Saturday, 26 April 2014

Is Larkin's Poetry Really That Bleak?

One is unlikely to deny that Philip Larkin’s poetry is bleak. He is renowned for his cynical outlook on life, death and love, and indeed he is almost incapable of expressing, or indeed hinting at, the possibility of joy and happiness. However, this is not to say that his poetry is unremittingly bleak, and nor is it completely bereft of positivity. Larkin’s poems are perhaps lacking in humour, warmth and hope, but they are certainly not bereft of them. Despite his constant fear of impending death, he had a few true passions including poetry, books, porn, whisky, and jazz. In fact, Larkin’s poetry occasionally leaves traces of a certain optimism that seems to be almost suppressed by his cynical nature.

The Daily Telegraph referred to Philip Larkin as “the magnificent Eeyore of British verse”, and indeed this quotation seems to summarise the vast majority of his poems. Throughout his life Larkin was haunted by the inevitability and eternal nature of death; even his earliest poems, written when he was a young man, seem to recognise death as a rational fear. Larkin’s loathing of mortality could be an effect of his father’s painful death from cancer in 1948, or his mother’s slow deterioration in old age. In “The Old Fools” Larkin is incredibly scathing about the incompetence of old people; he questions whether they think “it’s more grown up when your mouth hangs open and drools, / And you keep on pissing yourself…” His use of harsh and crude language (he describes an old person as having “toad hands” and a “prune face”) displays not only his fear of his own old age, but also his anger. Larkin said that his poem was enthused by.
“Anger at the humiliation of age… and anger at the old for reminding us of death… selfish anger, but typical of the first generation to refuse to look after its aged.”
His poem stresses the transience of humanity and the constant, although in old age unperceivable approach of “Extinction’s alp”, and it ends with the deathly but nonetheless aphoristic monosyllabic words: “We shall find out.” It is worth noting that Larkin would often visit Hull’s cemeteries to reflect and meditate whilst writing his poetry; no doubt this had a profound effect on his overall perspective. Larkin’s poetry is also filled with the motif of hopelessness and lack of fulfilment, and his poem “Love Songs In Age” is a perfect example of this. The poem depicts a woman (probably Larkin’s mother) listening to old records in the hope of reliving her past and remembering the love she once felt. However, the music’s “promising to solve, and satisfy” is a false promise, and the poem finishes: “without lamely admitting how / It had not done so then, and could not now.” This idea of unfulfilled promises and hopes is typical of Larkin, and is a clear representation of his utter cynicism.
However, Larkin’s poetry also contains aspects of comedy and humour, and indeed Martin Amis said that Larkin was one of the few poets with the ability to make us “laugh out loud”. Many of Larkin’s slightly darker messages work in juxtaposition with his comic self-mockery. For instance, in “Mr Bleaney” Larkin compares himself to the seemingly unaccomplished man who lived in his apartment before himself. Despite its bleak message, Larkin’s poem is engaging and humorous, and ironically ends with the words, “I don’t know.” It is as if Larkin is realising his own life’s depressing state, but the fact that this comes so bluntly is funny, and Larkin knows it. He is, in effect, mocking not only his own miserable life, but also his assumption that he is better than Mr Bleaney. Larkin’s poems are also often rather crude, and this crudity amuses the reader. The obvious example for this is his poem “High Windows”, which opens:
“When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm…”
Larkin’s use of the word “fucking” is extremely avant-garde. In fact, it was intended to shock the reader, and this in itself is funny. The apparently nonchalant approach to a rather serious issue is typical of Larkin, and is proof that his poems are not bereft of humour. Larkin is also known for the realism of his poetry. The candour of phrases like “And ate an awful pie” (“Dockery and Son”) or “mothers loud and fat;” (“The Whitsun Weddings”) is very funny indeed, and this is yet another example of Larkin’s humorous touch. This frankness is also seen in many of his letters to Kingsley Amis, which we know were intended to amuse. For instance he once wrote to Kingsley:
“Miss Isobel has come for a bit. I don’t care much about that, as it means I have to PAY for TWO women at the PUB and the FLICKS instead of ONE and I DON’T get my COCK into EITHER of them, EVER.”
We can therefore infer that his blunt and crude style of writing was intended to be amusing, and so it would be false to say that his poetry is wholly lacking in humour. Larkin’s extreme cynicism can also be seen as funny, and it is possible that he understood and took advantage of this. When we read such miserable and dismal lines (“And dulls to distance all we are”, “all time has disproved”, “For the rooms grow farther, leaving / Incompetent cold.”) the reader finds it hard not to be amused by his utterly extreme cynicism. Just as we laugh at Eeyore’s constantly pessimistic outlook, we are amused by what Andrew Motion calls Larkin’s very English, glum attitudes. One could even suggest that Larkin was playing up to the pose of the curmudgeon, being deliberately bleak as a way of amusing people.
Despite his cynical nature, Larkin also seems to instil a sense of hope in a number of his poems. “The Whitsun Weddings” concludes on a somewhat positive note, suggesting that change can bring hope and positivity:
                         “…and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give.”
He finishes the poem with the symbol of an arrow-shower (possibly representing the power and hope of a newly married couple) “somewhere becoming rain.” Although this reference to rain could be seen as typical Larkin cynicism, it is actually referring to the life-giving nature of rain providing fertility to the “squares of wheat” mentioned earlier in the poem. It is worth noting that “The Whitsun Weddings” is the eponymous poem of the collection, and so Larkin clearly valued hopefulness just as much as he valued hopelessness. Larkin’s poem “The Trees” also features a sense of optimism and hope. The poem depicts the trees “coming into leaf” and emphasises their permanence, referring to them as “the unresting castles”. Despite the undeniable note of jealousy in the poem, it ends with the simple onomatopoeic image of the trees transmitting life: “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” Like in “An Arundel Tomb”, Larkin’s positivity is masked by the phrase “they seem to say” – he seems incapable of believing in true hope and happiness. However, the poem undeniably has an optimistic tone, and therefore his poetry is not unremittingly bleak.
In a number of Larkin’s poems there are shafts of warmth and contentment, often demonstrated by his use of metaphor and lyricism. On the rare occasions when Larkin examines nature, it always represents a positive force that defeats our ephemeral lives and suggests a reason for happiness. For example “the eggs unbroken” depicted at the end of his poem “The Explosion” symbolise rebirth and the life yet to come. This is certainly a source of comfort and warmth for the wives of the miners who have died. Moreover his poem “Solar”, a paean to the sun, is a wholly positive poem that depicts the selflessness and permanence of nature. It ends with the optimistic words “You give for ever” which prove that Larkin’s poetry is not bereft of hope and warmth. Larkin also seems to be comforted by nature in his poem “High Windows”, and in the final stanza he depicts “the deep blue air” that represents true liberty and freedom. Finally, Larkin’s mention of religion often seems to accompany a sense of positivity and warmth; for instance the “high windows” could be referring to the windows of a Church, and “our needs” that “climb and return like angels” (in “Solar”) are fulfilled by the generosity of the sun. Although Larkin is ambivalent about religion, he was by no means an atheist. In fact, “The Explosion” features a prayer and the line “Are sitting in God’s house in comfort”. It is worth noting that at this point of the poem the metre moves from a trochaic tetrameter to a more comforting, less juddering iambic metre. Again, this demonstrates that Larkin’s poetry is not wholly bereft of warmth and comfort.
Larkin’s poetry, although very sinister and bleak at points, is not wholly melancholic. There are occasional yet undeniable shafts of humour, warmth and hope, and these are often represented by common features (lyricism, nature, religion, metaphor). Larkin also finds pleasure in the natural world and England’s bucolic and pastoral landscape (particularly in “The Whitsun Weddings”). In “MCMXIV” Larkin meditates upon the loss of the ‘old England’ and there is a certain warmth and comfort in his nostalgia. The majority of Larkin’s more positive poems (“MCMXIV”, “The Explosion”, “High Windows”, “Solar”, “An Arundel Tomb”) are not motivated so much by personal experiences, but rather by things that he has seen (photographs, tombs, documentaries) or more abstract ideas (particularly “Solar”). Perhaps Larkin was only unremittingly bleak when discussing his own life; it is possible that he saw the reason for other people’s joy, but found himself unable to completely immerse himself in it. His poem “An Arundel Tomb” is a perfect example of his incapability of wholly accepting happiness. The poem ends with the aphoristic line “What will survive of us Is love” which in itself is wholly positive. However, when put into its context (it follows “almost-instinct almost true”) the line seems somewhat dampened by Larkin’s unwillingness to accept it. Larkin wanted to believe in the ideal of love, but found a reason for cynicism in the genesis of the tomb. This ambiguity does nonetheless prove that Larkin’s poetry is not unremittingly bleak – despite his best wishes, Larkin was unable to remain the Eeyore figure he so aspired to be, and shafts of positivity are often evident.

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