The assistant literary editor of a periodical in England gave the name “The Movement” to the kind of poetry which was written by a few poets during the nineteen-fifties and which he found to be very different from the modernist poetry written in the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties.
This man invented the name “The Movement” in 1953 for the work of a number of poets who included Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Elizebeth Jennings, Thorn Gunn, Donald Davie, and D.J. Enright. Soon afterwards an anthology called “New Lines”, containing the work of these poets, appeared; and in it a number of poems by Larkin were also included. In the introduction to this anthology, its editor (Robert Conquest) wrote that these poems of the nineteen-fifties were vastly different from the poems which had been written in the preceding two decades. This new poetry, he wrote, did not submit to any great systems of theoretical constructs or to any agglomerations of unconscious commands. This new poetry, he further wrote, was free from both mystical and logical compulsions, and was empirical in its attitude to all things.
The Temperate Zone of the Movement’s Poetic Scene
Actually, the poets of the Movement were not an organized group with any well-defined and deliberately formulated aims shared by them all. The poetry of each member of this group differed in several ways from the poetry of every other member. All the same, there were certain features which were identified by critics as being common to the poetry of most of the members of this group. Questioned on this point, Larkin said that the members of this group did not have many artistic aims in common but that they agreed, in general, in things which they found funny or derisible. Larkin did not give any clear definition of the poetry of the Movement, though he did agree that certain features were common to the work of all the poets of this group. Talking about his own poetry, he emphasized the expository, documentary, empirical, and rational elements in his poems; and these qualities were evident in the work of other members of the group also. While Larkin gave high praise to the poetry of Thomas Hardy, he tried to discredit the work of the modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and even W.B. Yeats. Actually, Larkin had, in the beginning, been deeply influenced by the symbolist poetry of W.B. Yeats and of the French poets of the late nineteenth century. But subsequently he tried to shed this symbolist and modernist influence in favour of the kind of poetry that Thomas Hardy and other traditionalists had written. And yet he never completely outgrew the Yeatsian or the symbolist influence. The symbolist influence is paramount in Larkin’s early work/in the poems of the volume entitled “The North Ship” and in some of the poems of the volume entitled “The Less Deceived.” But the volume entitled “The Whitsun Weddings” hardly shows any symbolist or Yeatsian influence, though one or two poems even in this volume have been written in the symbolist mode. The symbolist or Yeatsian influence re-surfaced prominently in the poems of the volume entitled “High Windows”, in which even the title poem is symbolist in its handling of its theme. Thus it came about that Larkin did not go the whole hog in carrying out the aims of the Movement because he could never completely cast off the symbolist or the Yeatsian or the modernist influence. At the same time, his participation in the aims of the Movement and his affinity with the poets of the Movement has to be acknowledged even though this participation was not a deliberate or pre-planned affair. Perhaps, more than any other member of the group representing the Movement, Larkin illustrates the salient features of the poetry of the Movement. He stands with Kingsley Amis and Donald Davie as a leading member of this group of poets; but he is the one illustrious poet whose work also illustrates, in many of his poems, the features of the symbolist and modernist mode of writing of which W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound were the chief representatives. While consciously or unconsciously carrying out the aims of the Movement, Larkin yet adopts most of the methods and strategies of the modernists and symbolists like W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. Thus he takes what may be regarded as the middle course between the aims of the Movement and the aims of those poets against whom the Movement poets had revolted. And that is the reason why his poetry may be said to represent the Movement’s poetic scene as a temperate zone. His participation in the Movement is a clear, distinct, and undeniable fact, but this participation has been diluted or modified or moderated by the symbolist or Yeatsian mode of writing poetry. Not all his poems represent the Movement. Not all his poems represent the symbolist or Yeatsian mode of writing. But many of his poems represent the aims of the Movement by virtue of their anti-symbolist features; many of his poems represent the symbolist or Yeatsian mode of writing; and a number of poems combine the features of both these modes of writing. Truly, his poetry belongs to the temperate zone which lies between the extremes of the Movement and the extremes of symbolist and modernist poetry.
The Nature of Modernist Poetry and the Aims of the Movement
The poetry of the Movement aims at stark realism; it is rational, . empirical, and argumentative; it employs traditional syntax, using ordinary diction; and it is most often colloquial in style. The symbolist or Yeatsian poetry, on the other hand, aims at transcendental effects; it employs symbols which tend to make it difficult to understand; it is most often vague in its meaning and it therefore mystifies the reader; it is highly allusive; it is very learned and demands from the reader a high degree of intelligence and vast knowledge; it generally tends to obscurity. The poetry of the Movement seeks to establish a direct relationship between the poet and his audience; and that is why it deals with ordinary and common themes in an ordinary and plain style. The symbolist or modernist poetry, on the other hand, appeals to the elite among the intelligentsia, thus losing touch with the common people. And it so happens that most of Larkin’s poems represent the aims of the Movement, and that some of his poems represent the symbolist or the modernist mode of writing. Both sides can claim him for their own; and this is the reason why his work may be regarded as representing the Movement’s poetic scene as one of the temperate zone.
At Grass, a Poem of the Movement, and Yet Having a Yeatsian Touch
The poem entitled At Grass is realistic in every detail. One of the horses is depicted as eating the grass growing on the ground, while another is depicted as moving about and then standing “anonymous” once again. This poem then contains a picture of how these race-horses were at one time the cynosure of all eyes, and how they won the races, thus bringing honour to themselves and financial gain to those spectators who had staked their money on the hopefuls. Then follows a picture in which these retired racehorses either stand at ease, or gallop at will without any spectators locking at them through their magnifying glasses (or binoculars). They are now all waiting for the groom and the groom’s boy to come in the evening with bridles in their hands. Here is, then, a poem in which the imagery is clear-cut and corresponds to the actualities of the past and the present. We are not expected here to read between the lines. There is nothing here to mystify us; nothing vague, and certainly nothing obscure in the poem which is written in regular stanzas of six lines each and which makes use of rhyme. It is a poem written in the traditional mode. And yet there may be a symbolic meaning behind the poem. Symbolically speaking, the poem depicts the glorious achievements of a man in his past life and the ordinary, prosaic life which he is leading now in his old age which would soon be followed by the groom, namely death. Thus Larkin might have endowed even this realistic and traditional poem with a symbolic meaning which links it with the Yeatsian mode.
Church Going, Wholly a Poem of the Movement
The poem Church Going is also realistic in almost every detail. This poem depicts the decline of religious faith and a decrease in the number of people attending church services. Entering a church, Larkin looks around himself and describes everything that meets his eyes—the small neat organ, the fading flowers which had been placed there on Sunday last, the Bibles, and so on. He wonders what would happen to the churches when people have lost their faith completely. He speculates upon the future of these churches some of which might become museums with their “parchment, plate, and pyx” on display. In course of time, he says, superstitious women might visit the forsaken churches to look for remedies for the ailments of their children. And thus the poem proceeds in a realistic manner, also employing argument and reasoning. The poem is written in regular stanzas of nine lines each, with nothing innovative or fanciful either about the diction or about the imagery. Although it is a poem about religion and religious faith, there are no transcendental effects or flourishes. Even the final stanza, which acknowledges the enduring value of a certain aspect of the churches, is based on stark common sense. What is more, “the poem is written in a colloquial style which is one of the conspicuous features of the anti-modernist poetry. Here, then, is a poem which belongs wholly to the category known as the Movement.
Mr. Bleaney, Another Poem Wholly of the Movement
The poem Mr. Bleaney is again wholly argumentative and wholly realistic in its imagery and even in its theme. Even the criterion suggested for the judging of the value of a man’s life is based on sheer common sense. The use of irony too links it with the poetry of the Movement. There is nothing in this poem to suggest the symbolist influence. Perhaps- the most conspicuous feature of this poem is its use of irony by means of which the poet not only lowers Mr. Bleaney in our esteem but raises the intellectual man like the poet himself in our eyes, though speaking in a self-depreciatory manner. There are certainly some difficult words and phrases in this poem which are very far from the plain style recommended by the Movement; but the colloquial manner, and the almost conversational style, of the poem make up for that deficiency. The last two stanzas, consisting 6f a single sentence cannot be regarded as a mark of plainness of style and syntax; and yet there is nothing to mystify us here also. On the whole, the poem is almost transparent in its ideas and in its expression of them. Here is, then, a full specimen of the poetry of the Movement.
Going, a Symbolist Poem
The poem Going, on the other hand, is a wholly symbolist one. The word “going” here has been used metaphorically for a departure from this world of living human beings. “The poem begins with a metaphor and ends with a metaphor; and the idea of the poem has been conveyed by the use of symbols. The coming of an evening symbolizes the approach of death. This evening has never been seen before; and no lamps are lighted when this evening comes. This evening seems “silken” from a distance; but it brings no comfort when it actually arrives. And then follow three pictures which mystify us. The first is a picture of the vanishing of a tree which locked earth to the sky. The second is a picture of something beneath the poet’s hands, something which he cannot feel. And the third picture is of something which “loads” the poet’s hands down. Here is an early poem, written under the Yeatsian influence, and according to the symbolist or modernist mode.
Faith Healing, Also a Movement Poem
Faith Healing is, again, a Movement poem. Here we have a realistic description of the scene and the event which constitute the main substance of the poem. The diction and the syntax are of the traditional kind, as is the rhyme-scheme. There is also a marked element of irony behind the poem. The words “twenty seconds only,” “scarcely pausing,” and “directing God” imply ritualistic and mechanical attitudes instead of an attitude of humility which we expect from a preacher. The use of such words as “exiled” (from the presence of the evangelist) and “losing thoughts” is intended as a mockery of the procedure being followed by the evangelist. Furthermore, the poem is written in a colloquial style: “Now, dear child, /What’s wrong...” though in some lines the diction does become unusual:
Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd
Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice—
The process called faith healing is well-known to people, not only to the people in the West but also to the Indian people who are even more gullible than the Westerners. So the poem belongs to the Movement more from the point of view of its content than from that of style.
Dockery and Son, a Poem of the Same Category
Another Movement poem is Dockery and Son. Here we have an argumentative poem, with logical reasoning about a man’s having a wife and a son, and a man’s not having a wife and a son. The poem is analytical, and more of an intellectual piece than an emotional one. The diction, the syntax, and the rhymes-scheme are traditional in this poem too. The opening of the poem contains a bit, of realistic conversation. The realism of the lines such as the following is also noteworthy:
And ate an awful pie, and walked along
The platform to its end to see the ranged
Joining and parting lines reflect a strong
The Dual Character of the Poem Water
The poem called Water begins like a Movement poem because of the irony behind the poet’s presumption that he might be invited to construct a new religion. There is irony even in the use of the word “construct” and behind the notion of anybody being asked to construct a religion. But the closing lines are obviously symbolic. The poet’s intention to raise the glass of water reminds us of the raising of the chalice by the priest during the Holy Communion. “Any-angled light congregating on the water” in the glass indicates the radiance of both the light and the water on which the light would congregate. This phrase also suggests the essence of all religions because of the consecration of water which is the symbol of life. Indeed,-the closing lines are replete with associations and suggestions, though these are of a vague nature and somewhat mystifying. Here, then, is a poem in which we have a combination of the Modernist and the anti-Modernist elements, so that the poem really belongs to the temperate zone of the poetic scene of the Movement.
High Windows, a Poem of the Temperate Zone
High Windows is another poem in which a couple of the characteristics of Movement poetry combine with some Modernist ones. This poem has a colloquial beginning, but it ends with symbolic lines. The colloquial manner is obvious in the opening lines:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s f—ing her and she’s
These lines, and some of those which follow, contain a realistic picture and realistic thinking. But the concluding lines about the sun-comprehending glass and the deep blue air behind it are profoundly symbolic and somewhat mystifying too. The regularity of the quatrains also marks it as a Movement poem, but the tone of the speaker changes at the end from the colloquial to the “poetic”. The closing lines seem to suggest, in a symbolic manner, the freedom from sexual orthodoxy or conventionality. The phrase “sun-comprehending glass” implies that such freedom is all-pervasive.
Sad Steps, Also a Poem of the Temperate Zone
The poem Sad Steps also has a colloquial opening. The poet says that after a piss, walking back to his bed, he looked at the sky through the window-curtains and saw the moon dashing through the clouds. Then the picture of the moon and the clouds is perfectly realistic. But the Modernist quality of symbolism is found in the lines which follow. The moon is regarded as a “medallion of art” and a “lozenge of love.” These epithets for the moon are evidently- Modernist. Then there is the unusual diction: “wolves of memory and immensements.” And then the moon acquires a symbolic significance because its “wide stare” reminds the poet of the strength which he possessed and the pain he experienced during the years of his youth.