English teachers, we are told, often end up teaching the texts that they themselves were taught at school. There might be changes of specification and differences in approach, but the texts themselves stay the same, handed on from one generation to the next like an English-teaching version of Radio 4’s Inheritance Tracks. It’s certainly true in my case. In my fourteen years as an English teacher, I’ve taught a whole host of texts that I first encountered at GCSE or A-level: The Merchant of Venice, Browning’s dramatic monologues, To Kill a Mockingbird. And my students are doing their best to continue the tradition: one of them, now a secondary English teacher herself, is using the same hotseating exercise on Henry V that I did with her class nearly ten years ago.
It sometimes feels like a bit of a guilty secret, this falling-back on the tried-and-tested, this failure to branch out. (Other subjects, with their more linear sense of curricular progression, don’t have this problem: when did you last hear any Biology teachers castigating themselves for teaching photosynthesis?) If I had to justify it, I’d say that the texts we study at school are, of course, the ones we know best: the ones we’ve studied inside-out, through a slow, systematic building-up of knowledge in which we’ve had the chance to reflect and ponder and let our understanding grow. The frantic rush of degree level study seems superficial in comparison. But maybe there’s another reason too: the sense that some texts are eminently suited to the late adolescent mind; that the years between sixteen and eighteen are, quite simply, the best time to experience particular authors. If I were asked to nominate one writer for inclusion in this category, it would be Philip Larkin.
I first encountered Philip Larkin in the early spring of 1990, when we did The Whitsun Weddings for A-level, sandwiched in between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. I was in the Lower Sixth and in that stage that I always alert my own students to at the beginning of sixth form: that fragile point when you’ve developed what Larkin described in ‘Church Going’ as ‘a hunger ... to be more serious’, when you’ve realised that you’ve fallen in love with a particular subject but are still a bit too scared to admit it. You weren’t supposed to like reading, at my school: confessing that I actually enjoyed one of my A-level subjects would have been positively dangerous. I also wasn’t sure, at that point, whether I was any good at English. There was still something about it that was a bit of a mystery; a sense that beyond the words on the page there were meanings that kept on eluding me. Then we started to do Larkin, and everything fell into place.
The twenty-fifth anniversary of Larkin’s death has occasioned a number of revaluations of his work. For me, it’s been a time to reflect on the centrality of Larkin to my own relationship with the study and teaching of English. I teach Larkin whenever I get the chance; and I’ve also spoken a number of times about teaching Larkin, using his poems to illustrate the ways in which students can be introduced to various aspects of literary analysis (the study of social and historical contexts, for instance, or the evaluation of different critical interpretations). But the importance of Larkin, for me, goes well beyond this. I’ve spent a long time trying to work out why this is.
I’m not alone in recognising the power of Larkin as a set author. He has long been a popular choice for A-level study. The copy of The Whitsun Weddings that I was issued with at school in 1990 had been in constant use since 1986, its pages bearing the annotations of five successive years’ worth of students. Larkin was around for the advent of Curriculum 2000, ten years later: Ian Stewart, former principal examiner for AQA Specification A, reported that when examiners were choosing set texts for the new AS-level specifications, The Whitsun Weddings was ‘an immediate and unanimous choice’.1 And Larkin’s poetry is still a significant presence in the post-2008 A-levels: ‘MCMXIV’ is included in AQA Specification A’s anthology of writing about World War I; AQA Specification B’s collection of post-1945 pastoral poetry contains three of Larkin’s poems (‘Going, Going’, ‘Show Saturday’ and ‘Church Going’); and Edexcel uses his work in three of its themed collections of set poems, grouped under the headings of Work, Home and War. The Whitsun Weddings is a set text for WJEC at AS level, to be studied alongside Dannie Abse’s Welsh Retrospective as part of a unit on poetry post-1900. Larkin’s work can also, of course, be studied for coursework, and could even be used as part of AQA Specification A’s unit on Love Through the Ages: it’s an intriguing idea.
Naturally, Larkin himself would have had misgivings about this. He was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of writing solely for ‘the dutiful mob that signs on every September’, seeing a student readership as no substitute for a genuinely pleasure-seeking audience, and commented that he would hate anyone to read his work simply because they had to.2 Many readers will also be aware of the range of objections that have been raised to Larkin as a subject of study – especially since the publication of the Selected Letters in 1992 and Andrew Motion’s biography the following year. Chief among these is Lisa Jardine’s oft-quoted statement that ‘we don't tend to teach Larkin much now in my department of English’, citing his ‘Little Englandism’, habitual racism and easy misogyny,3 but there have been hosts of other detractors. Bryan Appleyard asked in the Independent why ‘this provincial grotesque’, whose poetry exuded such ‘a repellent, smelly, inadequate masculinity’, is ‘so adored, edited, biographied and generally elevated to the highest ranks of Eng Lit’.4 In his discussion of Curriculum 2000, Ian Stewart notes that the now-defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Authority questioned whether The Whitsun Weddings was of sufficient weight and merit to make it worthy of inclusion in the new A-level specifications.5 The tutor who took me for my twentieth-century paper in my second term at university announced to my tutorial group that he was prepared to teach any twentieth-century poet – as long as it wasn’t Larkin.
Yet Larkin also has an array of supporters; and it is interesting to me – as someone who has written widely on the increasing distance between schools and universities, and the difficulty of ‘bridging the gap’ between post-16 and degree-level study – that there is a notable strand of writing about Larkin that has been produced by schoolteachers. Andrew Swarbrick, author of Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin (1997), taught English at Radley College; Jonathan Smith, who included an essay about ‘That Poem’ (‘This Be The Verse’) in his book The Learning Game (2000), was a teacher of English at Tonbridge School. Richard Palmer, author of a number of studies of Larkin and editor of Larkin’s Jazz Writings for Continuum, teaches English at Bedford School and attributes his awareness of Larkin’s ‘notably dense and precisely detailed account of the social history of [his] time’ to his years as a teacher, to the process of glossing and explaining social and cultural references that are becoming increasingly opaque to today’s teenagers.6 Palmer reports, nevertheless, that students often experience a ‘kind of instant rapport’ with Larkin’s poetry, and comments that he knows ‘of no writer who engenders more fun – including outright laughter’. In Palmer’s view, there are only two writers who ‘can be productively used across the whole secondary spectrum: Shakespeare and Larkin’.7 For Swarbrick, Larkin’s accessibility gives him an immediate appeal for sixth-formers: to the uninitiated, his perceived conservatism is also an attraction, making him ‘unlikely to inflame rebellious teenagers’.8
I am fascinated by these accounts, because I always am fascinated by English teachers writing and talking about their experiences of teaching particular texts and authors – especially when these experiences are rooted, as they are for Palmer, Smith and Swarbrick, in a deeply personal sense of engagement with the texts and authors in question. I am also fascinated because of the distance between their experience of Larkin and mine. All three of these writers are based in the independent sector, in single-sex schools; and all three write of having encountered Larkin’s poetry at the time it was first published. I was just thirteen when Larkin died, in December 1985: I was aware of his death, but on reflection, this was probably because I remembered the reference to The Whitsun Weddings in Sue Townsend’s The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, required reading for all self-respecting teenagers in the mid-1980s. So my early experience of Larkin’s work took place in a very different era from that of other teachers who have written about him. It also happened in a very different place: a small town in the north-west of England, in the no-man’s-land between Liverpool and Manchester that’s criss-crossed with motorways and where everyone seems perpetually on the way to somewhere else. In many ways it was a town ripe for Larkinesque experience. The most famous thing that ever happened there was the world’s first fatal railway accident, when the MP William Huskisson was killed by Stevenson’s Rocket at the Rainhill Trials in 1830. It was small and self-contained when I was a child, but by the time I was in the Sixth Form it had begun to expand, its mortgaged half-built edges encroaching on the surrounding fields. I had spent all my life there, but I was starting to outgrow the place and become impatient with its familiarities. Even though Larkin was writing about Hull – a city I’d never been to, and would not visit until many years later – his images resonated with me miles away at the other end of the M62: the ordinary scenes from ordinary towns; the dismantled cars and advertising hoardings; the desire for something beyond. Larkin wrote that ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’; but at seventeen there’s a particular kind of nothing that always seems to be wherever you are, stuck in a place that somebody else chose for you and waiting for the rest of life to come along. That was me when I was in the Lower Sixth; and whenever I read The Whitsun Weddings now it’s my sixth-form English room that it conjures up, Miss Nevin’s room on the first floor at the end of the English block, with its pale blue walls and view over the playing fields to another place entirely.
It didn’t take us long to familiarise ourselves with the stereotype of Larkin: the Hermit of Hull with his inch-thick specs, the curmudgeon permanently stuck in middle age. We used to conspire to wear black to our Larkin lessons, and delighted in finding yet more evidence of his misanthropy and gloom. Yet we actually quite liked him; and whenever I’ve taught Larkin I find students feeling the same sense of affection for the social inadequate contemplating his own mortality from the vantage point of Mr Bleaney’s fusty bed. Part of it, I’m sure, is because of the accessibility of his poetry: part of it is undoubtedly due to his confiding, colloquial narrative voice. But there’s something else about his verse that’s important; something that seems particularly attuned to the moods of late adolescence. Perhaps it’s the persistent sense of ambivalence: the push and pull of divergent attitudes, captured by Andrew Motion in a list of opposites that I remember discussing in an A-level essay: ‘sociability and singleness, work and idleness, resolution and despair.’9 Perhaps it’s the trying-on of different identities, a way of keeping the self at a defensive arm’s length. Swarbrick has written of the self-protective irony that distinguishes much of Larkin’s work, commenting that this is an attitude that students ‘almost instinctively know about ... as a mode of discourse and, in their case, almost as a way of life’.10 Perhaps it’s the fact that its narrative voice is prepared to confront its own shortcomings, owning up to the sense of ridiculousness that we all feel but flinch away from looking at directly. But also, crucially, there’s the sense of a search for an ungraspable ideal, summed up by Larkin himself in an interview with John Haffenden as a ‘long[ing] for infinity and absence, the beauty of somewhere you’re not.’11 For me, at seventeen, this was represented most vividly by the ‘unfenced existence’ of the ending of ‘Here’; but I was also intrigued by ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ and its focus on the desire for separateness and self-definition. Larkin’s poem, written three months after his move from Belfast to Hull in March 1955, gave a voice to my frustration at being in a world that was starting to feel much too small, hemmed in by the ‘customs and establishments’ of people who’d known me all my life but didn’t really know me at all any more. Years later, I was struck by Swarbrick’s description of beginning a scheme of work on Larkin with the poem ‘Wires’, a poem that ‘stealthily performs its theme of enclosure’. Swarbrick focuses on the same feelings of constriction and the desire for escape that formed a counterpoint to my own early experience of Larkin, commenting that ‘Larkin’s poems are to me expressions of a self not only thwarted in its desires, but in terms of knowing its own identity’.12 This is, surely, a profoundly adolescent state. I couldn’t have identified it as such at seventeen, but there was something in Larkin’s poems that told me I wasn’t the only person who felt like this.
Crucially, however, Larkin not only articulated the mood that I was so often in at the time I was studying The Whitsun Weddings, but also offered glimpses of a way out. There was the sheer intellectual pleasure I felt at being able to spot what he meant by ‘word after sprawling hyphenated word’ and ‘ships up streets’. There was also the sense of being made to look at things anew. Palmer has summed up the transmutational power of Larkin’s verse, saying that ‘he will take something ordinary – a journey, a glass of gin and tonic, a cocktail-party invitation, a room to let – and endow it with extraordinary definition, resonance, and power’.13 There are visions of immense clarity in Larkin’s poems that describe the apparently unremarkable or unnoticed with a precision that I’d never encountered before: the postal districts of London ‘packed like squares of wheat’ in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’; the undated snow that marks the passage of time in ‘An Arundel Tomb’; the vision of ‘those new, slightly-outmoded shoes’ in ‘Broadcast’. And there are others, of course, in the poems I’ve read since then: ‘the uncertain children, frilled in white / And grasping at enormous air’ in ‘To the Sea’; the ‘close-ribbed streets’ in ‘The Building’, that ‘rise and fall / Like a great sigh out of the last century’. Roman Jakobson described literature as ‘organised violence committed on ordinary speech’, but Larkin is rather different: it’s not so much ordinary speech that he makes us perceive in a different way, as the ordinary itself.14 Even if I couldn’t escape from all the everyday stuff, I could at least look at it as something that was potentially poetic. There was another way out that Larkin offered me, too. It was in studying Larkin that the whole business of ‘doing English’ started to make sense: when something clicked and literary criticism began to feel like a joyful intellectual game. And then I went to Oxford for an Open Day and saw someone sitting on a bench in St. Giles reading a book – something you definitely couldn’t have done back home – and decided that if this was a place where you could sit in the middle of the street and read books then this was where I wanted to be.
Earlier, I referred to Richard Palmer’s observation that it was only through teaching Larkin’s poetry to secondary school students that he became fully aware of its detailed account of the social history of the mid-twentieth century. Often, we notice different aspects of texts when we teach them: we read them more closely and experience them through different eyes. In the years that I’ve been teaching Larkin – both for the old AQA Specification A course, and latterly as part of AQA B’s unit on Aspects of the Pastoral – I’ve been struck again and again by what a brilliant craftsman he is. He’s one of those writers whose work is not just an object of study in itself, but a lesson in how to study literature. It’s like being told, look: this is what you can do with metonymy; this is what half-rhyme does; these are the effects that you can create by playing around with a poem’s rhythmic structure. (Arthur Miller is another writer I’d place in this category: here’s how you take classical tragedy and make it modern. Or Walt Whitman, with his poem ‘Patrolling Barnegat’, taught by English teachers up and down the country as part of the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology: look at what you can do with the sonnet form if you push against its boundaries). When students find out that ‘MCMXIV’ consists of only one sentence, they’re intrigued: when they discover that it’s not a complete sentence – that it lacks a main verb – and that this is the source of the poem’s restlessness and sense of uncertainty, they’re instantly made aware of how important it is to have a grasp of the underlying grammatical structures of poetry in order to describe the effects they create. This is reinforced when they study ‘Here’, and look at the contrast between the long opening sentence – spanning the first three verses, describing the bustle and chaos of urban life – and its successor, the strikingly brief ‘Here silence stands / Like heat’. Similarly, if students can identify stressed and unstressed syllables, and analyse the effects of some common metrical and rhyming patterns, then they will be able to articulate very precisely how Larkin creates the gnomic voice of ‘This Be The Verse’, with its regular iambic tetrameter and alternating rhyme; the restiveness of ‘Wires’, with its arch-rhyme and hypermetric lines; and the sense of unfulfilment and defeat in ‘Afternoons’, with its persistently shifting stresses.15 Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that in studying Larkin, students receive an important grounding in tact: in reading with care and looking beyond the surface. It takes sensitivity and patience, and a willingness to dwell on subtle nuances of meaning, to articulate what is meant by ‘Not untrue and not unkind’, by the endings of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ and ‘High Windows’, or by the narrator’s feelings about solitude in poems such as ‘Self’s the Man’ and ‘Vers de Société’. (And, indeed, to appreciate that the narrator is not necessarily Larkin, that the narrative persona in one poem might differ from that in another, and that the stance that this persona espouses at the beginning of a poem is often very different to that reached at the end). Clearly, though, students enjoy the challenge. It is heartening to read Ian Stewart’s comments that Larkin’s work ‘consistently produces some of the most interesting responses’ from A-level candidates, who write about it ‘in a fresh and immediate manner’.16 My own students, over the years, have often started by mistrusting Larkin for his superficial cynicism, but then reach a point where they can sympathise with what he’s saying, where on some level he just makes sense. And I’ve seen students who’ve struggled to engage with other texts and authors suddenly become switched on by Larkin, in a way that is often remarkable.
* * * * *
Life occasionally throws up odd connections. In November 2005 my husband and I were approved as adoptive parents: six months later we had a phone call from our social worker to say that she’d been approached about a little boy, currently in foster care, who needed a new mum and dad. Where was he from? Hull, of course. And so it was that I made my first journey to Hull, for the endless meetings and interrogations that accompany the adoption process. We went for a walk along the Humber foreshore the evening before we met our son for the first time, and I remembered Larkin’s statement that ‘Always it is by bridges that we live’, thinking about the oddness of two bits of my life coming together. (One social worker asked us how we planned to make our son aware of his ‘Hull heritage’, and of course my immediate thought was of Larkin, though I think it’ll be a while before we read him That Poem).
I went back to Hull last August, lured by the Larkin 25 events organised to mark the quarter-century since Larkin’s death. I went by train, naturally, although I changed at Doncaster, not Sheffield. I didn’t eat an awful pie, either. I’m not sure you can buy them, now: just panini, and muffins, and multiple kinds of coffee about which Larkin would no doubt have had something scathing to say. I took my copy of The Whitsun Weddings with me, and as the train pulled out of Doncaster and headed east, the landscape seemed remarkably familiar. There were wheatfields and poplars, occasional haystacks, and a low, louring sky with grey, striated cloud. There were harsh-named halts – Gilberdyke, Crabley Creek, Brough – and then the wide expanse of river with its graceful arch of bridge.
One of Larkin 25’s main attractions was the series of multi-coloured fibreglass toads, decorated by various artists and community groups, that were dotted around Hull and its environs. The first toad I saw – the Teletoad, painted to look like one of Hull’s distinctive white telephone boxes – was squatting outside a mobile coffee stall just opposite Paragon Station: the second, decorated with primary-school handprints, was outside Waterstones. Two women asked me if I would take a photograph of them with the Hidden Toad, outside City Hall. They were photographing the toads for an old schoolfriend of theirs who had emigrated from Hull to Australia a couple of years previously: she’d read about Larkin 25 on the internet and didn’t want to miss out. The toads were bright splashes of colour, some fittingly placed – like the punk toad outside Hull Truck Theatre – and others more incongruous, such as the orange Tequila Toad sitting outside the Jobcentre on a slightly threatening road junction. There were lots of people looking for toads: mainly families with small children and lists to tick off, but some solo travellers, trying not to look too conspicuous with their cameras and maps.
The Georgian Houses Museum, in the restored Museums Quarter, was hosting ‘Larkinalia’, an exhibition of objects that once belonged to Larkin. I’m not generally a fan of authorial relics, but Larkin is such a poet of details – the precise objects that conjure up a life – that it was fascinating to see the minutiae of his own domestic space: a pair of enormous leather slippers, a collection of Beatrix Potter figurines, two plates bearing the slogan ‘Prepare to Meet Thy God.’ There were cigarette cards, a flamboyant handkerchief, a pair of Monica Jones’s flashy sunglasses and an entirely predictable saucer-souvenir. Bizarrely, there was also the lawnmower that featured in the poem ‘The Mower’, with a cuddly toy hedgehog poised for illustrative purposes beneath its blades. The explanatory notes were in Comic Sans, which Larkin would have either loathed or appreciated in an ironic way, I’m not sure which.
I finished my day at the Hull History Centre, a lovely light airy building with an atmosphere of quiet purposefulness. Its display included an early draft of ‘Love Songs in Age’, some of Larkin’s letters, and journals from holidays he took with Monica Jones in the 1960s and 70s. (On the day I visited, the page on display bore Monica’s waspish comments about their fellow guests, whom she pronounced ‘incredibly common’). As I made notes, one of the centre staff was leading a workshop on researching family history. A woman was showing her son faded photographs of long-dead relatives from copies of old local newspapers; people were sharing discoveries and giving advice, passing things on. I thought of the line in ‘Ambulances’ about ‘the unique random blend / Of families and fashions’, of the connections between the generations in ‘To the Sea’, and about the sense of unity in variety that Larkin’s greatest poems call to mind: a feeling that beyond the curmudgeonly stereotype, his writing bears witness to the uniqueness of individuals, their sorest insecurities and the fragility of their hopes. It seemed appropriate, somehow.
Ian Stewart, ‘Philip Larkin: An Examiner’s Perspective’, About Larkin, 21 (Summer 2006), 5-8, p. 5.
- Philip Larkin, ‘The Pleasure Principle’, in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 80-82, pp. 80-81.
- Lisa Jardine, ‘Saxon Violence’, Guardian, 8 December 1992, section 2, p. 4
- Bryan Appleyard, ‘The Dreary Laureate of our Provincialism’, Independent, 18 March 1993, p. 27. Appleyard referred to Larkin in a recent article as ‘superbly second rank’ (‘Poetry and the English Imagination’, The Liberal, 8 August 2010, available online at http://www.theliberal.co.uk/issue_11/artsandculture/poetry_appleyard_11.html).
- Stewart, ‘Philip Larkin: An Examiner’s Perspective’, p. 5.
- Richard Palmer, Such Deliberate Disguises: The Art of Philip Larkin (London: Continuum, 2008), xviii.
- Richard Palmer, ‘Helping the Old, Too, As They Ought’, About Larkin, 21 (Summer 2006), 18-21, p. 21.
- Andrew Swarbrick, ‘Larkin in the Sixth Form’, in Larkin with Poetry, ed. by Michael Baron (Leicester: English Association, 1997), 71-6, p. 72.
- Andrew Motion, ‘Philip Larkin and Symbolism’, in New Casebooks: Philip Larkin, ed. by Stephen Regan (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1997), 32-54, p. 52. This essay originally appeared in Motion’s book Philip Larkin (London and New York: Methuen, 1982).
- Swarbrick, ‘Larkin in the Sixth Form’, p. 72.
- ‘An Interview with John Haffenden’, in Philip Larkin, Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews, 1952-1985, ed. by Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), 47-61, p. 59.
- Swarbrick, ‘Larkin in the Sixth Form’, pp. 72, 75.
- Palmer, Such Deliberate Disguises, p. 72.
- Roman Jakobson, quoted in Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), p. 2.
- Andrew Swarbrick offers a detailed analysis of the structure of ‘Wires’ in Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 92-4.
- Stewart, ‘Philip Larkin: An Examiner’s Perspective’, p. 5.
© The English Association 2011 [The Use of English 62.2 Spring 2011]
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.
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,
- 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.
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:
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’.
- 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
- 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?
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.
(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!
This one is a bonus – however, it is not on the Leaving Cert course – maybe for obvious reasons!