Thursday, December 2, 2010

What modernist and symbolist methods of writing poetry can you identify in Philip Larkin’s work?

The Empirical Mode of Hardy, and the Symbolist Mode of Yeats

In the introduction to the 1966 re-issue of his first volume of poems entitled “The North Ship”, Larkin informed his readers that in 1945 or thereabouts when “The North Ship” was first published, Thomas Hardy had replaced W.B. Yeats as the main influence on his poetry.
This remark by Larkin implied that he had discarded his symbolist sympathies, and had turned to a traditional poet for inspiration. There is no doubt that, in the beginning, Larkin had fallen under the influence of W.B. Yeats; nor can it be doubted that subsequently he fell under Thomas Hardy’s poetic influence. For instance, there are several poems in volume entitled “The Less Deceived” (published in 1955) which show the symbolist influence of W.B. Yeats. The poems Coming, Dry-Point, and Going are examples of the use of symbolism. But such poems are not to be found in his next volume, entitled “The Whitsun Weddings” (published in 1964). A large majority of the poems in “The Whitsun Weddings” show the predominant influence of Hardy. Then came, in 1974, Larkin’s next volume of poems, entitled “High Windows”, in which symbolism re-emerged, and did so with great emphasis .and even intensity. For instance, Sympathy in White Major, Livings (Part II), Solar, Money, and the title poem itself reveal and dramatize the differences between the empirical mode associated with Hardy and the symbolist mode associated with Yeats.

Symbolist Elements in the Poem Absences

Larkin wrote symbolist poems very early in his poetic career and then returned to the symbolist mode of writing during the last phase of his poetic career though the symbolist influence shows itself in a faint but unmistakable form in the intervening period also. As early as 1943, Larkin wrote a poem entitled Femmes Damnees in which the symbolist element is quite obvious. This poem contains strong echoes of a poem having the same title, written by the French symbolist poet Baudelaire. A poem entitled Absences, belonging to Larkin’s middle years, also has a strong symbolist element in it. This poem begins from a naturalistic context and then makes excited leaps between ideas. In the first stanza of this poem, the sea’s roughness turns waves from fluids to solids—from floors to hollows to towers to hair to a wall—as it mimicks the processes of change and purgation experienced by the speaker. In the second stanza a similar transformation occurs “above the sea”: the day “trails” ships into the distance so that their nature’s are altered too. The final, isolated, triumphant line of the poem is a joyous assertion of the freedom this represents—freedom not just from the potential distractions of human beings on their ships but also from the routine restraints and compulsions imposed by J strictly empirical view of the world. This final line also includes the poem’s most radical imaginative jump (from sea to attics, and from attics to absence itself). The symbolist devices of the poem Absences disrupt the normal relationships between concepts by liberating Larkin from the familiar and narrow world. These devices allow him to experience and convey a sense of transcendence.

The Symbolic Last Stanza of the Poem Next, Please

In the poem Next, Please, the final stanza is obviously symbolic in its intention and significance. This stanza confirms the death-obsessed bleakness of the first five stanzas.-The final stanza tells us that there is only one ship which is seeking us, and that this one ship is “a black-sailed unfamiliar” one, “towing at her back a huge and birdless silence.” Behin’d this ship, “no waters breed or break.” This stanza perfectly illustrates Yeats’s view that symbols intensify a poem’s emotional charge. Although the metaphor of ships and sailing is developed throughout the poem, it is only in the last stanza that the tone of ratibnal argument and the structure of logical connections is given up to make way for .the more bizarre concentration of symbolism proper (a ship towing silence). The effect is to confirm the fact and fear of death movingly.

A Most Purely Symbolist Poem: Dry Point

Dry Point is Larkin’s most purely symbolist poem. Here the lack of variety in tone and language emphasizes the speaker’s preoccupation with being trapped. As he moves from symbol to symbol, grappling with his horror of sexual disappointment, he finds only a confirmation of losses, and a proof that fulfilment is unachievable. There is no straightforward, rational, logical progressions of images here. The result is a degree of uncertainty about the poem’s direction, which confirms the speaker’s isolation from the “bare and sun-scrubbed room.” The speaker’s symbolist vagueness is the cause of his predicament, as well as the means by which he expresses this predicament.

Two Poems With Symbolic Endings in the Volume “The Whitsun Weddings”

There is not much of symbolist writing in the poems of the volume entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”. Almost all the poems in this second mature volume are Hardyesque reflections, like Love Songs in Age; or they are extended metaphors, like Ambulances; or they are satires of self and society, like A Study of Reading Habits. And yet there are two poems even in this volume which show that Larkin had not forsaken symbolism altogether. These two poems are The Whitsun Weddings and Water. In the first-named poem Larkin is released (in the closing lines) from the empirically observed world and its attendant disappointments into a world of transcendent imaginative fulfilment. In the poem Water the metaphor introduced at the very outset is gradually developed and intensified until the final stanza in which the earthly glass of water becomes more than simply a sign and object of worship. This earthly glass of water is transformed into an imaginative perception of endlessness in which all knowledge of time and its compulsions, and all knowledge of self and its shortcomings, are set aside. It. is a glass of water “where any-angled light/Would congregate endlessly.”

Symbolism in the Volume Entitled “High Windows”

The volume entitled “High Windows” contains more purely symbolist moments than does the volume entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”, and this volume also contains more freely imaginative narratives like Livings, Dublinesque, and The Explosion. However, Larkin’s use of symbolist techniques does not always guarantee him an absolute release from time and its ravages. At the end of the poem Money, for instance, Larkin surely abandons the rationalizing tone of voice, but this abandonment leads only to a confirmation of despair: “It is intensely sad.” And yet this poem does show a recurrent feature of Larkin’s symbolist innovations. These innovations do not simply offer a potential consolation by representing a departure from the realistic mode which is associated with disappointment. They are nearly all, in one way or another, actually concerned with ideas of removal from the apparently inevitable frustrations that accompany rational discourse. Speech, at least theoretically, is set aside in favour of sight. The poem Solar provides a more enduring release by the same means. Here, as elsewhere, Larkin adopts the dislocations, illogicalities, and imaginative excitement of symbolism to redeem himself from distressing daily circumstances. The closing lines of the poem The Explosion are evidently symbolic. The dead men are seen by their wives coming towards them from the sun and looking larger than they had looked during their lives. Death has exalted them and greatly enlarged their stature. This is a transcendental thought which fits in with the symbolic mood.

The Symbolic Element in the Poem Called High Windows

The poem High Windows shows Larkin’s most successful use of symbolist techniques. In this poem, the speaker is angrily disappointed because the promises made to him when he was young have not been fulfilled. But, as he speculates about the new generation’s chances of happiness, he realizes that he might once have been similarly envied. The cycle of time brings round hope and frustration endlessly, and no one achieves the enjoyment or the pleasure which he had looked forward to. The wasted opportunities of the past and the exclusions of the future combine to overshadow the present. But they also provoke a conclusion which contains some hope of redress. The hope lies in the thought of high windows, the sun-comprehending glass and, beyond it, the deep blue air which shows nothing, which is nowhere, and which is endless. These are the crucial, symbolic’lines. The deep blue air reminds the speaker of his commitment to the world; and it reminds him of this commitment by a shift from grumbling, ironical, colloquial speech to symbolist intensity which illustrates Larkin’s mastery of poetic tones.

Seamus Heaney’s View of Larkin’s Symbolist Leanings

Most critics have expressed the view that the volume entitled “High Windows” shows the re-emergence of the symbolist vision which Larkin was thought to have abandoned after the publication of his first volume of poems (namely “The North Ship”) in 1945. One critic, for instance, says that, in his last volume of poems, Larkin seems to be striving to find the symbol which would continue to echo in the mind, calling forth harmonies which have nothing to do with the carefully limited and scrupulously precise resolutions of most of the earlier poems. But the most impressive assessment of Larkin’s symbolist preferences has been made by Seamus Heaney (the present poet-laureate of England). Heaney finds what he calls “visionary’ moments” in the poems of the volume entitled “High Windows”; and he uses the word “symbolist” twice to describe the linguistic structures of the poems in this volume. He points out the unusual diction of the poem Sad Steps: “O wolves of memory, immensements!” He also praises the poem Solar as a hymn to the sun, in which the poet is evidently very far from the “hatless” individual who had taken off his cycle-clips “in awkward reverence” in the poem Church Going. And it is not only in the poems of the volume entitled “High Windows” that Heaney finds the visionary quality of Larkin’s poems. He finds the same flooding of light in earlier poems such as Deceptions and Water. While this shining quality can be described as romantic in its imaginative intensity, its most comparable achievements are to be found in the Anglo-Irish modernism of James Joyce and W.B. Yeats.


We may end this discussion with the view of the eminent critic who says that Larkin’s best and most characteristic poetry might be regarded as a dialectic between the empirical mode of Thomas Hardy and the symbolist mode of W.B. Yeats, the language of sadness and isolation repeatedly competing with the language of aspiration and transcendence.

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