Philip Larkin – Poems (1955-1974)

Larkin, along with Amis, Conquest, Gunn, and others, were a group post-war authors christened “The Movement.” Conquest described their mantra as “little more than a negative determination to avoid bad principles,” which is an obvious continuation of Auden’s project: the destruction of error. Larkin’s paired down lyricism–a lyric stunted by discontent and a hyper-active reality principle–is clear in the tight but flexible verse forms, often with minute variations that do not draw attention to themselves. Ironically, Kingsley Amis’s rollicking Lucky Jim  was partially inspired by Larkin’s life, which points to the forms of severe restraint imposed on the expression of emotion–not so much fro the sake of restraint (a la Eliot and Pound) but because of the realization that lyric expressiveness is hollow.

This marks out his difference with Auden. Auden never attempts the honest transparency of Larkin’s expressive attempts (failing not because, like Prufrock, he cannot find the words and take the action, but because he finds the words and they still fail to matter), but holds in secret an identity protected at all costs from systems that might otherwise subsume it. Auden puts the self in question, but in secret: Larkin’s self-deprecation stages this questioning as it central image.

“Church Going” (1955) is a poem about, the way churches (synecdoche for institutional religion) no longer function to unify the basic stages of human life–birth, marriage, death–but how humans till return to these hollowed out skeletons compelled by the sense of a lost unity that needs repair. The speaker stops as a tourist, and failing to be satisfied as a tourists, asks, “What remains when disbelief is gone?” What stands between belief and unbelief? A difference worthy of Hardy poem–the speaker, like the one in Hap, Darkling Thrush and Neutral Tones, yearns for a substantial system that he can negate….but to no avail. Yet something very much like an objective “neediness of the world” (Adorno) persists over and above individual loss of faith:

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to  be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie around.

If Church Going is commenting on a contemporary lack, then “MCMXIV” (1964), which translates into 1914, pinpoints the loss of innocence as World War I: “Never such innocence again,” the poem closes. The opening line, “Those long uneven lines,” refers to the lines of men waiting to be conscripted, which doubles etymologically with the act of writing itself (script). Throughout Larkin, this sense of lost innocence is repeated again and again; it correlates with the loss of structures that would order everyday activity. So, for instance, “The Importance of Elsewhere,” comments on the difficulty of ascending to an objective viewpoint in relation to “customs and establishments.” In England, “no elsewhere underwrites my existence.” The impossibility of appeal to something beyond.

In “High Windows” (1974), Larkin attempts to link the current generation of youth’s attempts to mark out its own possibilities and opportunities (the sexual revolution of the sixties) to his generation’s attempt to escape the dread of religion. But the particularity of these two experiences, divided by thirty years, cannot be related, or sublated into a universal idea that would explain how each generation acts. The entrance of the lyric voice in the fifth stanza is empty:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows,
The sun-comprehending grass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The fiction of the lyric. The deep blue does not connect with broader network of religious symbolism, but merely signifies the lack of representation all together (shows nothing). “Sun-comprehending grass” marks out a pathetic fallacy for the 20th century.




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