an awareness of the way in which the utter perfection and abundance of the natural world accentuate our sense of its mortality as well as of our own. The whole poem is so perfectly ordered that it is unrewarding to point out individual felicities, but it is worth drawing attention to the consummate artistry and deep awareness of complex emotions displayed in the last line. The word afresh normally evokes images of greenness and of hope. So it does here; but Larkin somehow contrives to suggest that sadness and transience are mingled with joy and affirmation. The effect is akin to that achieved at times by Mozart and Schubert at their most tender and poignant:
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
John Press, "The Poetry of Philip Larkin," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1977, by John Press), Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 131-46.