Philip Larkin's poetry has begun to provoke quite a harvest of academic studies, in England at least. With the translation of some of his major poems by Professor Kim Chong-kil, and the defence this year of a doctoral dissertation on "Realism in Larkin's Poetry" by Kim Ki-Yeong at Korea University, he can be considered to have been officially "discovered" in Korea, too. There still remains, though, considerable doubt as to the critical approach most suited to his poetry. More broadly, Larkin's work is a paradigm of all the literature produced in modern Britain, and elsewhere too: it is often difficult to get into, and the busy reader cannot help wondering if it is worth the effort. This paper introduces a few recent studies, tries to characterize Larkin's work, and in particular its world-view without Metaphysics.
Two poems, that Larkin once chose to represent his work in an anthology, will serve to begin with. They were written two years apart, in 1960 and 1962:
MCMXIV (17 May, 1960)
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never before such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word - the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Send no Money (21 August, 1962)
Standing under the fobbed
Impendent belly of Time
Tell me the truth, I said,
Teach me the way things go.
All the other lads there
Were itching to have a bash,
But I thought wanting unfair:
It and finding out clash.
So he patted my head, booming Boy,
There's no green in your eye:
Sit here and watch the hail
Of occurence clobber life out
To a shape no one sees -
Dare you look at that straight?
Oh thank you, I said, Oh yes please,
And sat down to wait.
Half life is over now,
And I meet full face on dark mornings
The bestial visor, bent in
By the blows of what happened to happen.
What does it prove? Sod all.
In this way I spent youth,
Tracing the trite untransferable
"MCMXIV" has often been read as a nostalgic poem regretting a vanished English way of life. The Latin numerals of the title evoke war memorials; the detailed descriptions seem to suggest old photographs, but on closer examination they prove to be evocations of a kind of collective imaginative image of that period (the children's names, the pubs). Some of the details are so specific that footnotes will be needed outside of Britain, or even inside, now! The poem's rhetorical strategy disconcerts; the whole poem is one sentence, there is no main verb. The multiple present participles serve to evoke a smooth onward flow of life in time, while the poem's voice ironically hints at the sudden violent break that is about to occur, quite unsuspected by the people out in the streets in 1914. Rather than being a hymn of sentimental nostalgia, the poem is dark with the shadow of unexpected death.
In the second poem a variety of voices join, to form a narrative with inset dialogues; the language is at times extremely colloquial British English (Sod all), at times it might come from Marvell (the bestial visor) or some such earlier writer. Here agin, the theme is dark, the tone bleak with disappointment at the discovery that the passage of time does not bring with it those fulfillments that youthful expectation seemed latent with. The characteristic Larkin tone of disillusionment is strong.
By contrast, from the last collection of poems, High Windows, we might look at this poem:
The Trees (2 June, 1967)
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
This seems to echo Emily Dickinson, or is it Auden, or Edward Thomas, or MacNiece? The theme is time, again, and death, but the poetic medium is quite different, the beauty of the art is striking. These strong contrasts are a major part of the challenge that reading the poems of Philip Larkin presents. There has not yet been time for a critical consensus to arise as to where his art is finest, or how it might best be read.
Born in 1922, Philip Larkin died of cancer on December 2, 1985, in his early 60s. During his lifetime he published only five volumes of poetry:
The North Ship (London: Fortune Press, 1945)
XX Poems (Belfast: Carswells, 1951)
The Less Deceived (Hessle: The Marvell Press, 1955)
The Whitsun Weddings (London: Faber and Faber, 1964)
High Windows (London: Faber and Faber, 1974)
and two novels:
Jill (London: Fortune Press, 1946; London: Faber and Faber, 1975)
A Girl in Winter (London: Faber and Faber, 1947; 1975)
A considerable number of poems were not published until after his death, when they were included in the Collected Poems edited by Anthony Thwaite (London: The Marvell Press and Faber and Faber, 1988). His reputation as one of England's leading post-war poets really began with The Less Deceived in 1955, but he was only taken seriously by critical opinion after the publication of his more difficult poems in High Windows. He also published a small number of prose writings, collected in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-82 (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), but his reputation rests mainly on the poetry. Yet The North Ship went almost unnoticed in 1945, and Larkin found himself obliged to pay for the private publication of XX Poems after his manuscript had been rejected by six publishers.
The popularity of Larkin's poetry during his later years was real, but still a relative matter, in terms of fame. He certainly had no thought of living by his writing; after graduating from Oxford in 1943, sure that he would write poems, he went to work in a library in Wellington, a small town in Shropshire. For health reasons, he had no direct involvement in the war.
In 1946 he moved to the library of the University College of Leicester; there he met Monica Jones, who was a lecturer in the English Department. Their relationship endured Larkin's moves to Belfast in 1950, and to Hull University Library in 1955, as well as his friendships with other women. She taught poetry, and had strong critical opinions, her influence on Larkin was certainly decisive. In 1982, in her retirement and after she had been sick, Monica Jones went to live with Larkin in Hull, until his death. She chose the inscription on his grave-stone: "Philip Larkin 1922 - 1985 Writer".
That, and the names of a few other women, is almost all there is to say of Larkin's private life. It is already more than enough. The poems demand strongly to be read one by one, each one for itself, without reference to the poet's biography. This is shown by the way in which he placed poems in his various published volumes without regard for the date of their composition. Larkin's resistance to biographical curiosity led him to order the destruction of his diaries and private papers after his death.
Perhaps this self-effacing attitude has stimulated the curiosity of certain critics, whose reading of the poems tends to construct for Larkin a series of ideological or psychological positions that he himself refused to admit to. The modern critical reception of Larkin is often marked by a desire to find inclusive categories by which to read all his poems.
Tom Paulin exemplifies those for whom Larkin represents a Tory reactionary expressing nostalgia for lost empire, to put it too simply. Janice Rossen (Philip Larkin: His life's work (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989)) and others find in him a misogynist or male chauvinist on account of attitudes towards women expressed or suggested in various poems, or in his private life. On another side are critics who refrain from applying all- embracing categories, taking various poems in various ways; the recent study by James Booth, Philip Larkin: Writer (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992) is exemplary.
Booth begins his study by quoting Larkin's remarks, made in 1973, about
the poems 'MCMXIV' and 'Send No Money':
they might be taken as representative examples of the two kinds of poem I sometimes think I write: the beautiful and the true . . . I think a poem usually starts off either from the feeling How beautiful that is or from the feeling How true that is. One of the jobs of the poem is to make the beautiful seem true and the true beautiful, but in fact the disguise can usually be penetrated. (Let the Poet Choose, 102)
In 1955 he sent to D.J. Enright a 'Statement' in which he writes:
I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others, though I feel that my prime responsibility is to the experience itself, which I am trying to keep from oblivion for its own sake. Why I should do this I have no idea, but I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art. (Required Writing, 79, quoted by Booth, 77)
Booth then quotes an alternative formulation of the same idea dating from 1964: 'Some years ago I came to the conclusion that to write a poem was to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.' This begs more questions than it solves, which was no doubt Larkin's intention.
In his study, Booth offers expressions that may be helpful for anyone
approaching Larkin for the first time:
The key to the understanding of Larkin's poetry lies here, in his refusal to adopt a consistent self-defining personal myth, such as those of Yeats or Betjeman, or an ideological programme such as that supposedly adopted by 'The Movement'. (p. 76)Andrew Motion (Philip Larkin (London: Methuen, 1982)) was the first to study at length Larkin's debt to Yeats and Hardy; we may oversimplify to suggest that his lasting fascination with the music of words derives from Yeats, whose influence was the dominant one, while Hardy showed Larkin a way of writing poems that were more directly linked to moments of experience, without any concern to find or suggest signs of transcendence beyond. This is not to deny or diminish the influence of other poets, Lawrence, Auden, MacNiece, particularly. By negative influence, Pound and Eliot showed him the importance of writing poems using a voice with personal qualities, even with strong personality. Like them, however, he wrote "literary" poetry with strong textual echoes.
Booth is very clear in his affirmation that Larkin's poetry represents a rejection of myth, symbolism, and modernism, containing as it does many 'images of failed transcendence' (147). He perhaps fails to give sufficient weight to the large body of criticism provoked, in particular, by High Windows. Many critics, for example Barbara Everett ('Philip Larkin: After Symbolism', Essays in Criticism, 30,3 (July 1980), 227-42), have found in the later poems, particularly, aspects of literariness and an obscurity that point directly at Modernist, Symbolist influences.
Another recently published study pays more attention to such diversities of reading: Philip Larkin, by Stephen Regan (Macmillan, 1992). This book, in the series The Critics Debate, is organized so as to mention as many different critical opinions as possible, while the author proposes his own reading at the same time. The contrast between Regan and Booth does very nicely to illustrate the terms used in reading Larkin (or any other writer) in contemporary Britain. The publishers' blurb will serve to summarize this:
Booth argues that historical and social circumstances are, as Larkin himself believed, the context and not the substance of his work. He treats Larkin as a deliberate artist, rather than as a political symptom or sexual case- history. . . . Close readings of a range of Larkin's . . . poems demonstrate that they operate on a more profound imaginative level: either treating universal themes, or dramatising and ironising stereotypes in order to create embodiments of experience beyond or beneath ideology.
In contrast we are told:
Stephen Regan argues strongly for the importance of reading the poems historically and contextually. The emphasis here is on the post-war cultural milieu of Larkin's work and its complex engagement with questions of individual freedom and social commitment.
Out of this, or indeed any contact with varieties of Larkin criticism, we have to conclude that there is a remarkable diversity of readings being made of Larkin's works, and that no one reading can easily be privileged over others. The reader is left very free to respond, which is good for the reader, but a challenge too.
Larkin's texts, like Chaucer's, have few or no tonal markers; in other words, the ironic tone that many readers perceive in certain poems cannot easily be grounded or refuted. Larkin was often inclined to parody, and to self-parody. To complicate matters, the speaking persona in his poems need almost never be identified with Larkin in any particularly biographical way in order to establish coherent readings. Yet how different the readers' response to, say, poems mocking marriage, if they are read as strident authorial declarations, or as parodies of stereotyped attitudes. Multiple readings have been made of the poem that ends:
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
(From 'This be the verse')
The critics often want Larkin to express opinions about things that he refused to express any clear opinion about. It is certain, though, that Larkin's own difficult relationship with women, which kept him from marriage and inclined him to pornography, provided him with a range of topics not usually found in poetry. He surely took pleasure in writing poems about the failure of the dreams of perfect love people have:
Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.
He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she's there all day,
And the money he gets for wasting his life on work
She takes as her perk
To pay for the kiddies' clobber and the drier
And the electric fire. . .
(Self's the Man, lines 1-8)
The failures and disappointments become signs of the way life takes away life, instead of bringing fulfilment.
Many writers stress the 'narrow range' of Larkin's topics; Booth's main chapter sub-divisions certainly offer an ample thematic framework to assist the beginner: Sex, Sexual Politics, Love; Death, Age, Absence. Yet in another way there is no proper framework of this kind, because every poem is a new beginning, another, separate 'experience.' Larkin did not look for a coherent framework governing the universe, or experience. He was a deeply secular person, not liking the dogmatic atheism of Hardy, though not so far removed from it in his attitudes to life.
Having no metaphysics, he recognizes the fact that there have been, and still are, many who aspire after Transcendence, in love, in nature, in religion, in nationalism, or in life after death. He will not laugh at them, or attack them, he cannot follow them but he has felt something not unlike what they have built on; much of his work is composed of attempts to avoid the 'common myth-kitty' (RW, 79) by turning to empirical observations of the obviously 'real.' There are a number of quotations in which Larkin refuses to "jack himself up" to a higher level than that of the ordinary. One quotation, from 'Dockery and Son' (28 March, 1963) sums up many poems:
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
Many of Larkin's poems might be placed within the great memento mori tradition, if it were not for the fact that Larkin hated the thought of death. One of the clearest statements of this fundamental theme comes in 'Aubade' (29 November, 1977):
. . . I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
This poem is one of the very last he ever published, for he wrote almost nothing in the last ten years of his life, and it is a most terrible evocation of
The sure extinction that we travel to,
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
Time and death dominate Larkin's poetry in complex ways, for the poems are not fierce protests against their power, and Larkin never uses death as a lever to urge people to improve their lives. It is simply always there, a 'fact of life' to be taken into account, casting its shadow over everything. Some of his last poems ('Heads in the Women's Ward,' 'The Old Fools') are images of senile old people lost somewhere between life and death.
Larkin's style, a remarkable mixture of the beautiful and the true, of the 'poetic' and the 'real,' can be a source of considerable difficulty to many readers. He writes elegant poems, often conservative in technique, even using rhyme, poems with quite startling beauty in sometimes very elegaic language, but there are many poems where he introduces startling and undecorous modern colloquialisms like 'Sod all!' ('Send no money'); 'wanking at ten past three' ('Love again'); 'Jive at the Mecca, use deodorants' ('Breadfruit'), as well as 'piss' and 'fuck.' Readers are thus challenged and left unsure at what level they are 'meant' to respond. Style combines with other elements, such as variations in tone within a poem, to undermine our search for clear authorial intentions, as if Larkin feared that that would be the beginning of new myth-kitty-making.
In order to see in more detail what all this means, it is best to turn to some particularly well-known poems. In "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" (18 September, 1953), the personality of the speaker is striking; he is addressing a woman he is obviously fond of, the tone is playfully sardonic: 'Not quite your class, I'd say, dear, on the whole' (line 15). Here we feel very strongly what Larkin said about the poem as experience. At the obvious level, the poem evokes the experience of seeing another person's photographs; the viewer is sexually stirred by some of the shots, but this turns into a meditation on the pragmatics of photographic representation:
How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place,
In every sense empirically true! (lines 24-6)
Which in turn modulates into a much more intensely poetic concern with the utter 'pastness' of the past, heightened unexpectedly by the sudden violence of 'lacerate':
Or is it just the past? Those flowers, that gate,
These misty parks and motors, lacerate
Simply by being over; you
Contract my heart by looking out of date. (lines 27-30)
The poem is addressed to a woman who was once this young girl that attracts him, ('I wonder if you'd spot the theft/ Of this one of you bathing' lines 39-40) but there is a difference between the pictures and the person. The poem expresses a quite absurd amount of sorrow (cry, grief, yowl, mourn) in the plural ('we cry') before ending suddenly on a quite different note:
In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by.
There is the reminder that he and she are together now, but that the future is wide open. The past offers false possibilities of myth, while time will inevitably ruin her beauty and bring her towards a death holding no prospects of eternity. The only immutability available is that of the past captured in the photo.
The books tell us that the woman in question was called Winifred Arnott, a Belfast encounter who seems to have provoked particularly delicate feelings that produced this poem, which Booth qualifies as "a most rare and unusual achievement" (129). Regan adds another dimension: 'The woman in the poem is not just an object of male desire but an emblem of an irrecoverable national past' (98) but does not elaborate, luckily. He too senses that this poem is remarkable: "The closing lines are invested with a lyrical and elegaic beauty that elevates 'the young lady' of the poem to the status of a mythical figure presiding over a lost paradise" (99).
The challenge of what we do with momunents of the past-that- was-not-ours is central to "Church Going" (28 July, 1954). Some critics have looked hard at this poem in search of Larkin's religious vision, but Booth quotes words in which Larkin himself insists that it is not a "religious poem," and the beginning of the poem is quite clear: "Once I am sure there's nothing going on/ I step inside." Again, the experience will be familiar to many English people who have gently opened the heavy door of some rural church, fearing to find a funeral or other service "going on." The building was constructed for Christian worship, of which the furnishings remain, ready for the next service, but the poem's visitor ignores all of that and begins to reflect on what such a place can suggest to a non-worshipping person. The poem is too long for intensity, too busy imagining alternative uses for abandoned churches, and suffers by comparison with the multiple voices and visions of Gray's "Elegy" that it inevitably recalls.
By contrast, "Faith Healing" (10 May, 1960) describes an actual religious service, narrated by a voice that cannot enter at all into the metaphysical vision of those participating in the prayer-meeting. The onlooker simply observes some of the women crying, and tries to find an explanation in its own terms. This poem, which some have again read as a religious poem, is centered, beyond the particulars of the healing service, in the last stanza, in the marvellous lines:
By now, all's wrong. In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures. (lines 21-7)
Eliot, too, had words about 'what might have been' and suchlike images of Booth's 'failed transcendence' (147), but he has nothing to match Larkin's evocation of the 'immense slackening ache' that comes from the experience of the gulf between expectations and reality, 'all time has disproved' (line 30). For Larkin, personally, there never was any religious dimension to be disproved; for the women in this poem, too, the poem is saying that the reason for their tears is not faith, but a sudden rending realization of the impossibility of finding love in life. Larkin can record with real compassion their 'sleeping sense of life' without making it the starting-point of anything but tears.
Regan and Booth both take the last 'all time has disproved' as registering Larkin's rejection of the evangelist's faith, which is to distort the text insofar as it joins with 'Dear child.' The women's experience of time has robbed them of the possibility of believing that they are loved by anyone; they are no longer children, and childlike innocence is deeply lost. It is striking that Regan expresses almost no concern for the women's pain, being too busy attacking the American preacher. This poem rather joins with those many others in which Larkin expresses, through various personae, deep scepticism about the possibility of meaningful relationships between man and woman, as well as of finding meaning in life.
The poems "Ambulances" (10 January, 1961) evokes a familiar, and dreaded sight, that of an ambulance stopped in front of a house; the early part of the poem evokes the surrounding world, its smells and sights, the pitying onlookers ("Poor soul,/ They whisper at their own distress."); but the last two stanzas follow the departing patient, who is considered to be old and dying, and the poem becomes suddenly mysterious as the grammar crumbles like the identity of one approaching death:
. . . Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.
"Death" though, as in many of these poems, is the word avoided ("brings closer what is left to come"); yet the poem is fairly explicit in its secular metaphysics: children and women see the 'wild white face'
And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
Here Larkin, who was no Buddhist, affirms the Transcendent negatively as emptiness, qualifying it by the intensely poetic "solving" and repeating the same view in the "blank" of the listed adjectives. Perhaps no expression contains so exactly what might be termed Larkin's "ruined metaphysics" as this of the "solving emptiness/ That lies just under all we do." Now, the classic Christian expression corresponding to and negated by this phrase is "Underneath are the everlasting arms;" Larkin's faith is that they are not, and he demands, of himself first, the courage not to hide the fact, which may explain the stress on "truth" in his work.
Equally suggestive of Transcendence are the last lines of the poem "High Windows" (12 February, 1967) that gave its name to Larkin's last collection:
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
After what we have already seen, such sentiments seem familiar; what is disconcerting is the way they come at the end of a poem, that functions in quite different directions. The opening plays with the notion of "sexual revolution" that was a part of the 1960s' self-made mythology, using terms of considerable crudity:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives -
Then he reverses the thought, imagining Catholic jealousies provoked by his own youthful appearance "forty years ago" although he was only forty-five when he wrote the poem, suggesting that its voice is not his own, but that of "the older generation" in general. Once again then, there is the feeling that life has failed to deliver on its promises, hiding in the (false) idea that things will get better soon, which suddenly crumbles. He is them left with a mind groping for images of life that is, but without process of meaning or direction. Whence the vast void imagined stretching beyond windows that may be church- like but were, in the poet's mind, those of his high-up Hull appartment.
Another frequently anthologized poem is "Sad Steps" (24 April, 1968). The title is literary, one of the Modernist elements characteristic of the late poems, taken from Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet "With what sad steps, o Moon, thou climb'st the skies." Sidney's poet-lover Astrophel feels sure that the moon is sympathizing with him, a pathetic fallacy that Larkin would never indulge in. So first there is the moon, not gazed at by a self-entranced lover, but glimpsed unexpectedly as the speaker is "Groping back to bed after a piss", a non-poetic, non- transcendent situation that provokes amusement, continued in "there's something laughable about this,/ The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow/ Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart."
The "laughable" aspect is the way nature is behaving like art, with the moon really seeming to dash, like some conscious being, and take up a position, and clouds that really do look like, of all things, "cannon-smoke," of which Larkin and most of us can have seen little, except in movies. The poem swerves towards poetic diction of a correspondingly laughable quality:
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,
One shivers slightly, looking up there.
After these few attempts at a parody of symbolist or Elizabethan conceits, (Booth calls the neologism "Immensements" a "gauche ultra-poeticism" p. 154), he comes back to earth with a shiver, and his thoughts turn once again to the loss of youth, with a twinge of jealousy that other people are now in the midst of "the strength and pain" of it. That youth itself, that cannot return to him, is "for others undiminished somewhere." The helpless fall of the last word stresses the pointlessness of looking for any point in it all.
The last poem to be quoted is called simply "The Building" and it takes some time for the text to tell us that the subject is a modern hospital, presented in the disguise of the shrine for some mysterious, unchosen rites: "Others, not knowing it, have come to join/ The unseen congregations whose white rows/ Lie set apart above." As so often in his longer poems, Larkin is more ready to make his final messages explicit:
. . . All know they are going to die.
Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end,
And somewhere like this. That is what it means,
This clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend
The thought of dying, for unless its powers
Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes
The coming dark, though crowds each evening try
With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers.
The tone here suggests "The pity of it," with an implied sorry shake of the head over the modern myth of the power of science and medecine (and the National Health Service) embodied in the great hospital, that stands like a monstrous talisman erected to keep at bay "the coming dark" that people do not want to know about. Instead, they resort to new secularly religious rituals that Larkin gives full parodic strength to in the last line. The flowers people bring for the patients serve only to underline human powerlessness in the face of the enemy Death.
Larkin, then, is a poet in the sense that he does marvellous things with words. His words come in all keys, shunning the pompous and the pretentious, always trying to be true. Larkin's truth is not Christian Truth, of course. It is very largely an agnostic stance in the face of life; Larkin is Cartesian enough to know he is alive and to recognize that as a good thing. He also senses the paradox that the thing he knows most strongly, being alive, is that his life is sure to have an end in the course of time, that he will one day cease utterly to know, or to be (Scio ergo sum?).
Nature, especially the least comforting aspects of nature: the blank moon, the empty air, the horizon over the sea, were for Larkin signs that it would be wrong to look for presence anywhere "out there." In his symbolist poem "Absences"(28 November, 1950), Larkin took up the traditional sublime ode theme, as Booth points out (p. 162) in order to deny any presence in nature:
Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,
A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
Where there are no ships and no shallows.
Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,
Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.
Such attics cleared of me! Such absences! Corresponding to this, in an opposite mode, is a poem where Larkin comes close to the Psalms in style, but underlines the total absence of any will or presence in the object of his devotion, the sun. The imagist poem "Solar" (4 November, 1964) is a parody of Christian devotional poetry, in that it personifies the sun in ways that Larkin otherwise always rejects:
Coined there among
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.
The angels come from Jacob's dream in Genesis 28, but here they have become "our needs," of which they are a mere image or projection; the generous open hand is from Psalm 104:28 "Thou openest thine hand, and fillest all things living with plenteousness," but there it is the hand of God, not the sun. The message is clear: nature gives all that we need, or can expect, without knowing what it is doing. If we like to be grateful, or to project onto such unfeeling things intentions of kindness that they cannot feel, we may, it makes no difference.
It is striking that Larkin could never feel interested in other countries or cultures, he almost never travelled abroad and did not try to learn about other places. His Englishness is often tiresome, and certainly represents a limitation in his poetry, but also a force. He faces reality in a concrete space and time, limited as he is limited. Perhaps the "other place" would also have served as a veiling myth for him? For Larkin, all that has existed in the past remains in the form of ruins, empty churches, evocative photos, books, memories, or repeated rituals. Metaphysics and religion are "bare ruined choirs" for him, and if the birds once sang sweet there, they left no recordings behind them.
The rejection of broad metaphysical schemes enabled Larkin to search for things left to say in many directions, without being constrained by any predetermined message, be it social, political, or religious. No doubt this helps explain the hostility of ideological critics; Larkin was a free man, intent on creating a little bit of truth in a largely false world. The constraints of his vision of life are also the key to his poetic quality; he never tried to produce art apart from life, he said admirably things that many people have felt and could never say they felt. His is very much the voice of the true Wasteland, one not afraid of its own condition.
In the end, for Larkin as for any poet, it was only the call to do something with words that mattered. He could never say why he did it, but he wrote, and so defined his life as a human being in his own unique way. His poems are often beautiful, and they are true to the poet who wrote them in the days of his life. They deserve to be read and studied with deep respect, and to be taught as the expressions of a courageous attempt to affirm glimpses of sense in the midst of a tremendously senseless mess, the modern world, that looks no better seen from Seoul than from the distant banks of the Humber.