PHILIP LARKIN AS A MODERN POET
Introduction of ‘Modernism’
According to an author, Kirsten who defines the term of ‘Modernism’ in these words:
“Modernism is notoriously difficult to define clearly because the term encompasses a variety of specific artistic and philosophical movements including symbolism, futurism, surrealism, expressionism, imagism, vorticism, dada, and others. To further complicate matters, many Modernists (including some of the most successful and most famous), are not affiliated with any of these groups.”
However, there are some basic tenets of the Modernist period that apply, in one way or another, to all these movements and those writers and artists not associated with them:
“Modernist literature is characterized chiefly by a rejection of 19th-century traditions and of their consensus between author and reader” (Baldick 159 ).”
Specifically, Modernists deliberately tried to break away from the conventions of the Victorian era. This separation from 19th century literary and artistic principles is a major part of a broader goal. Modernists wished to distinguish themselves from virtually the entire history of art and literature. EZRA POUND captured the essence of Modernism with his famous dictum, “Make it new!” Many Modernist writers felt that every story that could possibly be told had, in one way or another, been told already. Therefore, in order to create something new, they often had to try using new forms of writing. The period thus produced many experimental and avant-garde styles. Perhaps best known for such experimentation are fiction writers JAMES JOYCE and VIRGINIA WOOLF, and poets T. S. ELIOT and EZRA POUND, just to name a few.
Conflicting Critical Views LARKIN’s Poetry
There are conflicting opinions about LARKIN as a poet. In fact, there is a wide diversity of critical opinion about his achievement as a poet. LARKIN has provoked criticism, some of it very harsh and severe. Some of the most renowned critics have found fault with his poetry, and some of the most renowned critics have defended him against that fault-finding. Among the severest critics of his poetry are Alfred Alvarez and Charles Tomlinson; and his defenders include Donald Davie and Andrew Motion. LARKIN’s detractors have seen him as:
“The reluctant poet of the drab and austere surfaces of post-war Britain.”
While his defenders have pointed out the social realism of his poetry and its clear-sighted acceptance of the way things were.
The Political and Social Context of the Poems in Less Deceived
The title of this volume was adapted by LARKIN from a remark made by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet: ‘I was the more deceived’. LARKIN wished to convey through this title his intention not to be ‘more deceived’ by the realities of life but to be ‘less deceived’ by them. In other words, he wished to convey through this title his view that poetry was a realistic interpretation of life, and that his own poetry would represent what he called his ‘sad-eyed’ realism. The feeling, that Britain had lost most of its glory and power, shows itself in the wistful melancholy and elegiac lyricism of the poems of LARKIN in the volume entitled ‘The Less Deceived’; and this feeling helps us to understand LARKIN’s ‘sad-eyed realism’.He wants to give an interpretation of life through his poetry.
The Themes in LARKIN’s Poetry, and His Treatment of Them
Being a modern poet LARKIN has taken up the themes of religion, melancholy, pessimism, realism, isolation, love, nature, social chaos, alienation, boredom, death, time and sex in his poetry. This approach is quite clear from his treatment of the questions of belief knowledge and perceptions. All these things were necessary because of the conditions of Post War England and also his treatment of these themes is very unique, realistic and convincing. A critic writes:
“His themes, love, change, disenchantment, the mystery and inexplicableness of the poet’s survival, and death’s finality are unshakably major.”
This critic also finds such other themes in LARKIN’s poetry as a failure, the fragility of human choices (between bachelorhood and marriage, for example), the importance of vocation in life, the horrifying reality of death, the struggles of the common people, and the universality of human misery and sadness. According to this critic:
“LARKIN is not only an analyst of the human mind but also a romantic deeply concerned with the spiritual health of human beings.”
Pessimistic Note in the LARKIN’s Poetry
ANDREW MOTION says that:
“LARKIN has often been regarded as a hopeless, inflexible pessimist”
Many of the poems express the pessimistic outlook of LARKIN on religion, society and present government. One such poem is Church Going, in which Larkin expresses his dark view about church and religion. This poem depicts the decline of religious faith and a decrease in the number of people attending church services. Entering a church, LARKIN looks around himself and describes everything that meets his eyes, the small neat organ, the fading flowers which had been placed there on Sunday last, the Bibles, and so on. He wonders what would happen to the churches when people have lost their faith completely. He speculates upon the future of these churches some of which might become museums with their display. He says:
“A few cathedrals chronically on show, / Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases, / And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.”
Obscenity and Conversation in the Poems of LARKIN
After reading the poems of LARKIN, a reader becomes quite convinced that England is losing its old moral values and rich cultural heritage. Steve Clark remarked about his poem of “High Windows” that this poem “starts out looking like a poem about sex, and becomes a poem about religion”. This obvious relationship between the institution of the church and individual behaviour emphasizes the socially constructed nature of sexuality up to a certain degree. He talks about people doing it, his lack of it, and his desperate desire for some of it. LARKIN obviously isn’t getting any sexual fulfilment from anyone and he is unafraid to show that. BRUCE MEYER, a poetry critic, said of LARKIN’s book High Windows,
“LARKIN’s poetry shows his pathetic and unattainable desires for love, passion, and human contact.”
“High Windows” expresses the poet’s outspoken discontent with the sexual revolution of the sixties. After the Family Planning Act of 1965, which had introduced the free distribution of contraceptives and which LARKIN refers to in the first stanza of “High Windows”:
“When I see a couple of kids / And guess he’s fucking her… Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives- Bonds and gestures pushed to one side.”
The Stylistic Qualities and Poetic Techniques of LARKIN’s Work
A number of critics have discussed LARKIN’s poetic style and his poetic techniques. LARKIN’s technical achievements in many of his poems, including the imagery in them and their meter’, rhythm, and syntax have been commented upon in great detail. For instance, one of the critics has pointed to the syntactic inversion of the closing line of the poem At Grass, to the half-rhymes of ‘home’ and ‘come’, and to the subtle inner para-rhyme of ‘groom’ in the final stanza. The effect of this, he says, is to feel the voice hush and the imagery become subdued. The inverted syntax, he further says, is part of the subdued and delaying echo of the verse. This critic comments thus on the third stanza of the same poem, namely At Grass:
“The lines describe the scene, but the change in meter makes us hear and see it. Where the other stanzas are written in iambic pentameters, reversals of feet in the third stanza turn the first halves of these three lines into rocking choriambs, enacting the horses’ gallop”.
Actually, however, this poem is written not in iambic pentameter but in iambic tetrameter. Another critic says that the grammatical features of the poem Mr Bleaney, particularly its use of a person, tense, and syntax, should be clearly understood if we are to appreciate fully how this poem functions. This poem describes two scenes: the speaker’s conversation with the landlady, and the speaker’s private reflections on his own existence. But, in the transition, there seems to be a fusion of person and tense; the first-person of the speaker merges with the third-person past of Mr Bleaney.
The Metaphoric and Metonymic Modes
Another critic expresses the view that the dynamic relationship between metaphoric and metonymic principles often leads to a symbolic mode which reveals itself in the hidden structures of many of LARKIN’s poems. A typical example, says this critic, is the seemingly metonymical description of the’ horses in the poem At Grass. Here, the realistic description in each stanza is structured according to a pattern of standstill, incipient movement, developing to a climax, subsequent rest, and final standstill. When taken on its own, this motif is metaphoric; it functions as a vehicle of time’s progress in human life. Like At Grass, most of LARKIN’s symbolic poems remain realistic. This critic then goes on to analyze LARKIN’s poem entitled Here to demonstrate how the metonymic mode becomes symbolic. This critic’s recognition of LARKIN’s symbolic mode of writing derives largely from the view of many critics that LARKIN has been writing partly within a tradition of symbolist poetry going back to the work of W.B. Yeats and nineteenth-century French writers.
LARKIN’s Attitude to Modernism and Symbolism
From the very beginning, LARKIN had been expressing a certain degree of hostility to the ideas and techniques of modernism. He expressed a deep dislike for the work of three modernists, the musician PARKER, the poet EZRA POUND, and THE PAINTER PICASSO. He regarded modernist experiments in the fields of music, poetry, and painting as irresponsible exploitations of technique in opposition to human life as we know it. However, in the nineteen-eighties, some critics began to perceive a distinct symbolist mode of writing in LARKIN’s poetry and, therefore, a fairly strong inclination towards modernism (because the symbolist technique is one of the most conspicuous modernist techniques). This new critical attitude towards LARKIN’s poetry showed a recognition of the strongly affirmative and transcendent element in his poetry. What brought about this change in the attitude of the critics towards LARKIN’s poetry was the publication in 1974 of LARKIN’s last volume of poems entitled ‘High Windows’. The poems in this volume were characterized by unusual experiments with form and by a frequent obscurity and allusiveness. According to one critic:
“The total impression which this volume of poems produced was one of despair made beautiful, real despair and real beauty, with not a trace of posturing in either.”
SEAMUS HEANEY’s View of LARKIN’s Symbolist Potential
LARKIN’s symbolist potential received an impressive recognition from Seamus Heaney (who was appointed the poet-laureate of England in 1995). Heaney acknowledged LARKIN’s detailed social observation, but he also noted a simultaneous yearning for transcendence and revelation in LARKIN’s poetry. Heaney twice used the word “symbolism” to describe the linguistic structures of the poems in the volume entitled “High Windows”. He noted the unusual diction of the poem Sad Steps and praised the poem Solar as a hymn to the sun. In Solar, he said, LARKIN was very far from the hapless man who took off his cycle-clips “in awkward reverence” (in the poem Church Going). At the same time, Heaney emphasized the peculiar Englishness of LARKIN’s poetry. Another critic also pointed out that the poem High Windows was characterized by some of the ideas and techniques of French symbolist poetry. The eminent critic and biographer Andrew Motion explored in detail the symbolist dimensions of LARKIN’s poetry. He too agreed that LARKIN had surely responded to the example of French symbolist poets at an early stage in his poetic career. However, Andrew Motion emphatically expressed the view that subsequently, LARKIN wrote his poems under the persistent and combined influence of THOMAS HARDY and W.B. YEATS. According to this critic, LARKIN’s best and most characteristic work represents a dialectic between the empirical mode of Hardy and the symbolist mode of YEATS, or between the language of sadness and isolation repeatedly competing with the language of aspiration and transcendence. In ANDREW MOTION’s opinion:
“This dialectic is an expression of LARKIN’s divided response to the world. In other words, LARKIN’s poetry is a continual debate between hopeful romantic yearning and disillusioned pragmatism.”
This critic also expresses the view that the volume of poems entitled ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is a book which conforms almost exactly to the attitudes and styles of the Movement group of poets and, therefore, the least symbolist in technique though he finds evidence of the symbolist method in the closing lines of the title poem in this volume and also in the closing lines of the poem Water.
LARKIN as a Writer of Dramatic Monologues
As one of the other critics says, LARKIN’s poems often take the form of dramatic monologues which seem intended to reveal LARKIN’s own thoughts and feelings because he is speaking out of his own strong convictions. In other words, the speakers in these poems are LARKIN himself. Although this emphasis on his own thoughts and feelings may seem to be egotistical, it is this which gives strength to LARKIN’s poems; and, as he himself has said, it reflects the example of his literary mentor, THOMAS HARDY. Yet his own experience and his own way of commenting on that experience are markedly different from HARDY’s.
For example in Church Going LARKIN directly names himself as the speaker of the monologue in the very first two lines of the poem:
His Obsession With Death
Every critic has noted LARKIN’s obsession with death. According to one of the critics, LARKIN emphasizes the omnipresence of death, as, for example, in the poem ‘Ambulances’. The poem ‘Aubade’ represents the climax of LARKIN’s preoccupation with death. The recurrence of this motif in his poems inevitably imparts a pessimistic quality to them. One critic says that LARKIN has often been classified as a hopeless and inflexible pessimist. Another critic, Eric Homberger, in ‘The Art of the Real ‘, describes him as:
“The saddest heart in the post-war supermarket”.
The sight of the graves makes a man wiser, therefore, every grave reminds the thoughts of death. It is ‘Ambulances’, however, that provides us with the bluntest depiction of human mortality, with its vivid descriptions of illness and death. As above poem exposes:
“The solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do.”
Some Special Features of the Poetry of LARKIN
LARKIN belongs to a group of poets who started a poetic movement in England in the fifties of the 20th century. These poets were KINGSLEY AMIS, JOHN WAIN, ELIZEBETH JENNINGS, THORN GUNN, DONALD DAVIE, and D.J. ENRIGHT. Soon afterwards an anthology called “New Lines” by ROBERT CONQUEST, containing the work of these poets appeared; and in it, a number of poems by LARKIN were also included. LARKIN wrote some the poems which have the special features of the Movement. Among these poems are two special poems Church Going and the Whitsun. All the characteristics of the movement are reflected is in these two poems.
Church Going deals with contemporary agnosticism. The narrator in this poem is very sceptical about churches. LARKIN‘s dilemma is not whether to believe in God or not, but what a man can replace with God. Though the ‘Church’ is the symbol of faith, peace and purity yet in the modern age people have lost faith in Church. He says:
“Who will be the last, the very / Last to seek this place for what It was.”
And further, he says that:
“Shall we avoid them as unlucky places? “
In the end, one can say that LARKIN belongs to a group of poets who started a poetic movement in England in the fifties of the 20th century, therefore he has set up his reputation as a great poet in modern England yet he is against the techniques of modern poetry and he strongly rejects it. He is a writer of dramatic monologues and uses symbolist element in his poetry. His poems are realistic, objective and conform to the spirit of the modern age as a political and social context of the poems in Less Deceived.
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