The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin brings together what may be the most important body of poetry written in the post-World War II period.1 The size of the volume comes as something of a surprise, however. Larkin, who died in 1985 at the age of sixty-three, published four slender books in his lifetime (the longest was forty-eight pages): The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974). Anthony Thwaite, the editor of the Collected Poems and one of the executors of Larkin’s estate, has brought forth a volume containing 242 poems—172 in a first section (“Poems 1946-83”) containing all of what Thwaite considers Larkin’s mature work (omitting, astonishingly, The North Ship) and seventy poems in a second section (“Early Poems 1938-45”). This latter section contains, in addition to The North Ship, twenty-two previously unpublished poems; the book’s first section, meanwhile, contains sixty-one poems in print for the first time. Both sections have poems from In the Grip of Light, a volume Larkin tried, and failed, to publish in 1947. All of the “new” poems—which have been retrieved from Larkin’s notebooks and typescripts—have been arranged chronologically in the book’s two sections along with the previously published material, both collected and uncollected. As it turns out, these added poems do not really enhance what one might legitimately refer to as Larkin’s real oeuvre. Most of the rejected poems—and this is what they must be called, as Larkin considered them unfit to publish or collect in his lifetime—should really have been consigned to an appendix.
Not everything about Thwaite’s edition is so muddled, of course.
Not everything about Thwaite’s edition is so muddled, of course. Dates of composition have been provided; these, along with the chronological arrangement of the poems, permit the reader to follow more closely the ups and downs of Larkin’s career. Thus, we can see how the brilliant “At Grass,” which was completed on January 3, 1950, emerged phoenix-like from a long period of uncertainty, and seemed to be the catalyst for a quick succession of marvels, all written in the following year: “Deceptions,” “Coming,” “If, My Darling,” “Wants,” “Absences,” “Spring,” “No Road,” and a number of others. From the perspective afforded by this book, good poems often seem to be the greatest inspiration for more good poems. Any biographer of Larkin who would locate the sources of poetic inspiration primarily in external events might bear this in mind.
Thwaite’s additions also confirm the prevailing view of Larkin as our late Prince of Despair. The new poems are like versions of the Larkin we all know. Though less interesting and often less technically accomplished, they show us that the poet’s description of himself from a 1979 interview—“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”—was no exaggeration. The previously uncollected “Heads in the Women’s Ward” seems to be a dry run for “The Old Fools”:
On pillow after pillow lies
The wild white hair and staring eyes;
Jaws stand open; necks are stretched
With every tendon sharply sketched;
A bearded mouth talks silently
To someone no one else can see.
Sixty years ago they smiled
At lover, husband, first-born child.
Smiles are for youth. For old age come
Death’s terror and delirium.
Not the least interesting thing about Larkin’s poetry is how many different forms his bleakness took. He wrote of solitude: “the dining-room declares/A larger loneliness” (“Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel”). Existential dread was a favorite theme: “the solving emptiness/ That lies just under all we do” (“Ambulances”). Old age was an obsession: “Why aren’t they screaming?” the poet asks of “The Old Fools.” He also wrote about his own mortality: “Unresting death/One whole day nearer now” (“Aubade”), as well as about the death of others (“All know they are going to die./Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end,/And somewhere like this” (“The Building”). There is the anguish of calamities (in “The Explosion,” about a mining disaster); rape (“Deceptions”); and work (“Toads”). Even nature is perceived to be full of woe: “[t]heir greenness,” Larkin writes about “The Trees,” “is a kind of grief.” His verse teems with the bitterness of false hope. In “Home is So Sad,” Larkin complains how home began as “A joyous shot at how things ought to be,/Long fallen wide”; in “A Study of Reading Habits,” literature is exposed as humbug. In “I Remember, I Remember,” nostalgia itself is revealed to be nothing more than a nostalgic lie.
There was much that made Larkin despondent in the world of middle-class England as well: he was a magnet to the iron filings of vulgarity in contemporary life. In “Going, Going,” for example, he deplores “the bleak high-risers,” “[m]ore houses . . . more parking,” and grimly predicts that “All that remains/For us will be concrete and tyres.” In “The Whitsun Weddings,” the poet’s eye is drawn to the “fathers with broad belts under their suits . . . mothers loud and fat;/An uncle shouting smut.” In “Here,” Larkin takes note of the “cut-price crowd,” and in “Arrivals, Departures,” Larkin’s “traveller”—unlike the one, for example, in William Blake’s “Ah! Sun-flower”—carries a sample case.
It was perhaps inevitable that Larkin’s ardent pursuit of despair should lead to himself.
It was perhaps inevitable that Larkin’s ardent pursuit of despair should lead to himself. In “Dockery and Son,” a poignant account of a visit to his old college, Larkin learns from the Dean that Dockery, who was at school with the poet, has a son enrolled there. Dockery was “[c]onvinced he . . . should be added to!” and this startles the bachelor poet. “Why did he think adding meant increase/To me it was dilution.” This is a confession not just of Larkin’s reluctance to make the requisite sacrifices for family life—There’s not enough of me to go around—but of his insecurity as well: I think so little of myself why should I create more littleness?
“Dockery and Son” may not fully persuade us of Larkin’s uncertain self-esteem; but about his distaste for modernity there can be no doubt. Even skeptics of psychology will have difficulty disputing the notion that much of Larkin’s querulousness about the modern world—its people, its ways, its art—stemmed from an uneasiness about his own place in it. This characterization is not meant to deprecate Larkin as a man or artist: far from it. But it can’t be denied that there was much discontent in the poet’s character. His often expressed distaste for cheap suits, highways, “perms,” the libidinous, ignorant younger generation, and marriage and children provides ample evidence. Larkin once remarked in an interview that “children are very horrible, aren’t they? Selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes”—as if this were all there was to it.
Larkin’s inclination to disparagement can also be seen in “Self’s the Man.” This poem begins with an affirmation of the big-heartedness of a married man named “Arnold,” but quickly shifts to become a revelation of the subject’s essential selfishness. “But wait, not so fast,” writes Larkin. “Is there such a contrast [between me and him]?”
He was out for his own ends
Not just pleasing his friends;
And if it was such a mistake
He still did it for his own sake,
Playing his own game.
So he and I are the same . . .
Some critics have attempted to disarm Larkin’s bleakness by attributing it to an invented persona. A recent example is Grey Gowrie’s review of Larkin’s Collected Poems in the October 15, 1988 edition of the Weekend Telegraph. “Larkin himself was not the bored, uninformed, emblematically cycle-clipped representative of a provincial culture,” wrote Gowrie. The “role . . . [is a] literary creation . . . . Indeed, the making of fictions and the use of fictional techniques are insufficiently considered by critics of poetry, too quick to assume poems strip bare where novels dress up.”
In the case of certain poets, questioning the validity of a poem’s “I” is sound critical practice. With Larkin, however, it’s a mistake. Obviously, it’s impossible to say precisely how disaffected Larkin was. Yet, speaking as someone who believes that poetry often traffics in fictional scenarios, I have to think that Larkin himself possessed the powerful tendency for discontentment that is expressed in his poetry. The proof is in the prose writings, interviews, and Larkin’s own statement that he always tried “to avoid [a] false relation between art and life . . . . I think that one of the great criticisms of poets of the past is that they said one thing and did another . . . .”
It is important to highlight the authenticity of this disaffected self, because doing so makes Larkin’s heroic attempts to overcome his hardheartedness that much more affecting. Dismissing Larkin’s irascible side has another negative effect: it divests his poetry of the element that constitutes its greatest appeal. When Larkin aired his misanthropy, it struck a chord in those of us for whom the easiest response to a confusing world is to assail it. Larkin’s embodiment of the pandemic impulse to speak and act out of fear and weakness, rather than from confidence and strength, is one reason why his poetry has achieved such a remarkable popularity. It is also one of the reasons why his verse is probably more fully representative of the postwar era than that of any other poet.
To this end, he purged many of his lines of imagery.
One of Larkin’s chief aims as a poet, certainly, was to render his bleak outlook as plainly as possible. To this end, he purged many of his lines of imagery. The idea was that no aesthetic cushion (except humor, of which there is a good amount in Larkin) should ease the pain. This pictorial stinginess, and its accompanying gloomy realism, are the chief traits of the English poetic group known as the Movement, which emerged in the Fifties and of which Larkin was considered to be a leading member. In the introduction to the first Movement anthology, New Lines (1956), Robert Conquest, the book’s editor, wrote that George Orwell was the most decisive influence on the poets in this group. These included Donald Davie, John Wain, D. J. Enright, Thorn Gunn, and Elizabeth Jennings. Claiming a novelist, critic, and political commentator as a poetic inspiration cast the Movement poets in an unpoetic light from the very start. But this was their wish: to deal with ordinary experience in “new lines” of prosaic language untainted by idealism and mysticism (qualities they associated with the romantic rhetoric of Dylan Thomas), allusion and ambiguity (techniques they rejected in Eliot and Pound), or most forms of poetic lyricism. Blake Morrison, the Movement’s historian, has written that its writers were devoted to the principles of “rationalism, realism, and empiricism.”2
Empiricism is the key word in considering the Movement poets. The term is linked to the philosophical school of logical positivism, which in its simplest definition—from Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary—holds that “all meaningful statements are either analytic or conclusively verifiable or at least confirmable by observation and experiment and that metaphysical theories are therefore strictly meaningless.” This describes, to a large degree, the philosophical position of the Movement poets.
A form of the word “empirical” turns up once in Larkin’s oeuvre. In “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” from The Less Deceived, the poet wrote:
But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes
Like washing-lines, and Hall’s-Distemper boards,
But shows the cat as disinclined, and shades
A chin as doubled when it is, what grace
Your candor thus confers upon her face!
How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place,
In every sense empirically true!
“In every sense empirically true!” does characterize a good deal of Larkin’s best verse. One thinks, for example, of “Aubade,” a marvelous late poem in which the poet wondered, with a fervently logical and empirical completeness, “how/And where and when I shall myself die.” Yet in “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” Larkin claims that photography, not poetry, is the “[f]aithful and disappointing” art. This seems to suggest that poetry is capable of something more than the unrevised rendering of reality found in a typical photograph, or in an ordinary Movement poem.
The equivocal attitude toward the Movement aesthetic implied in “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” was not unprecedented. Earlier in his career, Larkin had written a more metaphorically lavish and openly hopeful kind of poetry than the bulk of what he produced during his Movement phase. Larkin’s first book, The North Ship, published in 1945, when the poet was just twenty-three, showed the influence of Yeats, whom Larkin later spurned. The second of the book’s thirty-two poems started off like this:
This was your place of birth, this daytime palace,
This miracle of glass, whose every hall
The light as music fills, and on your face
Shines petal-soft; sunbeams are prodigal
To show you pausing at a picture’s edge . . . .
To focus on a face flattered by “petal-soft” beams of light and not—as in the typical poem of Larkin’s maturity—on a scene distorted by the ugly lights of a hotel corridor; to write of a palace rather than of fish docks or dirty canals; to honor one’s place of birth rather than attend to scenes of death; to celebrate a miracle, rather than bemoan a disaster—this was the youthful, pre-Movement Larkin. In the poems of The North Ship, the poet improved the drab hues of reality instead of mirroring them, and the results were remarkably good.
A few years later, however, Larkin radically altered his views, or so it seemed. In “Deceptions,” from The Less Deceived (the book that followed The North Ship), Larkin claimed to be no longer fooled by illusions, poetic and otherwise, and derided those who sought “fulfilment’s desolate attic.” When The North Ship was reissued in 1966, Larkin affirmed in the introduction that his youthful “Celtic fever” had long since abated and the Romantic in him was “sleeping soundly.” What repudiated his early poetry most, though, were the lines of conclusively verifiable statements, untouched by any glimmer of transcendence.
The truth is, even during his Movement stage, Larkin was writing poems that went very much against the grain of Movement verse. Nevertheless, it was the Movement side of Larkin that caught the attention of readers and critics in England and America. Indeed, when Larkin started getting the attention of the major literary periodicals in the United States during the late Fifties and early Sixties, he was presented by critics such as A. Alvarez and M. L. Rosenthal as a dejected confessional poet—someone, that is, very much in the mold of Robert Lowell, who was then the commanding presence on the poetry scene. To be sure, the Movement-Larkin and the confessional writers did share a predilection for gloominess and the honest baring of it in poetry. But too many of Larkin’s poems overstepped the narrow boundaries of both Movement and confessional verse for him to be comfortably placed in either group.
It should be noted, in any case, that the poems that do adhere more or less to Movement aesthetic principles are much better than most of those by other Movement poets. There are phrases and lines in Larkin that are unimaginable in, say, Kingsley Amis or Elizabeth Jennings: “Mute glorious Storyvilles,” “that padlocked cube of light,” “sparkling armada of promises,” “salt rebuff of speech,” “Lit shelved liners/Grope like mad worlds westward,” and “feet/Inventing where they tread,/The random windows conjuring a street.” Nor is there a Movement poet who has written so marvelous a poem as “Dockery and Son.” This poem is composed entirely of standard Movement materials: anti-metaphorical language, bleak subject matter, and a distrust of any redeeming metaphysics. Yet in its overall effect the poem escapes these narrow aesthetic confines. Little in postwar English poetry is as memorable as Larkin’s middle-aged ruminations on bachelorhood:
. . . To have no son, no wife,
No house or land still seemed quite natural.
Only a numbness registered the shock
Of finding out how much had gone of life,
How widely from the others. Dockery, now:
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of . . . No, that’s not the difference: rather, how
Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution. Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got
And how we got it; looked back on, they rear
Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying
For Dockery a son, for me nothing,
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.
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 only the end of age.
Clearly, no miracle or transcendent flash saved the poet from his fate; hence the Movement virtue of Orwellian realism is perfectly realized. The detached, empirical assessment in “Dockery and Son” is just right for the poet’s emotion—an emotion Larkin remarked as having arisen from “one of those tremendous jolts life gives you sometimes, when you see what’s been happening to you, and how powerless you are to do anything about it.”
Even the poetry of the Movement phase that does not reach such heights is distinguished by a perceptive mastery and by vibrant language and metrical interest. Indeed, Larkin integrated metrical form and contemporary speech more successfully than any other poet of our time. So much of Larkin’s poetry seems on first reading to be ordinary speech duly transcribed; yet there is scarcely a line that doesn’t scan: “Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole”; “Canals with floatings of industrial froth”; “Approached with acres of dismantled cars”; “Naturally the Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses.” What these lines show is that contemporary speech and time-honored poetic forms need not diverge. Not the least important aspect of Larkin’s achievement was his sifting through the slag-heap of postwar English for such lines that merge successfully the past and the present. One can imagine Larkin pacing the floor of his Hull flat, hitting on one of these gems, eyes aglow, smiling slightly, muttering to himself (in perfect iambic tetrameter): “Mm. Well. Eureka, I suppose.”
Some poems take this division of feeling as their subject.
As beautifully written and on the mark as many of Larkin’s Movement poems were, however, there were some experiences they could not do justice to. Larkin knew this, and willingly abandoned the Movement attitude when it no longer suited his material. Thus, in a few poems, he evoked transcendent emotions with images that Seamus Heaney has referred to as “visionary.”3 In these poems—Heaney cites “Livings,” “Water,” and “Solar”—the poet can be seen, in Heaney’s words, “repining for a more crystalline reality” beyond the mundane rationality that governed Larkin’s customary outlook. Heaney believes—and this runs contrary to what many of Larkin’s critics have claimed—that the poet never entirely disowned the Symbolist and Yeatsian aesthetic of The North Ship.
What’s interesting about “Solar” is that its Symbolist-inspired language is used to invoke the kind of hopefulness we do not normally associate with Larkin:
Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfinished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.
The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Heat is the echo of your
This evocation of the sun is totally devoid of the corrosive irony Larkin usually reserved for such objects, and thus illustrates how intent the poet was in rummaging around in “fulfilment’s desolate attic.” “Solar” suggests something else, too. To place the poem next to “Self’s the Man” is to see how uninterested Larkin was in reconciling the oppositions within his poetry, and in himself. This was no failing; it is a testimony to his courage. Resolving these antagonisms would have meant the denial of an important aspect of Larkin’s complex spirit. Larkin’s reluctance to temper his clashing experiences for the sake of aesthetic conformity is one more reason his poetry will survive.
Some poems take this division of feeling as their subject. In “Days,” for instance, the question posed by the childishly naive, empirical-Larkin in the first stanza ("Where can we live but days?") is answered by the disturbing image in the second stanza. This image seems to come straight from the dream side of life—a side of life the speaker of the first stanza, one senses, can’t comprehend:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
“High Windows,” the title poem of Larkin’s last book, also has a divided feeling. The first three of the poem’s four stanzas consist of the caustic observations of the hidebound Larkin regarding the sexual freedom of the young. Larkin noted with dismay that the “[b]onds and gestures” that inhibited him when he was young have been callously “pushed to one side/Like an outdated combine harvester.” However, in the last stanza, there is a mammoth shift in perspective. An entirely different Larkin—one who obviously doesn’t believe, as the empiricists do, that meaningful statements must be conclusively verifiable—declares that
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.
The high windows one assumed, before reading the poem, to be metaphors for an older, better world, turn out to be portals to a void that makes discussions of taste and sexual habits seem beside the point. Embracing both the trivially mundane and the spiritually momentous, “High Windows” provides a fuller and more comprehensive image of Larkin’s shifting, provisional self.
“Going” (from The Less Deceived) doesn’t have this sort of internal tension; but if it is read alongside the poem it follows in The Less Deceived—“Next, Please”—the effect is the same. The unequivocal sentiment of “Next, Please” (even the title suggests that we view it in light of the following poem) is that hope and expectation are misguided emotions, and all we can count on is death. The unsettling questions in “Going” attempt to wrest more from the universe than the complacent despair to be found in “Next, Please.” They throw into doubt that poem’s confident, empirical voice.
There is an evening coming in
Across the fields, one never seen before,
That lights no lamps.
Silken it seems at a distance, yet
When it is drawn up over the knees and breast
It brings no comfort.
Where has the tree gone, that locked
Earth to sky? What is under my hands,
That I cannot feel?
What loads my hands down?
A similar division of emotion is found in what have been referred to as the advertising poems in The Whitsun Weddings. “Sunny Prestatyn,” about a travel poster defaced by a vandal; “Essential Beauty,” a condemnation of billboards that “cover slums with praise/Of motor oil and cuts of salmon”; and “The Large Cool Store,” a criticism of how our “young unreal wishes” are heartlessly exploited by a store’s clothing displays, have been viewed by many critics as further evidence of Larkin’s desire to malign anything that attempts to propose, as he wrote in “Essential Beauty,” “how life should be.” The fact is, however, that there is nothing in them to sully the cause of illusions in these poems. Few of us, after all, are taken in by advertising; so how effective is Larkin’s use of it as a metaphor to attack illusion? Not very, I suspect.
Although “Solar,” “Days,” and the advertising poems ameliorate the image of an unrelentingly disillusioned Larkin, none of them is among Larkin’s finest poems. “High Windows” is better by far. But even in this splendid poem the transition in the final stanza from worldly despair to otherworldly release may be a little too abrupt. As powerful as “High Windows” is, the contrast between the two worlds of feeling is a bit stark.
The struggle that raged in the poet between his hopeful and unhopeful selves had been better examined in three earlier poems. “Church Going,” “The Whitsun Weddings,” and “At Grass”: for me, these are the three greatest poems of Larkin’s career. What distinguishes them from an excellent but somewhat lesser poem like “High Windows” is the more modulated and tentative shift from one realm of feeling to another. It was the kind of subtle shift Larkin evidently grew less and less capable of in his later years.
The voice with which “Church Going” begins is that of the bored atheist, to whom the empty church he visits is a baffling, rather absurd monument:
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new—
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet five stanzas later, at the end of the poem, Larkin acknowledges an acceptance not of religious faith but of the stirrings of spiritual seriousness in him that his excursions to the church induced:
. . . For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
This isn’t the kind of explosive affirmation we find in “Solar”; yet in its very guardedness there is a greater emotional force. Larkin’s language mirrors the poem’s shift in view. The two metaphors—the “hunger . . . to be more serious” and the feeling of “gravitating” to the ground of the Church—reflect Larkin’s new approval of forces and motivations beyond the area of rational choice. And the astonishing line, “In whose blent air all our compulsions meet”—unlike anything preceding it in Larkin’s poetry up to this point—suggests, in its luminousness, the new imaginative terrain Larkin was beginning to explore in this final stanza of “Church Going.”
Larkin’s language mirrors the poem’s shift in view.
In “The Whitsun Weddings,” the cautious move to generosity from despair is also prompted by an unexpected event: a wedding. This poem begins with the poet observing a suburban landscape from a train, focusing, typically, on the countryside’s ugliest features: “the backs of houses,” a “nondescript” town, and “acres of dismantled cars.”
When a wedding party comes into view, it is the “girls/In parodies of fashion” Larkin first sees. However, by poem’s end, he has learned to appreciate, even share, the emotions of the wedding party. Thus, “The Whitsun Weddings” re-enacts metaphorically the drama played out in “Church Going” and “High Windows.” In the latter poem, Larkin’s contemplation of the infinite emerged from the most mundane concerns. In “Church Going,” a form of faith arose from the worst sort of spiritual passivity. In “The Whitsun Weddings,” an emotional involvement in the wedding springs from the poet’s bachelorhood. What all these poems seem to suggest is, beware of certainty, which itself may be an illusion.
Actually, “The Whitsun Weddings” deals with two weddings: the one between bride and groom, and the one between the poet and the event. Each had its own offspring: in the case of the marriage, children; in the case of Larkin, the poem. Each act is seen to represent a diminution of the miracle-denying empiricist. The poem’s two weddings are a coincidence, perhaps. But the image of a fertile rain at the poem’s end certainly is no chance event:
. . . And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The “arrow-shower” of imaginative strength, “sent out of sight”—i.e., beyond the empiricist’s view—is portrayed as vigorous enough to pull free of the ever-tightening “brakes” of the poet’s intelligence.
At first glance, “At Grass”—which takes as its subject the former glory of two retired race horses—appears to be an occasion for another typically bleak Larkinesque meditation on the ravages of time. But the sense of gloom and decay with which the poem opens gives way to its opposite. Here is “At Grass” in full:
The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane;
Then one crops grass, and moves about—
The other seeming to look on—
And stands anonymous again.
Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them: faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes—
Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.
Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowds and cries—
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they
Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.
As in “Church Going” and “The Whitsun Weddings,” it seems as if the poet woke up that day yearning for something to confirm his despair; once again, he was surprised by hope. The line “They gallop for what must be joy” is another statement of faith in the possibility of joy; but also an expression of self-criticism and humility.
Interestingly, Larkin’s Movement outlook is presented here, as in “The Whitsun Weddings,” as a threat. The bridles that the groom and groom’s boy bring out in the final stanza—is this a metaphor for the empirical-Larkin’s desire to censor all hope? I believe it is. In beautifully depicting Larkin’s internal struggle, and in acknowledging the possibility of secular faith in a godless world, “At Grass” may be Larkin’s single greatest poem.
For Larkin, hope is rare; yet never so rare that it can be entirely written off.
For Larkin, hope is rare; yet never so rare that it can be entirely written off. The number of poems in Larkin’s oeuvre—“real” or newly expanded—exhibiting glimmers of affirmation is small: in addition to the ones discussed, there is “An Arundel Tomb,” “To The Sea,” “Sad Steps,” “Show Saturday,” and “The Explosion.” Yet this small percentage seems to be a fair representation of Larkin’s experience. If Larkin’s verse emanated any more hopefulness, it could be counted on, and that wouldn’t seem right.
Larkin’s best poems suggest that despair may contain the seeds of hope, and that even the bleakest landscape may contain something worth praising. To overlook this central point of Larkin’s verse is to make him merely the despairing spokesman for a dreary age. His work attains its distinction, in part, by resisting the idea that the human spirit can be explained purely by means of logical analysis and facts—and, by extension, psychological, historical, and sociological models. In showing the poetic imagination’s ability to resist these powerful adversaries, Larkin left an important poetic legacy.
To locate this legacy the reader will have to learn to read through the many failed poems (in Larkin’s eyes as well as ours) that encumber the Collected Poems. Yet even in a partly bungled edition it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Larkin’s poetic achievement may very well be the greatest of our time.
- The Collected Poems were published jointly by Faber and the Marvell Press in London in September, 1988. The American edition, to be published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, is now said to be forthcoming in April, after several postponements. Go back to the text.
- The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950s, by Blake Morrison. Oxford, 1980; reissued as a paperback in 1986 by Methuen. Go back to the text.
- See Heaney’s essay, “The Main of Light,” in Larkin at Sixty, edited by Anthony Thwaite; Faberand Faber, 1982. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 8, on page 5
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