The Poetry of Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

Philip Larkin

Larkin’s worth and relevance as a poet is constantly under review. The most recent biography by his friend and former colleague at Hull University, James Booth, was published in 2015 entitled, Philip Larkin: Life Art and Love.  Booth sees himself as keeper of the Larkin flame and is at pains to debunk much of the negative publicity which has surrounded Larkin in the decades since his death.  Booth’s main motto seems to be: judge the poems, not the poet.

All good biography should send us back to the poet’s work and in this Booth succeeds admirably.  He also makes Larkin more likable – we are made to wonder how it was that this miserable, self-hunted man managed to produce such great, enduring work.

Larkin was born in Coventry in August 1922. He has described his childhood, with his domineering father and timid mother, as a “forgotten boredom”.  Tall and shortsighted, he grew up self-conscious and shy, developing a stammer at an early age. He did well in school and went to study English at Oxford, where his interest in writing and his love of jazz were nurtured.

On leaving Oxford with flying colours, he took up a post as librarian in a small village in Shropshire, and it was here that he began to write more extensively. He went on to work as a librarian in various colleges and universities, including Queen’s University in Belfast and the University of Hull, and he won increasing recognition as a writer.

There were many significant women in his life, but despite a yearning for love and intimacy his relationships seem to have been blighted by fear and indecision, and he appears to have resigned himself to the idea that marriage was not for him. He remained alone and became something of a recluse in later years, growing increasingly melancholic.

In June 1985, he was diagnosed with cancer and he died that same year, on December 2nd. He left behind him a body of work that has won him the accolade of being one of England’s finest post-war poets.

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WHAT FOLLOWS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF LARKIN. YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS.  IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.

THE FOLLOWING SELECTION IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH THE MAJOR THEMES WHICH RECUR IN LARKIN’S POETRY:

  • At Grass, 
  • Wedding Wind, 
  • Church Going, 
  • An Arundel Tomb, 
  • Ambulances, 
  • Cut Grass, 
  • The Whitsun Weddings

YEATS ONCE SAID THAT HIS POETRY WAS ‘BUT THE CONSTANT STITCHING AND RESTITCHING OF OLD THEMES’.  CHECK THIS OUT FOR YOURSELF IN RELATION TO LARKIN AND THE OTHER POETS ON YOUR COURSE!

YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL.  MAKE NOTES FOR YOURSELF, TOGETHER WITH QUOTATIONS AND REFERENCES.

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MAJOR THEMES AND PREOCCUPATIONS IN LARKIN’S POETRY

Larkin’s awareness of modern society:  When asked if writers should be concerned with political and social issues, Larkin said: ‘The imagination is not the servant of the intellect and social conscience.’  But while his poetry may not be directly motivated by specific social themes, Larkin was always alert to social behaviour, and many important aspects of modern society are reflected in his poetry:

  • The bleakness of urban living is explored in ‘Ambulances’ with its references to traffic, accidents, frightened people.
  • The random nature of social bonds is also explored: ‘the random blend of families and fashions’ is mentioned in ‘Ambulances’.
  • The vanity and empty glitter of our fashionable functions is explored in ‘At Grass’:

Numbers and parasols: outside

Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,

And littered grass.

  • The society Larkin writes about is a post-religious one (see ‘Church Going’ which can be read as charting the stages in the breakdown of faith – from scepticism, to superstition, to disbelief).
  • The function of churches in an age of disbelief is considered: they supply ceremonies that provide unity in our lives and mark significant points, places where ‘all our compulsions meet, / Are recognised, and robed as destinies’ (‘Church Going’)

Love and Marriage

  • In general, Larkin yearns for the ideal of love as a solution to human isolation.
  • In ‘An Arundel Tomb’ he toys with the vain hope that love might transcend death:

to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love

  • He deals with the fragile nature of human happiness and love in ‘The Wedding Wind’ when he compares the fragility of the newly married woman’s joy to ‘a thread carrying beads’.
  • Also in ‘Wedding Wind’ he deals with sexual fulfilment, happiness and joy from the woman’s point of view: ‘Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters’.
  • Complete happiness is never achieved for Larkin: as far as he is concerned there is an untruth at the heart of the love statement in ‘An Arundel Tomb’; love is qualified, as the speaker is still sad that she cannot share her happiness, in ‘Wedding Wind’.

Death

  • Larkin is obsessed with the passage of time in many of his poems. He doesn’t make any heroic attempts to defeat Time as other poets like Shakespeare or Keats have done, rather he records the different faces of death and finds the odd crumb of comfort along the way!
  • In ‘At Grass’ death is seen as the culmination of life. Death is seen as natural and gentle, yet it is essentially lonely: ‘And not a fieldglass sees them home’.
  • In ‘Ambulances’ the bleaker side of death is introduced. Here death is seen as capricious (‘children strewn on steps or road’), it is impersonal, alarming, the final loosening of all bonds, utterly comfortless, ‘so permanent and blank and true’.
  • Larkin sees death as the meaning of life: ‘the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do’. (‘Ambulances’)
  • In ‘Cut Grass’, death in nature is seen as something beautiful; death and beauty exist side by side:

It dies in the white hours

Of young-leafed June

With chestnut flowers

Nature

  • Larkin is constantly aware of nature in his poetry. In our selection all but ‘Ambulances’ use nature as a backdrop.
  • For Larkin, nature is the one constant, the only survivor, outlasting many institutions, ideas, etc. In ‘Church Going’ he says, ‘And what remains when disbelief has gone? Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky’.
  • Nature imagery is used by Larkin to express human emotions: ‘perpetual morning shares my bed’, ‘all-generous waters’ (‘Wedding Wind’).
  • Death is acceptable, less threatening, natural in the context of the seasons (‘At Grass’, ‘Cut Grass’)

Larkin’s Philosophy of Life

  • Many critics find a deep sense of disillusionment and pessimism in Larkin’s poetry:  Eric Homberger describes it  as, ‘the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket’, while Charles Tomlinson says of Larkin’s writing that it shows, ‘a tenderly nursed sense of defeat’ (Charles Tomlinson)
  • The main areas of disillusionment for Larkin were:
  • the lack of religious faith, which means that he has not got the comfort of that absolute in his life (‘Church Going’)
  • his very bleak view of the end of life is given full expression in ‘Ambulances’ when he speaks of, ‘the solving emptiness that lies just under all we do’.
  • the pointlessness of the struggle and the irony of all the effort, ‘not a fieldglass sees them home’ (‘At Grass’)
  • We also find that his perpetual awareness of death colours all his attempts to celebrate life. For example, ‘At Grass’ celebrates the success of life, but it is a life that is over.  Even the celebration of nature’s beauty and abundant growth is qualified by the presence of death (‘Cut Grass’).
  • Larkin himself denied that he was a completely pessimistic poet: ‘The impulse for producing a poem is never negative; the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done’. Would you agree?

 

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SAMPLE ANSWERS ON LARKIN – FOR THE OPTIMISTS AND PESSIMISTS AMONGST US! TAKE YOUR PICK!

(1) Sample Answer Specially Written for Pessimists!:  ‘The realities of his own society and life, explored through a variety of traditional techniques, is characteristic of the poetry of Philip Larkin.’ 

 In many of Philip Larkin’s poems we are presented with situations in a society that is post-war, increasingly materialistic, decreasingly spiritual, often alienating and occasionally meaningless.  In this society we see ordinary people struggling to realise their ideals, dreams and hopes, grasping at an illusive happiness, which for many will remain unattainable and remote.  This contrast between the ideal and the ordinary is central to Larkin’s view of the life and society within which he worked.

In ‘At Grass’, the narrator recalls the brief moments of fame enjoyed by the horses and their trainers.  The poem is carefully structured into five stanzas, each of six lines with a regular rhythm and the rhyme scheme abcabc.  Most of the lines are of equal length and of eight syllables, which is suited to a poem that is ponderous and sad in tone.  The horses are closely observed in the poem and their retirement in the ‘unmolesting meadows’ suggests how short-lived fame or notoriety is, and just as short, perhaps, for humans as for these horses.  They enjoy a temporary freedom from the flash bulbs and public glare before being called to the stables, symbolic of the inevitable submission to death.

The idea of death disturbed Larkin.  In ‘Church Going’ he confesses to being a non-believer in a church which has frequently left him ‘at a loss’.  Through the argument of the poem, Larkin discovers his purpose in these frequent visits to churches.  It is a desire to fulfil, ‘A hunger in himself to be more serious’, to be, perhaps, important, significant, or simply a desire to matter and to make a difference.  This desire to be important underpins several poems by Larkin which deal with love.  In ‘Wedding Wind’, the speaker, in this case a young bride, delights in her happiness, despite, or perhaps in spite of, being left by her husband to feel, ‘Stupid in candlelight’.  Her joy is tempered only by her reflection on those less fortunate than herself who ‘lack the happiness’  she anticipates and perhaps expects to enjoy in her married life.  However, Larkin is not so convinced and in the second stanza the newly-weds have once again been parted by the domestic rituals that will demand attention and disrupt the ideal of shared married life.  It is notable that the rhyme patterns are less than regular in this poem.  In the last four lines of stanza one, a pattern emerges as the bride speaks of her joy and contentment but this pattern is not continued into the second stanza, the tone of which is certainly more anxious and uncertain.

In ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ Larkin deals with several marriages that occur on the same Saturday in June in a landscape that is quintessentially English, ‘wide Farms’ are observed from the train and as the journey continues south the poet speaks of  ‘Canals with floatings of industrial froth’ and of new towns which were ‘nondescript …. with acres of dismantled cars’.  Gradually the poet’s curiosity draws his vision to the wedding parties where women wore ‘nylon gloves and jewellery substitutes, / The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres’ and ‘girls, gripping their handbags tighter’.  The speaker’s increasing involvement with those married couples who have boarded the train is suggested when the personal pronoun ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we’ in the final stanza.  The sense of ‘swelling’ of hope and of possibility in the future is with all of those who step from the train in London.  The poem is meticulously crafted over eight stanzas each of ten lines and with a regular rhythm.  The rhyming scheme mirrors the speed of the train – slow at first and then gradually picking up speed as it leaves each station.

Not all – in fact, very few – of Larkin’s poems show such optimism! While there are moments of joy and happiness, and surprise in Larkin’s poetry, the overriding sensation which remains with the reader, having read his poetry, is disillusionment.  In ‘Ambulances’ the clamour of the sirens which ‘Brings closer what is left to come, / And dulls to distance all we are’, is a striking reminder of the inevitable fate we await in death.

Larkin’s poetry reflects the experiences and impulses that were common to many people living in England in the immediate post-war era.  Some of these experiences he shares, if not physically, then emotionally.  He may at first stand as an observer, but he often becomes less detached and removed from the scene he observes in order to identify himself with those who live and breathe and ‘grow old’ before him and with him.

Larkin

(2) Sample Answer Specially Written for the Optimists among us – for those who see the bright side of everything!:  Write an essay in which you outline your reasons for liking and/or not liking the poetry of Philip Larkin. 

Of all the poets I studied as part of my Leaving Cert course it was Philip Larkin who really struck a chord with me.  When I think now why I liked his poetry so much I think of his moving elegiac accounts of the passing of time in poems such as ‘At Grass’.  Then there are the poems rich with philosophical ideas and considerations that give rise to many questions without pretending to know the answers.  ‘Church Going’ and ‘An Arundel Tomb’ offer a fascinating perspective on how values and meanings change over time without resorting to unnecessary obfuscating language.  Larkin’s poetry also gives us a view of life that is ‘permanent and blank and true’.  However, whereas some readers may find the poetry of Larkin to be bleak, at the heart of many of these poems lies a beautiful sensitivity to the bonds and moments of love that come to define our lives.  This is particularly the case with ‘Ambulances’, a poem that deals unflinchingly with mortality.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is the language that Larkin uses.  Every poem contains exquisite lines of poetry that are a joy to read.

‘At Grass’ is a perfect example of Larkin’s ability to evoke the past and the heart-aching melancholy that comes with the passing of time.  The poem is an elegy to a lost world – the world of the summer races, Ascot, the Derby: ‘Silks at the start: against the sky / Numbers and parasols: outside / Squadrons of empty cars, and heat’.  However, there is a very interesting and moving ending to this poem.  Having described the exciting world of the races he brings us back to the scene of two horses alone in a field, their racing days now long over.  Capturing perfectly the melancholic sadness of life drawing to its close, Larkin describes how now that the world of the races has vanished, ‘Only the groom, and the groom’s boy, / With bridles in the evening come’.  This final detail achieves a powerfully poignant melancholy.

This awareness of the passage of time and its consequences also lies at the heart of ‘Church Going’ and ‘An Arundel Tomb’, two poems I found particularly stimulating.  Each poem considers how an object, though it might physically remain the same, comes to have different value and significance over the course of time.  In ‘An Arundel Tomb’, the poet considers the representation in stone of an ‘earl and countess’ upon their tomb.  Using sharp observation the poem raises many fascinating questions about the changes that time effects.  Those buried in the tomb could never have imagined how the world would change around their frozen image:

                        They would not guess how early in

                        Their supine stationary voyage

                        The air would change to soundless damage,

                        Turn the old tenantry away;

                        How soon succeeding eyes begin

                        To look, not read.

In ‘Church Going’ the poet raises equally fascinating questions about the significance of the churches that lie at the centre of every town in the country.

What I particularly liked about ‘Church Going’ was the way Larkin draws the reader into the poem.  Using the register of the ‘Bored, uninformed’ tourist, the poet charms the reader with his observations (‘From where I stand the roof looks almost new – / Cleaned, or restored?  Someone would know: I don’t’) and humour (Hatless I take off / My cycle-clips in awkward reverence’) before raising some very important questions about the gradual demise of the church in modern society.  The church ultimately becomes a ‘serious place on serious earth’, a place, ‘In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, / Are recognised, and robed as destinies’.  That the church does this seems an invaluable thing and Larkin rightly wonders what institution will take its place when it no longer exists.

Wherever Larkin’s poems start from, they most often end with the inescapability of death.  ‘Church Going’ contemplates the importance of churches in our lives but cannot help but notice in the end that ‘so many dead lie around’ them.  In ‘Cut Grass’, something as ordinary and everyday as mown grass becomes a powerful symbol for the great sadness and finality of death:

                                               Cut grass lies frail:

                                                Brief is the breath

                                                Mown stalks exhale.

                                                Long, long the death

It is ‘Ambulances’, however, that provides us with the bluntest depiction of human mortality, with its vivid descriptions of illness and death.  The poem exposes ‘the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do’.  However, even in this bleakest of poems Larkin remains keenly aware of the small things that come to define our lives and invest them with value and meaning – ‘the unique random blend / Of families and fashions’ and ‘the exchange of love’.

And that is what lies at the heart of Larkin’s poetry – his attention to the intimate details that define our everyday lives.  He was not a poet who needed to travel to exotic places in order to find inspiration for his poetry.  His truths are the simple truths of life and death and as a poet Larkin stuck with what he knew and like Frost’s, ‘The Road Not Taken’, that has made all the difference for me!

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This one is a bonus – however, it is not on the Leaving Cert course – maybe for obvious reasons!

 

 

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