Irony is one of the most conspicuous features of the poetry of Larkin. Irony arises from contrast, generally a contrast between the apparent meaning of a word or a line or a passage or a whole poem and the writer’s actual, intended meaning. Irony may be used to heighten a tragic effect or to produce a comic effect. Larkin makes a comic use of irony, even though there is almost no irony in his serious poems which are characterized by a gloomy and pessimistic outlook. In many cases, Larkin employs irony to poke fun at himself. Of course, he makes use of irony to mock at the objectionable things which are taking place in his country; but even so he shows a marked tendency to mock at himself.
The Use of Irony in Church Going
Church Going is a poem in which Larkin employs irony to mock at an established institution, namely the Church, even though, the poem ends with a very serious stanza having a profound significance. There is irony behind the very title of this poem. Apparently the title refers to people’s custom of going to church on Sundays to offer prayers, and also of going to church on special occasions such as a marriage or a birth or a death. But the title also refers to the decline of the Church, and the Church departing altogether from the lives of the people. Then the poet speaks ironically about his reverence for the church when he says that, being hatless, he took off his cycle-clips in awkward reverence before entering the church. He also employs irony when he utters the words: “Here endeth” instead of the word “Amen”. Then he speaks ironically when he tells us that he signed the book and donated an Irish sixpence. There is irony also in his remark that certain churches would become museums with their “parchment, plate, and pyx” on display. Here the very alliteration adds to the irony. The poet then speaks ironically about superstitious women visiting churches in future to seek remedies for the ills of their children. And he gives an ironical reply to his own question: what would remain when disbelief has gone? Next, he speaks ironically about the kind of people who might continue to visit the churches even after a general loss of faith in the country; and he speaks ironically about the last visitor who might represent Larkin himself and his character as a bored and “uninformed man” feeling inclined to visit a church despite his loss of faith.
The Use of Irony in Water and in Toads
The poem Water is wholly ironical. Here Larkin speaks about the possibility of his being called upon to construct a religion. If he does receive such an invitation, he would make use of water, and his liturgy would employ images of soaking, and a furious drenching of a religious kind. Finally, he would raise the glass of water towards the east so that “any-angled light,” might “congregate” upon it “endlessly”. Here Larkin is mocking at religious ceremonies and rituals in general. In the poem Toads, Larkin speaks ironically about persons who live on their wits; and then he makes use of comic alliteration when giving examples of such folk including lecturers, lispers, losels, loblolly-men, and louts; and he also speaks ironically about the “unspeakable wives” of the wandering men who have no homes and who dwell on a temporary basis in the city lanes. These wives are “skinny as whippets.” And he is ironical also when he shouts the words: “Stuff your pension!” But irony reaches its height in this poem when he refers to people who manage to get fame, money, and sweethearts by making use of their talent for glib and persuasive talk.
The Use of Irony in Mr. Bleaney
Irony pervades the whole poem called Mr. Bleaney. The room in which Mr. Bleaney dwelt was very shabby, and the view from its window was shabby also. This shabbiness has been described in the poem in an ironical vein. Then the poet lies down on the bed where Mr. Bleaney used to lie, and he snuffs his cigarettes on the same saucer (or ash-tray) which Mr. Bleaney was in the habit of using for that purpose. Next, the poet speaks ironically about the blaring radio-set which he describes as “the jabbering set.” In order to drown the noise coming from the radio-set, the poet stuffs his ears with cotton. Then the poet speaks ironically about Mr. Bleaney’s going to stay with some folk in Frinton to spend his summer holidays. Finally, the poet speaks ironically about Mr. Bleaney’s feelings about this room, and Mr. Bleaney’s grinning at the thought that this room was his home. But Larkin ends the poem with a very serious and instructive remark which does not have the least touch of irony in it. This poem is an ironical portrayal of Mr. Bleaney but, at the same time, the poet portrays himself in an ironical manner, partly by indicating the resemblance between himself and Mr. Bleaney, and partly by bringing to our notice the wide difference between himself and Mr. Bleaney—the intellectual man and the man who earned his living by manual work.
Irony in Afternoons and in Annus Mirabilis
There is a touch of irony in the poem Afternoons. In the middle stanza of this poem, Larkin speaks ironically about the husbands standing behind their wives, about “an estateful of washing,” and about the albums lying near the television-sets. The albums contain photographs taken on the occasion of the weddings of the various men. Then, of course, the poem becomes serious and ends with a gloomy picture of the lives which the wives are now leading. The poem Annus Mirabilis (meaning the year of wonders or marvels) is wholly ironical. Here Larkin pays an ironic tribute to the nineteen-sixties. Here is that tribute:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first L.P.
The Latin title of this poem mimics John Dryden’s genuine tribute to the year 1666; and this title gives rise to expectations which are countered by the ironical opening stanza. (“Chatterley ban” refers to the banning of D.H. Lawrence’s book Lady Chatterley’s lover; and L.P. is the abbreviated form of a long-playing gramophone record. The Beatles were a well-known group of pop singers).
Irony in the Poem High Windows
Similarly the poem called High Windows is an ironic tribute to the sexual freedom of the nineteen-sixties, though the closing lines of this poem are written in an entirely different vein. In the opening stanza of this poem, Larkin refers to a couple making love to each other, with the girl feeling perfectly secure because she either takes pills or wears a diaphragm to ward off pregnancy.
Irony in the Poems The Whitsun Weddings and Going, Going
There are many touches of irony in the poem entitled The Whitsun Weddings. Here Larkin has given us an account of a railway journey which he made from Oxford to Hull. The manner in which he has described the sights, which he saw from the window of the railway train by which he: made the journey, is mostly ironical. To take only one example, Larkin has described the girls standing on the railway stations as “grinning and pomaded, in parodies of fashion, heels, and veils”. These girls stood there “irresolutely.” Likewise, in the poem Going, Going, Larkin’s account of the damage which is being done to the landscape and the rural scenery in England has ironical touches. There is, for instance, irony in his pictures of the young crowd in the MI Cafe and the kids screaming for more, followed by pictures of a greater provision of housing and parking-spaces as well as of more camping sites and more pay. There is irony also in the picture of the business-page in a newspaper, with a score of spectacled industrialists grinning approvingly over their attempts to buy some more property which is likely to yield high returns to them. There is obvious irony in the manner in which Larkin says that England would not find it difficult to become “the first slum of Europe” because the country has a large number of “crooks and tarts” (or prostitutes).
There is obvious irony in the poem Dockery and Son though the ending is serious and even melancholy. In this poem Larkin pokes fun at Dockery for having a wife and a son while he himself has neither. Larkin attributes people’s eagerness to get married and beget children to custom and habit, and not to any basic or fundamental desire based on any precious values of life. There is a lot of irony in the poem Faith Healing in which Larkin gives us an ironical picture of an American evangelist managing to exercise a kind of spell upon his women-clients some of whom are seen going into an ecstasy and shedding tears of joy. We have a vein of irony even in An Arundel Tomb though this poem also has a serious ending with a significant moral. Here Larkin gives us an ironical account of the way in which the sculptor depicted the Earl and the Countess in a loving posture. The irony here arises from the contrast between the want of love in the actual life of the Earl and his wife and the marital happiness as depicted by the sculptor in the statues. Love was wanting; but the sculptor depicted it in his art, basing that love on a fancy of his own.