The nineteen-fifties were a time when the general attitude of the people and the writers was anti-romantic and anti-heroic. World War II had ended in 1945 and the euphoria over the defeat of the Nazi and Fascist nations, and also of imperialist Japan, soon ended, giving way to a feeling of despondency over the damage which even the victorious Allies had suffered.
The German bombing raids over Britain had inflicted incalculable damage upon the country; and thousands of lives had been lost. There was a general feeling of disillusionment and disenchantment among the common people as well as among the writers and artists. A writer like Larkin, committed to a realistic portrayal of life and the actual conditions of life in the country, could not have imparted a romantic halo or a heroic quality to the life which he depicted in his poems. He could not have portrayed heroes and heroism in the face of the misery and the financial stringency which the country was experiencing. The Welfare State had surely been established; but the results were none too cheering. Thus Larkin, wanting only to depict the stark realities of life in his poems, emerged as an extreme kind of anti-hero. He mocked at himself; and he mocked at the people and the conditions around him. Wherever he found any redeeming feature in social or political life in the country, he did not shut his eyes to it; but he was even more keenly and painfully aware of the sordidness of a commercialized consumer society. Many of his poems are self-depreciatory; and most of them contain also sharp criticisms of the society around him. Veracity of experience and fidelity to the actual state of affairs were the governing principles of Larkin’s poetry. His poetry is truthful, above everything else. He does not try to impart a glamour or a glitter to life as he saw it; and he does not romanticize human relationships, not even the love between men and women. In short, he does not depict himself as a hero of any kind, and he does not depict any heroic individuals, in his poems. There are no warriors and no knights-at-arms in his poetry; and there are no Romeos and Juliets in his poetry either. There are no war-like deeds in his poems, and there is no tendency at all to glorify human beings or human relationships. We have stark, naked reality in his poetry.
No Romance for Larkin in Love, in Marriage, or in Travel
An Arundel Tomb is a poem about an Earl and his Countess. The poet does recognize the feeling of mutual attachment between them in the way the sculptor has shown them as holding hands. But Larkin does not romanticize this attachment. On the contrary, he expresses the view that this holding of hands was most probably the sculptor’s invention and not a representation of an actual fact. In other words, Larkin looks at the relationship between the Earl and his Countess with the cold eye of reason. In Dockery and Son, Larkin finds that, while a contemporary of his had got married early in life and had begotten a son who is now at college, he himself had never married and had begotten no son. But he does not regard Dockery as being superior to himself because of this difference between their situations. In other words, he does not romanticize marriage and the begetting of children. In Poetry of Departures, Larkin expresses a desire to leave home and travel, but then gives up the idea. He does not romanticize travel in the name of adventure, or the gathering of knowledge and experience for their own sake. Thus in all these poems we find Larkin adopting a matter-of-fact attitude towards some of the most important aspects of life. Love, marriage, and travel are not, in his eyes, something marvellous and wonderful. A heroic life is a romantic life; but Larkin finds no heroism and no romance in love or in marriage or in travel.
Individuals in Larkin’s Poems, Not Cast in a Heroic Mould
The individuals portrayed by Larkin in his poems are certainly not cast in the heroic mould. Very often the persona or the protagonist in his dramatic monologues is Larkin himself. In these poems he does not exalt himself in any way. And in poems where he portrays some other man, that other man too is not presented as a heroic figure. In the poem Mr. Bleaney, the speaker is Larkin himself, but the person about whom Larkin is speaking is another man to whom he has given the name of Bleaney. Neither Larkin nor Bleaney has been depicted as a heroic figure in this poem. Mr. Bleaney is a very ordinary kind of manual worker, a humble and unassuming worker leading a poor life. Larkin speaks about Mr. Bleaney in an ironical vein, exposing his shallowness and his uninspiring, squalid life. But Larkin does not speak about himself in any self-laudatory manner either. He certainly establishes his superiority over Mr. Bleaney because of his higher, intellectual interests; but he mocks at himself also while mocking at Mr. Bleaney. In fact, Larkin’s irony is often directed against himself. The poem entitled I Remember, I Remember is a striking example. Here he attacks romantic notions of his childhood which in another poem he has described as “a forgotten boredom”.
The Evangelist in Faith Healing, Pulled Down From His Pedestal
In the poem Faith Healing, the evangelist is not idealized, or even eulogized. On the contrary, Larkin has given us a satirical portrayal of the evangelist. The evangelist is certainly a hero and a God-like figure in the eyes of his women clients; but Larkin drags this false divinity down to the ground from the high pedestal which he occupies in the eyes of his women-worshippers.
No Heroic Attitude Towards Work
In Toads and Toads Revisited, Larkin does not adopt a heroic attitude towards work. He does not say: “Work is worship.” On the contrary, he says that work is a toad squatting on his life. Very much the same thing is said by Larkin in the other poem. Work is the route which takes a man to his grave. Thus Larkin barely adjusts himself to a life of work instead of claiming that work uplifts, or edifies, or exalts a man. Indeed, nowhere in his poetry does Larkin present to our eyes a spectacle of a heroic struggle against, or a heroic resistance to, the misfortunes of life. W.B. Yeats had certainly upheld and applauded the idea of a heroic struggle and a heroic resistance to adverse circumstances; but Larkin does not do any such thing.
Larkin’s Unheroic Attitude Towards Death
Larkin is surely an anti-hero. He does not even adopt a heroic attitude towards death which is one of the most prominent themes in his poetry. Larkin was obsessed with the thought of death; and in many poems he reminds us of the inevitability of death. The poems Coming, Going, and Days are about death; and the climax of his treatment of death comes in the poem Aubade. But nowhere does he defy death. He does not follow John Donne’s lead. Donne had said: “Death, be not proud....” But Larkin dares not say any such thing. He fears death; he quails at the thought of death. He certainly does not show any fearlessness of death. Only in one poem, namely The Explosion, does he exalt death as a means of bringing honour to the persons who were killed in an explosion. In general, he harbours a dread of death.