Larkin’s earliest poetry was rhetorical and Yeatsian. Then he decided that Yeats was not the right model for him, and that his true poetic master was Thomas Hardy. And yet something permanent remained in his poetry from the Yeatsian phase of his poetic career.
The permanent Yeatsian influence on him was the capacity to produce rich, emphatic, and memorable lines, and the skill with which he handled complex stanza-forms. Larkin’s poetic craftsmanship has been regarded by several critics as exemplary, and has been admired even by those who find his emotional range to be too narrow. Speaking in terms of technique, we may describe Larkin as a traditional poet in the line of Hardy, Graves, and Edward Thomas; and, on the face to it, he pays little attention to the modernism of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. And yet his diction and metrics show that he has not been able to avoid being influenced by these two men. Larkin made some very adverse comments on the modernist jazz of Charlie Parker because this kind of jazz concentrated, like all modernism, on technique, and violated the truth of human existence. Loyal to his views, Larkin shunned, throughout his career, technical fire-works in favour of a poetic style which reflects the language of the people.
Conventional Forms, and the Colloquial Language of Larkin’s Poetry
As Larkin was a slow writer, he was able to give each of his poems the close attention required to build extremely tight, masterful verse. As a result, each of his volumes contains many poems which immediately catch the reader’s attention by virtue of their precise yet colloquial diction. Larkin wrote many of his poems in conventional forms and in colloquial, even vulgar and coarse, language. Like Robert Frost, he worked consciously against the modernist poetics of Wallace Stevens, T.S. Elliot, and Ezra Pound. The poetics of these men was one of disjunction and image. Most of Larkin’s poetry demonstrates a distrust of symbolic and metaphorical language, and a reliance on discursive verse. His use of plain language shows his belief in the importance of tradition, a faith in the people who maintained a contact with the land, and a suspicion of modern society, urban development, and technological advances. Indeed, he stands as the chief example among his contemporaries of the line of anti-modernist poetry represented by Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling, for both of whom he had great admiration. In much of his poetry he tried to fight against the influence of W.B. Yeats and the symbolists.
Scepticism; Irony; Colloquial Diction; Formal Precision in Larkin’s Poetry
Rudyard Kipling’s poetry was the poetry of empire, while Larkin’s poetry is the poetry of the aftermath of empire. Larkin was very much on his guard against the expansiveness, the acquisitiveness, and the grandeur of the imperialistic mentality. Many of the features of Larkin’s poetry can be traced to that attitude of his. From scepticism and irony to the colloquial diction, then to the formal precision of his poems, his poetry represents a strong disinclination for the imperialist values. His scepticism is thorough-going and relentless; and he rarely softens his tone in this respect. This scepticism gives rise to irony. He rejects the poetic devices in favour of simpler, more earthly ones. His diction, for example, is most often colloquial, often coarse, vulgar, or profane, as already indicated above. His distrust of a specialized diction or syntax is the result of his distrust of institutions generally. Similarly, he shuns the intense poetic moment—the image, the symbol, and the metaphor—in favour of a discursive, argumentative verse. While he does occasionally conclude a poem with an image or a metaphor, particularly in the volume entitled “High Windows”, more often he talks his way through the poem, relying on the intellect rather than on emotion or intuition. Avoiding poetic language and poetic devices, he relies more on the external form of the poems, on scansion, rhyme-schemes, and stanzaic patterns. The tension and the power of a poem by Larkin are often a result of the inter-play of common and unexceptional language with a rigorously formal precision. The poem called The Building is an example of this kind of tension. In this poem, Larkin meditates upon the function of a hospital in modern society, and upon the way in which a hospital takes over some of the duties traditionally performed by the Church; and Larkin has used very ordinary language in this poem. Similarly, although his .rhyme-schemes are often very regular, the same cannot be said for the rhymes themselves. We get such irregular rhymes as “speech” and “touch”; “faint” and “went”; “home” and “welcome”. This means that, although Larkin recognizes the need for traditional forms in his poems, he recognizes also the necessity of altering those forms into viable elements of his poetry.
The Meaning of Modernism; and Larkin’s Opposition to Modernism
Modernism was essentially opposed to order, reason, moderation, and realism. Larkin, like Thomas Hardy before him, and like John Betjeman who was Larkin’s contemporary and also a friend, offered a fundamentally moral, emotionally carried, and truthful account of reality. What we find in all these poets (Hardy, Betjeman, and Larkin) is a profoundly sensitive and complex response to the muddle and the drama of ordinary, everyday human life. All of them adopt a poetic stance focussing closely and persistently on the mundane, and on the relentless and sometimes frightening features of daily existence. This response includes both an affirmation that life is worth living, and a stubborn refusal to be deceived in their perceptions of reality. Another feature of their poetry is a relationship which they all try to establish between themselves and their audience (or readers). Wordsworth was the first major poet to state in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads the view that a clear, unambiguous, and lasting relationship should exist between the poet, his audience, and reality. According to Wordsworth, the appropriate subject of poetry is the “fluxes and reflexes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our natures;” and he also defined the nature of poetic rhetoric by deciding to employ ordinary discursive syntax and the true language of men as a means of poetic communication. The poets, who follow Wordsworth’s aesthetic principles, and who try in their different ways to achieve the moment of perfect tension between poet, audience, and reality include such figures as Hardy, Kipling, A.E. Housman, Edward Thomas, Auden, Betjeman, and Larkin. And, whereas the Modernists were liable to commit the excesses of romanticism, these other poets, namely Hardy, Betjeman, and Larkin retain an anti-romantic bias in their verse. This anti-romantic bias finds expression in their almost classical restraint, their realistic attitude to the changing human environment, and their emphasis on a sharable reality. They may occasionally pursue the romantic ideal of transcendence, their temper is largely sceptical and empirical.
Larkin’s Emphasis on “Reality” in His Poems
Larkin’s response to life and experience is characterized by freshness and by poetic integrity. Larkin himself emphasized the way in which his poems derived their basic impulse from his raw feelings about ordinary life, and from what he called “unsorted experience”. He writes honestly and directly about whatever happens to arouse and hold his interest. Indeed, he praised Betjeman’s poems for exactly this quality, for writing exclusively about things that impress, excite, annoy, or attract him. Once a subject has established its claim on his attention, Larkin never questions the legitimacy of his interest. Furthermore, Larkin’s poetic rhetoric is based on what he called his “common word-usage” which draws its strength from his experimentation with the real language of men. Larkin also agreed with Hardy in the latter’s view about the function of sadness and suffering in poetry as an essentially maturing experience. Larkin felt that such maturing was most necessary for one’s spiritual development. Hardy depended for the raw material of his poetry on the almost random experience of everyday life and everyday reality which lay within the narrow sphere of his own immediate world. Larkin too drew the material of his poetry from the same sphere, namely his own immediate world and the reality of it. Once Larkin had cast off the influence of his chosen model, namely W.B. Yeats, he followed Hardy’s example in his choice of poetic material. It was partly for this reason that Larkin was described by a fellow-poet as the effective unofficial laureate of post-1945 England. Another important point about Larkin is his explicit awareness of his audience; and yet another point is his view of poetry as rhetoric.
The Importance of Places and People in Larkin’s Poetry
Again Larkin, like Hardy and Betjeman, shows a profound awareness of the importance and significance of places. Topography is a salient feature of his poetry. In poems like Wedding-Wind, Livings, and Here, moments of spiritual liberation are achieved in various places such as a farm, a lighthouse, and an East Riding beach respectively. But places in Larkin’s poetry are not divorced from people. Larkin’s poetry is full of people—of individuals, families, and social groups. Places are fundamental to Larkin’s moral commitment which is to preserve and sustain the human scale of things. The moon-lit landscape, the family home, the food at a railway station, and the postal districts of London are the silent but vibrant witnesses to the lives of the people; and these witnesses become part of the texture and the meaning of ordinary, lived experience. A poem like Show Saturday illustrates the deeply sustaining value of the rituals of a rural community. Thus places represent a sense of communal and social values; and places nourish and strengthen the survival and the continuity of those values. Larkin certainly does not approve of the soulless modernity of the kind of atomistic society which is governed by a commercial ethic. It is in keeping with this disapproval of the modernistic notions of progress that Larkin sardonically describes Britain as the “first slum of Europe” in his poem Going. And it is in keeping with this attitude of his that in poems like Here, Mr. Bleaney, and Sunny Prestatyn he shows his great compassion for people whose search for happiness in the modern world seems doomed to failure in the atmosphere of unashamed and growing materialism.
Larkin is a conservative in the profoundest sense of the word. His disgust with urbanization, cheap stores, and foul-smelling roads—all these add up to a tradition of profound conservatism. He shows his scorn for the commercialism and collectivism which are responsible for the moral, social, and aesthetic breakdown. Larkin therefore pays a reverent tribute to rituals which sustain and strengthen a feeling of continuity, solidarity, and worth-whileness in ordinary life, whether social life or family life, in such poems as Show Saturday and To the Sea.
Larkin’s Conflict With Modernist Poetics
Finally, what particularly brings Larkin into conflict with the Modernist philosophy and with the Modernist poetics is the fact that he is keenly aware of the existence of an audience (or readership), and equally aware of the claims of that audience and that readership upon him. Larkin does not agree with the Modernist view, as stated by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, that the poet should address a small and intelligent audience rather a large and less intelligent audience. The Modernist view seems to be that an ideal audience for a poet is one which is composed of literary critics and poets. Larkin has just the opposite view. He believes that poetry is at bottom bound up with the giving of pleasure to its readers and that, if a poet loses his “pleasure-seeking audience,” he has lost the only audience worth having. Larkin’s fundamental quarrel with Modernism has therefore very much to do with its poetic rhetoric. He does not approve of the view that poetry should be unnecessarily and deliberately obscure even if obscurity leads to a diminished number of readers. He strongly disapproves of the density of literary allusions and the symbolic complexity of Modernist poetry which creates difficulties for the reader. Larkin said that he liked the poetry of Betjeman because for Betjeman there had been no symbolism, no objective correlative, no T.S. Eliot, and no Ezra Pound.