Philip Larkin was a poet who went to considerable lengths to deliberately present himself as a man of the people and a poet of the ordinary man, making the mundane poetic and finding significance in the commonplace. Despite his success as a literary figure in his own lifetime Larkin eschewed the London literary scene and chose to live a deeply provincial life- born in Coventry in 1922, after studying at Oxford, he went on to reside in a succession of small towns and cities in the Midlands and Northern England, eventually dying in Hull in 1985. Although he claimed that his job as a librarian involved “handing out antiquated tripe to the lower levels of the general public”, Larkin continued with the job throughout his working life, despite no financial imperative to do so. In 1984, the year before his death, he even turned down the office of Poet Laureate.
Larkin’s poems have an undoubted focus on the everyday, with their surface examination of the monotonous trivia of daily life; from advertising hoardings, to dreary rented lodgings and even ‘cut grass.’ He was also a committed literary traditionalist, and became associated with a group of poets, including Kingsley Amis and D.J. Enright, “most of them university teachers, known as the ‘Movement’, who stood for clarity, traditional forms and reasonableness.” The manifesto of the ‘Movement’, to which Larkin ascribed, equated to a “refusal to abandon a rational structure and comprehensible language, even when the verse is most highly charged with sensuous or emotional intent.” Larkin saw poetry as something not to be offered up for detached and arid literary criticism, but as a way of preserving experience by replicating emotion in others, “generating delight in the state of living.” He therefore saw it as logical to publicly position himself firmly against Modernism and its preponderance of learned literary allusions, complex structural techniques and repeated use of, in Larkin’s derisive phrase, a “myth-kitty.” For Larkin, Modernism and literary criticism were intertwined in a vicious circle of interdependence- “criticism [is] designed to prevent people using their eyes and ears and understandings to report pleasure and discomfort. In such circumstances, modernism is bound to flourish.”
While this evidence points to Larkin’s overriding aim to be producing a recognisable and democratic vision of his contemporary society, in opposition to the high-minded and irrelevant concerns of modernism, the truth is considerably more complex. Larkin was a poet and a man of deep complexity and contradiction; although he appeared to stand firmly against the values of Modernism, at the same time his work is chiefly concerned with one of Modernism’s key themes (especially prevalent in the work of T.S. Eliot); the alienation and isolation of modern life.
This combination of modernist themes and traditional structure comes to the fore in a poem such as ‘Mr. Bleaney’. Its traditionalist form is an ABAB rhyme scheme encased in seven quatrains of iambic pentameter, while the apparently simple conceit of the poem shows the narrator moving into lodgings previously inhabited by the title character of the verse. However, as is common throughout Larkin’s poetry, a simple and accessible opening situation is merely the foundation on which he can make subtle and astute observations on the human condition, especially the “psychology of ordinariness.” While the narrator and Bleaney have shared the same bleak, lonely room- ‘Bed, upright chair, sixty watt bulb, no hook/ Behind the door, no room for books and bags’, their experience and impression of the same situation is portrayed as differing vastly from one another, at least originally, in the mind of the narrator. While the Larkin persona, the ‘I’ of the poem, passively despairs that all his life has yielded him is this ‘one hired box’ with its ‘fusty bed’ and ‘thin and frayed’ curtains, he doubts that Bleaney ever felt the same sense of misery and failure that he himself admits to. Indeed, from the landlady’s second-hand descriptions of Bleaney, it appears that he is certainly a more optimistic and active figure than the Larkin character, as emphasised by his repeated attempts to win the football pools- ‘He kept on plugging at the four aways’. The Larkin persona is juxtaposed as being both superior to and jealous of the humdrum Mr. Bleaney; disparaging his attempts to create a ‘bit of garden’ on a ‘strip of building land’, while at the same time being envious of Bleaney’s potential freedom from nights of insomnia watching ‘the frigid wind.’ In the final line of the poem, Larkin goes on to undermine any claim to narratorial superiority over Bleaney as his persona has to finally admit he simply doesn’t know whether Bleaney has access to the same thoughts and feelings as himself. The refinement of feeling that the narrator has is both all too tangible, making him clearly aware of how his lodgings represent the empty failure of his life, but also tragically limited; he is alienated from an ordinary man such as Bleaney because he has no idea whether he can share his own sense of deep isolation. The combination of this duality means Larkin, both as persona and person, must exist outside what is considered the ‘ordinary’. As critic Laurence Lerner states, “Mr. Bleaney could not have written ‘Mr. Bleaney’.”
This sense of remove from everyday experience runs throughout Larkin’s poetry and is especially evident in ‘The Whitsun Weddings.’ The poem recounts a Saturday train journey between Hull and London and the narrator’s impressions of the weddings he witnesses occurring across the length of the country. The Larkin persona exists in a state of passive ironic detachment from events, observing from the distance of his train window ‘The fathers with broad belts under their suits/ And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;/ An uncle shouting smut’. The tension between Larkin’s somewhat snobbish sense of superiority to the ordinary people he depicts, coupled to his wish for a sense of belonging in his life, is a key trope of Larkin’s work and is clearly in evidence in ‘The Whitsun Weddings.’ Although the narrator mocks ‘the perms, the nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes’ that are on display, the poem’s progression from the first person singular to the first person plural connotes the narrator has gained access to a feeling, albeit transitory, of community through what he has viewed over the course of the day; ‘I was late getting away [from Hull]’ becomes ‘We hurried towards London’, after witnessing the ‘bunting-dressed/ Coach-party annexes’ and ‘fresh couples’ on his journey. As a Larkin poem however, it is perhaps no surprise that the narrator is still at a remove from the rest of society. Although the train journey has allowed the narrator to reach the realisation that the people he has seen are all interconnected in that ‘their lives would all contain this hour’, it is coupled with the poignant understanding that it is only the poet who can see this- ‘none/ Thought of the others they would never meet.’ Just as the wedding parties are from each other, Larkin is both connected yet utterly separate from society.
The theme of alienation is more explicitly spelt out in ‘Essential Beauty’, a title which sardonically mocks the idea that advertising gives access to a form of Platonic beauty. In this poem, however, the distance between ‘how life should be’ and how it actually is, is shared equally among all the characters, from ‘the pensioner’ to the ‘dying smokers’ and ‘the boy puking his heart out in the Gents’. This is arguably the first poem in the collection, where the poetic narrator is sharing the experiences of his ‘normal’ characters, rather than merely observing it. The poem focuses on the contrast between the unreal existence depicted in advertisements and the real world ‘where nothing’s made/ As new or washed quite clean’. Larkin’s sympathies are clearly with the inhabitants of the ‘real’ world, as suggested in the rhyme which juxtaposes reality and advertising fiction- ‘Rather they rise/ Serenely to proclaim pure crust, pure foam/ Pure coldness to our live imperfect eyes’. The opposition between ‘pure’ and ‘imperfect’ suggests an equal opposition between the ‘coldness’ of advertising perfection in conflict with the warmth that can be found in real life.This is perhaps one of Larkin’s most optimistic poetic statements, as he tells his reader, albeit indirectly, that life, for all its imperfections and melancholy, is infinitely preferable to ersatz and sterile images of ‘Well-balanced families, in fine Midsummer weather, [who] owe their smiles, their cars,/ Even their youth, to that small cube each hand/ Stretches towards.’
Larkin’s High Windows collection, released 10 years after The Whitsun Weddings, continues with many of the same thematic concerns, but with a greater directness, especially on the subject of death. The ironic detachment from the experiences of other people that pre-dominates The Whitsun Weddings is employed to a far lesser extent in these High Windows. In a poem such as ‘The Old Fools’, ageing and death is no longer presented in the abstract terms of ‘Nothing to be Said’ and ‘Home is so Sad’, but faced directly as a “terrifying present reality embodied in the senility of geriatric people”, something Larkin viewed with “terrible dread” as personally fast-approaching. While the poem begins with an apparent declaration of disgust with drooling, incontinent old people, over its course it displays great sympathy for the condition of the aged, and their retreat into the past as a means of escaping the unpalatable present- ‘This is where they live:/ Not here and now, but where all happened once.’ Larkin goes on to make the final admittance that the poet’s anger at the spectre of the ‘whole hideous inverted childhood’ of ageing is borne not out of contempt, but fear- ‘We shall [all] find out’ eventually what it means to be an old fool. The employment of the first person plural sees Larkin no longer at a remove from his ordinary characters. Whatever his literary learning and refined sensibility, Larkin knows that death is an experience everyone must share and it is this commonality that brings him a sense of community with his characters and his readers.
‘The Building’ is another melancholic poem about death, ageing and disease that examines people’s futile attempts to beat mortality, as embodied in the form of a hospital building. Larkin uses oblique description throughout the poem (the hospital is never explicitly named as such) to create an air of terrifying mystery, while an irregular rhyme scheme that carries over to succeeding stanzas continues the mood of undefined threat that pervades the poem. However, while the poem does have an undeniably morose air (‘All know they are going to die. Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end,/ And somewhere like this’), it is equally a celebration of life; when viewed from inside the hospital, the trivial artefacts of everyday life take on a transcendent and beautiful quality, signifying the freedom of existence:
‘[…] Then, past the gate,
Traffic; a locked church; short terraced streets
Where kids chalk games, and girls with hair-dos fetch
Their separates from the cleaners- O world,
Your loves, your chances, are beyond the stretch
Of any hand from here!’
Larkin’s candid, yet sympathetic, understanding of the human condition is also found in ‘High Windows’, another poem in which Larkin’s ability to empathise with the flaws of every generation is revealed. The poem begins with a profession of jealousy for two sexually liberated youths (‘she’s/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm/ I know this is paradise’) before going on to consider that ‘forty years back’, the older generation felt the same way about him. In this poem, Larkin is once again at a removal from the society he depicts as he offers the reader an overview of the cyclical nature of life, with the unthinking happiness of the young and the petty jealousies of the old. However, by offering his poetic persona as the envious elder figure, Larkin is accepting himself as an active agent in society, a progression from the passive persona of ‘Mr. Bleaney’ and ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. Ageing has finally made him a member of the society he once wryly depicted from the position of outsider.
Although Larkin himself could never truly be an ‘ordinary man’, despite his submersion into provincial British life, in my opinion it is fair to say that he was a poet who did successfully achieve his aim of presenting a recognisable vision of everyday British life with clearness, clarity and pathos. While he shares many of the Modernist concerns, namely absence, isolation and emptiness in the modern world, his success is to marry these themes to traditional and more accessible forms of poetry, free from “pretentiousness and cloudy verbiage”. Even though Larkin meditates his own experience as a male bachelor into his poetry this does not limit his perspective on the rest of contemporary society. Instead, in The Whitsun Weddings, his detached status allows him to view it more clearly and acerbically, while in High Windows, Larkin’s own “terrible dread” about death removes his isolation from society and brings a new, poignant concentration on what ‘we shall find out’ together through the inevitability of ageing and death.
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Essential Beauty Analysis
Author:poem of Philip LarkinType:poemViews: 11
In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine
Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves
Of how life should be. High above the gutter
A silver knife sinks into golden butter,
A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards. These, and the deep armchairs
Aligned to cups at bedtime, radiant bars
(Gas or electric), quarter-profile cats
By slippers on warm mats,
Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares
They dominate outdoors. Rather, they rise
Serenely to proclaim pure crust, pure foam,
Pure coldness to our live imperfect eyes
That stare beyond this world, where nothing's made
As new or washed quite clean, seeking the home
All such inhabit. There, dark raftered pubs
Are filled with white-clothed ones from tennis-clubs,
And the boy puking his heart out in the Gents
Just missed them, as the pensioner paid
A halfpenny more for Granny Graveclothes' Tea
To taste old age, and dying smokers sense
Walking towards them through some dappled park
As if on water that unfocused she
No match lit up, nor drag ever brought near,
Who now stands newly clear,
Smiling, and recognising, and going dark.
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