(From the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
The speaker (who is undoubtedly Larkin himself) says that he goes into a church building after making sure that no ceremony or ritual is being performed at the time. Inside the building of the church, he sees the matting on the floor, the seats, and a number of Bibles.
He also sees flowers which had been placed inside on Sunday last, and which have now faded somewhat. He sees the small organ (or the piano-like instrument which produces the music to which the choir sings during the worship). The speaker in the poem is not wearing any hat; and, therefore, he takes off his bicycle-clips to show his reverence.
The speaker moves forward in the church, and runs his hand around the font close to which he now stands. The roof of the church building looks almost new as if it had been cleaned or renovated. Then he mounts the lectern, and goes through a few verses in a Bible. At the end of his reading, he loudly says that the verses have been perused by him. In reply to his loud utterance of these words, he hears an echo of those words as if somebody were mocking at him. Then he goes back to the entrance of the church, signs the book kept there for the purpose, drops an Irish sixpence into the charity-box, and comes out. It seems to him that it was not worthwhile for him to stop on his way in order to go inside and spend a little time there.
It now occurs to the speaker that he had often stopped outside a church building, and then gone inside. But every time he had gone into a church, he had afterwards felt that he had merely wasted his time. He had always wondered on these occasions why he had gone inside the church, and what he had been looking for. He had also asked himself what purpose the church buildings would serve when people stopped going to churches altogether. Perhaps a few of the churches would be converted into museums where such articles as the parchment, the plate, and the pyx would be placed in locked cases for the visitors to see. The remaining church buildings would perhaps be offered, free of rent, to rain and to sheep. (In other words, the remaining churches would fall into complete disuse, with the rain falling freely upon them, and the sheep coming to graze there). There is also the possibility that people would begin to avoid these church buildings as unlucky places.
But there is another possibility too. Stray, unknown women might visit the deserted and desolate churches, and make their sick children touch particular stones so that the children might get well. Some of these-women might seek the cure of their children from cancer by making them touch some holy object or some holy spot there. Some of the women might even hope to see the spirits of their dead relatives walking about in those deserted buildings. Some sort of supernatural power would still be perceived by these women in those forsaken buildings. Of course, all such women would be of the superstitious kind. But eventually even superstition would come to an end, just as religious belief had previously come to an end and rendered these churches useless. What would happen after superstition or disbelief has also ended? asks the speaker.
In course of time, only grass, weeds, thorny plants, and shrubs would be seen on the ground inside the decayed buildings, and outside the buildings as well. With the passing of each week, these church buildings would become less and less recognizable, so that the people passing the ruins’ of these buildings would not know what purpose these buildings had served. The speaker in the poem then wonders who would be the last person, the very last person, to visit a church for his spiritual edification. He asks whether the last person to visit a church for its religious and spiritual significance would, be some genuine worshipper or some antiquarian , or some fellow who had been in the habit of visiting a church at Christmas, and who now wanted to recall the original atmosphere of a church. Or the last person to visit a church would be a man like the speaker himself in this poem.
The last person to visit this church might resemble the speaker himself. He might be a person who is feeling bored with everything in life, an ignoran.1 person, a person seeking some knowledge about the ceremonies which used to be held here, ceremonies that were held on the occasions of a marriage, or a birth, or a death. In any case, the speaker in the poem feels pleased to stand silently inside a church even though he has no idea of the worth of the church which is well-equipped but which, to him, is no better than a barn .
Finally, the speaker in the poem feels that a church is a serious house situated on a serious earth, and that in its air are mingled all those human urges which bring people to it. People look upon a church as a place which decides their respective destinies. This feeling of the people can never become obsolete. In other words, the spiritual essence of the churches would never be completely ignored or forgotten. Someone or the other will, at all times, experience a desire to visit a church, even a ruined church, because some people in every age would remember having heard that a church was a place where one could become wise. These people would think that=a visit to a church could make a man wise, if for no other reason, then because of the simple fact that, numerous dead persons lay buried in the churchyard.
Critical Appreciation: Larkin’s Thoughts on Visiting a Church
Church Going is a poem in which the speaker (who is undoubtedly Larkin himself) discusses the futility and the utility of going to a church. The discussion is half-mocking and half-serious. The speaker scoffs at the church and its equipment; and he scoffs at church-going, though at the end of the poem he finds that the churches, or at least some of them, would continue to render some service to the people even after they have ceased to be places of worship. According to the speaker, a time is coming when people would stop going to churches altogether, because they would have lost their faith in God and in divine worship. Then a time is also coming when people’s disbelief in God and their superstitions would come to an end too. Eventually, however, some people might still visit the decayed and disused church buildings on account of some inner compulsion or to derive some wisdom from the sight of the many graves in the churchyard.
Church Going is a monologue in which the speaker frankly appears as an agnostic if not as a downright atheist. As Larkin himself was a sceptic or an agnostic, we are justified in thinking that the speaker in the poem is Larkin himself. The upshot of the whole argument in the poem is that the churches would continue to provide some sort of emotional or spiritual solace to some people even after the current belief in God and in a future life has collapsed and given way to scepticism or agnosticism. Thus, while Larkin dismisses the concept of a church being a house of God, he yet believes that churches would continue to serve some emotional or spiritual purpose even after people’s rejection of the current religious beliefs. Church Going is really an interesting, and even entertaining, poem. A vein of irony runs through the poem; and particularly amusing are the following lines:
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do.
Also amusing are the lines in which the speaker speculates as to the identity of the last, the very last, person who might visit a church in the belief that he is visiting the house of God for his spiritual edification. However, we do not share the view that the last stanza is also ironical or has any mockery in it. The last stanza seems to express the poet’s view that a few at least of the forsaken, deserted, and ruined churches would continue to be visited by some people, if for no other reason, then only to draw some wisdom from the sight of the numerous graves in the churchyards. After all, the thought of death, to some extent, does make us wiser.
One of the critics says that the speaker in the poem Church Going begins the poem by banishing any signs of holy dread. The speaker appears as an interloper or intruder, slightly goofy or silly, disrespectful, bored, and uninformed. He introduces religion on his own terms, speaking as someone without faith, and as someone trying to recover the comfort which faith used to provide. He sees no indication that people can fill the gap created by the general loss of faith in God. Only structures (that is, church buildings) would remain; and these structures would become reliable by repetition: “marriage and birth/And death, and thoughts of these.” The glow of sanctity may have faded from such things, but the things themselves remain, depending on custom for their validity. “It pleases me,” Larkin says in the last line of the last but one stanza, “to stand in silence here” (that is, in an empty church). This critic also says that, in this poem, Larkin’s dilemma is not whether to believe in God but what to put in God’s place. Larkin is here concerned not with religion but with going to church. The title of the poem suggests a union of the important stages of human life—birth, marriage, and death—which going to church represents. In other words, the poem describes a strictly secular faith, and its author’s speculations about what churches would become when they have fallen completely out of use. The speculations lead the poet to a conclusion in which the fear of death and the loss of religious belief are counter-acted by an unshakable faith in human and individual potential. (This conclusion is reached in the final stanza of the poem). According to another critic the poem Church Going fits the programme of the Movement by carefully balancing agnostic dissent with an inclination to accept tradition and belief. According to this critic, Church Going is a poem which is both reverent and irreverent. Besides, the poem has a traditional iambic structure and a lucid, rational argument. The speaker in the poem is presented as an ordinary, fallible, and clumsy individual. Another critic says that Church Going is a poem which shows the persistence of both the English Church and the English poetic tradition. According to yet another critic ; Church Going presents in concentrated form an image of the post-war Welfare State Englishman in the lines “Hatless, I take off/My cycle-clips in awkward reverence”. It is the image of a shabby Englishman who is not concerned with his appearance but who is poor, having a bike not a car; who is gauche (or clumsy) but full of agnostic piety; who is under-fed, under-paid, over-taxed, hopeless, bored, and wry. According to another critic , the punning title of this poem demonstrates both the erosion of the Church as an institution, and the persistence of some kind of ritual ceremonies. The speaker in this poem responds to conflicting attitude, and also uses a variety of speech-forms. The speaker here is “bored” and “uninformed,” and yet he appears to be knowledgeable and articulate about such things as “parchment, plate, and pyx.” This apparent contradiction shows how Larkin’s speakers are constructed in a way which allows a poem to explore different perceptions of the same event. The final stanza of this poem expands the poem’s observations by making the experiences of the speaker representative:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized and robed as destinies
And that much never can be obsolete…….
The subtle movement from the first person singular to the first person plural (we or our) is a characteristic device in Larkin’s poetry, and one which is predicated upon the assent of its readers. In this way, the poem is able to accommodate both a sceptical view of religious rituals (“robed as destinies” suggests an act of make-believe) and an assertion of the continuing value and significance of these rituals. Even so, the question of “what remains when disbelief is gone” is an indication of how radical and unsettling the agnosticism in Larkin’s poems can be. An essential aspect of the social context of this poem (written in 1954) is the marked and general decline in religious attendance at churches after 1945 (the. year of the end of World War II). At the beginning of 1950, less than ten per cent of the population were church-goers. The poem Church Going embodies what may be called secular Anglicanism which concedes that belief must die but which also insists that the spirit of tradition represented by the English Church cannot die. As the Church seems to lose its importance, there are fears that its place in modern society would become insignificant. The poem Church Going acknowledges those fears, and reveals its own specific context by locating “this cross of ground” at the edge of “suburb scrub ”.
Another critic says that, Larkin often makes a sharp distinction between Nature outside and man’s enclosure inside a building, a scene which dramatizes man’s separation from Nature. The poem Church Going seems to alter this habitual consciousness of Nature by focussing initially on the inside of a building to the exclusion of its surroundings. The poet begins his encounter with the church building by describing the contents of the building; but the distinctions between what is outside in Nature, and what is inside in man’s architectural dominion, begin to blur. The building is seen by the poet as surrounded by the forces of Nature and perhaps soon to be merged with them. He imagines the decaying edifice being eventually let “rent-free to rain and sheep”; thus Nature itself will enter the church and become part of it, or will simply take over the church completely. The destructive forces of Nature are even now merging with the elements of the building: “grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky”—all these coalesce. They increasingly nullify the church and its function, making of it “a shape less recognizable each week/A purpose more obscure”. Plants grow up in the cracks (“weedy pavement”), and the church building is gradually merging with its surroundings. In fact, the larger setting of the building becomes almost as important as the church itself. The poet sees it as “a serious house on serious earth”, and as existing on a symbolic “cross of ground”. These references to the churchyard tend to make it seem that Nature has some potential religious significance as well, at least as it is set apart from the unattractive “suburb scrub” surrounding it. Religion remains ambiguous or undefinable though, either through an inherent lack in the church’s ability to communicate its value or through the poet’s own lack of comprehension. In some sense, the church building—which also contains some aspects of Nature—becomes the all-important setting which the poet must interpret, much as -the romantic poets went outside to learn Nature’s moral lessons from the vernal woods. Characteristically, the speaker in this poem feels isolated from this setting, both in its reference to Nature and to religion. The basic problem, as the poet defines it, is that he does not know “what to look for”. Does the meaning of the church reside in the historical past (“it held unspoilt so long and equably what since is found only in separation”), or in the still existing symbols of its spiritual function in worship (the “parchment, plate, and pyx” which he imagines salvaged from the decaying church buildings and with them put “on show”). He tries to answer this question by wondering what kind of person would be “the last, the very last, to seek this place for what it was”. This is an important distinction to make because the last person to do this would be the one who can still interpret what the church means, or can derive from it something that he wants even though the church is now at the outer limits of disintegration. This particular function, then, would be the one which is most durable, and thus ultimately the most important. And the end of the poem declares that this durable function would be performed by the churchyard which makes the church proper a place to grow wise in, if only because so many dead persons lie buried outside it. Yet even this perception is immaterial in relation to the spiritual power of the place itself, apart from its Christian symbolism. The poet visualizes the potentially ruined church as still providing a reason for superstitious people to visit it:
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
or to perform some other superstitious rites. This is the closest the poet comes to seeing Nature itself as possessing some sort of inherent religious and spiritual meaning. But the tone is emphatically ironic, and the seekers after cures are merely women who are traditionally gullible. Thus the poem Church Going is unusual in figuratively merging Nature with a building; yet it still shows the speaker courteously detached from the forces of Nature as they suggest spiritual meaning or invite an emotional response. This critic agrees with the view that the poem is not a veiled message in support of Christianity, but says that the poem .shrewdly and accurately defines the multiple sides of the dilemma of redundant churches and what they represent, namely a religious tradition in decline. There both is and is not seriousness, wisdom, and comfort to be derived from an empty church building. The church’s main function as a place for worship is long gone, though it still has its value as a historical relic.
2. AT GRASS
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
The eyes of an on-looker can hardly see those horses individually as they stand at .ease in the cold shade of the trees. An on-looker can see them properly only when their tails and the long hair on their necks are shaken by the wind. In that case, the on-looker would be able to see one of them eating the grass from the ground below, and moving about, while another among them seems to be looking at his companion (who is eating the grass). Each of these horses stands without having any individual identity; and yet fifteen years ago each of them had become a legend because of his achievements in the horse-races, and his winning many a victory through which he had distinguished himself.
These horses had taken part in the races, and had won distinction. The races were attended by large crowds of people including ladies holding parasols . The people had gathered there to watch the races, and had staked their money on the horses of their choice. The people, gathered to watch the races, had parked their motor-cars outside the enclosure, in the hot sun. At the beginning of each race, the crowd of the people watching the races were filled with great excitement, and shouted in that state of excitement to express their support for the horses on whom they had staked their money. Then followed the declaration “f the results which were immediately afterwards published in the newspapers.
We cannot know whether these horses feel troubled by any memories of the races in which they had participated, and from which they have now completely retired. Perhaps their moving their heads to shake off the flies hovering around their ears is indicative of some sort of recollections of the past. The evening darkens; and one summer gives way to another; the memories of the commencement of the races, and of the crowds of excited spectators shouting—all these have become a part of their past lives. And now they stand in the harmless pastures. Their names still live on, and have become a part of the history of the races. They themselves have forgotten their names; and they now stand at ease, or sometimes gallop in the fields joyfully, without being observed by any spectators who previously used to collect at the races and look at them through their field-glasses to watch them running, with the stop-watches operating to indicate the timing. All that activity is now over. Now these horses are waiting only for the groom and the groom’s assistant to come in the evening and take them away. (In other words, these horses are now only waiting for the time when death would remove them from their place of shelter).
This is a poem about a number of retired race-horses who had won many victories in the racing contests in the past, but who are now too old to participate in those contests. This is a poem which would mainly interest people who actually go to horse-races to watch the horses running, and who stake their money on their favourite horses. The crowd at a horse-race is generally very large and is in a state of great excitement because everybody hopes to win some money. It is really strange that people, who are interested in horse-races, feel so excited on these occasions as to forget everything else in the world. With some people, horse-races are an obsession; and such people continue to discuss their favourite horses and their prospects at the next weekly or monthly race. For the ordinary reader, perhaps, this poem does not have much of an appeal. In any case, this poem became very popular in England immediately after its publication; and it added greatly to Larkin’s reputation as a poet. It is said that one afternoon Larkin went to see a cinema-film and, before the start of the actual film, watched a short film at the same cinema about a race-horse which had been famous before the war (World War II). From that short film, Larkin learnt that the particular race-horse was now retired, and that he was now “at grass”, quite happy, and moving about without a harness and without a jockey to ride upon him and control his movements by pulling the reins. Larkin for some strange reason felt greatly impressed by the story of this retired horse and soon afterwards wrote the poem before us. The poem became popular obviously because Larkin has here captured the whole excitement of a horse-race and brought before the reader’s mind the entire spectacle of a large crowd of people including ladies, watching a race with keen eagerness and interest, and awaiting the result with bated breaths because each one of them had staked money on his or her favourite horse. Here the poet has been able to put himself not only in the position of the watching crowd of people, but also in the position of the running horses themselves, and subsequently in the position of the retired horses. Larkin has here endowed the retired horses with the faculties of thinking and feeling, or with a kind of human awareness of their achievements and their past glory. The imagery in this poem is vivid and realistic. We are here enabled to visualize the horses as well as the crowds of people gathered at a horse-race to watch the horses running. And the picture of the horses at grass is even more vivid and realistic.
According to one of the critics, At Grass has become one of Larkin’s most admired and best-liked poems because of its filmic re-creation of actual details, its formal melancholy, and its graceful swoop into familiar experience. The popular appeal of this poem is easy to explain. The horses in the poem stand outside the drama of their lives. Fifteen years ago these horses had won so much renown that their names had been turned into legends. If these horses remember anything of the past, it must be their successes, not their failures. They are now secure in their achievement; and they are enjoying a freedom which is beyond both curiosity and comment. Even the prospect of death is gentle. The poet does not say that a “grim reaper” would come to take them away. He only says that the groom and the groom’s boy would come with bridles in the evening. According to this critic, the poem somehow suggests a deep admiration for human lives which have been lived well and successfully, and which are now safely going to end. “It is an envious poem which shows no trace of envy’s corrosions. The feelings which produced it—regret, guilt, anger, and disappointment—are consumed and transfigured into an appreciation of ‘what must be joy’.”
Another critic says that this poem seems suddenly to have come into existence in Larkin’s mature style. This poem marks a definite turning-point in its finely crafted style and lyricism which combine with Hardyesque plainness of diction and reverence for Nature; and it also suggests that Larkin had achieved a new way of seeing and writing about his emotional experiences. This poem, our critic further says, appeared during a time when the idea of personal failure occupied Larkin’s mind. And, though the poem does not directly address the subject of failed hopes, it leaps imaginatively to the other end of the pendulum: that of outliving one’s success. In this poem Larkin took as his subject the horses who had been turned out to pasture; and he shows those horses as tranquil and at rest. Those race-horses are at a distance from their days of glory, and from public notice. The crucial question here is one of identity, and whether or not the fame of these horses would continue. The horses now stand “anonymous” after their former days when they had become legends, and when “their names were artificed/To inlay faded, classic Junes”. The past confers a kind of immortality on those horses: “Almanacked, their names live” because of their former victories. Yet in the end they return to anonymity again, in a way which seems graceful and elegant: “They have slipped their names, and stand at ease.” The poem suggests that the horses can have a fruitful relationship with their fame although it is long past—largely by both accepting yet discounting it. The poem also suggests Larkin’s growing ability to see the problem of former glory and present decline from a particular angle. Larkin here appears to have chosen a subject close to his heart, and to have achieved a new and more thoughtful perspective on it. There is less solemnity, less of moaning, and less of self-pity in this poem than in the other poems of this volume of poems (his first volume, namely “The Less Deceived”).
According to two other critics At Grass reminds us of the pathos of old age and the swift passing of time, and it celebrates the mystery of the human lot. The technical achievements of this poem include its imagery, metre, rhythm, and syntax. The final stanza of the poem shows how the impositions of society, which forces purposes and categories upon us, are eventually removed. At the end, the poem suggests the inevitable fate of these horses. As they are taken back to their stables, it is as if, like human beings, they are submitting to death.
Yet another critic draws our attention to the syntactic inversion of the closing line of the poem: “With bridles in the evening come.” The normal syntax would be: They (the groom and the groom’s boy) “come with bridles in the evening.” The inverted syntax, says this critic, is part of the subdued and delaying echo of the verse. It is part of an effect conveying the sense of evening and impending death. And the same critic goes on to say that the conceptual content of the poem is slight and not remarkable for its originality.
Another critic expresses the view that the horses at the end of the poem are “in no sense symbolic,” and that, in fact, they have escaped the Fictions imposed on them in their racing days. Liberated from the past and from the demands of time, they have finally become themselves in a pastoral world of innocence and permanence. Another critic says that the poem At Grass is about old age. Yet another critic says that Larkin has, in this poem, employed the techniques of the realistic novel, using metonymie and synechdochic detail to evoke the race-day scene in the third stanza (“Silks at the start: against the sky/Numbers and parasols”). Metonymy, and the closely associated figure of speech known as synechdoche, function by substituting an attribute or quality for the thing itself or part of the object for the whole. For example, in the phrase “keels crossed the deep,” the use of the word “keels” is synechdoche, and the use of the word “deep” is metonymy. “Keels” has been used for “ships”, and the word “deep” has been used for the ocean. Larkin in this poem uses the word “silks” and the word “parasols” for the ladies attending the horse-races.
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
An evening is coming across the fields. It is an evening which the poet has never seen before. It is an evening in which no lamps are lighted. From a distance this evening appears to be as soothing as the touch of silk is; and yet, when the poet sees it coming, he experiences no comfort at all. The poet then asks where that tree has gone which seemed to bring the earth and the sky together in a close union. Next, he asks what it is beneath his hands which he cannot feel. Finally, he asks what it is that weighs upon his hands and pushes them downwards.
This poem describes the imminence of death. The poet has a feeling that death is approaching him. The approach of death is described by him in metaphorical terms. This approach is like the approach of an evening when no lamps are to be lighted. Again speaking metaphorically, he describes the approach of death as something silken when seen at a distance, but he finds no comfort in its seeming softness or gentleness. Then the poet proceeds to ask a few questions. He wants to know where that tree has gone which established a close communion between the earth and the sky, and what it is under his hands which he cannot feel. He also asks what it is that “loads” his hands. It is a more or less melancholy poem. In any case, it is a poem in which the poet broods over the fact of death, and especially upon the nearness of death. It is relevant to point out in this connection that the original title of this poem was “Dying Day”. It may also be pointed out that death was one of Larkin’s preoccupations if not one of his obsessions. Death is a recurrent theme in his poetry.
One of the critics describes the context in which this poem was written. World War II, says this critic, had inflicted severe damage on traditional religious ceremonies, and in the poems written by Larkin in 1946 there is evidence of a profound and troubled agnosticism. Going, written early in 1946 arid placed at the beginning of Larkin’s “Collected Poems”, provides a clear indication of the direction in which his mature poetry was to develop. The subject of this poem is death and its accompanying loss of consciousness; but the existential problems which the poem raises are undoubtedly connected with the events of the war-years. The poem is one of a number of ontological riddles in Larkin’s work; and in a seemingly direct and simple way it raises questions about knowledge and perception:
(1) Where has that tree gone, that locked
Earth to the sky? What- is under my hands,
That I cannot feel?
(2) What loads my hands down?
These questions show that the poem Going constitutes a negative image or a denial of “being”. Another critic tells us that this poem was produced by mixed feelings of dread overcoming desire, emptiness swallowing fulfilment, and sexual anxiety changing into a fear of death. According to this critic, Going is Larkin’s first poem of real merit.
4. MR. BLEANEY
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”)
This was the room in which Mr. Bleaney lived. He lived in this room throughout his stay at this boarding-house known as “The Bodies”. Eventually he was removed from here. This room has flowered curtains which are thin and worn-out, and which are shorter than required for a window of the size which this room has. From the window one can see a small building-area in which grass is growing, and where much rubbish also lies. The landlady now tells the poet that Mr. Bleaney used to look after her “bit of her garden” properly. There is a bed in the room, and an “upright chair”. It has a sixty-watt bulb, but no hook behind the door to close it in such a way as to prevent intruders from entering. There is no space in this room for books or for boxes. In spite of these handicaps, the speaker in the poem had agreed to take this room from the landlady on rent; and that is why he now lies on the bed on which Mr. Bleaney used to lie.
Lying on the bed, and smoking, the speaker puts the cigarette-ends into a saucer which somebody had given to the landlady as a parting-gift, and which the speaker now uses as an ash-tray. The speaker has also stuffed his ears with some cotton-wool in order to shut out the noise which the radio-set is making. This radio-set had been bought by the landlady at the special request of Mr. Bleaney.
The speaker then says that he is aware of Mr. Bleaney’s habits and his way of life. The speaker knows the time at which Mr. Bleaney used to come down the stairs. He knows that Mr. Bleaney used to prefer sauce to gravy. He knows why Mr. Bleaney used to insist on the number four; he knows also Mr. Bleaney’s annual practice to go to stay with his relatives in Frinton, during his summer holidays. And he knows that Mr. Bleaney used to spend Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke. However, the speaker does not know whether Mr. Bleaney ever stood and watched the cold wind driving the clouds before it or whether he ever told himself that this room was his home, and then smiled at this thought, or shivered at it. Nor does the speaker know whether Mr. Bleaney realized that the mode of living of a man revealed his nature and character, and whether he realized that his having no possessions, and his having got a mere room on rent at his age, showed that he deserved no more than the little he had got. In other words, the speaker wonders if Mr. Bleaney realized his scanty achievement in life and if he understood that his shabby living showed his low intelligence and his lack of ambition.
Critical Appreciation: The Mode of Life and the Habits of Bleaney
This poem portrays an imaginary individual who is given by the poet the name of Mr. Bleaney. This individual is depicted as a poor fellow without any belongings and without any house of his own. He had been living in a boarding-house in a rented room which was very inadequately furnished. It is evident that Mr. Bleaney was as shabby to look at as this room was and still is. Some of Mr. Bleaney’s habits have also been specified. For instance, he preferred sauce to gravy, that he used to spend his summer holidays with his relatives in Frinton, and that he used to spend his Christmas with his sister in Stoke. But the speaker in the poem does not know whether Mr. Bleaney was aware of the fact that a man’s nature and character could be judged by his mode of living and his habits. We have here a vivid portrait of an eccentric kind of old man who had no money, and who also had no literary or artistic tastes. He was evidently a man who lived from hand to mouth, and who had had no ambition in his life.
The Similarity and the Sharp Differences Between the Speaker and Mr. Bleaney
The poem is a monologue which brings out Mr. Bleaney’s character from the description which the speaker gives of Mr. Bleaney’s mode of living and his habits. But this is a poem in which the speaker’s own character is also revealed to us through that description. The speaker’s skilful portrayal of Mr. Bleaney is a self-portrait, but only partially. Mr. Bleaney has been portrayed in such a way that we can visualize the speaker a. own person and his own character because of the implied comparison and contrast. The speaker seems to resemble Mr. Bleaney in certain ways, though there are sharp differences also between the two men. The crux of the portrayal comes in the closing lines in which the speaker specifies the criterion by which a man’s nature can be judged. The resemblance between the speaker and Mr. Bleaney becomes evident to us when the speaker tells the landlady that he would take this room in which Mr. Bleaney had previously been living. And yet the speaker speaks somewhat disapprovingly, and even scornfully, about the previous occupant of this room. To some extent, we can identify Larkin himself with Mr Bleaney because Larkin had at one time actually stayed in a boarding-house, and had felt greatly annoyed by the noise which the radio used to make in the neighbourhood. Larkin had referred to the radio as that “blasted” wireless-set.
Imagery; Close-Knit Structure, and the Colloquial Style
The portrayal of Mr. Bleaney develops in the poem in a coherent and logical manner. The imagery in the poem is vivid enough. The details of the contents of the room and the habits of Mr. Bleaney have been depicted in a very realistic and graphic manner so that we can see the room distinctly and visualize Mr. Bleaney living there. The poem has a neat and compact structure. It does not have a word too few or a word too many. There are no digressions or superfluities in the poem. The speaker is not a glib man. But even more striking than the imagery and the close-knit structure of the poem is its colloquial and conversational style. Although the speaker is evidently speaking to himself aloud, we get the feeling that he is speaking to somebody who is present before him.
Critics’ Comments: Some Autobiographical Matter in the Poem
One of the critics tells us that there is some autobiographical matter in this poem. “The jabbering set” in this poem is a radio-set; and Larkin had, on one occasion, written a letter to a friend denouncing a radio-set because it prevented him from sitting, thinking, and writing. Besides, Larkin had once stayed in a boarding-house in a room which he had found to be mean and shabby. He had felt that the horrible surroundings of his room were a “misfortune” for him. Thus it seems that Larkin’s own life in that boarding-house and Mr. Bleaney’s life in the room in this poem were almost interchangeable. Another critic says that this poem turns directly on a comparison between Larkin himself and Mr. Bleaney, so that Mr. Bleaney becomes the speaker’s (or the poet’s) double. The contrast between the two men is also heavily emphasized; they are two distinct persons who are nonetheless identified with each other because they are both “measured” by the “one hired box” of the rented room. The differences between the men are quite clearly delineated. Mr. Bleaney is an extrovert, who was favoured by the landlady and whose voice continues to chatter in the form of “the jabbering set” which he had made her buy. But the poet is an introvert who wants some space in the room for his books, who lies down on the bed, and whose only verbal comment is a terse reply to the landlady: “I’ll take it.” There is a flatness and a prevailing gloom in this description. Yet the poet tries to come to grips with a larger question through an emphasis on uncertainty rather than on certainty. In spite of all his transparency, the departed Mr. Bleaney remains a mystery. It is impossible to know Mr. Bleaney’s thoughts. In fact, this poem has the strange, lucid quality of a murder mystery or a spy novel, in which the investigator or detective tries to reconstruct a dead or departed man’s life and thoughts. Mr. Bleaney seems to have been such a simple fellow that we feel we have met him and heard him, and yet we also experience a kind of uncertainty about him. The poem constitutes a private argument, signalled by the word “but” in the final, long sentence which takes up the last two stanzas. A complicated and involved question is asked in these two closing stanzas. Did Mr. Bleaney feel measured by his surroundings? The poet himself feels undervalued—or shocked to find that he himself measures so little in these terms. If Mr. Bleaney was worth almost nothing if judged by his bare lodgings, then the poet would also have the same feeling about himself.
Another critic says that the long sentence at the end of the poem marks a shift in attitude, from the speaker’s satiric spleen to the collapse of his own morale. This critic says further that the burgeoning subordinate clauses and accumulating negatives of the final two stanzas create a sense of hopelessness and entrapment. Whether or not Mr. Bleaney himself felt small and insignificant, the poet does have that feeling about himself, and the poet is thus simply expressing his own feelings through the departed Mr. Bleaney. The uncertainty in an otherwise stark and obvious situation heightens the pessimism inherent in the poem.
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
The poet, describing his work as a toad, asks why he should allow this toad to become a burden on his life. He would like to use his wit or intelligence to fling this toad away in order to get rid of it. This toad makes the six working days of every, week of his life miserable; and he has to endure this toad (or his work or his official duties) just to pay a few bills or to meet his routine expenses. And even the money, which he gets for enduring this toad, is too little for the amount of work which he has to do.
The poet then says that there are many people in this world who do not have to work, and who maintain themselves merely by using their wits. There are lecturers; there are persons who speak in an affected manner to impress others; there are the never-do-wells; there are the idlers, and others like them. All such persons manage to exist in this world without becoming paupers. There are many other people, like the gypsies, who have no homes and who therefore live in temporary structures or in tents in the town-lanes, lighting their fires in buckets (because they do not have any regular kitchens). Such people eat just what they get by sheer chance, or they eat tinned sardines; and they even seem to like this mode of living. Such people’s children go about bare-foot because they cannot afford shoes. The men-folk among these people have wretched wives who are as thin as a race-dog. In spite of their poverty, these people manage to exist in the world without starving.
The poet wishes that he had courage enough to throw up his job and to tell his employers to keep with them the pension which he would earn if he continues to work till the age of retirement. But he cannot leave his job because he knows that to lead a life without work is something which he can only dream about, and not actually adopt. He cannot spurn his job because there is something within him which also is a kind of toad, but which forces him to continue working. This toad-like creature, dwelling within him, has a heavy bottom, and is so demanding and stern that the poet cannot resist it. This inner toad, or this inner urge to work, would not even allow him to use persuasion or flattery in order to achieve his desire for fame, to marry the girl whom he loves, and to get the money which he needs for his food and other expenses. Of course, he cannot affirm that the toad outside him is an embodiment of the toad-like creature inside him. In other words, the toad outside does not personify his inner urge to work. The toad outside forces him to work; and his conscience within him also urges him to work. But the two compulsions are of different kinds. And it is difficult for him to get rid of either of these compelling forces. The two forces exist side by side, leaving him no choice except to work.
Note: The toad is an amphibian animal like the frog, having a clumsy body.
We have here a well-argued poem about the external need to work and the inner urge to work. The external need to work arises from one’s desire to preserve one’s life; but one’s conscience also urges one to work. The poet would like to lead an idle life and to enjoy his leisure; but he cannot adopt this course of life because work brings money, and because money is essential for living. Still he would like to follow the example of many people who do not perform any kind of labour, and who yet manage to preserve their lives. But then there is another consideration. Inside the poet dwells another urge: that is the urge to work. His ‘conscience would not let him rest if he were not to do any work. Thus we have in this poem a balancing of the arguments in favour of a life of leisure and idleness and the arguments in favour of work and toil. This poem is autobiographical because Larkin had to work very hard as a university librarian, and he often used to experience moods of depression on account of the heavy burden of his official duties. At the same time, he knew that he could not live as an idler or as a parasite. His conscience urged him to continue working.
One of the critics says that this poem is concerned with the relationship between the burden of work itself and the “something sufficiently toad-like” which lurks in the poet himself, both of which seem to join together to reduce him to passivity. Being unable to assign blame definitely to either source, the poet remains hemmed in by both inner compulsion and by outer necessity. (The outer necessity is to work in order to be able to pay the bills). The poem is a complaint against something which displeases the poet, but it does not attack the source of his difficulty. Although the poem begins by challenging the necessity of submitting to the immediate source of his displeasure, the poet never directly answers his own question: “Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?” Instead he launches into a series of comments on what other people seem to do. He appears reluctant, in fact, to articulate the advantage of unseating the toad—so much so that he counters every attempt to urge himself to rebellion against work. In spite of the strong case which can be made in favour of living on one’s wits, the poet offers a number of reservations about the success of such a course of action. Although lots of folk seem to follow this course of action, the poet’s characterization of these folk seems both vague and imprecise. Who does so, and where? The poet only says: “Up lanes with fires in a bucket.” But this is the kind of generalization which the poet might make if he had no clear conception- of what living in such a situation would be like—or if he had no desire to find out. The poet cannot know exactly how these people feel about their lives. In his own opinion, these people do not end as paupers and, besides, they seem to like their way of living. Furthermore, the argument that, if other people do it, the poet would be able to do it also, does not have any relevance to his own problem. He seems to invite digressions which distract him from the main issue. Another strategy which prevents him from rebelling against the compulsions of the toad (work) is the poet’s insistence that his possible choices consist entirely of two extremes: a man can either continue to work or give it up altogether. The poet does not recognize any middle ground; and so he feels compelled to remain where he is. Further, there is no way out of the dilemma because the inner and the outer toads balance each other equally. The last stanza sums up the poet’s final attitude:
I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.
Through the course of this tortuous argument, what se; .ns to be the answer to the poet’s simple question becomes a complex discussion of an insolvable problem. Like the hero in Greek tragedy the poet can blame neither fate nor his own free will for his predicament and his inability to find a way out of it. The poet only knows that the predicament is not his fault.
Another critic says that in the poem Toads Larkin resents the daily grind in the library, and yet he relies on it, saying that it is hard to lose either the toad outside or the toad-like creature within himself. In this poem, as in the poems Poetry of Departures and Reasons for Attendance, Larkin addresses the elements in his personality which have allowed this sort of thing to happen, namely the passivity and the need for solitude, and he tries to persuade himself that they are inevitable and desirable. But there is, says this critic, a lack of conviction in the argument. The questions remain open even while seeming to shut like doors; and the poet knows that he must continue to ask those questions. This critic also says that the poem Toads takes the form of a debate between two sides of Larkin’s personality. The rebellious, free-booting, and anti-authoritarian aspect of the poet’s personality speaks first; but by the end of the poem his more orthodox and self-critical instincts have asserted themselves. Furthermore, says this critic, the last stanza seems a terse and condensed one, coming after the first eight lucid stanzas. In fact, this poem is a statement to the effect that working and not working complement each other. The compression itself forms a crucial pan of the poem’s meaning. It. conveys a sense of. being trapped in an argument, and of a deliberate and difficult effort at self-persuasion. At this relatively early stage in Larkin’s career (in 1955 when this poem was written), his internal debate is intensely vigorous, with each point fiercely contested.
Another critic says that several poems in the volume entitled “The Less Deceived” show an implied sense of resentment at the limitations of contemporary social experience, and-some of the poems even initiate a spirited, though ultimately futile rebellion. Toads and Poetry of Departures belong to this category. In the poem Toads, the element of fable, conditions the kind of inquiry about freedom that takes place; and the immediate substitution of “toad” for “work” in the opening line invites us to consider the idea of work as something unappealing but nevertheless natural. Consequently, the poem never directly considers the idea of work as a socially constructed activity. Even so, it is a poem which emerged from a post-war context; and, in its anxiety about work, it shares a fundamental concern with a great deal of literature of the 1950s. In one of the plays of that period, for instance, a working-class mother tells her daughter that they have either to work or to face want (that is, poverty). Both words (work and want) carry significance in Larkin’s poetry; and the poem Toads is a good example of a familiar and recurring debate about individual rights and responsibilities in a modern democratic society. Although it seems to evade the ultimate question of how and why work or labour is organized, the poem Toads, is extremely interesting and valuable in terms of the language and the form through which it records the changing and conflicting social attitudes. It is this relationship between textual structure and social structure that proves most revealing. This critic goes on to say that the poem Toads calls attention to itself as an utterance and, in doing so, demonstrates one of the most innovative and culturally significant aspects of Larkin’s work, which is its sustained use of colloquial English within traditional lyric forms. The opening stanza of this poem consists of two abrupt questions, the first of which is a rush of monosyllables; and from the very beginning we are given a strong impression of a speaking voice. The language is vigorous and Colloquial. Syntactically too, the poem takes the form of an argument, with conjunctions and exclamations providing the necessary cohesion and linkage. The poem is written in rhyming quatrains, but the lines are short and brisk, and the rhymes are approximate (soils/bills), so that the impression of actual speech is maintained throughout. All this goes to show how poetry might be regarded as social discourse. Another critic expresses the view that Toads is a quietistic poem which manages to subdue its own rebellious instincts.
The poem Toads, says another critic , is characterized by wit, humour, and the dramatization of the speaking voice, a unique tone, and an individual style, and also by a new insight into a commonplace existence, the desire to escape from the dull routine’ of work. Work in this poem is compared to a toad that squats on Larkin’s life; and Larkin considers whether he can use his wit to “drive the brute off. Then follows a comic catalogue of characters who live on their wits: lecturers lispers, losels, loblolly-men, louts. The heavy alliteration and the archaic words give the alternatives to a world of work the unreality of fantasy. In fact the courage to “shout stuff your pension!” is seen as “the stuff that dreams are made on.” This leads to the admission that there is an inner toad (cowardice) and that it is impossible to lose either toad “when you have both”. Both the honesty and the humour make this self-depreciation acceptable because they free it from any suggestion of self-pity.
6. TOADS REVISITED
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”)
The poet says that walking around in the park, seeing the lake, feeling the warmth of the sun, and lying on the grass, constitute a more pleasant experience than working. He further says that the indistinct noises coming from the playground and the sight of the nurses wearing their black stockings are also welcome to him. And yet this sort of idleness does not suit him, he says. He would not like to be one of those men whom one meets in the afternoons just by chance. He would not like to be one of the sick old men walking slowly and cautiously. He would not like to be one of the worried and nervous clerks moving about aimlessly. He would not like to be an ex-patient of a hospital with vague memories of the accident which he had met and which had necessitated his admission into the hospital. He would not like to be a man sleeping lazily like an animal. All such people avoid working. They all shirk work (which may be compared to a toad). All such people are either stupid or weak-willed; and he would not like to be one of them. He would not like to be one of those people who spend their time listening to the clock striking the hours, or watching the bread being delivered at the door-step, or looking at the clouds covering the sun, or observing the children going home. He would not like to be one of the people who spend their time sitting by a bed of flower-plants and meditating upon their failures in life, nor one of those people who have to go nowhere and, therefore, spend their time indoors with no friends but empty chairs.
No, Larkin would like to spend his time doing something. He would like to ask his secretary to give him the tray containing the letters which have been received and to which he has to send his replies. He would like his secretary to hand to him the telephone-receiver when somebody rings him in order to talk to him. He would like his secretary (who has got her hair dressed in such a way that it resembles a loaf of bread) to keep him busy. He would like to remain busy throughout the year, doing his work which would ultimately lead him to meet his death with a feeling of satisfaction at having performed his duties according to his conscience.
Critical Appreciation: The Theme of the Poem
This poem, like the earlier poem entitled Toads, is a monologue about the need to work. As in that poem, Larkin is the speaker here also; and, although he finds a life of leisure to be quite attractive and pleasant, he would yet like to keep himself busy with work. He would not like to idle away his time but would like to perform his duties conscientiously so that, when death comes, he can have the satisfaction of having worked dutifully. Like the earlier poem on this subject, Toads Revisited is a mental debate in which the speaker weighs the pros and cons of work and of leisure; and here he comes to the definite conclusion that work is preferable to idleness, to leisure, or to merely observing and watching the life around himself. We feel quite convinced by me arguments offered by the poet on both sides; and we agree with the conclusion which he arrives at.
The Vivid Imagery; the Phrase-Coining; the Colloquial Style
The imagery in the poem is noteworthy for its vividness. The manner in which some people spend their time uselessly has realistically been depicted and yet in a manner which imparts a certain novelty to it. Larkin’s talent for phrase-making is also in evidence here. “Palsied old step-takers” and “waxed-fleshed out-patients” are examples of his capacity to coin phrases to suit his purpose. Another noteworthy feature of this poem is its colloquial style: “No, give me my in-tray” and “give me your arm, old toad”.
According to a critic Toads Revisited affirms the poet’s sense of discomfort with Nature:
Walking around in the park
Should feel better than work.
Yet this walking around in the park does not suit him. The fact that he says that walking around in the park should be regarded as superior to inside office work hints at a wry romanticism. Yet he also hints at the inability of Nature to be invigorating -or consoling. A bed of flower-plants in the park only serves to provide a setting for a man who wishes to recall his failures. Separation from Nature occurs in much of Larkin’s work, says this critic; » and Larkin has created poetry out of his lack of a satisfying connection with Nature. The same critic says that the poem Toads Revisited achieves the same sort of finely balanced tension between desire and necessity which does not so much consult the poet’s own ambivalent feelings about work as it projects the problem on to other people. The reason which he gives in this poem for his distaste for not working is that it does not suit him to be one of the “stupid or weak” who are “dodging the toad” (that is, shirking work). The poet hates the idea of becoming an unimportant and insignificant member of society by not working. Those persons who do not work become insignificant because they have nowhere to go but indoors, and have no friends but empty chairs. Yet this poem is problematic because the lives of these insignificant members of society are the most compelling and poignant feature of this poem. Larkin here has built an entire argument against his own desertion of the “toad work”; yet this argument is based on the loneliness of those people rather than on his own inner conviction of what he desires. As complaints necessarily arise from one’s sense of grievance, the poet here sounds like a whiner or grumbler. Self-pity destroys the force of this poem, like the force of many other poems written by Larkin. Larkin generally manages to argue both- ways, so that he can complain authoritatively about undeserved hardship and at the same time complain in a parody of ego-centrism: “Yet it doesn’t suit me.” This kind of two-way reasoning works well because death is the ultimate answer to both complaints; and Larkin never relaxes his sense of the overwhelming nature of death.
Another critic points out that Larkin wrote Toads Revisited a little more than eight years after having written the poem Toads in which he had discussed the advantages and disadvantages of work. In Toads Revisited, he emphasizes the value of work even more vigorously, on the ground that work not only shields him against his sense of failure but also distracts him from graver thoughts:
What else can I answer
When the lights come at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.
The “loaf-haired secretary” was Larkin’s secretary Betty who had got an astounding hair-do which looked like a half-loaf or like a leg of mutton. The same critic also says that the poem Toads Revisited resolves its arguments by playing down the tensions which Larkin was experiencing at the time and even earlier. The poet is here convinced that freedom from work would bring not peace but other things. In spite of all its unavoidable tedium, work helps to combat the thought of impending death, and the main reason for this is the very dailiness of work, and the consequent fact that its repetitive structures would allow Larkin to feel immensely involved with life. Work is not so much a routine as a ritual and it is, like all rituals, a means of mental support for a man.
7. THE EXPLOSION
(From the volume of poems entitled “High Windows”)
On the day this explosion occurred, shadows had been pointing towards the coal-mine. Heaps of coal-dust and other rubbish lay silently in the light of the sun. The miners had come down the lane in their pit-boots, talking and smoking. The talk of these men contained many swear-words; and their smoking their pipes was making them cough, thus breaking the silence of the place. One of these miners had run after the rabbits but had not been able to catch any. However, he had found the nest of a lark’s eggs, and he had brought the whole nest with him. He had placed this nest carefully in the hedge.
These miners, having beards and wearing mole-skins, had entered the mine-area through the tall gates which stood open to let them in. These miners had included fathers and brothers who had been calling one another by their nicknames and who had been laughing merrily in the course of their talk. Suddenly there came a tremor. An explosion had taken place in one of the coal-mines. The cows stopped chewing the cud for a moment; and the sun, which had been radiating intense heat, suddenly became dim (because of the smoke which filled the air as a consequence of the explosion).
Several miners had lost their lives. At the prayer-meeting held in the church to mourn their deaths, the priest told the audience that the dead men had gone back to God; leaving the survivors behind, and that the dead men were now sitting in heaver, comfortably in the presence of God. The priest also said that one day the survivors would see those dead men face to face, clearly and distinctly.
Subsequently it was rumoured that the wives of the dead miners had momentarily seen their husbands as if they had come back to life. Thus these wives had witnessed a kind of resurrection. When these wives saw their husbands this time, they (the husbands) looked larger than they had managed to look during their lives. In other words, their death had imparted to them a bigger stature than they had possessed in their life-time. Furthermore, the wives had perceived the sterling qualities of their husbands which they had never seen when the husbands were alive. It had seemed to the wives that their husbands had, for a moment, walked towards them from the sun, even though actually they had been killed in the explosion. And one of those resurrected men carried the lark’s eggs unbroken. In short, death had lent a special significance to the men who had been killed in the explosion.
Critical Appreciation: A Description of a Tragic Incident
This poem looks like a narrative one. Actually, however, it is a description of a tragic incident and its aftermath. It describes an explosion in a coal-mine in which a number of people were killed; and it also describes the reaction of the wives of those men to the tragic deaths. Pathos is the prevailing atmosphere of this poem.
Vivid Imagery in the First Half of the Poem
The first half of the poem contains vivid imagery. In this part of the poem, the author has described the merry and playful mood of the miners going to work. One of the miners runs after rabbits in order to catch them, but fails in his endeavour. He then comes back with the nest of a lark’s eggs which he shows to his fellow-workmen, and which he then carefully deposits in a hedge. The miners are depicted as having beards and as wearing mole-skins. There are fathers and there are brothers among them; and the sound of their laughter shows their happy mood. Then, at noon-time, an explosion is heard. The explosion shakes the earth; the cows stop chewing the fodder; and, for a few moments, the air around the mine is filled with smoke.
The Dead Men, Exalted; the Symbolism in the Closing Lines
More important than the imagery, which is perfectly realistic, is the aftermath of the explosion. A funeral service is held in the local church where the priest tries to console the grief-stricken members of the mining community by telling them that the dead miners are now sitting comfortably in God’s house (that is, in heaven), and that one day the surviving members of the community would see the departed ones face to face. Towards the end of the poem, comes the most important idea of the poem. It seems to the widows of the dead men that their husbands have come back to life, and that they now look larger than they ever did during their life-time. The widows also perceive the sterling qualities of their husbands who are now seen “walking somehow” from the direction of the sun towards them; and one of whom holds the lark’s eggs unbroken. The closing lines of the poem have thus a visionary quality; and the action of one of the men holding the eggs unbroken symbolizes some kind of achievement. These men, who now look larger than they ever did in the course of their lives, have been exalted by death. They are treated here as martyrs who have been elevated and been endowed with a kind of greatness by death.
The Use of Metaphor and Simile; and the Condensed Style
Larkin frequently writes in a style characterized by a metaphorical use of words even though one of the critics has complained of the dearth of metaphors in his poetry. The sun, “scarfed as in a heat-haze” is a clear example of a metaphorical use of the word “scarfed”. In this phrase we also have a simile: “as in a heat-haze.” Then we have similes too in the following phrases: “Plain as lettering in the chapels” and “gold as on a coin”. We also have in this poem an example of Larkin’s talent for coining compound words and phrases. For instance, the talk of the miners is “oath-edged.” Furthermore, this\ poem illustrates the condensed style which characterizes the bulk of Larkin’s poetry. Larkin does not write in an expansive or copious style. He uses the minimum possible number of words to covey his ideas, and even his descriptions are brief.
The Spiritual Quality of the Second Half of the Poem
Finally, the ending of the poem has a certain spiritual quality, as the words spoken by the priest at the funeral service also have. Larkin was a confirmed agnostic; but here he seems to have slightly modified his agnostic view and adopted a more or less conservative attitude of belief in God, in heaven, and in the power of death to impart a sublime quality to the men who have sacrificed their lives in the cause of their work. We do not think that the words of the priest, printed in italics, were ironically or satirically intended by Larkin; and the closing lines are certainly not ironical so far as we can understand them.
One of the critics informs us that The Explosion was based on one of Larkin’s memories of his reading of the works of D. H. Lawrence (who was the son of a coal-miner). The impetus for Larkin’s memories came from a television documentary about the mining industry which Larkin saw with his mother during the Christmas of 1969. In the poem, Larkin’s mother is un-named yet pervasive. As Larkin evokes the mining community, he deals with a society which is based on families—”fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter”, and also on an image of a “nest of lark’s eggs” which represents the potential family of a lark. When some of the miners are killed, their destruction is commemorated by a return to this image of the nest. The nest is a robust sign of continuity; yet the strength and value of the continuity depend on the surviving “wives”, just as the structure of Larkin’s own life depended on his mother.
Two of Larkin’s later poems, says another critic are characterized by an intense elegiac lyricism. These poems are Dublinesque and The Explosion, written within six months of each other in the early part of 1970; and both are concerned with moments of grief and loss in working-class communities. The imaginative release in these two poems is not into some lucent, nihilistic element, but into a vision of communal solidarity and into a generous awareness of human resilience and shared endeavour. There is no conflict in these poems between the individual and society, or between the disillusioned intelligence of the poet and the imposing demands of other people. These are poems which are profoundly imaginative but also profoundly engaged with social ideals and beliefs. In the end the values of Larkin’s poetry are deeply in opposition to the relentless monetarism and economic individualism that came to dominate the late 1970s and 1980s. Both these poems are vivid renderings of late 19th or early 20th-century life, and remind us of the prose works of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence respectively. The local details, such as “beards and moleskins” link The Explosion to the 19th-century industrial ballad, while the plain lettering in the chapels in this poem suggests that the context is one of non-conformist working-class religion. It is the inter-play of the song-like rhythm and the narrative element of the disaster-ballad that makes this poem’s presentation of events seem so sublime and strangely disconcerting. Eight triplets of the poem are followed by the single revelatory closing line: “One showing the eggs unbroken”. The italicized sixth triplet catches the drift of the “plain” sermon, but it is an unshakable belief in these words that enables the vision of resurrection that follows:
and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion…….
From the opening stanza onwards, the sun is a controlling image in the poem, and it exists as a pure, life-giving force. The phrase “Gold as on a coin” is a reminder of how insistently the poems of the volume “High Windows” seek an enduring value beyond the crude exchange of money. The amazement of “walking somehow from the sun” is another example of that cautiously indefinite vocabulary that characterizes Larkin’s agnostic poetry; but the final line with its fragile, touching detail of the lark’s eggs is an unqualified affirmation of the instinct for shared protection and mutual survival in working-class communities.
8. SAD STEPS
(From the volume of poems entitled “High Windows”)
After a piss , the poet tried to find his way back to his bed, and it was then that, parting the thick curtains, he saw the rapidly moving clouds in the sky, and the neatness and purity of the moon. This sight of the clouds and the moon startled the poet. The time was four o’clock in the morning. The gardens lay under a sky which seemed to be blowing against the sky. The poet felt that there was something laughable about the way in which the moon seemed to be dashing through the clouds. The clouds were being driven by the wind and looked like the smoke which is seen after a cannon has been fired. The moon dashed through the clouds in order to stand away from them and high above them to maintain its separateness. The “stone-coloured” light of the moon brought into a clear focus the roofs of the houses on the earth.
The moon seemed to the poet to be a “lozenge of love” and a “medallion of art.” (In other words, the moon looked like the figure printed on the ace of diamonds, and it seemed to symbolize the beauty of love. Also, the moon had the ornamental or decorative quality of an object of art). The poet was overcome by a crowd of cruel memories of the past, and he felt overwhelmed by a sense of the vastness of his memories and of the things in this universe. In fact, the poet shivered because of a feeling of fear as he looked up at the moon in the sky. He felt intimidated by the hardness and the brightness of the moon staring at the earth below. The moon was a single entity but it had a far-reaching significance. It seemed to the poet to be a reminder of how strong a man feels when he is young, but it was also a reminder to him of the pain which one has to endure when one is young. The youthful years of the past cannot come back to a man, but there are other people in the world who are still young (and who are still experiencing both the strength und the pain which accompany youth).
Critical Appreciation: The Apparent and the Real Themes of the Poem
The title “Sad Steps” seems to refer to the steps which the poet takes towards his bed after having got up from his bed at about the time of dawn in order to urinate. The poem describes Larkin’s own reactions to the sight of the clouds and, more particularly, of the moon in the sky as he looked upwards through the curtains of his window at that early hour. Somehow the moon, which is certainly beautiful to look at, like a “lozenge of love” and a “medallion of art,” becomes for him a symbol of youth with all its strength and all the intensity of the pain which one has to go through during the years of one’s youth. The youth of a person comes to an end; but there are numerous other people who are still young and who continue to draw strength from their youth and who also continue to suffer the heartaches of their youthful years. Thus, although the poem is apparently about the moon, actually it deals with the pangs of the memories of lost youth and lost strength, as also the memories of one’s heartaches endured during the years of youth.
The Imagery; the Phraseology; and the Pessimism in the Poem
The imagery of the moon, the clouds, and the sky at the early hour of four in the morning is graphic and realistic. But the epithets and the phrases employed in the course of this imagery are original, novel, and striking. “Wedge-shadowed gardens;” “a wind-picked sky;” “lozenge of love;” “medallion of art;” “wolves of memory”; “immensements”—these are the phrases and words which impart originality to the poem. But the idea of this poem is also an original one. No poet had ever before spoken about the moon in these terms, even though poets like Sidney, Keats, and Shelley had written poems about the moon. The last two stanzas of this poem are pessimistic, and this pessimism is typical of Larkin. The “wide stare of the moon” and the “far-reaching singleness” of that stare are a reminder to the poet of the strength and the pain of being young. And yet the poet has not lost his sense of humour because, earlier in the poem, he has said that there is something laughable about the moon dashing through the clouds, and that there is something preposterous about the moon wanting to maintain its separateness.
One of the critics informs us that Larkin borrowed the title of this poem from Sidney’s sonnet beginning: “With how sad steps, O moon”. Larkin in this poem moves in his familiar fashion from a conversational opening to a rapturous conclusion; but he concenu_l,5 on the chances stretching before the young, irritably admitting to his jealousy of their strength. For him, in his middle age, all images of romance seem laughable and “high and preposterous and separate”, but their power has not faded for those who come after him: “But is for others undiminished somewhere.” Another critic says that the poem Sad Steps explores the ambivalence which Larkin feels towards Nature, particularly as an ageing man to whom Nature appears to represent a romantic impulse. The moon in this poem possesses a mesmerizing poetic power. Larkin perceives it as “high and preposterous and separate,” and as a “lozenge of love” and “medallion of art.” But he negatives this romantic vision immediately by saying “No” to it, and adding that he “shivers slightly, looking up there.” Larkin sees the moon as a representative of youth and vigour, and as a symbol of something definite, namely clear desires and high aims. And yet the moon primarily produces in the poet a vast sense of loss. Such a separation of man from Nature occurs in much of Larkin’s poetry.
Another critic points out that the title “Sad Steps” is an allusion to Sonnet XXXI of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. That sonnet begins thus: “With how sad steps, O moon, thou climbest the skies.” Larkin’s poem reminds Us of Shelley’s picture of the moon “wandering companionless among stars that have a different birth.” However, Larkin resists any tendency to exploit this literary background or to romanticize the image of the moon. Larkin invokes a symbolist idiom in the phrases “Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!” which, however, are immediately and firmly dismissed. The moral imperative outweighs the aesthetic. In other words, the sheer beauty of the moon is pushed by Larkin into the background; and it is the happy-cum-tragic implications of the moon which are emphasized through his picture of the moon as a reminder of the “strength” and the ‘pain” of being young. Larkin’s characteristic technique of basing a positive .Assertion on a negative prefix is also evident in this poem because in the last line he speaks cu the continuance of the strength and the pain of youth “undiminished” in the case of other people somewhere. Yet another critic points out the unusual diction of this poem: “0 wolves of memory! immensements.” There is something visionary about such diction, says this critic.
9. AN ARUNDEL TOMB
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”)
The statues of the Earl and his Countess lie side by side. The faces of both the statues have been dimmed by the passing of time. The kind of clothes, which they used to wear, have been indicated in the statues through the Earl’s armour and the Countess’s stiff pleat. Their little dogs are seen under the feet of the Earl and the Countess. The statues were moulded according to the pre-baroque style of sculpture. There is no ornamentation about these statues. They are plain and simple in their look. In fact, they are not very attractive to the eyes: and a passer-by would hardly feel a desire to stop and look at them. However, one thing about the statues is certainly conspicuous and would catch the eyes of a passer-by or a visitor. The Earl’s hand has been shown as holding the hand of the Countess.
The Earl and the Countess never thought that a memory of them would be kept alive by means of their statues. The posture of the statues is indicative of the mutual attachment between the husband and the wife. But perhaps this attachment, as indicated by the posture of the man’s hand holding the woman’s hand, was an invention of the sculptor, and not based on reality. The names of the Earl and the Countess appear in Latin around the base (or the pedestal). The statues have seen many years; and it would seem to the beholder that, although the statues lie still and motionless, they have been travelling through time. The air has silently been damaging the statues, so that a visitor to the cemetery would merely look at the statues without being able to read the inscription on them. Time has been passing. Snow has been falling in winter; and the sun has been sinning brightly in summer. The ground of the cemetery is full of graves in which lie the bones of the men and women who were buried there. Numerous people have visited this cemetery to take a look at the statues of the Earl and the Countess. The age of chivalry, in which the Earl and the Countess used to live, has long passed. Now they have both become tiny fragments of history; and only their posture of mutual love remains. The passing of time has deprived them of their real identities; and the statues represent only an imitation of them. Their mutual attachment exists only in the shape of the posture which the sculptor has depicted in stone. However, their “stone fidelity” (or their mutual loyalty as depicted in the stone statues) shows the lasting nature of their love. The Earl and the Countess are themselves dead, but their love for each other would keep their memory alive.
Critical Appreciation: A Dramatic Monologue with an Affirmative Ending
This poem, like many others by Larkin, is written in the form of a dramatic monologue. Arundel is the name of an English tow; where an ancient castle is situated, and where an Earl and his Countess be buried. Over the grave, in which the Earl and his Countess lie buried, stone statues of the couple were installed. The sculptor, who built those statues depicted the husband and his wife lying close to each other with the Earl h Aiding his wife’s hand, thus producing an impression in the minds of the beholders that the Earl and his wife were deeply attached to each other. The poem contains a sort of debate between two opposing points of view about these statues. The two opposite views are the transience of love and the durability of love. If the Earl really loves his wife, then the posture of the two statues rightly depicts that love. But the greater probability is that it was the sculptor who, on the basis of his own imagination, represented, through his art, the Earl and his wife as a loving couple. Like many other poems by Larkin, An Arundel Tomb contains a logical development of the theme. The poem is a kind of discussion containing arguments, with the element of reasoning predominant, and with much less of emotion in it. However, the final line of the poem is intensely emotional and very appealing: “What will survive of us is love.” This line clinches the debate and imparts an affirmative character to the poem in which the following negative lines would otherwise have dominated:
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
The Atmosphere of Melancholy in the Poem
An atmosphere of melancholy broods over the poem. After all, it is a poem depicting a dead couple; and the very thought of the couple being no longer alive in this world is saddening. Indeed, death would seem to be the real theme of the poem with only the last line serving to counter the sadness of death. Death is a recurrent theme in Larkin’s poetry, with the result that he is generally regarded as “a graveyard poet.” This poem was prompted by the tomb which Larkin saw in Arundel; and the very title of the poem indicates the theme.
The Element of Humour and Wit in the Poem
Although An Arundel Tomb is a poem about a dead couple and is dominated by an atmosphere of melancholy, it yet has touches of humour which relieve the gloom of the poem. For instance, in the very opening stanza, the poet describes the little dogs under the feet of the Earl and his Countess as “that faint hint of the absurd.” (The dogs are part of the statuary, and they seem to be out of place in the context of the personalities of the aristocratic man and his wife). Then there is a touch of humour also about the lines in which the poet says that the faithfulness depicted through the statues is a detail invented by the sculptor and, perhaps, not based on reality.
There are a number of vivid pictures in the poem. The Earl and his Countess “lie in stone, side by side,” with their faces “blurred” (because of the long age of the statues), and with their garments vaguely indicated. One hand of the Earl is clasping a leather glove, while his other hand holds the Countess’s hand. Then there is a picture of the snow falling in winter, and the sun shining brightly in summer. There is also the picture of “a trough of smoke.”
Stylistic Qualities of the Poem
The poem is characterized by a use of appropriate words and by a felicity of phrase. There is ample evidence in the poem of Larkin’s talent for phrase-making and phrase-coining. Here are examples of this talent: “such faithfulness in effigy;” “their supine stationary voyage” (a very expressive phrase and an alliterative one); “rigidly they persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths of time;” “bone-riddled ground” (with reference to the graves in the cemetery); “an armorial age” “their scrap of history”; “time has transfigured them into untruth.” There are several alliterative phrases which impart their own charm to the poem: “.of smoke in slow suspended skeins” (here the “s” sound has been repeated); “their supine stationary voyage” (already quoted above).
An Exquisite Poem
With its rhyming, its alliterative phrases, its lyrical lines, and its subdued melancholy, An Arundel Tomb is one of the few exquisite poems written by Larkin. The poem is truly a masterpiece which puts us into a reflective mood and which affords us great pleasure by virtue of its realistic imagery, its musical quality, and its affirmative ending.
One of the critics informs us that in January 1956 Larkin and Monica Jones took a short holiday on the south coast, and that, when they reached Chichester, they visited the cathedral there and saw a beautiful pre-baroque monument to the Earl of Arundel and his wife. This monument showed the two figures of the Earl and his wife lying side by side, holding hands. Then, soon after returning to the library at the University of Hull, Larkin recorded his impressions of that monument in a poem entitled An Arundel Tomb, using the detail of the hands as the focus for one of his most moving evocations of the struggle between time and human tenderness. In a veiled manner, this poem is a form of thanks for Larkin’s recovery from his illness. Just before he wrote this poem, Larkin had been worrying about his health and also about his mother’s health which had led him to brood over death even more deeply than usual. This poem is his celebration of survival and of the possibility of certain kinds of immortality as he surveyed the “faithfulness in effigy” of the Earl and his Countess. No matter how “blurred”, “vague”, and “plain” the couple looked, no matter how merely contrived their hand-holding might be, and no matter how “changed” and “damaged” was the world into which the couple had passed, they had “persisted, linked:”
Now, helpless is the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough…….
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
This critic also points out that a sense of futility hovers around the poem’s conclusion in words like “helpless”, “scrap”, “attitude”, “untruth” and “almost”. There is a touch of cynicism in the above-quoted lines even though the poem ends on a note of affirmation: “What will survive of us is love”. This ambivalent quality marks many of Larkin’s poems.
Another critic thinks that, within Larkin’s scheme, the way to solve the difficulty with personal relationships is to be not conscious. In this poem a couple, the Earl and his Countess, lie together, frozen in their poses; they lie “in stone,” yet they attain some lasting communion, as the Earl’s hand is “holding her hand.” This posture becomes an emblem of an extremely positive kind as the end of the poem posits that their union proves
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Yet the optimistic element here is problematic. The two “almosts” in these last lines both qualify the assertion (it is only an “almost-instinct” and only “almost” proven true), yet they also make it seem more likely a good thing because it is qualified, and thus not facile. And the union does profoundly affect the viewer who sees
with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
Still, the nature of the couple’s union is problematic. In fact, the couple are close to lying in the sense of being dishonest:
Time has transfigured them into
The poet says that their “stone fidelity” is something that “they hardly meant” and, therefore, it is in part a kind of accident rather than something consciously chosen. This qualifies the hopeful aspect of the poem. The gesture is in a way a pretence or throwaway grace—”faithfulness in effigy” suggests permanence, perhaps, but largely in an aesthetic or even accidental sense. Further, the poet comments that it cannot be what the Earl and the Countess would have chosen or expected, as they looked to an imminent resurrection which has not yet occurred: “They would not think to lie so long.” The image of love certainly does survive in them, though technically it was the sculptor who conferred this gesture on them. The outside world in this poem becomes important in relation to the stationary persons inside. The Earl and the Countess, and the church in which the tomb lies, are set in the context of cyclical nature existing outside and perceived through windows and at a distance:
Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass.
Nature continues in its round outside, a fact which emphasizes the couple’s persistence and sameness through time. Nature both continues to change and remains the same in its unvarying pattern of seasons. At the same time, a succession of visitors come to see the tomb through the centuries; but, by contrast, they are changed:
And up the paths
The endless altered people came.
Man’s history has changed through time in a way in which Nature’s pattern has not: snow and light continue to be the same while the entire structure of society has altered. The “old tenantry” have been turned away, and modern visitors cannot read the Latin names on the tomb. This critic then goes on to say that this poem presents a public emblem of love and fidelity, and that the couple here are framed in the context of the outside world which continues on its own round of seasons and which does not affect them, but stays at a remote distance. Neither the brave fidelity of the couple nor their unique distance from isolation contravenes the bleakness of their frozen isolation from Nature through time.
10. DOCKERY AND SON
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”)
When Larkin visited Oxford (in connection with a funeral which he was to attend) he met the old Dean of Studies who told him that Dockery’s son was now a student at the university. Dockery himself had been Larkin’s contemporary at Oxford, though he was a couple of years junior to Larkin. When the Dean informed Larkin about Dockery’s son being a student there, Larkin, who was appropriately dressed to attend a funeral, nodded to acknowledge the information given to him by the Dean. His meeting with the Dean reminded him of his own days at Oxford when he was a student there, and when on a few occasions he had been summoned by the Dean to supply some information with regard to certain incidents that had taken place on the previous night. On those occasions in his student-days, Larkin had appeared before the Dean in his black gown, without even having taken his breakfast, and not yet having fully recovered from the effect of the liquor which he had consumed on the previous night.
After meeting the Dean on this particular occasion, Larkin went to the hostel where he used to live during his student-days, and tried to open the door of his old room. But the door was locked; and he only saw the lawn stretched over a wide area and bathed in the sunlight. A familiar bell began to ring; and Larkin then boarded the train which was to take him back to Hull. Nobody had paid much attention to him on the occasion of this visit of his to the university where he had been a student. The train started on its journey, and the canal, and the colleges of the university, began to fade away in the distance.
In the course of his journey, Larkin thought of Dockery. According to the information given to him by the Dean, Dockery now had a son studying at Oxford. This meant that Dockery must have got married early in life, and that he could not have been older than twenty years at the time of his marriage. Larkin recalled that Dockery had been a reserved kind of boy who had received his early education at a public school and then gone to Oxford where he shared a suite of rooms with a young man by the name of Cartwright. This other boy had later been killed. It occurred to Larkin that much had happened during the years since he had been a student at Oxford; but it also occurred to him that everything that had happened during these years was of little significance. Lost in such reflections, Larkin fell asleep in the train and woke up only when the train arrived at Sheffield, an industrial city with many mills. He changed trains at Sheffield station where he ate some food which he found to be awful, and then walked along the platform to its end where he saw the railway lines meeting one another and then separating in the light of the moon shining in the cloudless sky.
It seemed to Larkin quite natural that he had no son, no wife, no house, and no land of his own. However, he did realize how much of life was already over for him, and how much was lost to him. Then he thought of Dockery who had married at the early age of nineteen, and who had probably done so because he must have examined his life and must have come to the conclusion that he should marry early and beget children. Dockery must have been of the view that having a wife and children increased the value of one’s life. Larkin then asked himself how people acquired such beliefs as the one about a family adding to the value of one’s life. A man wanted to have a wife and children not because he thought that such a course would be the best or the most valuable for him. The desire to have a wife and children had its source in the fact that it was customary for people to get married and beget children. It was more a matter of custom and habit that people got married and begot children than because people thought marriage and having children to be in themselves valuable which they cherished or longed for. As Larkin looked back on his and Dockery’s past life, he found that the years had brought a son to Dockery and nothing to him (Larkin). Dockery had begotten a son and must also have found his son’s attitude towards him to be unpleasantly patronizing, because sons always behaved as if they were a great asset, and a great source of pleasure, to their parents.
Larkin then came to the conclusion that life was, in the beginning, something tedious, and that, latter, it became a source of fear. Whether a man made a fruitful use of his life or not, life always went on and on, leaving to a man what his destiny decided to give him. Ultimately a man always grew old and died.
Critical Appreciation: A Reminiscent and Meditative Poem
Dockery and Son is a monologue in the course of which Larkin recalls some of his past experiences. The occasion for Larkin’s recollection of his past experiences was his visit to Oxford to attend the funeral of Agnes Cuming who had been his predecessor at the library in Hull University. His first recollection was that, when he himself had been a student at Oxford, he was, at times, summoned by the Dean of his college to give his version of the incidents which had taken place on the previous night in the college or in the hostel. His next recollection was about a fellow-student of the name of Dockery who had married at the age of nineteen or twenty and had begotten a son who was now studying at Oxford just as Dockery himself had once studied at that university. These recollections then led the poet to compare his own circumstances with those of Dockery. Dockery had got a wife and a son, while Larkin had never married all his life. Such thoughts visited Larkin’s mind when he was returning to Hull by a railway train after his visit to Oxford to attend a funeral. In the course of this railway journey, and then on the railway platform at a station where he had to catch another train, he thought of people’s eagerness to get married and have children. Larkin in his mind attributed this eagerness to the social customs which had a strong hold upon the minds of the people. People got married and begot children as a matter of custom and habit, and not because they found something inherently precious or valuable in marriage and in having children.
Two Important Ideas in the Poem
The poem contains two important ideas. One is that human beings are creatures of habit; and the other idea, which finds expression in the four closing lines of the poem, is that life is first boredom, then fear, next old age, and ultimately death. Larkin was a death-obsessed man; and he introduced the fact of death and the inevitability of death in many of his poems because death always kept haunting him. The last four lines of the poem make it a moving and poignant poem. However, we do not agree with Larkin’s view that people marry and beget children only because it is customary to do so. Custom certainly has a share in prompting a man to marry and have children; but there is also the basic desire in every human being to have some sort of companionship, and the basic desire to seek the satisfaction of his sexual urge. Once a man has got married, children follow as a logical consequence of it.
Minor Details Heightening the Realistic Effect
In addition to the two dominating ideas of the poem, we also come across some minor details which heighten the realism of the poem. For instance, the poet had tried to open the door of the room in which he had once himself been living as a student, but had found it locked. Then, in the course of his railway journey, he fell asleep and woke up only near Sheffield where he was greeted by the “fumes” and the “furnace-glares” of the industrial city. Another minor detail is the fact that at Sheffield station Larkin ate a pie which he found awful, and that then he walked along the platform to its very end from where he saw the joining and parting of the railway lines which at that moment reflected the bright light of the moon in the cloudless sky.
Stylistic Qualities of the Poem
This poem, like most others by Larkin, is written in a condensed style. Although this poem is longer than most other poems by Larkin, yet the style here too shows Larkin’s capacity and his tendency to compress his ideas in the fewest possible words. Indeed, his style often approximates to a kind of shorthand. The compression and the condensation often make it difficult for the reader to follow the meaning; but a copious use of words was something foreign to Larkin’s nature. Besides, Larkin leaves much to our own imagination. He only drops hints, leaving us to fill up the gaps. Then there is Larkin’s use of similes and metaphors, and his capacity for phrase-making. We have two conspicuous similes in this poem: (1) “Those warp tight-shut like doors”; and (2) “They rear like sand-clouds”. Larkin is also very fond of making use of alliteration in his poems. A striking example of this device in this poem is the line: “Canal and clouds and colleges subside”. Here the c (or k) sound is repeated. Larkin shows his talent for phrase-making and phrase-coining also here. Here are examples: (1) “black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight” (2) “high-collared public-school boy, sharing rooms with Cartwright who was killed” (here we have an example of the compressed style of writing); (3) “Waking at the fumes and furnace-glares;” (4) “those warp tight-shut.”
Dockery and Son, we would like to add, is one of Larkin’s finest poems, both as regards its content and its style.
One of the critics informs us that the poem Dockery and Son describes a visit Larkin had made to his old college at Oxford on the way back from the funeral of Agnes Cuming, his predecessor as librarian at Hull. (Agnes Cuming had died on the 8th March 1962, and her funeral had taken place on the 12th March). The precise circumstances of the funeral help to explain why Larkin describes himself as “death-suited” in the poem, as well as illuminating larger questions of theme and mood. By permitting itself a great deal of novelistic detail and a structure loose to give the impression of thinking aloud, the poem makes room for nearly all Larkin’s tones and techniques. Novelistic details are found in such lines as the following:
Was (Dockery) that withdrawn
High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms
With Cartwright who was killed?
The poem is anecdotal but lyrical, analytic but expansive, realistic (“awful pie”) but metaphorical (“sand clouds”), reminiscent but locked in the present. Visiting the college (St. John’s) does more than remind Larkin of the divisions between past, present, and future. By providing him with evidence of his youth, it forces him to look squarely at the issue which sits at the centre of his continuing debate about marriage: the issue of children. This critic then goes on to say that there is no doubt in Larkin’s mind about what he thinks of children. To Dockery, whose son is now at the college, they mean “increase”, whereas “to me (they are) dilution.” Yet, while the expression of the opinion is sure, the reasons for believing it are doubtful. Larkin’s sense that his choices are made “by something hidden from us” smothers the difference between his own and Dockery’s life. It compels him to admit that the fears they have in common are more striking than the hopes which separate them. The whole passage, Larkin once said about the conclusion of the poem, “is saying that the different innate assumptions of our lives brought Dockery a son and me nothing, and that nothing patronizes me in the same way that Dockery’s son no doubt patronizes him:
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution? Where do these
Innate assumptions come from?.......
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.”
This critic further says that Dockery and Son, bitterly funny and grievously melancholic, is a compressed autobiography. The poem sums up Larkin’s views about the effect of his parents on his personality; it reports spiritedly on his undergraduate career, and it grimly sketches the attitudes which dominated his adult life. Furthermore, its cunning deployment of epigrammatic wisdoms (culminating in the line “Life is first boredom, then fear) ensure that the poem rises from its authentic details to spell out general truths. For this reason alone it was a good last choice to be published as the concluding poem of the volume “The Whitsun Weddings.”
Another critic tells us that the poem Dockery and Son turns on the poet’s comparison of himself with a college contemporary. As in the poem Mr. Bleaney, this poem also reveals the process of resolving an emotional crisis, one which has all the more force because the comparison of himself to Dockery comes upon the poet unexpectedly, and subsequently takes several stanzas to work out. Part of what gives both these poems their emotional force is the relatively vulnerable position in which the poet finds himself. Dockery and Son catches the poet in a moment of involuntarily emotional regression. Seeing one’s former teachers, even when one is grown to adulthood, almost invariably reinstates the original relationship, and in his conversation with the Dean, Larkin vividly imagines this to be so:
Or remember how
Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight
We used to stand before that desk, to give
“Our version” of “these incidents last night”?
Memories can have the peculiar power, which is perhaps why Larkin makes no attempt in any of his poems to recall his childhood. A letter written by him reveals his distrust of memories and his helplessness in their presence. The power of memory to grip one’s consciousness is echoed in Dockery and Son, as the crisis of the present is emphasized by the immediacy of the past. The poet must again assume his former position of having to explain away his guilt in the face of authority; his discussion with the Dean finds him still explaining his “version” of “incidents” in which he had been involved, as he is giving an account of his present life. The compelling problem in the poem, says the same critic, is that the poet cannot see himself apart from the comparison he has begun to make between himself and Dockery. This comparison causes the poet to divide possible choices into two opposing entities and to regard himself as having chosen the lesser part. Dockery has a son, while he has “no son, no wife, no house or land.” This division further penetrates to the question of intention: Does one will one’s destiny or not? “Where do these/Innate assumptions come from? Not from what/We think truest, or most want to do.” The position defined by the poet is that one does not choose a course—one’s “innate assumptions” harden in retrospect into something which is and yet is not one’s own intention. It “leaves what something hidden from us chose.” This view stresses the action of a solemn, mysterious hidden agent; yet it insists on this with brutal force, leading on to the poem’s final lines: “Life is first boredom, then fear…….” This critic goes on to say further that Dockery and Son constitutes an effort to understand a complex problem through addressing a precisely defined and seemingly simple situation: how did it come about that the poet has no son, and furthermore, that he never fully felt the lack until this moment in time? Despite his extensive musing on the subject, the poet tends to avoid directly answering this central point. The invocation of death as the great leveller does not answer the question of what he wants or of whether he truly misses what Dockery possesses. He tries to trace the source of his desires—something impossible to trace—by following cause and effect; it must have been what he wanted, since he did end up with it. But at the same time, he remains unsure about this, since he did not remember ever consciously choosing it. Even hindsight gives no clue, as it smudges things up into “sand-clouds”. Thus cause and effect here are impossible to discern even when addressed in a rational way. The fact remains that Dockery has a son and the poet does not; Larkin sets certainty (the reality of choices) against uncertainty (the impossibility of knowing) in a problem which cannot be resolved even by the starkness of the closing lines.
Another critic has also given an excellent analysis of this poem. He says that the poem opens with the speaker’s jocular account of a visit to his old college, but that the suggestion (in the phrase “death-suited”) that the occasion is a funeral allows the poem to develop into a more sombre reflection on the passing of time. The close proximity of the verbs “locked” and “ignored” reveals the speaker’s sense of exclusion from where he “used to live,” while the view of Oxford from a train window provides a suitably diminished perspective:
Canal and clouds and colleges-subside
Slowly from view.
A very different England is evident in the speaker’s recollection of
the fumes and furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed.
And ate an awful pie.
The verb “changed” carries suggestions not just of changing trains but of changing to another way of life. The “awful pie” is unexpectedly juxtaposed with a moment of lyrical beauty in which the speaker contrasts his own uncertain direction with the constancy of the “strong unhindered moon.” The occasion provides the speaker with an opportunity for “finding out how much had gone from life.” The vocabulary of the poem is strongly implicated in the imperatives of post-war affluence and acquisitiveness, of wanting and having:
To have no son, no wife,
No house or land still seemed quite natural.
Dockery, we are told, “must have taken stock of what he wanted.” The determining influence of a society increasingly swayed by fashion and personal possessions is clearly evident in the poem’s account of how “assumptions” come to dominate existence:
They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got
And how we got it.
The point is underlined by the apparent contrast between the Biblical “got” and the crudely acquisitive “got”. The question “where do these innate assumptions come from?” vanishes into the strangely imprecise image of blinding “sand-clouds”, leaving an all-enveloping nothing:
For Dockery a son, for me nothing
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.
A familiar technique in Larkin’s poems is to minimize social differences in the face of sure extinction, thereby giving authority to an all-inclusive statement: “Life is first boredom, then fear……And age, and then the only end of age .” In this instance the statement about common destiny seems unjustified and out of all proportion to the experience that has prompted it. Some readers would resist the presumed “we” of the final stanza, or would object to the poem’s refusal to clarify that hidden “something”. What makes Dockery and Son such an imposing poem, however, is that its bleak and uncompromising sentiments appeal for recognition and common agreement while simultaneously provoking dissent.
11. FAITH HEALING
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”)
The women go towards the preacher slowly, one by one. The preacher stands upright. He is wearing rimless spectacles, a dark suit, and a white collar. His hair is white (because of his old age). Attendants are busy urging the women to move onwards in order to receive the preacher’s advice and his blessings. The preacher seems to be radiating warmth and love; and every woman, on approaching him, receives her share of that warmth and that love, though she is not allowed to stay there for more than twenty seconds. As soon as a woman approaches him, the preacher asks her what is wrong with her. The preacher’s voice (or accent) indicates that he is an American. The woman tells him of her malady, and he then immediately closes his eyes and begins to pray on her behalf to God to come to her help. In fact, the preacher addresses God in an authoritative voice as if drawing God’s attention to the trouble which the woman is having with her eyes or with her knee. The preacher then suddenly takes hold of the woman’s head, in order to bless her. The next moment, she is asked to leave; and she goes away silently.
Some of the women feel somewhat lost after the preacher has blessed them; and they waver as if not knowing what to do next. But some of them react to the preacher’s words and his blessing in a highly emotional manner. These women burst into tears as if a dumb and idiotic child sleeping within them had suddenly woke up at the kindness shown towards it by the preacher. These women think that a divine voice has spoken, and invited them to meditate upon their condition in solitude. It also seems to them that divine hands were about to uplift their spirits and relieve their anxiety. These women feel overwhelmed with joy at the thought that they would soon be cured of their ailments and maladies.
These emotional women, with their hairy faces, begin almost to tremble with joy and hope. Their emotional reaction to the preacher’s words is due to the fact that the preacher had spoken to them with some affection in his voice. The preacher’s words had stirred in them a corresponding affection. Every -human being needs affection in the course of his or her life. In the hearts of these women also, there had been an unconscious desire to give love to others and to receive love from others. These women have now begun to realize that it would make a great difference to their lives if they could bestow their love upon others; but most of them now get the feeling that they could have achieved a good deal in life if they had been the recipients of others’ love. These women are now shedding tears of joy; and their tears are like the water into which the frozen ice melts in the countryside when warm weather comes. They can still hear the preacher’s words addressing each of them as “dear child.” (Actually there is no divine power in the preacher’s words, but his words have aroused in these women a desire to give love and to receive love; and it is this desire which has melted the hearts of these women and brought them relief from their troubles and anxieties and the hope that they would soon begin to live healthy and happy lives).
Critical Appreciation: The Theme of This Poem
This poem had its origin in an American evangelist’s repeated visits to London to heal the sick through the power of his faith in God and by arousing in the sick persons a similar faith in God. This evangelist was a man called Billy Graham. (The word “evangelist” means “preacher” or “missionary”). Larkin himself did not believe in any kind of faith healing. He was an agnostic who did not find it possible either to believe in the existence of God or to deny God’s existence. But he found that many people, mostly women, were strong believers in faith healing; and in this poem he has poked fun at the evangelist and his clients. It is a satirical poem in which Larkin laughs at the women’s blind faith, and gives us a psychological reason for the relief which women experience after their brief interview with the evangelist. Of course, Larkin does not summarily or completely dismiss the belief in faith healing as something silly; but he does scoff at the credulity or gullibility of the women. The poem describes a scene of mass-healing by an evangelist. But Larkin’s real intention in writing this poem was to reveal how women were being hoodwinked by the evangelist, and to expose women’s blind faith in that man. The evangelist was supposed to cure these women of their maladies by his prayer to God on their behalf.
A Vignette; and Vivid, Realistic Imagery
The poem begins with a vignette of the preacher. The man stands upright in rimless glasses, has silver hair, and wears a dark suit and a white collar. Then we have a vivid description of the women moving forward one by one and receiving the evangelist’s benediction. This is followed by a vivid picture of the emotional reaction of some of the women to the evangelist’s act of grace:
Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd
Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice—
Moustached in flowered frocks they shake.
The imagery in the poem is not only graphic but realistic as is frequently the case in Larkin’s poetry.
The Irony Behind the Poem; and Larkin’s Anti-Hero and Anti-Romantic Role
The irony behind this poem is noteworthy. Although the poet is serious with regard to his description of the emotional reaction of the women to the evangelist’s blessing and his prayer on their behalf, he is ironical in describing the women’s belief in the evangelist’s miraculous powers of healing and curing the sick. In other words, the poet has here accounted for the women’s confidence in the evangelist in psychological terms. Of course, the poet is right about the psychological effects of the evangelist’s morale-boosting words; but he does not believe that the evangelist possesses any supernatural or divine powers to cure the sick. The irony behind the poem shows Larkin as an anti-hero. Larkin does not glorify or idealize the evangelist. On the contrary, he lowers the evangelist in our eyes by exposing his pretensions and his extravagant claims. Larkin also appears in this poem as an anti-romantic because the image of childhood which he depicts in the poem is far from Wordsworth’s romantic vision of childhood.
Similes in the Poem
Larkin’s poems contain an abundance of similes, and a fair number of metaphors as well. In this poem, for instance, the women leaving the evangelist’s presence are compared to “losing thoughts.” In fact, the full sentence not only contains a simile but is also metaphorical: “Then, exiled/Like losing thoughts, they go in silence.” The women’s departure is metaphorically regarded as an “exile” from the evangelist’s presence; and their going away is compared to “losing thoughts.” The simile, it may also be pointed out, compares a concrete occurrence to an abstract happening. Thoughts are abstract, while the women’s leaving the evangelist’s presence is a concrete occurrence. Then there is a much longer simile in the poem:
as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness,
Here the women are described as bursting into tears as if a childishness had persisted in their natures in a dormant condition, waiting to be brought to life by a show of love from someone. The child, or the childishness, in the women’s nature is depicted as “dumb” and “idiot”. Thus the poet expresses a somewhat scornful attitude towards the dormant, child-like element in these women.
The Non-Traditional Pattern of the Stanza-Form
Larkin has been admired for the clarity of his poems; but we do not understand why the quality of clarity has been attributed to him when much in a poem like Faith Healing is difficult to follow because of the extreme compression of ideas here, and also because the right syntax has not been observed and even the rules of punctuation are not strictly followed. Besides, the sense runs from the end of one stanza into the opening line of the next stanza, thus making a mockery of the stanza-form. A stanza should be a self-contained unit in a poem; but the poets of the Movement, and other modern poets as well, do not observe this well-established practice. For instance, the last line of the first stanza in this poem continues into the first line of the next stanza:
Their heads are clasped abruptly; then, exiled
Like losing thoughts, they go in silence…….
The same thing happens in the third stanza.
We have a mocking image of women having facial hair in the following phrase: “Moustached in flowered frocks”. We also have alliteration in the words “flowered frocks”. Alliteration is very frequent in Larkin’s poetry. The following line is another example of alliteration: “A sense of life lived according to love.” (Here the “1” sound is repeated in the words “life”, “lived”, and “love”).
In the poem Church Going, the church’s main function as a place of worship is long gone, though it still has value as a historical relic . The congregation described in the poem Faith Healing, however, is still engaged in an immediate and active religious experience. There is not even a building, so that there is no connection of this religious experience with any historical tradition. The women in this poem are reconstructing some sort of meaning after religious faith has largely dwindled; and they are doing so in human terms. The faith-healer gains power partly because he literally stands for God. As might be expected of the character of a charlatan, the man is an American, with suggestions of Hollywood showmanship in his performance. (Larkin first had the inspiration to write this poem from a television film which he saw). The observer in the poem is deliberately not swayed by the atmosphere of emotional tension in the meeting, but rather coldly rejects it. The healer represents a benevolent father-figure, and becomes an exalted idol towards whom the seekers after healing are directed:
Persuade them onwards to his voice and hands,
Within whose warm spring rain of love care
Each dwells some twenty seconds.
The Nature-imagery here combines powerfully with heightened emotion; the women’s individual wills merge with the general movement towards the faith-healer, as they become animals who submit to herding. After they encounter the healer, they “sheepishly stray” or “stay stiff, twitching and loud/With deep hoarse tears.” The love, which they seek, is also presented in terms of Nature images. The healer provides each one with a “warm spring rain of loving care.” The irony, of course, is that this ceremony is so casual as to seem deliberately absurd: it only lasts “some twenty seconds.” Nonetheless, the initial effect of this encounter becomes so powerful as figuratively to thaw (or melt) the women’s hearts. Religious faith here touches a profound part of human nature, and taps a deep need. It works strongly enough to take the women out of themselves, make them lose self-consciousness, and merge with their environment; they achieve that which religion—or love—ideally provides, namely a blessed union with something outside of self. The second stanza goes on to illustrate the devastating effect this produces. In the poet’s view, the resulting display becomes entirely ludicrous. This suggests Larkin’s deep distrust of rousing one’s emotions and of losing control of them; the effect of such relaxation of reserve is made to seem devastatingly anti-romantic. Where Wordsworth would have us welcome and even seek the child within us, Larkin parodies such a return to childhood as a kind of regression. Some of the women weep loudly
as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice
At last calls them alone, that hands have come
To lift and lighten; and such joy arrives
Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd
Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice—
This brutal depiction of vulgar, emotional self-indulgence emphasizes the fact that the poet considers the experience a shameful illusion. The women are mistaken in believing that “a voice at last calls them alone,” if only because they are clearly among herds of other women walking forward to drink, for twenty seconds, at the “warm spring rain of loving care.” Religious fervour only makes life’s intrinsic sadness worse, because one realizes how awful it actually is to want and not to have. The faith-healer is a token figure of the yearning which can only be apparently but not genuinely fulfilled. His “voice and hands”, towards which the stewards “persuade” the women, are not the voice and hands which have come to call them individually and to lighten their loads. Furthermore, all the people who become so emotional in this scene are women. This clearly suggests the poet’s attitude of contempt for women, and also a deep-rooted fear of them. The poet despises these women all the more for yielding to their emotions and to the illusion of love. He figuratively takes revenge on them by depicting their joy as an absurdity: “Their thick tongues blort, their eyes sqeeze grief.” He perhaps pities them as well. He depicts them literally as sheep or animals. And in the final stanza they become a ridiculous perversion of nature: “Moustached in flowered frocks they shake.” Most important, Larkin ends the poem with an image of the women as a frozen landscape.
An immense slackening ache,
As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps,
Spreads slowly through them—that, and the voice above
Saying Dear Child, and all time has disproved.
This is an effective image. Spring and thawing of ice are normally symbolic of hope and rebirth but, of course, they are not so here. Larkin believes that religious ecstasy is false and must therefore lead to disillusionment. What Larkin seems to emphasize here is the absence of God and the futility of awakening the “child within” to search for this figure. The voice of God, which should be approving the women’s dependence by welcoming and loving them, has been disproved. The “Dear Child” is only an “idiot child” after all. Perhaps the greatest sense of wrongness here has to do with the undue stirring of emotion, which leads only to a devastating recognition of loss. Merely to open the way for emotion leads to disaster: “By now, all’s wrong.”
One of the critics points out that this poem depicts a group of elderly people whose vulnerability is exploited by an American evangelical preacher. Probably this poem was prompted by Billy Graham’s visits to England in the 1950s. What is particular about the poem, then, is its context, and not just its outlook. It is not so much a poem about the human condition as about the nature of belief and disbelief in a particular phase of twentieth-century culture. The poem recognizes that “in everyone there sleeps a sense of life lived according to love,” but the attitudes and values which inform such a statement and give it prominence within the poem are those of a troubled post-war agnostic sensibility. As with Church Going, the punning title refers not so much to a static condition as to an active cultural and theological process. According to this critic, Larkin has looked for his values to the past and the customs deriving from it, seeing in the present only the recession of all innocence, worth, and sweetness from human living, and seeing in the future nothing more than a process of unbearable decline and death. Nevertheless, Larkin has made out of this bitter, unalterable situation a poem that is undoubtedly modern in its content and its cadences. But this critic fails to inspect such attitudes with sufficient critical detachment and gives little consideration to what might have prompted them. More serious is his tendency to regard such a dismal and depressing state of affairs as “unalterable”. Such poems as Going, Going suggest, on the contrary, that change of one kind or another is entirely possible and is often dependent on alternative modes of government and social structure. To speak of the essential concerns of Larkin’s poetry as unalterable is to reproduce their most pessimistic and fatalistic tendencies without regard for the sharp ironies and rhetorical provocations which they frequently display. This critic also fails to do justice to the complex ways in which Larkin’s poetry registers a sense of class and cultural differences in post-war England.
12. POETRY OF DEPARTURES
(Front the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
Sometimes, says the poet, we hear from someone the news that a certain man has spurned everything, and just gone away. A news of this kind quickly spreads, so that when we receive it, it has already become stale. Whoever hears this news approves of the action of the man who had abandoned every possession of his, and simply gone away. Everybody would describe that man’s action as a daring and uplifting one. The poet too approves of that kind of action on the part of a man; and so he endorses the opinion of other people in this matter. We all hate home, says the poet, and we all hate having to continue to stay in our homes. The poet himself hates the room in which he dwells, and he hates all the rubbish which he has collected and arranged in his room with special care. The rubbish includes good books and a good bed to sleep in. He hates this room even though he is leading an orderly kind of life here.
With this attitude towards his room and his having to live in it, the poet feels fairly excited and thrilled when he hears the news that a certain man had given up everything and simply gone away, leaving the whole crowd of his relatives, friends, and acquaintances behind. The poet feels as thrilled on hearing this report about somebody as he would feel when someone describes to him a woman undressing herself. And he feels as excited on hearing that report about somebody as he would feel when someone were to call him a bastard and were thus to speak in a highly offensive manner to him. When the poet hears a report about somebody’s sudden departure from home, it occurs to him that, if that fellow could do such a thing, he (the poet) could also follow the same “course. But, when this idea occurs to him, he becomes all the more encouraged to stay on where he is, and to continue doing the work which he has been doing so far. (This is, of course, a paradox).
And yet, the poet would depart from home and roam freely over the roads on which nuts lie scattered. Yes, he would depart from home, and hide himself in the forecastle of a ship, to escape the notice of the ship’s crew. In other words, he would become a wanderer on the roads, or a sailor on a ship, in order to escape his life at home which he had begun to detest. And yet he avoids taking such a step because of his view that such a step would appear to be artificial, and that it seems to be a retrogressive step. He would give up his present routine life in the course of which he has been collecting books, chinaware, and other articles, and he would continue to lead this perfect routine life even though “perfection” of this kind is something to be condemned. And he would continue to lead this routine life because giving up this kind of life in favour of a life of travel and adventure seems to him to be something unnatural and retrograde.
Critical Appreciation: The Theme and Larkin’s Treatment of It
The title of this poem means that there is something poetic or something alluring about leaving home and taking to a life of travel and adventure. The poem does not begin with any definite resolve in the author’s mind. The poet seems to be considering, and discussing with himself, the action of people who simply throw up everything and go away to lead a life of travel and adventure without having any particular goal in mind. Like many of Larkin’s other poems, Poetry of Departures contains a kind of debate between two opposed points of view. At first, the idea of leaving home and taking to a life of travel and adventure seems very attractive and tempting to the poet. But at the end the poet reaches the conclusion that such a seemingly attractive kind of life would have something artificial, about it, and would seem to be a step in the wrong direction. Thus the poet weighs the pros and cons of “chucking up” everything and “just clearing off.” We have here an argumentative poem, like many other poems by Larkin. The poem, like most others, is more intellectual than emotional. Indeed, there is a dearth of emotion in most of Larkin’s poems.
The Technical Aspects of the Poem
The poem is written in Larkin’s characteristic colloquial style. The very opening line is an example of that kind of style: “Sometimes you hear”, etc. Then the line “And they are right, I think,” also has the same colloquial quality. In fact the whole of this poem is written in that conversational style. The poem shows also Larkin’s laconic manner of expressing himself. Larkin’s poetry represents a model of compression and condensation. The fewest possible words are used by him to express an idea; and sometimes even the syntax is sacrificed for the sake of economy. As in many other poems, here too the stanza is not observed as a separate unit in a poem. For example, the last line of the second stanza runs into the first line of the next stanza; and the same thing happens in the case of the third stanza. There is no full-stop at the end of the second stanza or at the end of the third stanza to mark these stanzas off from what follows. This is certainly an “audacious” way of writing like the “audacious” action of the man who “chucks up” everything and “just clears off.”
The Anti-hero and Anti-romantic Stance of the Poem
Another feature of this poem is its anti-heroic and anti-romantic stance. If the poet had come to the firm conclusion that a life of travel and adventure would be preferable to the stationary and stagnant life at home, we would have said that Larkin is a romantic poet with a heroic attitude towards life. But that does not happen. Leaving home and embarking on aimless travelling or voyaging seems to him “a deliberate step backwards.”
According to a critic , Poetry of Departures is one of Larkin’s most memorable poems. It recommends the virtues of caution in a voice which is robustly comic and confident. Larkin here asserts that to “swagger the nut-strewn roads/Crouch in the fo’c’sle /Stubbly with goodness” would be “a deliberate step backwards.” Another critic says that many of Larkin’s poems exalt the romance of travel and the glory of transcending one’s daily life, and that Poetry of Departures satirizes the appeal of this wander-lust by showing its attraction to the poet, longing for immediacy and action, as he proclaims:
But I’d go today
Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in (he fo’c’sle,
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial.
This vision of the adventurous life is, of course, resisted because the pull of the “good books, the good bed” and the advantages of having a razor prove stronger. But the language of the poem is stirring, and it reinforces the detachment which characterizes Larkin’s poems, either in relation to actual prosaic scenes or to imagined, exciting ones in the hold of a pirate ship. The same critic also says that when Larkin admires characters like losels, louts, lecturers, and clerks, his admiration is always qualified in a way which deflates anything romantic or desirable about them. The rebel in Poetry of Departures, for instance, is graced by the admiration of the crowd left behind, and yet it is also ironically his “epitaph.” Although Larkin here expresses envy for a man braver than himself, he casts a deflating glance at the anti-hero as well. The rebel’s gesture of renunciation appeals as an exercise of power; but the poet makes it seem, from one perspective, an empty, artificial one. Both men end by appearing slightly depleted and ridiculous, the one man stalking to “crouch in the forecastle”, the other reading good books on the bed. Further, the poet parodies his own emotional excitement in contemplating to gesture, describing it in the cliches of popular fiction, in phrases such as
Then she undid her dress
Or take that you bastard.
This poem creates the same kind of comparison as Toads and Toads Revisited do. It contrasts a wild, romantic impulse with a conservative, cautious one. The poet imaginatively identifies himself with another figure who has “chucked up everything/And just cleaned off’, and who thus achieves retrospective glory. The resulting dialectic turns between^ a poet wanting to be like the rebel and yet not wanting to be like him. He’ can be sympathetic to the man’s desire for finality (“He walked out on the whole crowd”), and at the same time remaining prudent and sensible about the difficulties involved (it seems “so artificial”). The important point is not the question about the course which the poet would choose, because this is a foregone conclusion; the important point is that his dissatisfaction is cast in terms of a stark set of choices. As the examples of the poet and the departed man illustrate, one either goes or stays. This provides an invigorating sense of tension, and dramatizes everyday life enormously.
According to another critic , many of Larkin’s poems carefully weigh a desire for escape and release with a dutiful commitment to the status quo, and the most obvious example of this kind of thing is to be found in Poetry of Departures:
Sometimes you hear,
fifth-hand, As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
The casual “fifth-hand” report of the opening lines and the shift from “you” and “he” to “I” and “we” in the second stanza create a linguistic structure that is inter-personal: it brings into collision a range of speech-forms and their associated social attitudes. The poem is both formal and colloquial, cutting across class lines in its appeal to what we all know and experience: “We all hate home/And having to be there.” The cliched appearance of lines like “He walked out on the whole crowd” renders the poem accessible and familiar. What is curious, though, is that the speaker moves from the apparent disapproval registered in the politely dismissive close of the first stanza to a tentative identification with the purveyors of cliche: “And they are right, I think”. By the final stanza, the poem has succeeded in neutralizing the popular declaration of personal freedom or escape, not by refuting it but by accommodating it. Paradoxically, it is the imagined existence of an alternative way of life that helps the speaker to stay “sober and industrious.” By conducting its inquiry at the level of cliche and gossip—”Surely I can, if he did?”—the poem appears to engage in a democratic way with popular sentiment, but it also avoids the more rigorous debate which “freedom” deserves.
Yet another critic makes the point that there is a significant link in this poem between Larkin’s resigned outlook and his acceptance of “the common language” as an appropriate poetic idiom. This poem’s commitment to a simple, no-nonsense diction is such that any tendency to escape is inevitably treated as a superficial fantasy or fable. One of the disadvantages of Larkin’s easy colloquial banter is that it restricts the vision of the poem to the attitudes and values that such language embodies. What this critic is criticizing here is the poem’s array of familiar assumptions and its passive acceptance of the way things are. What he is looking for, by way of contrast, is a poetic language with an estranging rather than familiarizing effect, a language that would radically unsettle rather than confirm and satisfy the expectations of the contemporary readers.
Another critic thinks that, in Poetry of Departures, Larkin once again sees the universal need “to get away from it all” as romantic escapism and rejects it with an amiable irony which makes its negative conclusion seem curiously positive. The negative conclusion is that to chuck up everything would at once create the object of re-creating the same “reprehensibly perfect” life-style.
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
When the evenings are longer, the tranquil house-fronts are bathed in light which is chilly and yellow. Then a thrush is heard singing in the midst of laurels in the deep, bare garden, in its sharp but sweet voice. The singing of the thrush seems to surprise the brickwork of the houses. The thrush seems to be saying repeatedly that soon the spring would come and take the place of winter (which is now about to end).
On hearing the singing of the thrush, the poet thinks of his childhood which he describes as a period of boredom, and a period which he has forgotten. Then he feels like a child who has suddenly appeared on a scene in which the adults are getting reconciled with each other (or a scene in which the adult people are becoming reconciled to their lives in this world). On such occasions the poet can understand nothing except the unusual laughter of the people; and then the poet too begins to feel happy.
[The laurel is a kind of garden-shrub. But the word “laurel” is also used for a kind of tree the foliage of which was regarded in olden days as a symbol of victory in war or of eminence in poetry.
The garden is bare because the intensity of the cold during the winter has robbed the trees of their leaves].
This poem describes the poet’s mood when winter is coming to an end, and when spring is about to arrive. The advent of spring is being heralded by a thrush which is announcing that it will be spring soon. The poet feels greatly cheered by the prospect of the arrival of spring; but at the same time he feels puzzled by the universe and, more particularly, by the world of human beings. The universe, and the world of human beings, are a riddle which the poet cannot solve. However, he still begins to feel happy. This is one of the few poems in which Larkin expresses a mood of happiness, even though this happiness is of a very mild kind. The autobiographical element in this poem imparts a special interest to it. Larkin here recalls his childhood which he describes as “a forgotten boredom.” There is no memory of his childhood to gladden his heart or to cheer him. Also noteworthy is the phrase “its fresh-peeled voice” which Larkin has coined to describe the freshness and sharpness of the thrush’s song. The thrush sings “laurel-surrounded”; and here we have a compound word coined by him. The repetition of the line “It will be spring soon” lends emphasis to the imminence of a season which is most delightful to everybody in this world everywhere. The opening lines of the poem contain a vivid picture of the house-fronts bathed in light which is “chill And yellow;” and the song of the thrush has an “astonishing” effect on the brick-work of the houses. Coming is a short poem but it is significant for reasons already indicated above.
One of the critics says that, although Larkin is to some extent a suburban poet, he remains something of a romantic also, especially in poems such as Coming, where “the serene foreheads of houses” and the song of a thrush awaken a child-like perspective almost amounting to joy. This critic also tells us that Larkin generally contemplates Nature with a feeling of melancholy which emphasizes the poet’s view of man’s isolation from Nature. However, in the present poem, Larkin’s contemplation of Nature is not accompanied by any such feeling. On the contrary, he feels somewhat cheered by the thrush’s song as it sings on a tree surrounded by laurels in the deep bare garden. Another critic says that the poem Coming candidly describes happiness: Larkin here feels like a child “who comes on a scene of adult reconciling,” and although he can understand nothing but the unusual laughter, he starts to be happy.
14. TAKE ONE HOME FOR THE KIDDIES
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”)
This short poem, consisting of only eight lines, deals with the subject of children keeping pet animals for their sport, and ill-treating them, or even showing cruelty to them, just to enjoy the fun of it. Of course, the poem condemns the attitude of the parents who buy small, harmless animals for their children to play with, and to inflict cruelty upon. The animals purchased by parents for the recreation of their children are on sale at shops which too do not keep these creatures in comfort. These little animals are miserable at the shops where they are on sale, and their misery does not diminish and is, in fact, aggravated, when they are taken home by the buyers for the pleasure of their kiddies.
Critical Appreciation: The Ironical Title of the Poem
The title of this poem is ironical. At first sight, it would seem that the poet is going to tell us something about the beautiful present which a parent is taking home for the delectation of his children. A parent would like to carry a box of toffees, or a packet of chocolates, or a brick of ice-cream, or some mechanical, modern toy to please his kiddies. But then we discover that the poet is talking about the small animals which parents buy for their children to play with.
The Theme of the Poem
The theme of the poem is the cruelty which the pet animals have to undergo at the hands of the children for whose pleasure the animals were purchased by the parents. Indeed, this poem could have come straight from the pen of a member of the S.P.C.A. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). In the first stanza the poet has described the miserable conditions under which these animals are kept at the shops: these animals lie asleep on “shallow straw”; they lie “huddled” near bowls which contain no food or water but are empty. On seeing them, the children say to their mother: “Mam, get us one of them to keep.” In the second stanza, the children are depicted as playing with these animals which are described as “living toys,” and as a kind of novelty for the children. But soon the novelty wears off; and then the children either neglect their pet animals or begin to tease and torture them, so that the animals meet a premature death. When a pet animal has died, the children urge one another to bring a shovel so that the dead animal may be buried; and at this time the children call out to their mother and say: “Mam, we’re playing funerals now.” This remark by the children means that the children are playing the “game” of burying the dead creatures.
Condensed Style; Our Inability to Respond to this Poem
The most conspicuous feature of this poem is its compactness and condensation of thought. We have here an outstanding example of Larkin’s terse and compressed style of writing. However, we do not respond to this poem as Larkin might have expected us to do. Pet animals in western countries, particularly in Britain and the U.S.A., are more pampered by their owners than the children are. We in India feel simply amazed by the way in which the women in those countries embrace, fondle, caress, hug, and kiss their 721 animals; and God knows what else they do to keep their pets and themselves happy.
15. NOTHING TO BE SAID
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”)
Life is slowly dying for nations who are undecided like the weeds which grow at random. Life is also slowly dying for the homeless tribes of people who dwell among stones. Life is slowly dying for the tribes of people who have small statures. And life is slowly dying for the families which live in the cobbled streets and lanes of the industrial towns.
The separate modes of life of these different kinds of people and different groups of people indicate different ways of slow dying. These different people have different ways of building their homes; they have different ways of prayer; and they have different criteria of judging affection and money. These people spend their day in hunting pigs or holding a garden-party. Their mode of living depends on the class of society to which they belong.
The passing of hours provides enough evidence for the view that things are slowly moving towards their death. New births are also evidence supporting that view. Everything points to the coming of death, slowly but surely. Communicating this fact of (slow dying) to some of the people would mean nothing at all; and, in the case of other people, nothing needs to be said.
Critical Appreciation: A Pessimistic Poem
This short poem describes in a highly suggestive manner the slow movement of things and persons towards death. Nations, tribes, and all kinds of miscellaneous people are moving slowly towards death, in the poet’s opinion. It is evidently a pessimistic poem. Larkin was obsessed with the idea and the stark reality of death.
The stylistic qualities of this poem are as conspicuous as its content. The first stanza is remarkable for its imagery of the nations, the nomads, and the tribes of people of all kinds living in industrial towns. There is evidence here of Larkin’s talent for coining phrases which is-noteworthy. “Cobble-close families”, for instance, refers to families living on the cobbled streets (of an industrial town). “Measuring love and money” is a phrase conveying people’s tendency to judge love and the making of money by their worldly standards. Then there is the alliteration: “nations vague as weed” and assonance: “nomads among stones”. Here we have a repetition of the v or w sounds, and of the o sound. Then there is the alliterative phrase “small-statured cross-faced” in which the s sound is repeated. Even the sound of c in the word “faced” produces the same sound as s. “Cobble-close” is another alliterative phrase. Furthermore, the poem is remarkable for its condensed style. The style, in fact, is so terse that we find it difficult to follow the argument in die last stanza. In the compass of just eighteen lines, the poet has summed up his idea about the slow dying of life in various spheres, and has packed the poem with examples of persons and things which are dying slowly. A feeling of melancholy broods over the poem. Yet there is more of reasoning in the poem than of feeling. The poem appeals more to our minds than to our feelings. The poet does not become unduly sentimental at the thought of the inevitability of death.
One critic informs us that, ten days before writing this poem, Larkin had completed the poem Here which was written in flowing sentences to obtain some release from his feeling of depression. Larkin wrote the poem Nothing to Be Said to give expression to his gloom. Here Larkin says that all activities and all cultures are moving slowly towards their death, and that telling this fact to some people “means nothing” while in the case of other people it is hardly necessary to tell them this fact. In the face of death, the poem implies, not talking means either not thinking, or being too appalled .to form any thought whatsoever. This critic also says that the slowly darkening mood in some of his poems, including this one, had something to do with his anxiety about Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan with both of whom he had been having an intimate friendship but about whom he could not make any definite decision so far as marriage was concerned. The same critic points that, from an unusually early age, death had been the fact forcing Larkin to limit his expectations of life. Larkin had looked upon death as an utterly comfortless blank. The frequency and the emphasis with which he visualized death’s approach explain why he is so often regarded as a profoundly and deeply pessimistic poet. The evidence of this pessimism, says this critic, is to be found in such poems as Nothing to Be Said, Going, The Building, and The Old Fools. Another critic tells us that the poem Nothing to Be Said resorts to a blatantly amateurish anthropology in its claim that life for all classes of people and all the cultures is ultimately the same, being subject to inevitable extinction. From this perspective, the lives of “cobble-close families in mill-towns on dark mornings” are really no different from those of “nomads among stones” or “small-statured cross-faced tribes.” There is in this poem a sustained interest in the question of how we live, and a conviction that all human activity—work, play, and prayer—is eclipsed by the shadow of death. What may be regarded as separate ways of building, benediction (or prayer), measuring love and money, are all ways of slow dying. Whether death is treated with disregard or dread, the inescapable fact of death seems to cancel out any thoughts of a better life:
And saying so to some
Means nothing; others it leaves
Nothing to be said.
As with the poem Mr. Bleaney, an appeal to the limits of language and perception, and the expression of bafflement in the face of the unknown, effectively rule out any further consideration of how best to structure and organize life.
16. THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS
(From the volume of poems having the same title as this
Note. The word “Whitsun” refers to a festival. Whitsun Sunday is the seventh Sunday after Christmas. (This seventh Sunday, regarded as a holy day by Christians, also commemorates the giving of law on Mt. Sinai). Whitsun Saturday, on which this train journey was undertaken by Larkin, would therefore be a Saturday preceding Whitsun Sunday.
This poem describes a rail journey which Larkin once made from Hull to London on Whitsun Saturday. The poem begins with Larkin telling us that the train, which he boarded, was three-quarters empty when it started from Hull. All windows of the train were down; all the cushions were hot; and there was absolutely no sense of urgency in Larkin’s mind. On the way, the train passed a street in which the windows of houses were covered with wind-screens, and then it passed the fish-docks from which the smell of fish was coming. Next, the train passed a river; and then the poet saw the sky, the water, and Lincolnshire meeting in the distance (that is, in the distant horizon).
The train continued its journey southwards, though at a slow speed. It passed wide farms, the cattle on the farms, and streams the water of which carried industrial waste. Then it passed a hot-house, some hedges, and grassy areas. It passed the different towns which fell on the way. The poet also saw from the train a large area where dismantled cars had been stowed, to be reduced to scrap.
The poet did not, at first, notice the noise which the newly married couples made at each station where the train stopped. The reason why he did not hear that noise was that the heat of the sun had destroyed his interest in what was happening in the shade. He thought that the noise was coming from the porters carrying mail, and so he went on reading (a book which he had with him). But then he saw girls smiling on the railway stations and watching the train leave. Those girls were dressed according to the prevailing fashions which seemed to the poet to be absurd and ridiculous. Those who had come to see off their friends or relatives at the railway stations waved good-bye to the departing persons. Then the poet, feeling somewhat inquisitive about what was happening, became alert in order to watch the scenes at the stations which were yet to come on the way. He saw fathers wearing broad belts under their coats, fat mothers speaking in loud voices, an uncle uttering dirty words, ladies with their hair newly-dressed and wearing nylon gloves and imitation jewellery of various colours. The young girls could easily be differentiated from the rest of the people on the platforms. At every station where the train stopped, newly-married couples got into the train, while those who had come to see them off gave them their parting advice. As the train moved on, every face seemed to define what it saw about the departing couples. Children frowned at something which seemed dull to them. The fathers on the platforms had never experienced such a strong sense of success as they now experienced when their grown-up children had got married and were going away (on their honeymoon). In fact, the fathers looked comic in their joy. The women shared this joy though it seemed that they had come to witness “a happy funeral”, while the girls, tightening their grip on their hand-bags, stared at the scene as if a painful religious ceremony was in progress. Then the train, carrying its load of passengers, moved at a quicker speed towards London, with its engine emitting clouds of steam. The poet saw, from his window, fields which had been converted into building-plots. He saw poplars casting long shadows over the main roads on the way.
At least a dozen newly married couples had got into the train. The brides and the bridegrooms sat side by side in the train, and watched the landscape as the train sped onwards. The train passed a cinema called Odeon, then a cooling tower, next a player running over a cricket field to bowl. Everybody in the train was thinking only of himself or his companion, and had no thought to spare for the others whom they would never see again. The poet thought of London lying stretched beneath the sun, and he saw the city’s postal districts packed with crowds of human beings and looking like “squares of wheat.”
The train was bound for London; and it sped past stationary buses, and walls of houses covered with black moss. The journey was now about to end. Then the train slowed down; and, when it stopped, the poet saw the crowd of passengers getting down and looking like “a shower of arrows.”
Note. The phrases “a happy funeral” and “a religious wounding” in the poem are noteworthy. The poet treats a marriage as a happy funeral and as a religious wounding. The implication is that, although a marriage is a happy event, it carries within it the seeds of the death of happiness which is bound to occur in course of time. Similarly, the ceremony of marriage is here described as a religious Bounding, meaning that the ceremony would subsequently turn out to be a painful affair. Thus Larkin takes a cynical view of marriage. The happiness of marriage cannot last for ever, according to him.
Critical Appreciation: The Personal Element Despite the Poem’s Objective Quality
This is an autobiographical poem because it describes an actual railway journey which Larkin made from Hull to London. In those days he was working as a librarian at the University of Hull; and he undertook this journey to London for some personal, or may be official, reasons. Some critics have described this poem as Larkin’s finest. The interest of the poem arises from its mixture of several ingredients. It strikes us at first as a narrative poem; but soon we find that it is a descriptive poem containing also the poet’s reflections on what he saw from his window in the course of the journey. Although it seems to be one of his most objective poems because of the attitude of detachment which he maintains throughout, it yet contains much of Larkin in it because it records not only the sights witnessed by Larkin but also his personal reactions to what he saw. Larkin himself said that there was nothing of him in the poem; but we, like some of the critics, find that Larkin’s own mind is also revealed here as effectively as the sights witnessed by him have been described.
The description in the poem is graphic, as is always the case with the imagery in Larkin’s poems. It was a sunlit Saturday. The poet saw the backs of houses on the way, a street of blinding windscreens, the river’s broad and level waters, wide farms, the cattle casting short shadows on the ground, canals with “floatings of industrial froth,” and “acres of dismantled cars.” In addition to such sights, the poem also contains a graphic description of the people on the railway platforms and the people getting into the train. Quite interesting were the sights of girls grinning and “pomaded” (that is, with vaseline or cream applied to their faces). There were the fathers with their “seamy foreheads,” the mothers “loud and fat,” an uncle “shouting smut”, the women wearing nylon gloves and imitation jewellery, and so on. The references to the newly-married couples are also quite interesting. After all, the title of the poem is “The Whitsun Weddings.” The newly-married couples are supposed to have inspired the poem, though marriage did not have much of an interest for Larkin who could not make up his mind to get married at any stage in the course of his own life. He often thought of getting married but did not actually marry.
Touches of Irony and Satire
The touches of irony and satire in the poem are also unmistakable. The canals with floatings of industrial froth; “the whoops and skirls” on the platforms, the girls grinning and pomaded, and in parodies of fashion, the fathers with broad belts under their suits, the mothers loud and fat, and an uncle shouting smut—these are all ironical or satirical phrases. The poem thus arouses in us mixed feelings such as good cheer, joy, disappointment, dismay, amusement, surprise, and curiosity.
A critic informs us that The Whitsun Weddings was completed on the 18th October 1958, nearly two years after it was begun. Larkin completed the poem after almost thirty pages of drafts. In other words, he kept revising and re-writing the poem for a long time; and at the end he said that there was hardly anything of himself in this poem and that it contained a picture of life just as he had seen it. But this critic tells us that there is everything of Larkin in the poem—the yearning for love as well as the standing-off. (Larkin had never been able to make up his mind about marrying any of the women with whom he had become intimate at one time or the other. For a long time he wavered between two women, namely Monica and Maeve, but married neither of them. His indecision about marriage continued to be an outstanding fact of his life. However. The Whitsun Weddings is not a love-poem at all though it does contain a reference to weddings as the title also shows). This poem had first begun to take shape during a railway journey from Hull to London on Whit Saturday in 1955. On that day, Larkin said, he caught “a very slow train that stopped at every station and I hadn’t realized that, of course, this was the train that all the wedding couples would get on and go to London for their honeymoon”. This poem ultimately emerged as an archetype of many of Larkin’s manners and methods. It is a poem which illustrates his achievement better than any other. It combines a discursive spread with the emotional intensity of a lyric. It strews the path to its extraordinary climax with deliberately ordinary sights and sounds such as the hot carriage-colth, industrial froth, and dismantled cars. It achieves a tone which is both awe-struck and sharply conscious of absurdity: “fathers had never known/Success so huge and wholly farcical”). It is bound to the here-and-now while longing for transcendent release, as the final stanza makes clear. All the paradoxes of the poem, and all those which governed Larkin’s thoughts about love, are collected in this stanza in an image adapted from a cinema-film which Larkin had seen as a young man during the war.
Larkin said that the arrows fired by the English bowmen in Laurence Olivier’s film “Henry V” gave him the idea for the last two lines:
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
Dipped in the blood of patriotic fervour, the arrows in Larkin’s verse here serve Cupid’s purpose, not the purpose of Mars, (the god of war). But,1 while Larkin admires the train-load of newly-married couples, he knows that he cannot join them. Alone in his carriage, sealed behind his window, he is conscious of loss but appreciative of his singleness. As he prepares to watch the couples disappear, he reminds himself that the arrow-shower of love wounds as well as inspires a man.
According to another critic The Whitsun Weddings describes a series of places in successive vignettes, but it focusses more on the train journey itself than on the scenes which the poet witnessed during the journey or on England as a whole. In keeping with his sense of travel as an adventure, the poet attunes himself to the speed of the train at the various stages of the journey. When it first leaves the station in Hull, it does so in a way which marks the poet’s having achieved escape, with “all sense of being in a hurry gone.” Later in the poem, when the couples have climbed aboard and when subsequently the journey is nearing its end, the train gathers speed again, with a sense of urgency: “we hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.” The poet’s awareness of travelling speed focusses attention on the way the journey is perceived by him. He describes a complex relationship between the people on the platform (who see the train departing), the couples on the train, and the poet (who sees the others). The poet remains part of this movement towards London, because he is on the train and is observing its various stops; yet in a way he also remains distinctly separate from the emotional significance of the journey. He feels no particular kinship with his fellow-travellers or with their well-wishers; but, when the train hurries towards London, it is “free at last,/And loaded with the sum of all they saw,” suggesting both a hidden significance in their perceptions and something achieved, liberated, and made “free”. The viewers on the successive platforms primarily see, and participate in, the weddings rather than the train journey, and this makes their perceptions qualitatively different from those of the poet. He remains detached and reserved, while the crowds are transparent in their reactions: “as we moved, each face seemed to define/Just what it saw departing.” The general air of festivity becomes invested with larger, ritualistic significance, as the girls “stared at a religious wounding” and the weddings take on their traditional, benedictory role of reinforcing a sense of social community. This is further emphasized by Larkin’s way of describing the crowds—which he does primarily in terms of certain social types, all of which react in predictable ways to the wedding couples. The crowds appear in exactly the same terms at each station: fathers stand “with broad belts under their suits/And seamy foreheads”; mothers are universally “loud and fat” while girls appear invariably dressed in “parodies of fashion.” The objective exactness of the description prevents the poet’s interest from seeming superior or sentimental; yet Larkin’s view is rather strangely circumscribed and even reductive. He indulges in this kind of group type-casting in several poems in which crowds are split into strict divisions, and this kind of listing is a useful shorthand way of sketching a crowd. This critic then goes on to say that, although the crowds on the platforms are grouped into various types, none of the groups is singled out individually, not even the newly-married brides and bridegrooms. And this is consistent with the meditative tone of the poem. The poet seems to be striving to keep out any personal element from the scene. This is an important omission because it keeps the focus of the poem entirely on the moment of the present vision. We hear one representative exclamation from a bride or a bridegroom; they “settle hats” and reflect on the overwhelming emotion of the wedding-day: “I nearly died”, and the couples watch the landscape, “sitting side by side” in the train. The journey itself marks the beginning of these relationships, as in the “some fifty minutes” of the remaining trip “a dozen marriages got under way.” However, the journey itself, rather than the people who participate in it, seems to be of paramount importance. The poet describes the train journey in terms of his unique perception of the event, and feels satisfaction in apprehending the “frail travelling coincidence” which only he notices: “and none thought of the others they would never meet…..” To some extent, then, the significance of the journey lies in the poet’s sense of movement and impetus, and of the gusto which goes with adventure and travel, rather than in its being an extension of a community ritual. At the end the poet visualizes the journey continuing beyond the actual arrival of the train at its destination. Although the arrival in London is the journey’s aim, the poem primarily evokes a romantic view of the journey in so far as its impetus continues. Somewhat oddly, it is the train journey, rather than the weddings and wedding parties, which is important. Further, the balance between participation and separation, which characterizes train travel, might be what Larkin enjoys; on a train, at least, he can be temporarily linked with others, without having to be part of the crowd himself, and without having actually to attend the weddings or to stand on the station platforms. He also describes the English countryside from one of his favourite poetic viewpoints—from behind a window.
The genesis of The Whitsun Weddings, says another critic , was a railway journey which Larkin made in July 1955. Drafts of the poem were prepared in the summer of 1957, but it was not completed until October 1958. Like the poem Here, this poem offers a sweeping, panoramic view of the contemporary landscape and uses the journey as a way of structuring its multiple and disparate perceptions. The breadth and energy of the poem derive partly from its search for coherence and unity, not only among the changing landscapes of post-war England but among the lives of those who dwell there. The landscapes in this poem range over town and country, over places off work and leisure; and the novelty of the poem’s presentation lies in its patterning of seemingly random observations and occurrences: the insertion of “a cooling tower”, for instance, between an Odeon cinema and a cricket field. Larkin’s England is a place of long-established agricultural and industrial labour: “Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and/ Canals with floatings of industrial froth”. It is also, however, a place that reveals the distinctive signs of post-war reconstruction, as we see in the speaker’s disapproving response to “the next town, new and nondescript.” The poem, says the same critic, makes extensive use of the urban pastoral perspective to impose a sense of unity and continuity upon geographical and historical divisions. Sometimes this takes the form of metaphoric substitution (“acres of dismantled cars”) and sometimes direct simile (“Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat”), but the rapid movement of the train is, in itself, a device which destroys spatial and temporal distances and creates a striking effect of simultaneity as well as change:
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads…….
It is important to note that The Whitsun Weddings is a poem of social and cultural attitudes, and not just a poem of direct and realistic description. The speaker in the poem defines his role in contemporary society in .terms of “reading”, and his position as an “intellectual” largely determines his presentation of events. The poem highlights differences in taste and value, as we see in the speaker’s comic but rather prim response to “girls in parodies of fashion.” The fourth stanza offers a characteristically middle-class perspective of common life: “The fathers with broad belts under their suits” etc., etc. The details of dress and behaviour in this stanza immediately show that its perspective belongs to someone of a different-class and culture, someone who is unimpressed by what he perceives as the. gaudy, second-rate products of the time: the gloves are nylon, not silk; and the jewellery is a cheap imitation of the real thing. The poem accordingly leaves itself open to a charge of snobbery and class-consciousness. This critic then goes on to say that the interest of The Whitsun Weddings lies not just in what is seen but in how it is seen. It is the particularity and relativity of vision which is emphasized in the poem: “each face seemed to define just what it saw.” The speaker’s perception proves to be limited and even faulty; he reveals how on a second and more curious inspection he “saw it all again in different terms.” But even then the poem scrupulously avoids making any final judgment on what the day’s events might signify. The poem moves repeatedly from the detached perspective of the speaker towards a more participatory, communal perspective:
Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
The implications of the phrase “free at last” continue to echo throughout the poem as it moves into a closer involvement with the hopes and expectations of the newly-married couples. On the whole, the poem contemplates the possibility of an integrated, unified vision, as well as its ultimate dissolution. Larkin told one of his interviewers that he had intended to give an unqualified assent lo the hopefulness at the end of the poem; and yet the suggestion of Cupid’s arrow and the more positive, fertile associations of rain cannot altogether eliminate the uneasiness and uncertainty associated with the poem’s final “sense of falling.”
Another critic points out that in this poem we find a recognition of weddings as moments of painful loss and separation as well as celebration. Marriage is here described not only as a joyful occasion but as “a happy funeral” and “a religious wounding”. This critic also says that the specific occasion of the poem was Whitsun or the day of Pentecost when the Apostles were “all with one accord” and “in one place”. Larkin’s poem adheres to this ideal of unity and coherence while endowing it with a secular rather than Christian significance.
17. NEXT, PLEASE
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
We are always excessively eager to know what would happen to us in the future. On account of this eagerness, we develop the bad habit of expecting, or hoping for, good things to happen in our lives. All the time we have-the feeling that something good is about to happen to us; and everyday we say that’ it would happen soon. We are like persons who stand upon the top of a cliff and observe a multitude of ships coming towards us. Actually, however, we see not ships but promises of bright and nice things happening to us. The approach of these promises, like that of ships, is very slow; and they waste much time. These promises do not materialize quickly; and eventually they do not materialize at all, so that we feel greatly disappointed and miserable. At a distance, each such promise looks distinct and concrete; but, with the passing of time, each of these promises fades away. We spend all our lives hoping for achievement and success, but our hopes prove to be false.
There is only one promise and one expectation which never fails to materialize, and that is death.
Critical Appreciation: The Theme of Disillusionment and of Death
The theme of this poem is the disillusionment that we experience as a result of the disappointment of all our hopes and expectations. We keep hoping for something good to happen to us, but our hope is dashed to the ground every time. Only one expectation is always fulfilled in human life, and that is the expectation of death. The title of the poem, Next, Please refers to one promise being followed by another. Literally, the title refers to a queue of persons waiting to receive something, and an official at the other end calling out for the next man in the queue to approach him and receive his certificate, or his rations, or his visa, or whatever it is for which people are standing and which they are waiting to receive. The last stanza of the poem points to the inevitability of death. In fact, the real theme of the poem is death. Larkin was obsessed with the idea of death; and many of his poems deal with this theme briefly or at length, directly or indirectly.
The Use of an Extended Metaphor to Express the Idea
The idea of this poem has been expressed by means of a metaphor. Our multitude of hopes is compared to a “sparkling armada of promises”. In other words, hopes are regarded as ships which are drawing near but which do not actually arrive at their destination. There is only one ship which would not fail to come; and that ship- is death. The metaphor of the ships begins from the second stanza of the poem and continues till the very end.
A critic points out that the title “Next, Please” is a phrase which Larkin dreaded hearing as a child whenever he reached the head of a queue at school or in shops: at school it meant that he would shortly have to answer some question which would be difficult for him to answer because of his stammer . Thus the poem begins with a memory of that fear, though it ends with an image which is frightening not only for Larkin himself but for us also. After describing the ways in which we hope that our “sparkling armada of promises” would soon unload its cargo for us, the poem starkly tells us that we are mistaken in our hope because there is only one .ship, namely death, which is seeking us. The same critic tells us that when, later in his life, Larkin fell seriously ill, the terror which he experienced represented the climax of a life-time’s fear of death. This fear he had expressed twenty-six years earlier in the poem, Next, Please. Only, on the later occasion, the ship of death was not just seeking him but had come very close to him. This critic also says that the poem Next, Please has a symbolist conclusion which confirms the death-obsessed bleakness of the five preceding stanzas. The conclusion (contained in the final or sixth stanza) illustrates W.B. Yeats’s view that symbols intensify a poem’s emotional content. Although a metaphor of ships and sailing is developed throughout the poem, it is only in the last stanza that the tone of rational argument and the structure of logical connections (“always”….. “Yet”…..“But”…..) are exchanged for the more bizarre concentrations of symbolism proper (a ship towing silence). The effect is movingly to confirm the fact and fear of death. There is, however, a sense in which the lines contain a saving grace. In spite of their denial of any chance of actual salvation, they remove the speaker to a position outside the familiar, and familiarly threatening, time because they release him from the world of ordinary events. As they do so, their expression of fear and awe is mitigated by a sense of the marvellous. The lines communicate an imaginative excitement which is in conflict with the meaning they contain. The same critic also says that Larkin’s exploitation of symbolist techniques in this poem, as in some others, does not guarantee him absolute freedom from time and its ravages.
Another critic expresses the view that in the poem Next, Please Larkin wants us to put aside our transitory, ill-founded hopes and see the “black-sailed unfamiliar ” approaching. Larkin takes every opportunity to record the inevitability of old age and death. In this poem he argues against our illusions and reminds us of death. Larkin also seems here to be trying to face death without flinching by showing his awareness of its relentless approach.
Yet another critic suggests that this poem powerfully renders the dramatic shock of existential experience as it breaks through all our habitual attempts to conceal the spectre of death. It is only in this ultimate confrontation, the poem implies, that we can free ourselves of illusion. What characterizes the poem and serves to mitigate the sense of dread usually associated with existentialist writing is its familiar colloquial voice. The title “Next, Please”, is a piece of black comedy, and the poem’s dominant image—a ship—is based on a popular and well-established phrase. The poem examines the claim that “one day your ship will come in.” The prominent placing of the plural pronoun “we” at the end of the opening line of the poem sets up a sense of shared expectancy which is reiterated in the emphatic “every day/Till then we say” (in the last line of the opening stanza). This impression of actual speech is further conveyed in the exclamation of the second stanza: “How slow they are!” The chiming syllables and the diminished effect of each stanza set up an appropriate tension between fulfilment and denial. The rhymes are sometimes comic and facile—”stalks/balks;” “tits/it’s.” But the final two stanzas possess a more sombre mood. This critic goes on to say that Next, Please might appear to be written from a darker philosophical position than the poem Toads, and that its final stanza might well remind us of the work of the French symbolist poets. But the poem’s stylistic features are generally consistent with the other poems in the volume “The Less Deceived”, and so too is its conception of freedom. Freedom in this case is the freedom from illusion, and the freedom of individual awareness. It may also be pointed out that the concept of freedom in these early poems including Next, Please is narrowly circumscribed. It may be argued further that the existential concerns of such poems as this one are closely attuned to the widespread spiritual and political quietism of the post-war years and need to be understood within that context.
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”)
Summer is coming to an end. The leaves are falling down from the trees, sometimes one at a time, and sometimes two at a time. The trees stand on the borders of the new recreation-ground. Young mothers assemble in this recreation-ground in the afternoons to watch, and to look after, their children who are at play. Behind the mothers stand the fathers of the children; but the fathers keep coming and going. The fathers are skilled workers. The mothers have a lot of washing to do; and the garments washed by them can be seen hanging on a line (or wire or rope). Inside the houses, there are albums, lying close to the television sets. A strong wind is blowing, and it seems to be doing some damage to the places where the men had courted the women whom they had subsequently married. The children born of those marriages are at play in the recreation-ground; and some of the children are looking for more unripe acorns to add to their collection. The children would soon be taken to their homes by their mothers. The beauty of the women has matured and, in fact, even given way to signs of old age. Something is pushing these women “to the side of their own lives.” In other Words, the women are experiencing the weight of responsibility or anxiety which makes them look older than they actually are.
We here have a pessimistic poem the central idea of which is that all happiness, including married happiness, is short-lived. There is nothing very original about this poem. Larkin is known for his pessimism; and here he has written a poem expressing a common idea in his own peculiar manner and in his own individual style. The only merit of this poem is its imagery—the leaves falling in ones and twos from the trees growing oh the borders of the new recreation-ground; the young mothers assembling at swing and sandpit; the husbands coming and standing behind them at intervals; the albums, lettered “Our Wedding” lying near the television sets, and so on. The phrase “in the hollows of afternoons” is noteworthy, as is the phrase “an estateful of washing.”
As a critic points out, Larkin believed that married couples could only expect to possess their happiness briefly, if at all. In this poem, “something is pushing” the women “to the side of their own lives.” This means that the women are becoming daily more and more frustrated. According to this critic, the poem Afternoons is one of those which give the reader an impression of the poet being death-obsessed. Another critic says that the poem Afternoons contains no metaphors at all. Yet another critic expresses the view that this poem, like several others in the same volume, records the changing social and cultural climate of the late 1950s and early 1960s in an extraordinary way. This climate has been defined by references to the new recreation-ground, to husbands in skilled trades, to an estateful of washing, to the albums, lettered “Our Wedding,” lying near the television. These phrases indicate the changes which had begun to take place in the social life of England at the time when this poem was written. Another critic points to the pessimism of the poem because the young couples in this poem find that something is pushing them to the side of their own lives. (It is noteworthy that, while one critic interprets the two closing lines as a description of the declining happiness of the women, the other critic interprets them as a picture of the declining happiness of the married couples. In any case, it is the pessimism of the lines which is highlighted by both the critics).
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
The poet says that he can imagine the bitter and sharp pain which the woman experienced when she was raped. He then describes a few details of daily life in London, such as the noise of wheels in the street, which prevent this woman from forgetting her memory of the outrage which the rapist had committed on her. She would still be remembering the pangs of grief which she experienced throughout the day following the night of the rape.
The poet thinks that any attempt on his part to try to console the aggrieved woman would be an act of insolence on his part. All that he can say in this context is that her suffering is something “exact” or precise but that, at the same time, the rapist must have acted under some kind of compulsion in raping her. The woman, says the poet, cannot understand that it was not only she but also the rapist who had been the victim of deception. She had been deceived because she was first drugged by the rapist on some pretext; and he was deceived by his feeling that he would derive some real pleasure from his act of rape. She lay on her bed in a state of intoxication, while he, thinking that he would really feel gratified by performing the sexual act with her, afterwards discovered that the act had given him no pleasure at all. The rapist had found his act of raping the woman to be devoid of any real satisfaction for him.
Critical Appreciation: A Highly Suggestive Poem
This poem about a rape is based upon an actual incident which took place in the 19th century, and which had been recorded by a writer called Mr. Mayhew in his book London Labour and the London Poor. According to this record, a woman was first drugged heavily before being raped, so that she did not regain her consciousness till the next morning. When she discovered that she had been raped, she felt horrified and, for some days, she continued to be in a state of utter despair, crying like a child, and wishing either to be killed or to be sent back to her aunt who was her guardian. It is evident from the note, which the poet has himself provided as an introduction to this poem, that the woman had no parents and no home of her own but had been living with an aunt as a kind of dependant. The circumstances, under which the rape took place, have not been stated either in the note provided by the poet or in the poem itself. Those circumstances have been left to our imagination, and so this poem acquires a highly suggestive quality. We are free to imagine any circumstances. Perhaps the rapist acted under a sudden impulse. Perhaps he had often been seeing this woman, had then made her acquaintance by some means, and had subsequently lured her into an apartment where he prevailed upon her to take some intoxicant so that she should not offer any resistance to his act. Perhaps he had first tried to make her agree to have the sexual act with him and, when she did not agree, he found some opportunity of drugging her and then gratifying his desire. Perhaps it was not his lust which drove him to this desperate act. It is possible that he had some grievance against the woman for some unintentional offence which she had given him; and he wanted to take his revenge upon her. Perhaps he had a grievance against the whole female sex, and he chose the most easily accessible woman to take his revenge upon the whole class of women. Thus there are any number of possibilities which the reader are free to choose from.
The Possible Basis for the Poet’s Plea on Behalf of the Rapist
There is something very original about the closing lines of this poem. Ordinarily our sympathies are always with the woman who has been raped because, no matter what the circumstances, a man has no right to use force against a woman to satisfy his lust for her, and no justification at all in using force. But, in the closing lines of this poem, the author has clearly tried to extenuate the rapist’s guilt by suggesting that perhaps the rapist himself felt more deceived by the result of his rape of her than the woman who had been deceived by first being drugged and then sexually assaulted. In other words, the rapist here has been given the benefit of the doubt. It is possible, says the poet in the concluding lines, that the rapist did not really enjoy this forcible act or that, after having accomplished his purpose, he found that the pleasure had not been worth all the trouble and of the deception which he had practised upon the woman. Although most readers would hardly accept the poet’s plea on behalf of the rapist, we feel inclined to agree with the poet because there certainly are circumstances in which a man may feel compelled to commit rape on a woman either to gratify his lust or to wreak his vengeance upon a woman. After all, a man starving for want of food would even commit a murder to get food in order to survive. Similarly, a man would murder another who has wronged him to such an extent that the wrong cannot be forgiven or condoned. In such cases, even a court of law takes a somewhat lenient view of the criminal’s action on the ground that the culprit hardly had any choice in the matter, and that he had found it simply impossible to crush the desperate motive which had led him to commit the offence. In any case, it is a most interesting poem because of the novel manner in which an act of rape has been dealt with by the poet.
One of the critics expresses the following view about this poem: “In Deceptions it is the rapist, not the victim who, Larkin insists, is the more deceived when he ‘bursts into fulfilment’s desolate attic’.” Another critic tells us that a large part of Larkin’s depiction of women has directly to do with violence against them, and that the poem Deceptions is an example. This critic also expresses the view that, in this poem as in a few others such as / see a girl dragged by the wrists, Larkin shows a tenderness, even a reverence toward women. But this critic goes on to say that, although Larkin here shows compassion for the woman’s suffering, he at the same time ends the poem in a problematic manner because he shows a great deal of sympathy for the man who had sexually assaulted her. In fact, says this critic, Larkin ends the poem with a marked detachment from the woman’s suffering with which he began the poem. This ambivalent view-point suggests a complex psychological structure underneath the poem, where the poet can, to some extent, identify himself with the woman’s victimization, though only partially. Larkin seems to show tenderness ‘awards this woman, and also his participation in her sorrow because she has been hurt. On the one hand, the poem suggests that Larkin can neither imaginatively become the victimized Victorian woman nor understand her, though he certainly shares some empathy with her by identifying himself with her pain:
Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
This description is also a grim kind of Freudian pun as well as a literal one, since the woman had been drugged before being raped. On the other hand, the poet distances himself and admits that he cannot participate in the woman’s grief:
I would not dare
Console you if I could.
Ultimately, however, the poet dramatizes the woman’s agony in the light of the rapist’s dissatisfaction once the deed is done. The rapist, in the poet’s opinion, had gained entrance only to “fulfilment’s desolate attic” by raping her. This means that the rapist’s use of violence in raping his victim could not really satisfy his desire for revenge against all women. A desire for revenge against women has deeper roots. This woman has been punished as an innocent victim; and the poet expresses remorse for her ruin at the same time that he recognizes some of the impulses which led to it. This critic further says that, in this poem, Larkin insists upon our seeing the rape as a vivid, actual occurrence, by first quoting the woman’s own words from Mr. Mayhew’s account in his huge book, London Labour and the London Poor. Larkin first exploits the occurrence by evoking the woman’s words and her misery, and then proceeds to offer to us the rapist’s point of view. The poem therefore seems to be almost frighteningly detached. This critic also cites certain opinions expressed by other critics. For instance, one critic writes that the only consolation, which the poet can offer to the raped woman, is that her suffering is “exact,” which means that she would grow spiritually by her knowledge, while the rapist’s fulfilment is in reality not a fulfilment but a disappointment and a blunder leading to a state of confusion in his mind. Another critic suggests that, although the woman cannot be consoled for her agony, she had no illusions as to what was happening. Larkin has here used the rapist’s lust as a symbol of all human desires; and his sense of shared self-deception allows him to go beyond his pity for the woman or his indignation against the rapist. This critic then comes to the conclusion that someone is eventually going to profit from the ruin of the raped woman because she would now be forced into prostitution. This critic realizes the intensity of the girl’s suffering which was so great that she begged her captors to kill her. According to this critic, then, Larkin in this poem shows a certain callousness towards the brutalized woman and a certain degree of sadism on his part.
Important Note. As is evident from the above remarks, critics have offered diverse interpretations of this poem. A critic by the name of Graham Holderness, as quoted by Stephen Regan, has staged an imaginary discussion of this poem among four literary critics of different ideological and temperamental ideas and views, with each of these four offering a different interpretation of it. One of them has offered the following interpretation: “The images of wounding, of light, and the concrete precision of ‘your mind lay open like a drawer of knives’ all work together to convey the sensations of something vulnerable that has been forced upon, dragged out into the hard light, left exposed as a self-tormenting consciousness, filled with sharp humiliation, unable to close.” Another of those four critics said that the poem reveals some aspects of the history of Victorian England, such as the extreme contrasts between wealth and poverty, deprivation and undeserved suffering, cruelty, and exploitation. And the other two critics had their interpretations to offer.
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
Larkin says that, if he were asked to establish a new religion, he would make use of water. Going to church necessitates drying different clothes; but his religion would make use of images of drenching and soaking the body in water, as is done during the Christian ritual known as “baptism”. Furthermore, Larkin would raise a glass of water towards the eastern sky where the sun rises, and from where light from all angles would fall endlessly upon the water in the glass.
This very short poem exalts water, imparting to it a spiritual and sacramental quality. Water seems to exercise some sort of fascination upon Larkin. He does not see God in water; but he would like to raise a glass of water towards the sun so that the sun’s radiance should brighten the water in the glass, and should fall upon it endlessly, and from many angles. This “any-angled” or many-angled light would constitute the congregation as a substitute for the congregation in a church. Thus Larkin here dispenses with the need of going to church by paying his homage to water and to the sun’s radiance.
One of the critics says that the subject of religion itself evokes from Larkin a thoughtful, yet half-playful, response, as in the poem Water, where the poet gravely considers an invitation to establish a new religion or to create a religion from scratch. In the poem Water, Larkin says that, in the religion, which he would construct, a prominent role would be assigned to the images of baptism and rebirth. But these remain rather cheerful and funny images, including “a furious devout drench”, and culminating in a vision of clarity yet multiplicity: “a glass of water/Where any-angled light/ Would congregate endlessly.” This poem offers a deliberately detached, unemotional view of religion, and perhaps constitutes something close to Larkin’s ideal in the matter. It combines a certain amount of whimsicality with reverence, and remains un-encumbered by fonts, rood-lofts, buttresses, carved choirs, and other significant though largely uninterpretable religious symbols which connect the Church with England, with tradition, and with a sense of nationalism. (The images of fonts, rood-lofts, buttresses, carved choirs, etc. occur in Larkin’s poem Church Going). Another critic says that the poem Water is an example of Larkin’s use of symbolism. The poem, says this critic, has an expositional opening:
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Here Larkin has introduced a metaphor which is gradually developed and intensified until the final stanza.
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
The earthly glass of water becomes more than simply a sign and an object of worship. It is transformed into an imaginative recognition of endlessness, in which all knowledge of time, of time’s constraints, and of self and its shortcomings, is put aside. Yet another critic expresses the view that Larkin in some of his poems longs for transcendence and revelation, and that there is a certain visionary quality about these poems. It is not only in the poems of the volume entitled “High Windows” that this visionary quality is to be found. The same flooding of light occurs in earlier poems, such as Water. While this luminous quality might be described as romantic in its imaginative intensity, its most comparable achievements are to be met with in the modernism of the two Irish writers, James Joyce and W. B. Yeats. Another critic already mentioned above, also points out the symbolist technique in the closing lines of the poem.
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”)
Days are the time during which we are alive. Days come, and they awaken us every time to the need of living our lives actively. Days are the time when we can feel happy. If there were no days, we would not have been able to live active and happy lives. The question naturally arises: Can we live anywhere else, apart from living in the time knows as “days”? As soon we ask that question, we think of the death which is inevitable and which would put an end to our lives. Answering that question makes us only think of the priest and the doctor who would be summoned as soon as there is a fear that our deaths are near. A doctor is needed to find out if we can continue to live, and a priest is needed because he can provide some spiritual comfort to us if we are actually about to die.
This poem expresses the view that days are the only important part of our lives. It is during the time known as “days” that we can lead active, vigorous, and happy lives. If there were no days, we would not know how to live, and we would then merely wait for death which, in any case, is inevitable. Thus this poem, like several others by Larkin, reminds us of death even as it points out the need and the desirability of days. A pessimistic mood characterizes even this poem which actually describes the importance of days. Days make life possible and worth while. The poem is certainly about living, but an awareness of death is also present here. The poem is short and compact; and, as is usual with Larkin, it is written in a condensed and almost terse style.
One of the critics expresses the view, which almost every critic has expressed in his own way, that Larkin was obsessed with the idea of death. Larkin’s most grim meditation on death is to be found in the poem Aubade in which Larkin confronts death’s inevitability. Aubade has been described as Larkin’s “in-a-funk-about-death poem”. This critic then says that the poem Days expresses an attitude of stoicism in the face of death. Days, according to this critic, is “an under-stated poem about life and death.” Days are where we live, says Larkin in this poem. An end of days would lead to a frozen picture of completely meaningless activity, bringing the priest and the doctor “running over the fields.” In this poem, as in several others, Larkin seems to be trying to face death without flinching by giving expression to his awareness of death’s relentless approach. Another critic describes this poem as “an ontological riddle,” like the poem Going.
22. HIGH WINDOWS
(From the volume of poems entitled “High Windows”)
When the poet sees a young man and a young girl together, very close to each other, he gets the impression that they are engaged in the sexual act. Then he imagines that the girl must be taking birth-control pills or wearing a diaphragm as a precaution against becoming pregnant. Then the poet also imagines that this young couple are enjoying the kind of heavenly pleasure which every old man has merely been desiring all his life without being able to enjoy it. Young people now-a-days dismiss all such considerations as a sense of responsibility towards their respective families, and they regard all kinds of inhibitions and taboos as obsolete, like a harvesting machine which has been discarded because it has been superseded by a new kind of machine. And then it also occurs’ to the poet that every young man and every young woman are seeking more and more sexual pleasure, and enjoying it endlessly.
Forty years back, says the poet, nobody looking at him could have thought that things would change so rapidly. When he was young, nobody could have imagined that the young men and the women of the next generation would be leading a different kind of life in which they would neither have to feel afraid of God nor of the evil consequences of their reckless sexual life nor of going to hell. Nor could anybody have imagined that the young people of the coming times would inwardly feel a contempt for the priest though outwardly showing him due respect. Nobody could have imagined that the young people of the future would lead a free sexual life like the birds.
At this point in his cogitations, the thought of high windows comes to the poet’s mind. The glass-panes of these high windows understand the meaning of the sunlight which falls upon them. And through these glass-panes the poet perceives the blue sky and the atmosphere which seems to contain nothing, which in fact exists nowhere, and which has no ending.
This poem depicts the glaring contrast between the sexual life of the old generation and the sexual life of the present generation. (Of course, this contrast has become even more glaring now, thirty years after this poem was written). In the olden days, young people were afraid of indulging in the sexual act without being married and, if at all they did so, they felt most guilty about it. But then came the time when social attitudes changed, and when young people began to have a sense of freedom so far as the sexual act was concerned. This social attitude liberated the young people of all fears of indulging in the sexual act at their own sweet will. (This attitude came to be known as permissiveness). Western society today is even more permissive than it was at the time when this poem was written. The young people began to treat the sex-act as only a game to be played whenever they felt like it. All that they had to guard against was pregnancy; and so birth-control pills and diaphragms became the necessary accompaniments of the sexual act. (A diaphragm is a rubber device which is inserted by a woman into her vagina to prevent pregnancy. A man wears what is known as a “condom” which now-a-days is more in use than the diaphragm).
An Ambiguity About the Poet’s Attitude Towards Permissiveness
The poet’s feeling of regret over the lost opportunities in his life is implicit in the poem, though it does not find an explicit expression. Philip Larkin remained a bachelor all his life; and he here merely comments on the sex-act which is taken very lightly by the young people these days. At the same time1 the closing lines of the poem express the poet’s sense of the futility of life itself. The poet finds nothing beyond the high windows except the air and the blue sky. In other words, life seems to the poet to be meaningless. While the poet’s own attitude towards the high degree of permissiveness in western society in this poem is somewhat ambiguous, our own reaction to this permissiveness is certainly one of the deepest regret because even our own Indian society is becoming more and more permissive everyday in emulation of western society. When we imitate the westerners, we always try to go one step beyond the point which they have reached; and an imitation of the western modes of life has become a matter of high priority with us. We must imitate the westerners as a matter of principle because otherwise we would begin to think ourselves an inferior race of people.
Nothing Vulgar or Obscene in the Poem
The poem is written in a simple style. There is nothing complicated in it, and nothing obscure though the concluding lines do puzzle us a little. We should not feel shocked by the opening lines in which the right word has been used for the act of sexual intercourse. Of course, we dare not use that, word here; but we have no doubt at all about the appropriateness of that word in the context in which it has been used by Larkin. This kind of candour is now-a-days accepted as a matter of course and as something fully justified. We should not regard the use of that word as vulgar. There is no vulgarity or obscenity in using the correct word instead of beating about the bush. Whether we use the phrase “sexual intercourse” or the notorious four-letter word for it, matters little because the idea in both cases is the same. Why, then, not be frank about it?
According to one critic , Larkin has satirized a certain social change in this poem. Larkin thinks that the generation before his own was the one to overthrow religious dogma; and this overthrow, in Larkin’s opinion, had worked to his own advantage. The protagonist (or the poet himself) in this poem, as in certain other poems, feels caught in a certain atheistic or agnostic position which he feels is hard-won and necessary, and yet which seems somewhat unsatisfactory. The availability of the pill or the diaphragm has led to a revolution in sexual relations; but Larkin regards this availability as a rather vulgar debasement of the corresponding freedom from religious angst for Larkin’s generation, even though that too has been satirized in the poem: “sweating in the dark/About hell and that.” Thus the difficulty of modern man’s position, as Larkin sees it, is that he cannot either fully denounce or embrace religious faith; he is left with a sense of impotent anger because an inbred residue of morality continues to haunt him and to spoil possible pleasures. The same critic further says that in the poem High Windows, Larkin perceives the modern generation as having achieved freedom from entrapment because sex no longer necessarily leads to domestic responsibility created by the begetting of children. A young boy can perform the sexual act with his girl-friend without the danger of begetting children, thanks to the girl’s pills or diaphragm. In the same way, the entire generation described in another poem, Annus Mirabilis, has entered a glorious revolution. Because of a change in the social structure and the arrival of contraceptives, a middle-aged bachelor in 1963 had a much better chance of enjoying sexual intercourse with no strings attached although, to his dismay, the protagonist himself cannot partake in it because he has now grown too old for the purpose. Conditions are now favourable, but the opportunity has come too late for the middle-aged or the old bachelor.
According to another critic the poem High Windows grew out of rage: the rage of unsatisfied desire, the rage of shame, and the rage of having to persuade everyone that “the thought of high windows” guarantees happiness. The poem’s beautifully achieved shift from the empirical to the symbolic cannot disguise or subdue Larkin’s appetite for what he has never had. The same critic also says that this poem compares the apparent freedom of the present with the miserable repressions of the past. It was not Larkin’s fault that he missed some of the pleasures of life: he was simply born too early to benefit from the sexual revolution of the early 1960s, and therefore had no option other than to become a victim of shyness, fear, and ignorance. In another poem, namely Annus Mirabilis, Larkin wrote:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
One critic makes the point that the poem High Windows starts out looking like a poem about sex and becomes a poem about religion; and another critic , commenting on this view, says that sex and religion are immediately implicated in the protagonist’s ironic invocation of “paradise” in the opening stanza. This critic goes on to say that there is a parallel throughout the poem between the sexual freedom of the new generation and the freethinking agnosticism of the old: “No God any more, or sweating in the dark/About hell and that...” In the event both these attitudes are seen as limited and illusory notions of freedom. This critic adds that, beyond the immediate concern with sex and religion, there is a political dimension to this poem.
Our own view in the matter is that Larkin welcomes the modern generation’s emancipation from religious inhibitions and prohibitions in sexual relations between men and women, and that at the same time he feels somewhat irked by the feeling that beyond the high windows there is nothing tangible or concrete to offer any hope or any bright promise to us.
23. LINES ON A YOUNG LADY’S PHOTOGRAPH ALBUM
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
The poet says that, when he went through the album which the lady at last allowed him to go through, his reaction to the pictures in it was one of wild excitement. These pictures show Winifred at various stages of her life; and he finds these pictures to be excessively sweet and sumptuous, so that he almost feels breathless because of the over-delicious feast provided by them.
The poet’s rapidly moving eyes hungrily look at one picture of Winifred after another, each picture showing her in a different pose. He sees her as a small girl, in her pigtails, holding tightly a cat which seems to be unwilling to be held in such a tight grip. He sees her as a sweet girl-graduate. He se«s her raising a rose to her face as she stands in a summer-house. He sees her wearing a trilby hat which he finds somewhat disturbing. No matter which picture of Winifred he looks at, it fills him with an intense (sexual) desire for her so that his self-control is almost shaken. The sight of a few young fellows, who are seen around her in one of the pictures of her youthful days, causes some anxiety and disquiet to him because those fellows do not belong to the same class of society to which she belongs.
These pictures produce in the poet a feeling that photography is a faithful art but at the name time, a disappointing art. No other art is so faithful and at the same time so disappointing as photography is. A photograph records dull days as dull days; and it records the forced smiles of the persons photographed, clearly indicating that the smiles were forced ones and, therefore, false. A photograph does not hide any flaws or faults in the person photographed or any flaws in the background. When a camera takes the picture of a person, the photograph might also show in the background such things as a Bashing-line and a board advertising distemper for the walls. These articles, which would appear in the picture, are surely an unpleasant feature of the picture but the camera could not have hidden them while photographing a person with those items in the background. The cat unwilling to be held in the hands of the person photographed could not have been hidden by the camera when Winifred was photographed with the unwilling cat in the grip of her hands. Nor could the camera hide Winifred’s double chin. But the camera at the same time did record the grace which resulted from Winifred’s frank expression on her face. That photograph (showing Winifred with her frank face and all its grace) overwhelms the poet with the feeling that he is seeing a real girl in a real place, and the feeling that the photograph is in every sense faithful and true. But perhaps the poet is also feeling overwhelmed by the thought that these photographs of Winifred bring to his mind the past events and happenings in Winifred’s life. The flowers, the gate, the dim parks, and the motor-cars, which he sees in the background in these photographs of Winifred, cause great distress to the poet because her past has come to an end, and because now the Winifred of those photographs has become an obsolete person.
The poet feels that ultimately we (human beings) cry not only at what is past but also at being excluded from the past. We are no longer the persons that we used to be in the past, and we feel greatly pained by this feeling of exclusion and because of our freedom to cry. We are aware of the past happenings and situations, and our grief over their pastness is inevitable as we go through an album containing pictures which depict the past. And so the poet now mourns the loss of that Winifred who is seen in one of the pictures, poised on a bicycle against the background of a fence. He also sees her in a picture which shows her bathing. All these photographs, taken together sum up Winifred’s past life which no one can now share, no matter to whom her future may belong. This album holds her like a heaven. (In other words, the poet finds these photographs of Winifred to be as beautiful as heaven is). And he finds her in the photographs of this album looking lovely on all the past occasions; and he now has the feeling that she is becoming smaller but more distinct with the passing of the years.
The young lady of this poem was Winifred Arnot, one of Larkin’s friends. It is worth noting that barely one month after this poem was written, Winifred got married. This fact lends additional significance to the line: “No matter whose your future” in the final stanza. The album, through which Larkin looks, shows Winifred in various poses, and at the various stages of her life—childhood, girlhood, youth, and maturity; and the photographs show her on many different occasions in the course of her life. The fact that the photographs show Winifred at different times and on different occasions gives the poet the opportunity to depict her in her various poses and at different times in his own poem as well. The imagery in the poem is , of course, very vivid, though it cannot be as vivid as the photographs themselves must have been. But we, not having seen those photographs, are able to visualize Winifred through the vivid imagery in the poem: Winifred, in pigtails, clutching a reluctant cat; Winifred as a sweet girl-graduate wearing a fur-coat; Winifred plucking a rose and raising it to her face; and Winifred with a number of young admirers around her. This vivid imagery in the poem is followed by Larkin’s view of photography as an art. Photography is certainly a faithful art because it transfers reality to a picture. But it is at the same time a disappointing art, unlike other arts which are a source of unadulterated pleasure. Photography cannot hide blemishes; it is not a selective art. A photograph would show the loveliness of a woman but it would also show the ugly background against which she was photographed. Arts such as painting, poetry, and music are selective, in the sense that the artist can select whatever attracts him and can reject what displeases him. The poet also laments the fact that one cannot re-live the past actually though one may re-live the past imaginatively. Anyhow, the poet finds Winifred looking lovely in each of the photographs which Larkin finds in her album. In this connection, it may be pointed out that Larkin also addressed several poems to some of the other women with whom he had been intimate in the course of his life. He addressed poems to Monica Jones and to Maeve Brennan as well as to Winifred.
One of the critics says that most of the details, including the double chin, in the photographs of the album seen by Larkin are true and precise. This poem, according to this critic, shows that Larkin found much pleasure in fantasy, because the photographs, though actual and faithful, do not bring the person Winifred before Larkin’s eyes but merely enable him to visualize that woman imaginatively. In this connection, this critic also informs us that Larkin liked to gaze at pictures in general, especially pictures in pornographic magazines. This poem, this critic further says, is one of great beauty and sociable truthfulness. At the end of this poem, Larkin tells us that he feels depressed by the fact that the album brings before him “a past that no one now can share/No matter whose your future.” This critic also says that this poem expressly states the losses of a narrowly literal attitude to experience. Photography, the poet says, depends for its charm and success on depicting real people in a real place, and on being “in every sense empirically true”. But it is exactly for these reasons that Larkin is not prepared to give photography the status of art because art depends on allowing the imagination a free and transfiguring play, while photography is true and exact, and denies to the beholder’s imagination any freedom. This critic further expresses the view that here we have a characteristically ambivalent poem—a showpiece of the Movement , but discreetly hinting at the Movement’s limitations. Another critic is of the view that this poem is an expression of Larkin’s disappointment and melancholy at the inaccessibility of beautiful women. The girl in this poem arouses Larkin’s jealousy. Perhaps she is present when the poet goes through the album containing her photographs, but she is in some ways inaccessible to him. Although rivalries are theoretically long past, the poet dislikes the competition which appears in the photograph in the form of the “chaps” who “loll/At ease about your earlier days.” In a moment of possessiveness, the poet becomes jealous about the times in the past when he was not present while other young men were present in the girl’s company. In addition to arousing his jealousy of his rivals, the photographs reflect the futility of his desire to possess her now. Even when he is thinking of stealing one of these photographs (the one which shows her bathing), he finds that he can still only grasp an image of her, and not the woman herself. What disappoints him is the sense of exclusion from her life: the photographs depict “a past that no one now can share.” The distance from the woman is all the more painful because in the photographs she is seen to be a “real girl in a real place” through the convincing medium of the camera. (This problem of remoteness is aggravated in the case of idealized women who appear on posters in the service of advertising, and who seem actively to seek men’s admiration which they demand without giving anything substantial in return). The girl in the photographs of this album is real, and photography has reproduced her faithfully; and yet she is unreal because she exists only in the photographs. Thus photography in this poem becomes a kind of metaphor for the poet’s inability to communicate with Winifred or to touch her. The ultimate consequence is frustration.
Another critic expresses the view that the album in this poem becomes an occasion for a series of erotic fantasies about the woman’s body, especially in the light of such phrases as “yielded up” and “once open” (which occur in the two opening lines). The nature of the speaker’s desire is evident in the strongly physical suggestions of such words as “choke” and “hungers”. This is a poem which belongs to a particular discourse of sexuality in which an emerging libertarian attitude is balanced against traditional ideas of sexual courtship and conduct. By 1974 this oblique eroticism had given way to the expletives of the poems in the volume entitled “High Windows”. The technique of looking at “a real girl” in a series of photographs suggests that there are further psychological and cultural dimensions to this poem. The woman is presented under the male gaze of the speaker’s “swivel eye” in a series of familiar poses—child-like with animals or flowers, or in literary stereotypes such as “sweet girl-graduate”, a phrase which had been used by Tennyson. Any departure from these established norms upsets the speaker’s sense of proper relationships, as we see in his suggestion of the woman in a trilby hat: “(Faintly disturbing, that, in several ways)—/From every side you strike at my control.” It is clear also that this fear of a departure from convention, this preservation of the status quo, has significant class dimensions. The speaker’s response to the “disquieting chaps who loll at ease” around the woman in her earlier days is precise and telling. The colloquial ease of Larkin’s verse allows us to identify its socio-linguistic context, and in this case we cannot fail to hear the restrained but confidently superior tones of middle-class English: “Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole.” Photography is acknowledged as an art that is “in every sense empirically true”, but the speaker’s attitudes to the photographs do not maintain the same degree of impartiality. There is a very noticeable cultural bias in the speaker’s recollection of the past and his undisguised preference for “misty parks and motors” over such “blemishes” as “washing-lines” and “Hairs-distemper boards” (a reference to a popular whitewash widely used in those days). The woman in the poem is not just an object of male desire but a symbol of an irrecoverable national past: she embodies all those things which “lacerate simply by being over”, and “contracts” the speaker’s heart “by looking out of date.” Like many other poems in the volume entitled “The Less Deceived”, Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album shows a resigned and quietistic acceptance of the present, along with a corresponding sense of regret over what has happened and come to an end. This is a poem in which freedom means the freedom to cry and the freedom to mourn the passing years “without a chance of consequence.” The closing lines of the poem are invested with a lyrical and elegiac beauty which elevates “the young lady” of the poem to the status of a mythical figure presiding over a lost paradise:
In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm-and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie,
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by.
There is a powerful sense of loss and diminution in the poem, and it is made all the more painful because perspective brings significance. At the same time, an apparently careless disregard of the future effectively relieves the speaker of any obligation or commitment, while a past that is “calm and dry” leaves him “free” of complicating relationships and actions.
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Less Deceived”)
The wind had been blowing all day when the speaker (a woman) in this poem had got married; and her wedding-night was the night when the wind blew with its maximum force and intensity ????????? had repeatedly been banging because of the fierce wind. The banging door indicated that the woman’s husband had gone out, leaving her to hear the sound of the rain, and to feel that she was a stupid woman sitting in the candle-light in which she could see the reflection of her face but thought that she saw nothing. When her husband returned, he had told her that the horses were feeling restless, whereupon she had felt sad to think that any man or any beast should lack that happiness which she was experiencing that night when she had been united with her husband.
Then the day dawned, and everything in this world seemed to her very complicated or problematic because of the blowing of the wind. Her husband had now gone out to look at the floods (which had been caused by the heavy rains), while she had carried a bucket of water to the chicken-run and, putting it down there, had merely stared at the scene before her. The wind had seemed to be travelling through the clouds and the’ forests, as if searching for something, and the wind had struck against her apron and against the garments hanging on a string.
The woman then proceeded to ask herself a few questions. She first asked if the wind, as an embodiment of her joy, could be endured. She then asked if she would be allowed to sleep now when her bed had been visited by the morning which, in her case, would last for ever. Finally, she asked if it was possible even for death to deprive her of the delights of her. married state.
This poem is a monologue, in which a woman describes her experience of her wedding-night, with a reference to her wedding-day and her anticipation of the future. There is nothing very unusual, or anything exciting, about the woman’s experiences relating to her marriage. The only unusual happenings on her wedding-day and her wedding-night were the wind blowing with great might, and the questions which arose in her mind. As for the happiness which she felt, it is nothing unusual because every married woman, like every married man, would feel rapturously happy on her or his wedding-day and wedding-night. A noteworthy feature of the poem is its imagery. There is the wind blowing all day, and the wind attaining its maximum speed at night, with a stable-door banging again and again. The woman could see nothing in the light of the candle in the room because she was lost in her thoughts about her wedding and about her husband. But then came a complication in the woman’s thoughts. Everything seemed to her to be problematic because of the wind’s blowing. She asked herself if the wind’s blowing could be endured even when the wind seemed to embody her joy on the occasion of her marriage; then she asked if she would be permitted to sleep as a consequence of the perpetual morning which has visited her bed; and finally she asked if even death would be able to put an end to her new-found happiness.
Apart from the vivid imagery in the poem, a noteworthy feature of this poem is the use of a number of similes and metaphors in it. The words “hunting” and “thrashing” have been used metaphorically. “Like a thread carrying beads” is a simile. Here, again, is a metaphorical use of words: “this perpetual morning shares my bed.” There is another metaphor in the phrase “these new delighted lakes.” ‘And there is a simile: “our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters.”
One of the critics, commenting upon two of Larkin’s poems (Two Guitar Pieces and Wedding-Wind) says that, in the manner of Robert Frost’s dramatic monologues, and some of D.H. Lawrence’s, these two poems tell stories which pass off their real emotional occasion as an anecdote about a third person. Wedding-Wind, says this critic, is a narrative poem in which Larkin speaks in the fictional voice of a young woman on the morning after her wedding. The closing seven lines of this poem try to invalidate Larkin’s usual objections to happiness in a blaze of rhetorical questions. This critic goes on to tell us that, five months before writing this poem, Larkin had noted in his pocket-diary: “The only married state I intimately know (that of my parents) is bloody hell. Never must it be forgotten.” Larkin had also made the following comment on his poetry in general, and on this poem in particular: “Generally my poems are related to my personal life, but by no means always, since I can imagine horses I have never seen (in At Grass) or the emotions of a bride (in Wedding-Wind) without ever having been a woman or married.” Another critic says that Larkin is not just a Johnsonian analyst of the human mind; he is also a Lawrentian romantic deeply concerned with spiritual health. Wedding-Wind and The Explosion contain rare moments of experiential surprise and a language which is both domestic and religious. (Other critics are likely to attribute these qualities to a different set of modernist influences, like symbolism). According to another critic Larkin’s agnostic attitudes determine the way in which he deals with sexual relationships in his early poems. Nearly always, love in his early poems is treated with caution and in an ambivalent manner as if, like religion, it commits us to a ritual which promises to “solve and satisfy” but which can prove false. The most striking example of these attitudes is to be found in the poem Wedding-Wind, where the transition from “the night of the high wind” to “this perpetual morning” typifies the predominant strand of imagery in Larkin’s post-war poems. The compound noun of the title (Wedding-Wind) establishes a correspondence between the regenerative, creative power of the wind and sexual fulfilment. The wedding-night is a moment of unique happiness, but the anxious questions in the last seven lines of the poem imply a certain degree of doubt about whether such happiness can last. The new-found delight of the bride seems to offer hope and flexibility, and a way of contemplating “even death,” but the poem nevertheless ends with a question mark. In the context of the wedding, the imagery of wind and water seems to carry a spiritual, sacramental power, but the poem turns on whether these are divine or purely arbitrary, forces. There are several references to “kneeling” in the early poems, but here the phrase “kneeling as cattle” in the last line, suggests an action-based on instinct rather than a gesture of prayer and thankfulness. This critic then goes on to say that Wedding-Wind was written in 1946 and that its heralding of “perpetual morning” is in keeping with the powerful sense of release which accompanies Larkin’s immediate post-war writing. What is also evident, though, is that the ending of the war (in 1945) coincided with a crisis of belief in Larkin’s poetry and a deep uncertainty about the vocation of the poet in modern society. Larkin’s emergence as a mature writer must be seen within the complex formative period of the war-years.
(From the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”)
Ambulances drive through a city street, and stop close to the kerb to pick up a critically sick man and take him to a hospital. They are closed on all sides like the enclosures within which a priest listens to the confessions of men in order to absolve them of their sense of guilt. Everybody looks at an ambulance when it is driving through the streets, though an ambulance does not look back at anybody. When an ambulance stops, the children playing by the road-side, and the women coming back after their shopping, see a sick man with a bloodless face being carried by the ambulance-men on a stretcher and then being deposited inside the ambulance. The women then perceive the emptiness or the insignificance of everything which human beings do. In other words, the thought that this sick man might soon die gives these women the feeling that nothing in this world is worth doing. As the ambulance drives away, these women express their feeling of sympathy for him by saying: “Poor soul!” Actually, however, this sympathy is a form of selfishness because these women are imagining themselves in the position of the man on the stretcher. In any case, the sick man has been taken away to a hospital: and the sense of loss which the spectactors might have experienced would then abruptly come to an end. The man, who has been carried to the hospital by the ambulance, had led a meaningful life which was a mixture of family relationships and an observance of the fashions of the time. But that life has now come to an end and has, in fact, lost all its meaning.
Critical Appreciation: A Pessimistic Poem About Illness and Death
The main idea in this poem is that an ambulance signifies illness, and that it fills the spectators with the thought of death. The spectators perceive their own lives coming to an end when they see a seriously ailing man being taken to a hospital by an ambulance. The approach of death, says the poet, would mean an end to a life of activity which includes family relationships and fashions. But, when death comes, this “unique random blend of families and fashions” would come to an end, thus depriving life of all its meaning. Here then is another poem about death by Larkin who had felt obsessed with the fact and the reality of death throughout his life. This, again, is a pessimistic poem with an atmosphere of pathos and melancholy hovering over it.
Vivid and Realistic Imagery
The first two stanzas of this poem contain vivid and realistic imagery of the ambulances threading their way through the streets of a city possibly at noon-time when there are many loud noises coming from the traffic and from the crowds of people. When an ambulance comes to a stop, women coming from the shops look at the wild white face of the sick man who is being taken away to a hospital. There is a realistic detail about the women coming from the shops, “past smells of different dinners,” meaning that these women have passed several food-shops which were emitting odours of different kinds. The remaining three stanzas of this poem contain the poet’s reflections and meditations on the sad fate which awaits all of us. The entire life of an individual loses its meaning in the face of his approaching death. There is a vivid picture also in the line: “The traffic parts to let go by”. When an ambulance is driving through a street, the people move quickly to one side or the other in order to make way for the ambulance.
A Depressing Poem
This poem is a really depressing one. The very title suggests something saddening. The sight of an ambulance has an immediate effect on the spectators who would at once think of somebody dying. An ambulance may remove a sick man, who has been injured seriously in a road accident, to a hospital. But an ambulance always symbolizes illness, disease, a road accident, and possibly death. The sight of an ambulance is by no means a cheering one.
One of the critics says that the poem Ambulances conveys the idea that every imaginable pain in life is as nothing compared to the permanent and true fact of death. This poem is, in its totality, a celebration of the values of consciousness. Even the greatest drama of life—“the unique random blend of families and fashions”—cannot continue for ever. All streets in time are visited by ambulances, and all people are eventually carried and stowed inside those ambulances. The same critic says that Ambulances, like all Larkin’s best poems, modestly and devoutly collects evidence of ordinary life to create a truth which can be universally acknowledged.
Another critic points out that Larkin wrote a group of poems which insist harshly on fear in the face of death, and which are therefore bleak and sinister. In some of these poems, Larkin’s view of death is chilling and effective because of the very ordinariness and everyday settings he writes about. For instance, in the poem Ambulances, he emphasizes the omnipresence of death in the line: “All streets in time are visited.” His poem Aubade proves that nothing can defeat or mitigate the horror and permanence of death.
According to another critic , what gives to the poem Ambulances its impressive authority is its relentless insistence that “all streets in time are visited,” and its closing assertion that to be taken away by an ambulance “brings closer what is left to come,/And dulls to distance all we are.” This poem is able to arrive at that comprehensive realism only by concentrating simultaneously on the particularity of the lives in question, namely the lives of the children on steps or on the road, and of the women “coming from the shops, past smells of different dinners.” The reference to smells of different dinners leads unexpectedly to a moment of heightened intensity, while its seemingly mundane quality strengthens the sense of common destiny which follows in the line: “so permanent and blank and true.” The phrase “solving emptiness” a little before this line functions enigmatically and ambiguously since the word “solving” can be interpreted as both resolving and dissolving. The poem seems to speak with timeless and universal wisdom, and yet its ideas are those of a very distinctive agnostic consciousness. Larkin’s support to late twentieth-century agnosticism is evident not just in the poem’s residual religious vocabulary (“Closed like confessions” or “Poor soul, they whisper....”) but also in the conviction that individual lives are both “random” and “unique”. What gives that individual life a claim upon the reader’s attention is “what cohered in it across/The years.” In the absence of a more sustaining and unifying belief, the speakers in Larkin’s poems resort to the secular principle of coherence. This notion of coherence, however, is not only a pseudo-religious principle; it is also an idea which is central to English political liberalism and to the underlying aspirations of post-war consensus. (It is this search for coherence that gives scope and momentum to what many commentators regard as Larkin’s finest poem. The Whitsun Weddings).
26. GOING, GOING
(From the volume of poems entitled “High Windows”)
The poet says that he had been under the impression that the countryside in England would last at least as long as he remained alive. He had thought that the fields, the farms, and the trees would continue, and that, when people felt fed up with the congestion of a city, it would yet be possible for a man to drive his car away from the city and go to the countryside for some relaxation and rest. Similarly, he had thought that, even if people were to continue their bad habit of throwing all their garbage into the sea, the water of the sea away from the shore would remain clean.
But the poet’s expectations are not proving true. He finds that more and more houses are being built, that more and more of open spaces are being converted into construction-sites where big business and commercial buildings would soon appear, and that even the sea is becoming dirtier and dirtier everyday. In view of the rapid changes, which are taking place, the poet feels that England would soon become the leading slum of Europe, and that this decline in the quality of the environment would also lead to a decline in the art and culture of the country. More and more of crooks arid prostitutes would appear in the cities and, while books would continue to be published and art-exhibitions would continue to be held in art-galleries, the environment would, on the whole, be spoilt and tarnished by the increased construction of tall buildings and by a tremendous rise in the number of motor vehicles. The greed of the industrialists would lead to greater construction activity, and the congestion in the cities would lead to the accumulation of more and more rubbish and filth.
Critical Appreciation: A Pun on the Title “Going, Going”
This poem is a lament over the rapid deterioration in the quality of life in England. There is a pun upon the title of this poem. In one sense, the words “going, going” mean that the beauty of the countryside in England is fast disappearing; but, in another sense, these words mean that the English countryside is being sold to industrialists and other greedy people who want to make money by converting the open spaces of the countryside into sites for factories, workshops, and commercial buildings. In this latter sense, the words “going, going” are an auctioneer’s loud .cry that the article in question is about to be handed over to the last bidder. In this sense, the title of the poem means that the English countryside is being auctioned or sold in order that it may be utilized for commercial purposes and financial gain. Thus in this sense the title is ironical.
A Satire on Greed and on the Loss of the Aesthetic Sense
The poem is a satire on the greed of the business-minded people of England, and a denunciation of the greed and avarice of the business and commercial community. The English people, according to Larkin, are swiftly losing their aesthetic sense and falling a prey to their worldliness and their craze for more and more material wealth. The fourth and fifth stanzas are in this context the most conspicuous. Here we are told that the children of the worldly-minded people are screaming for more (more toys, more sweets, more clothes, more everything), that more houses are being built, that more parking space for cars has to be provided, that the bespectacled business magnates are trying to take over more and more localities for their commercial expansion. The last three stanzas too are very important because here the poet reaches his conclusions, the chief conclusion being that England would soon become the “first slum of Europe”, with “a cast of crooks and tarts (that is, prostitutes). As the poem is satirical, it certainly amuses us. But, as it is also denunciatory, it expresses anger, indignation, and even fury, and we tend to share this mood.
Vivid and Realistic Imagery
The imagery in the poem is vivid and realistic. The refreshing rural scenery is fast disappearing, and the bleak high-rise buildings are making their appearance. (“High-risers” are the multi-storeyed buildings). Then there are the pictures of filth being “chucked” into the sea, the young crowd in the MI cafe, the spectacled business magnates smiling approvingly and complacently at the expectations of high returns from the investments they are going to make on the purchase of open spaces, and so on.
Alliteration and Rhyme
There are a number of alliterative phrases in the poem to enhance its technical excellence. “Boiling will be bricked in” (the b sound is repeated here); “a cast of crooks and tarts” (here the c or k sound and the s sound are repeated); “the carved choirs” (here again the c or k sound is repeated); “it will linger on in galleries” (here the g sound is repeated). The end-rhymes and inner-rhymes here and there also add to the appeal of the poem.
A Dramatic Monologue, Written in a Colloquial Style
In form Going, Going is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker is addressing an imaginary listener and expressing his thoughts and feelings with regard to the changes which were taking place in England at the time this poem was written. The speaker is, of course, the poet himself; and he speaks in a colloquial or conversational style which is one of the chief characteristics of Larkin’s poetry.
Commenting on this poem, one critic , says that, although Larkin is often seen as a poet who celebrates England and Englishness, he generally maintains a respectful distance from the countryside and from the people who inhabit the countryside. Many of Larkin’s poems, says this critic, depict England as steadily disappearing and thus in need of being seen clearly in the present. By the time the poet arrives—or the next generation, or the “last” person who comes to seek the place’s meaning—it will be “England gone,” as the poem Going, Going describes it, in great imaginative detail. The loss of a figurative Eden sustained by individual persons is not Larkin’s primary concern, but he does grieve for its passing; somewhat comically, the trees which are soon to be cut down would only be climbed by “village louts,” an affectionate term as well as a slightly satiric one. In some fundamental sense, then, life as it is bound up with the nation’s identity seems to be slipping away. Many of Larkin’s poems thus become elegies for England. These elegies range from regret and tenderness to anger and fatalism about the changing state of the country.
Another critic says that the poem Going, Going shows Larkin’s polemical style. This poem first appeared in 1972 as part of a report commissioned by the British Department of the Environment. Anticipating that England would become the first slum of Europe, the poem modulates into a regressive pastoralism. The culprit is money, with the auctioneer’s cry of “going, going,” which suggests that the countryside is being sold off:
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; if will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
In its concern for the environment this poem responds cynically to the whole modernizing, commercializing ethic of successive post-war governments. The embittered mood, however, spills over into a dismal and intolerant attitude towards the crowd in the MI cafe, whose “kids are screaming for more”. (Although Larkin has often been portrayed as a confirmed conservative and as an admirer of Mrs. Thatcher, yet his feelings of emptiness and depression grew as the government’s policy towards the universities threatened the future of the library Larkin had built up and the university he had served for so long. While Larkin’s later work sometimes gives expression to his bitterness with regard to the conservative government’s policies, his poetry actually belongs to the political tradition known as liberal humanism).