Larkin was no believer in free will. Nor was he a believer in the existence of God or in the soul’s immortality. He was a confirmed sceptic or a determined agnostic. It is very difficult for a man of this kind to find any comfort, solace, or consolation in life. Thus Larkin was inevitably a pessimist too, and a very hopeless kind of pessimist.
It is therefore not surprising at all that a feeling of isolation and alienation in this world should constitute one of the dominant themes in his poetry. Before becoming a poet, Larkin had written two novels in both of which he had tried to explore themes of loneliness and alienation; and then in his poetry he returned to these themes. Like some of the other Movement poets, he had an empirical, anti-Modernist, and sceptical outlook on life; and this outlook was partly a result of a sense of alienation from society and its traditional institutions. Isolation and alienation figure prominently in his poetry. The speakers in his poems seem alienated from their surroundings, and cut off from both people and institutions. And it is noteworthy that, in the great majority of these poems, the speaker is Larkin himself. It is this sense of alienation which leads the speakers in these poems to distance themselves from their surroundings and from the people around them. In the best poems, this distance works two ways, allowing the poet to observe the world in perspective, as if viewing it through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, so that weighty matters seem less momentous, while at the same time reminding the poet that he too is a figure of little consequence.
Larkin’s Dismissive Attitude, a Result of His Sense of Alienation
Larkin’s feeling of isolation and alienation leads him to adopt a dismissive attitude towards people, institutions, beliefs, and things in his poems. For instance, in the poem Church Going, the first two stanzas are curtly dismissive in a manner which we often encounter in Larkin’s poetry. When Larkin stops at a church and takes off his cycle-clips, he finds the church to be unworthy of any attention from him. And when he leaves the church, he feels that the church was not worth stopping for. Then, in the third stanza, Larkin reflects on the fate of churches when people would stop going there altogether. He wonders whether these churches would become places which only superstitious women would visit or be converted into museums or be turned to some profane use. Larkin has the feeling that he and his generation of sceptics would mark the end of religion in England. However, there is a subtle shift of thought in the final stanza. The upshot of the poem as a whole is that man would soon become isolated or alienated from a traditional institution which used to attract people in large numbers in the past. Of course, Larkin is not mourning the probable, almost certain, loss of faith by the people. He does not mourn this development because he himself has no faith. But he is certainly giving expression to the feeling of isolation and alienation which people would experience.
The Sense of Alienation in the Poem The Whitsun Weddings
The poem entitled The Whitsun Weddings also begins with a dismissive attitude, and then becomes contemplative. The train is three-quarters empty when it leaves the railway station of Hull. Larkin catches fleeting glimpses of the scenery on the way, though none of it is very interesting, and much of it is squalid and polluted. It is only in the third stanza that Larkin notices the wedding parties at each railway station; and even then he observes them with the dismissive attitude of someone who is a confirmed bachelor and an alienated outsider. An ironical, detailed description of the various sights takes up most of the next five stanzas. Subsequently, however, an affirmative note seems to enter the poem; and, in the concluding lines, we have the image of “an arrow-shower, somewhere becoming rain.” The sense of isolation is certainly diminished to a great extent in the conclusion; but the whole poem is dominated by it. That a man should not be able to experience any curiosity about the people he sees or any interest in what they are doing is certainly a victim of a sense of alienation from society at large.
The Sense of Alienation in the Poem Dockery and Son
The same sense of alienation from society is to be found in the poem Dockery and Son. Here Larkin does not find anything very attractive about a man getting married and begetting a son. Most people in this world want to get married and to beget children. Everybody needs a woman to satisfy his sexual urge; and, after the sexual urge has been satisfied, a man feels the need to perpetuate himself through his offspring, and therefore wants children. But, in Dockery and Son, Larkin dismisses such an attitude as a result, not of any real or natural or irrepressible urge, but of custom and habit. Thus, in his eyes, marriage and children are not essential at all. And the conclusion of the poem is even more depressing than the line of argument which Larkin has adopted with regard to marriage and children.
Alienation in the Volume Entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”
A critic rightly and justly points out that a constant strain of alienation insinuates its way into poem after poem by Larkin. Throughout the volume entitled “The Whitsun Weddings”, the poet feels himself cut off from his fellow human beings, often struggling to achieve a spirit of community with them, and sometimes simply wondering at the reason for the alienation. This volume of poems depicts its author as a man in middle age who feels that life is passing him by, and who sees more and more clearly the inevitable approach of old age and death. The settings in these poems are small; lives are petty and insignificant; and society is filled with pollution. In the poem The Importance of Elsewhere, Larkin finds some comfort in being a foreigner in Ireland because there at least he can find a reason for his feeling of alienation from the inhabitants. In England, he does not have that reason to feel alienated, and yet he does feel alienated.
Alienation or Estrangement In the Volume Entitled “High Windows”
In the next volume of poems, entitled “High Windows”, there are a number of poems which express a feeling of alienation or estrangement, often in smug tones. In this volume, The Old Fools is a poem which is often praised for its unexpected ending but which expresses an unmistakable attitude of estrangement. Here Larkin rails against the infirmity and senility of the elderly people throughout the poem, with only the conclusion being somewhat hopeful. In the poem Going, Going, what is “going” is England itself; and here the whole country, though not the people, is found to be the victim. People themselves have ruined the landscape and the architecture, reducing everything to rubbish. Everywhere the poet turns, he finds traditional institutions, including poetry, degraded into mundane, modern forms. The poem called The Building brings together numerous themes and ideas from all the poems which had been written earlier. Like Dockery and Son, this poem is a meditation on the foretaste of death; like Going, Going, it is a consideration of the degradation of institutions in the modern world; and, like Church Going, it is a questioning of what man would do without churches. What unites the people in this poem is the common knowledge of their own deaths. Even if the people here are not to die immediately, they are forced by the very place (which is a hospital) to confront the fact that they would die eventually. Nothing can stop the inescapable fate which awaits mankind, although every night people bring offerings in the form of flowers, as they do when they go to church.
Q.13. Write critical notes on Sad Steps and Mr. Bleaney.
(1) SAD STEPS
The Theme of This Poem
This poem describes Larkin’s reactions to the sight of the clouds in the sky and, more particularly, to the sight of the moon dashing through the clouds when he looks up at the sky through the curtains of his window at a very early hour in the morning. Somehow the moon becomes for the poet a symbol of youth with all its strength, and also of the intensity of the pain which one has to go through during the period of one’s youth. The youth of an individual comes to an end; but there are numerous other people who have entered the youthful period of their lives and who draw strength from their youth and who also suffer the heartaches of their youthful years. Thus, although the poem is apparently about the moon, actually it deals with the pangs of the memories of the youth which has been lost, and the strength which has been lost with it. And the poem is also about the memories of one’s suffering endured during the years of youth.
A Mingling of Modernistic Elements With a Colloquial Opening
The imagery of the moon, the clouds, and the sky it the early hour of four in the morning is vivid and realistic. But the epithets and the phrases employed in the course of this imagery are novel and striking. “Wedge-shadowed gardens”; “a wind-picked sky”; “lozenge of love”; “medallion of art”; “wolves of memory! immensements”—these arc phrases which are undoubtedly Modernistic though Larkin was, in theory, opposed to Modernistic diction. However, the poem has a colloquial opening which links it with the poetry of what has come to be known as the Movement. Here is that colloquial opening
Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains…..
As already pointed out, the moon appears to the poet to be a symbol of the strength and pain of being young. This symbolic quality of the close of the poem also imparts a Modernist character to it. In other words, this poem has been written in a manner which links it both with the Movement and with the Modernist mode of writing. This mingling of the characteristics of two different modes of writing shows that Larkin cannot easily be categorized or classified as a poet.
A Mingling of a Comic Element with a Pessimistic Close
The main idea in this poem is undoubtedly an original one. No poet had ever before spoken about the moon in terms in which Larkin speaks about it here, even though poets like Sidney, Keats, and Shelley had written poems about it. In fact, the title of this poem has been derived from one of Sidney’s sonnets. The last two stanzas of this poem are pessimistic; and this pessimism is typical of Larkin. And yet the poet has not lost his sense of humour even in writing this sombre poem. Earlier in the poem, he has said that there is something “laughable” about what he is seeing under the “cavernous, wind-picked sky;” and even the opening line has something comic about it. Here we have a unique poem even in the Larkinian canon. According to a critic, there is something visionary about the kind of diction which Larkin has employed in this poem.
[Technically, the poem consists of six triplets with a regular rhyme-scheme. (A triplet is a stanza of three lines)].
(2) MR. BLEANEY
A Dramatic Monologue, Portraying a Character
This poem, like many others written by Larkin, is a dramatic monologue in which the character of a man called Bleaney has been portrayed. The person, whose name is Bleaney, is depicted as a poor fellow without any belongings, and without any house of his own. He had been living in a boarding-house in a room which was inadequately furnished; and some of his habits have also been specified by the speaker in the poem. Bleaney used to prefer sauce to gravy; he used to spend his summer holidays with his relatives in Frinton: and he used to spend his Christmas with his sister in Stoke. But the speaker in the poem does not know whether Bleaney was aware of the fact that a man’s nature and character could be judged by his mode of living and his habits. Bleaney seems to have been a somewhat eccentric kind of old man who had no money, and who had no literary or artistic tastes either. He was evidently working in some factory or workshop, and he also used to look after his landlady’s garden.
Larkin’s Own Character, Also Revealed Through the Portrayal of Bleaney
We have in this poem a character-portrait, very vividly rendered. We get the feeling that we have actually met this man. Indeed, Larkin has shown great skill in drawing the portrait of this individual; and, in the process of portraying him, Larkin has tactfully revealed his own character also because the speaker in the poem is undoubtedly Larkin himself. The speaker seems to resemble Bleaney in certain ways, though there are sharp differences also between the two men. The resemblance becomes clear when the speaker tells the landlady that he would take this room in which Bleaney had previously been living; and then the speaker “stubs his fags” on the same “saucer-souvenir” which Bleaney was in the habit of using for the same purpose. As for the differences between the two men, Bleaney was fond of listening to the radio while the speaker in the poem stuffs his ears with cotton-wool to drown the noise of the radio. But the biggest difference between the characters of the two men is that, while Bleaney was a manual worker, the speaker is an intellectual interested in reading books for which he finds no space in the little room which he is taking on rent. The crux of the character-portrayals in this poem comes in the closing lines in which the speaker specifies the criterion by which a man’s nature can be judged. In these line’s Larkin speaks somewhat scornfully about Bleaney, saying that people’s mode of living constitutes a measure of their nature or temperament, and that Bleaney, as judged by this criterion, deserved no better than he had got. In other words, Larkin regards Bleaney as a person deserving no more than the poor and sordid life which he had been leading. Thus, at the end, Larkin speaks in derogatory terms about Bleaney.
A Colloquial Style and Vivid Imagery
Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of this poem is the colloquial style in which it is written. There is a bit of dialogue too in the poem. The landlady tells Larkin that Bleaney used to look after her bit of a garden, while Larkin tells the landlady that he would take this room. Besides, the poem has a neat and compact structure. It does not have a word too few or a word too many. There are no digressions or superfluities in the poem. The imagery is striking and yet perfectly realistic. Larkin has handled a dramatic monologue with as great a success as Browning achieved in writing his dramatic monologues. The poem consists of quatrains. (A quatrain is a stanza of four lines). There is a regular rhyme-scheme, with alternate lines rhyming in each quatrain.
Larkin’s Sense of His Own Insignificance in This Poem
According to a critic, this poem has the strange, lucid quality of a murder-mystery or a spy novel, in which the investigator or detective tries to reconstruct a dead or a departed man’s life and thoughts. Bleaney seems to have been such a simple fellow that we feel we have met him and heard him, and yet we also experience some kind of uncertainty about him. A difficult question is asked in the two closing stanzas. Did Mr. Bleaney feel measured by his surroundings? The poet himself feels under-valued or shocked to find that he himself measures so little in these terms. If Mr. Bleaney was worth almost nothing if judged by his bare lodgings, then the poet would have the same feeling about himself also. Thus, according to this critic, it is not only Bleaney who has been depicted as an insignificant person but the poet has depicted himself also as being insignificant.
Important Note. The question requiring candidates to write critical notes on one or two poems is perhaps the easiest to answer. The candidates are here required only to write a kind of critical appreciation of the specified poems. As the critical appreciation of each of the poems included in this book has already been given in the foregoing pages, it is not necessary to supply any critical notes on any other poem, besides the two which have been dealt with above. The above answer should serve as specimen of what a candidate is required to write in such cases.
Important Note. In some cases, the answers to questions in this book would appear to be too long. The length is due to the inclusion of illustrations from several poems. In these cases the student should exclude from his answer poems not prescribed for his study.