Thursday, December 2, 2010

Philip Larkin As A Poet

Conflicting Critical Views of Larkin’s Poetry

There are conflicting opinions about Larkin as a poet. In fact, there is a wide diversity of critical opinion about his achievement as a poet.
Larkin has won applause, some of it very warm and enthusiastic; and he has provoked criticism, some of it very harsh and severe. Some of the most renowned critics have found fault with his poetry; and some of the most renowned critics have defended him against that fault-finding. Among the severest critics of his poetry are Alfred Alvarez and Charles Tomlinson; and his defenders include Donald Davie and Andrew Motion. Larkin’s detractors have seen him as “the reluctant poet of the drab and austere surfaces of post-war Britain”, while his defenders have pointed out the social realism of his poetry and its clear-sighted acceptance of the way things were. Eventually it was this image of ordinariness and intelligibility which served to recommend him to contemporary readers and helped to sustain his popularity. The publication of his last volume of poems entitled “High Windows” in 1974 brought about a great change in the earlier critical appraisal of his work. It had become almost common to say that his poetry suffered from the faults of boredom and mediocrity, and that it relied too much on a narrow range of traditional forms and techniques. But, after 1974, he began to be seen by most readers as a provocative and disquieting poet whose work showed the impact of modernism and symbolism. The previous charges of “gentility” and “parochialism” against him were now almost dismissed. Although he was regarded as one of the poets of what came to be known as the “Movement”, his poetry was subsequently placed within the established literary traditions such as romanticism, realism, modernism, and symbolism. Previously he had been regarded as belonging to the tradition of poetry represented by Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, and Edward Thomas; later he began to be recognized as a follower of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence, though he himself might not have been fully conscious of the influence of the second group of poets.

The Themes in Larkin’s Poetry, and His Treatment of Them

Time, death, chance, and choice have been identified by critics as the leading themes in Larkin’s poetry. In fact, according to many critics, these themes are the very stuff of which Larkin’s poetry is made. While Larkin’s critics have pointed to the narrowness of this range of themes, his admirers have expressed their praise for his distinctive treatment of them. One of the critics, who is among his admirers, defined Larkin’s greatness as a writer in the light of his treatment of a traditional and lasting subject-matter. This critic wrote: “His themes—love, change, disenchantment, the mystery and inexplicableness of the poet’s survival, and death’s finality—are unshakably major.” Another critic has said that among Larkin’s best poems are many which deal simply with universal themes of time, suffering, and death. This critic points out that Larkin’s poem Next, Please expresses the view that illusion is interwoven with all human thinking, and that human beings can never escape from the inadequacy of the present. This critic also says that Larkin in this poem does not rebel because failure seems to him one of the unalterable facts of life. Another admirer speaks about Larkin’s particular kind of compassionate despair at the human condition; and this critic names the poem Faith Healing as an example. At the same time, this critic says that Larkin has made out of a bitter and unalterable situation a poetry which is undoubtedly modern in its content and its cadences. Yet another admirer of Larkin refers to the “perennial” themes of Larkin’s poetry. According to this critic, death and old age are two of Larkin’s most obsessive themes. But he also finds other themes in Larkin’s poetry, and in this connection he makes the following significant comment on Larkin’s poem Vers de Societe (written in 1971):

The poem shows how constant Larkin’s themes have remained since 1946: disappointment in life, the pressures of society on the individual, the desire to escape those pressures together with the fear of the isolation such escape brings, the encroachment of time.

Yet another critic speaks of the contemporary circumstances of Larkin’s poetry, and says that Larkin is intimately concerned with a world in which human beings have been caught up in time, desire, and disappointment; and he discusses the poem Church Going, distinguishing contemporary agnosticism from earlier forms of disbelief, and saying that the speaker of the poem is “skeptical of the fruits of skepticism”, and seemingly “as dissatisfied with his disbelief as with conventional dogma.”

Another Critic’s Views About Larkin’s Themes

These are not the only critics who have discussed the themes of Larkin’s poetry. There are others too. One of them refers to Larkin’s emphasis on the sadness of the human condition, and says that the poem At Grass is a poem about old age. This critic also finds such other themes in Larkin’s poetry as failure, the fragility of human choices (between bachelorhood and marriage, for example), the importance of vocation in life, the horrifying reality of death, the struggles of the common people, and the universality of human misery and sadness. According to this critic, Larkin is not only an analyst of the human mind but also a romantic deeply concerned with the spiritual health of human beings. This critic also finds rare moments of “experiential surprise” in the poems Wedding Wind and The Explosion. And we may add that man’s alienation from this world and his sense of isolation from his environment, from Nature, and from things in general are also a prominent theme in Larkin’s poetry.

The Stylistic Qualities and Poetic Techniques of Larkin’s Work

A number of critics have discussed Larkin’s poetic style and his poetic techniques. Larkin’s technical achievements in many of his poems, including the imagery in them and their metre, rhythm, and syntax have been commented upon in great detail. For instance, one of the critics has pointed to the syntactic inversion of the closing line of the poem At Grass, to the half-rhymes of “home” and “come”, and to the subtle inner para-rhyme of “groom” in the final stanza. The effect of this, he says, is to feel the voice hush and the imagery become subdued. The inverted syntax, he further says, is part of the subdued and delaying echo of the verse. Both elements are part of an effect conveying the sense of evening and impending death. Another critic shows how aspects of meaning in poetry are indicated through metrical effects. This critic comments thus on the third stanza of the same poem, namely At Grass:

The lines describe the scene, but the change in metre makes us hear and see it. Where the other stanzas are written in iambic pentameters, reversals of feet in the third stanza turn the first halves of these three lines into rocking choriambics, enacting the horses’ gallop.

Actually, however, this poem is written not in iambic pentameter but in iambic tetrameter.

Other Views About Larkin’s Style and Techniques

Another critic says that the grammatical features of the poem Mr. Bleaney, particularly its use of person, tense, and syntax, should be clearly understood if we are to appreciate fully how this poem functions. This poem describes two scenes: the speaker’s conversation with the landlady, and the speaker’s private reflections on his own existence. But, in the transition, there seems to be a fusion of person and tense; the first-person of the speaker merges with the third-person past of Mr. Bleaney. There is also a noticeable change in syntax, marked by the opening conjunction of the final two stanzas. What is unusual about these two stanzas is that they consist of a single complex sentence introduced by what appears to be a conditional clause. This critic then shows how the poem moves “from confident detachment to confused involvement”, and how this progression is conveyed through specific linguistic devices. Another critic , speaking about the-linguistic features of Larkin’s poetry, distinguishes between two poetic styles or structures of language, namely metaphor and metonymy. He then asserts that the Movement poets including Larkin were essentially realistic and metonymic. He further says that Larkin pushed lyric poetry (which is an inherently metaphoric mode) towards the metonymic mode. He next points out that Larkin employs metonymic and synechdochic detail to evoke the race-day scene in the third stanza of the poem At Grass. He also comments on the scarcity of metaphor in Larkin’s work, and says that, while some of the early poems such as Next, Please or Toads were extended metaphors, many poems have no metaphors at all. In the poem called The Whitsun Weddings, for example, the scenery of the train journey is described largely by the use of metonymy and synechdoche (“drifting breadth,” “blinding windscreens,” etc.). What is unusual about this poem is that the final stanza suddenly takes off into a more affirmative element suggested by the metaphor of the rain shower. This metaphor, with its mythical, magical and archaic resonances, is powerful partly because it is so different from anything else in the poem. In this way Larkin is able to surprise us by allowing a current of metaphorical language into the poem. Something of the same kind happens in the poem Mr. Bleaney, though here the effect comes not so much from the introduction of the metaphor as from a subtle complication of metre, line-endings, and syntax.

The Metaphoric and Metonymic Modes

Another critic ‘expresses the view that the dynamic relationship between metaphoric and metonymic principles often leads to a symbolic mode which reveals itself in the hidden structures of many of Larkin’s poems. A typical example, says this critic, is the seemingly metonymical description of the’ horses in the poem At Grass. Here, the realistic description in each stanza is structured according to a pattern of standstill, incipient movement, developing to a climax, subsequent rest, and final standstill. When taken on its own, this motif is metaphoric; it functions as a vehicle of time’s progress in human life. Simultaneously, however, such patterns are based on metonymical contiguities which do not seem to result from the poet’s artistic transformation. Like At Grass, most of Larkin’s symbolic poems remain realistic. This critic then goes on to analyze Larkin’s poem entitled Here to demonstrate how the metonymic mode becomes symbolic. This critic’s recognition of Larkin’s symbolic mode of writing derives largely from the view of many critics that Larkin has been writing partly within a tradition of symbolist poetry going back to the work of W.B. Yeats and nineteenth-century French writers.

Larkin’s Attitude to Modernism and Symbolism

From the very beginning, Larkin had been expressing a certain degree of hostility to the ideas and techniques of modernism. He expressed a deep dislike for the work of three modernists, the musician Parker, the poet Ezra Pound, and the painter Picasso. He regarded modernist experiments in the fields of music, poetry, and painting as irresponsible exploitations of technique in opposition to human life as we know it. However, in the nineteen-eighties, some critics began to perceive a distinct symbolist mode of writing in Larkin’s poetry and, therefore, a fairly strong inclination towards modernism (because the symbolist technique is one of the most conspicuous modernist techniques). This new critical attitude towards Larkin’s poetry showed a recognition of the strongly affirmative and transcendent element in his poetry. What brought about this change in the attitude of the critics towards Larkin’s poetry was the publication in 1974 of Larkin’s last volume of poems entitled “High Windows”. The poems in this volume were characterized by unusual experiments with form and by a frequent obscurity and allusiveness. According to one critic , the total impression which this volume of poems produced was one of despair made beautiful, real despair and real beauty, with not a trace of posturing in either. Another critic noted that this volume contained fewer depressive poems, and that, instead, Larkin’s tendency in them was to affirm the value , of human endeavour (in such poems as To the Sea; Show Saturday; and The Explosion) or to expose it to comic satire (as in poems like Posterity; Homage to a Government; and This Be the Verse).What surprised critics most, however, was the emergence of the symbolist vision which Larkin was believed to have abandoned soon after the publication in 1945 of “The North Ship,” Larkin’s first volume of poems.

Seamus Heaney’s View of Larkin’s Symbolist Potential

Larkin’s symbolist potential received an impressive recognition from Seamus Heaney (who was appointed the poet-laureate of England in 1995). Heaney acknowledged Larkin’s detailed social observation, but he also noted a simultaneous yearning for transcendence and revelation in Larkin’s poetry. Heaney twice used the word “symbolist” to describe the linguistic structures of the poems in the volume entitled “High Windows”. He noted the unusual diction of the poem Sad Steps and praised the poem Solar as a hymn to the sun. In Solar, he said, Larkin was very far from the hatless man who took off his cycle-clips “in awkward reverence” (in the poem Church Going). At the same time Heaney emphasized the peculiar Englishness of Larkin’s poetry. Another critic also pointed out that the poem High Windows was characterized by some of the ideas and techniques of French symbolist poetry. The eminent critic and biographer Andrew Motion explored in detail the symbolist dimensions of Larkin’s poetry. He too agreed that Larkin had surely responded to the example of French symbolist poets at an early stage in his poetic career. However, Andrew Motion emphatically expressed the view that subsequently Larkin wrote his poems under the persistent and combined influence of Thomas Hardy and W.B. Yeats. According to this critic, Larkin’s best and most characteristic work represents a dialectic between the empirical mode of Hardy and the symbolist mode of Yeats, or between the language of sadness and isolation repeatedly competing with the language of aspiration and transcendence. In Andrew Motion’s opinion, this dialectic is an expression of Larkin’s divided response to the world. In other words, Larkin’s poetry is a continual debate between hopeful romantic yearning and disillusioned pragmatism. This critic also expresses the view that the volume of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings” is a book which conforms most exactly to the attitudes and styles of the Movement group of poets and, therefore, the least symbolist in technique though he finds evidence of the symbolist method in the closing lines of the title poem in this volume and also in the closing lines of the poem Water. As Andrew Motion equates the words symbolism and transcendence, it is evident that he emphasizes the positive or affirmative aspects of the title poem of this volume somewhat more than other critics had done. Andrew Motion further says that the volume of poems entitled “High Windows” contains more purely symbolist elements than the volume entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”. The poem which most successfully employs symbolist techniques in his opinion is the title poem in the volume “High Windows”. Andrew Motion rendered a great service to the cause of parkin’s poetry by challenging the common view that Larkin’s poetry was severely limited in outlook and unadventurous in style and technique. However, one other eminent critic says that Andrew Motion has too neatly defined Hardy’s and Yeats’s roles as opposing influences, one empirical and the other symbolist, on Larkin.

A Writer of Dramatic Monologues

As one of the other critics says, Larkin’s poems often take the form of dramatic monologues which seem intended to reveal Larkin’s own thoughts and feelings because he is speaking out of his own strong convictions. In other words, the speakers in these poems are Larkin himself. Although this emphasis on his own thoughts and feelings may seem to be egoistical, it is this which gives strength to Larkin’s poems; and, as he himself has said, it reflects the example of his literary mentor, Thomas Hardy. Yet his own experience and his own way of commenting on that experience are markedly different from Hardy’s. For instance, when Larkin indulges in self-pity, he often parodies it, as for example in the poem Selfs the Man. Furthermore, when Larkin divides things into two opposing sides, he usually seems to be carefully weighing them against each other, measuring their relative merits, and coming to some sort of a logical conclusion.

His Obsession With Death and His Consequent Pessimism

Every critic has noted Larkin’s obsession with death. According to one of the critics, Larkin emphasizes the omnipresence of death, as, for example, in the poem Ambulances. The poem Aubade represents the climax of Larkin’s preoccupation with death. The recurrence of this motif in his poems inevitably imparts a pessimistic quality to them. One critic says that Larkin has often been classified as a hopeless and inflexible pessimist. Another critic has described him as “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket”. Larkin has also -been classified as “a graveyard poet”. We, on our part, recognize the undeniable reality of death and, therefore, the realism of those poems in which Larkin dwells upon the theme of death. They may be saddening, but they are perfectly realistic and convincing. Why should we always expect poetry to be exhilarating or pleasurable? Even the poetry of death can bring about an exhilaration in us through a catharsis of our feelings.

Some Other Views of Larkin as Expressed in His Poems:

His Agnosticism; and His Love-Poems

In religion, Larkin was an agnostic as the poem Church Going clearly shows. Larkin’s dilemma was not whether to believe in God but what to put in God’s place. The poem Church Going describes a strictly secular faith, as a critic puts it. Larkin, unlike the romantic poets, had little faith in Nature or in any relationship between man and Nature. Indeed, he often in his poems represents man as being isolated from Nature. One of the critics’ referred to Larkin’s attitude of imperiousness towards the non-human world. It is, in fact, not an imperiousness but an acknowledgment that the natural world is vulnerable and transient despite its beauty. Larkin also wrote a number of love-poems. But he did not depict love as a very ardent or satisfying passion. None of his poems records the achievement of complete success in love; and even those, which come close to describing success, are heavily diluted. The poem Wedding Wind, in spite of its excitement and fulfilment, dilutes its happiness with a volley of questions and with an acknowledgment that the speaker is sad because other people and animals cannot share the speaker’s contentment. The same kind of ambivalence exists in the poem An Arundel Tomb. Throughout, Larkin carefully weighs losses against gains in the sphere of love. On one hand, love is merely a theoretical possibility; on the other hand, it might yet succeed.

Two Noteworthy Comments By Critics

The following two comments by critics deserve to be quoted here:

(1) “Regarded for much of his career as a minor poet with a narrow range of subject-matter, Larkin now seems to dominate the history of English poetry in the second half of the (twentieth) century much as T.S. Eliot dominated it in the first. Though detractors continue to speak of his gloom, philistinism, insularity, and anti-modernism, the authority and grandiloquence of his long poems, and the grace, sharpness, or humour of his shorter ones now seem indisputable, as does his clear-eyed engagements with love, marriage, freedom, destiny, ageing, death, and other far from marginal subjects. The appearance of his “Collected Poems” in 1988, while turning up no new masterpieces added over eighty poems to the Larkin canon, considerably enlarging our sense of a poet who had published only four slim volumes in his life-time.” (P.B.M)

(2) “But he is far more than a social observer or commentator in verse, however acute and sensitive. Compared with the great poets of the recent past—the heroic generation of modernism—he is undeniably narrow; but he is also deep, in his own characteristic way. Each of his mature volumes contains one or two longish, finely wrought poems which touch on the major and perennial themes of existence: death in Church Going (“The Less Deceived”); love and marriage in the title poem of “The Whitsun Weddings”, and love and death in An Arundel Tomb in the same collection; old age in The Old Fools, and death in The Building (“High Windows”). Each of his collections, too, contains a number of short lyrics, sometimes difficult, but of marked aesthetic intensity and at times hauntingly beautiful: Coming, Going, Age, Absences, Water, Days, Afternoons. Larkin’s mood is, admittedly, often bleak or sad or autumnal, occasionally even despairing. But certain poems attain a note of celebration, like The Trees or Show Saturday. Profoundly agnostic, Larkin still finds value and consolation in the recurring rituals that bring human beings together, like a funeral, a wedding, an annual horse-show. Reading Larkin one misses large gestures of affirmation or defiance—the kind of thing he found he could not accept in Yeats—and their absence can be a little lowering. But Larkin’s poetry offers many satisfactions; like other good poets he has made positive poems out of negative feelings.”

(Bernard Bergonzi)

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