As Andrew Motion says, Larkin has often been regarded as a hopeless, inflexible pessimist. Another critic has called him “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket.” Nor is there any doubt in our minds about the pessimism of Larkin as judged by his poems.
His outlook on life is undoubtedly bleak and gloomy; and this gloom is deepened by his constant references to the inevitability of death in his poems. He himself, of course, denied the charge of pessimism, saying that the impulse to write a poem was never negative, and that the most negative poem in the world was itself a proof that the writer had a capacity for positive thinking. Actually, however, the majority of poems written by Larkin reflect his disappointment and dismay at the spectacle of the life around him; and he saw himself also as a pathetic kind of man and not as a hero capable of rising above his circumstances and above his fear of old age and death.
Reality an Unquestionable and Sad Fact in Larkin’s Poetry
In many of his poems, the outlook is so gloomy that man seems to be a helpless victim of circumstances. Man is depicted in these poems either as a victim of social conditions and the environment around him or as doomed to old age and death without being able to find any comfort or consolation in anything. As Larkin was a thorough-going agnostic, he did not depict man as a creature capable of deriving any comfort from his faith in God or his belief in immortality. A sceptic can find no comfort in life, while a believer in the existence of God and in the immortality of the soul can draw enormous comfort from this belief even if this belief be a superstition. Larkin, as a representative of the Movement poets, aimed at depicting the realities of life. Indeed, it was an article of faith with him to depict the realities of life in all their harshness, starkness, and sternness. In other words, reality was an unquestionable fact which he had to depict in his poems; but somehow man did not appear to him to be an independent being, or as having the power to mould his circumstances. Thus Larkin depicted life as something happening to man, and not as man moulding the conditions and the environment around him. In other words, Larkin’s pessimism is of such a profound variety that man is depicted in his poems as a victim and not as an architect of his fate. In this respect he greatly resembles Thomas Hardy though he does not put any emphasis on chance, accident, and coincidence as being responsible for the misfortunes of life. Larkin’s main emphasis is on the misery of old age and on the inevitability of death.
The Insignificance of Man as Depicted in the Poem Going
In the poem Going, Larkin speaks of death as an evening which is coming across the fields, an evening never seen before, an evening which lights no lamps, and an evening which seems silken from a distance but which brings absolutely no comfort. The poet then feels deeply despondent because he cannot see the tree which he used to see before, because he cannot feel the object which lies beneath his hands, and because there is some weight which presses his hands downwards. Here then is a most pessimistic poem which expresses the poet’s helplessness. The poet depicts himself in this poem as an absolutely insignificant item in the scheme of things.
Two Other Pessimistic Poems; Next, Please, and A Young Lady’s Album
The poem Next, Please also belongs to the same category. Here life is depicted as a series of promises and hopes which are never fulfilled. Larkin here speaks of promises and hopes in terms of ships which are expected to arrive at the port but which never arrive. There is only one ship, a black-sailed and unfamiliar one, which is seeking us. This ship is evidently death. Here too, man has been depicted as a victim whom death seeks relentlessly and who cannot escape from it. Another pessimistic poem is entitled Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album. Here the poet mourns the loss of youth and beauty by a woman who now stands at the threshold of old age and whose photographs remind the poet of the beauty, the charm, and the grace which she used to possess in her youth. “So I am left to mourn (without a chance of consequence) you, balanced on a bike against a fence,” he says, addressing that lady. Thus, even beauty and charm are subject to decline and death, and the lady in question has no means of preserving her proud possessions of her younger days.
Examples of Man’s Insignificance and Helplessness from Other Poems
In the poem Afternoons, we find the poet expressing the view that the beauty of the women has thickened with the passing of time, and that something is pushing them to the side of their lives. In the poem Days, which begins joyously, the poet comes to the sad conclusion that a little thinking would remind us of the priest and the doctor, thus implying that we are subject to disease and death. Thus even a cheerful poem has a sad ending in Larkin’s hands. Here, too, man is made to realize his own insignificance in the face of the realities of life. The same is the impression which we get from our reading of the poem Nothing to Be Said. Here the poet says that everything is moving towards its death. Nations, nomads, tribes, and “cobble-close families” are all slowly moving towards extinction. In the poem Ambulances the poet points out that every street, is visited by disease and death, and that an ambulance is required in every street. Thus, here the universality of death is emphasized, without any ray of comfort or hope being visible. In the poem Sad Steps, the moon, which is first described as the lozenge of love and the medallion of art, is then depicted as a symbol of the lost youth and strength. The “wide stare” of the moon is a reminder of the strength and pain of being young. Thus here even the strength of youth is linked with the painful experiences of youth. One generation of young people would grow old, but it would be followed by another generation of young people. Not only the strength of youth but also the painful experiences of youth are something permanent. Thus man as an individual has no identity and no free will. Things happen to him; but he-can do nothing to alter them or to mould them to suit to his own convenience.
Some More Poems of the Same Kind
Even the poem entitled The Whitsun Weddings, in which there is no deep gloom and in which the poet shows himself to be a detached observer, has a pessimistic side to it. Here the poet speaks of a wedding in terms of “a happy funeral” and “a religious wounding.” He also speaks here of women and girls as being “loaded with the sum of all they saw.” None of the people seen by the poet in the course of his journey has any individuality of his or her own. The poem Church Going is gloomy because here the poet foresees the utter loss of faith and a consequent decline in the importance of churches. In fact, he thinks of the time when people would stop going to .churches altogether. Although the last stanza in this poem has an affirmative quality, it fails to nullify the depression and the gloom which the foregoing six stanzas have produced in our minds. Even poems like Mr. Bleaney, Toads, and Toads Revisited, which are not very pessimistic, contain a streak of sadness and despondency. And then there is the poem Dockery and Son which ends with the depressing lines about life being first boredom, then fear, and life taking us to old age, and then to the end of old age. And even more pessimistic is the poem called Aubade.