by Marcus Herold
University of Cologne
Cologne, July 15, 1996
Comments appreciated! Send Email to Marcus Herold (firstname.lastname@example.org)
1. 'A whole climate of opinion'
2. The 'positive' Larkin
3. Individual aspects of Larkin's predicament
4. Specific Dilemmas
5. A lack of alternative
6. Not the place's fault
1. 'A whole climate of opinion'
Reading Larkin for the first time, one is struck by the characteristically glum atmosphere that pervades most of his poems. The vast majority of his verse is devoted to what is generally taken to be negative aspects of life, such as loneliness and dejection, disappointments, loss, and the terrifying prospect of impending death. Evidently, there are uplifting and humorous sides to his work as well, but for certain reasons Larkin almost invariably is identified with a downhearted, pessimistic temper and tone of voice. This is due to two facts. Firstly, assertive or funny statements in Larkin simply occur too sparsely to effect the overall impression and make up for all the pessimistic comments in his work. The second reason is somewhat more complex and has to do with the fact that, a few exceptions granted, Larkin's writing is characterized by a strikingly high degree of uniformity across individual poems, both with respect to the general mood they convey and the particular attitudes expressed. Indeed, a large part of his verse is so alike in style and content that it seems almost natural to read these individual poems together as one single text. If one does so, they appear to complement one another and work together to create the impression of a very particular state of mind - one which it seems natural to identify as that of the author.1
Insofar as in Larkin's verse a certain disposition or mood is captured and expressed with an urgency unmatched before or after, it is genuinely original. But the fact that Larkin's poetry is not only widely discussed in academic scholarship, but also, despite its obvious debunkery, immensely popular with the general reading public as well indicates that, although the poems are anything but trendy, they must in some sense have 'hit the nerve of time'. Obviously, the uneasiness and discomfort expressed through them are something a great number of readers can identify with - a fact that lends general relevance to Larkin's situation. It seems that up to a certain degree his predicament is exemplary of the situation of many people in contemporary society. On this ground the present paper sets out to establish an analysis of Larkin's predicament that goes beyond the simple observation that Larkin is pessimistic. Its objective is to isolate individual aspects of his dilemma, with an attempt perhaps to locate the origin of his malaise. The discussion will thereby lead from a general consideration of Larkin's pessimism on to more specific issues. In order to create a basis for the comparatively detailed analysis that is to follow, I shall start by examining an number of putatively 'positive' passages in Larkin.
2. The 'positive' Larkin
There is a tendency in recent criticism to see Larkin's pessimism in somewhat more relative terms, and to emphazise the affirmative and humorous sides to his work as well. There are indeed a great number of passages in his poetry that seem fit to refute the image of the bleak and pessimistic writer, and thus to justify this change in perspective. However, the passages on which this new approach is based need to be considered very carefully. While some of them can truly be said to be confident and affirmative, others, and some of the best-known among them, merely appear to be so, and on closer examination turn out to be qualified, or even rendered invalid, by either the context they appear in or the circumstances in which they are spoken.
'First Sight', however, certainly is one of Larkin's most affirmative poems. Its two stanzas deftly contrast the present state with future expectations, and a depres-sively bleak winter landscape with the prospect of forthcoming spring that in its abundance is to unfold '[e]arth's immesurable surprise' (112).2 One would have to go as far as to stress the potentially unpleasant connotations of surprise in order to give the poem a pessimistic reading. This of course is not altogether impossible, but likewise can't be said to suggest itself as the most obvious possibility either. Rather, it appears reasonable to take the poem at face value, that is to say as a reminder that things are not always as bad as they first seem to be.
With 'The Whitsun Weddings', the case is somewhat less unambiguous. In this poem, Larkin relates a train ride one Whitsun Saturday and the people he observes on the way. Mostly, these are young couples seen off at individual stations by their respective wedding company. It is difficult to see the point Larkin is trying to make here or to tell exactly what the poem is all about. Perhaps Larkin was just intrigued by the experience of how so dissimilar lives as his and theirs could be joined for a brief while by something as simple as a train ride, and how abruptly 'this frail / Travelling coincidence' (116) disintegrated again. But while he occasionally is very cynical about these common people, the poem definitely ends on an uplifting note, whatever the exact meaning of these final metaphors:
[...] it was nearly done, this frailThe concluding line of 'An Arundel Tomb' (110f) is one of the best-known in all Larkin: 'What will survive of us is love.'3 It is often cited as the one most conspiciously affirmative passage of his work. However, it is instructive to take a closer look at the lines that lead up to this so apparently uplifting epigraph.
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. (116)
The poem's persona, facing the richly ornamented coffin of an early nobleman and his wife, notices 'with a sharp tender shock' of bewilderment that the stone figures of the couple, into which the coffin's lid is moulded, are depicted holding each other's hand. The implausibility of such a gesture, its incongruity with the prevailing air of 'jointed armour, stiffened pleat' makes it easy for the persona to dismiss it as something rather accidental, and therefore inessential, like a sculptor's frolicsome caprice or a detail made neccessary by the overall design of the sarcophagus, but at any rate something the couple themself never intended. And the sententious conclusion about the lastingness of love, so uplifting in itself, is introduced as a very faint presentiment indeed, an 'almost-instinct' that moreover is not quite reliable: it is only 'almost true'. The 'stone fidelity' the couple appears to demonstrate is finally dismissed as something '[t]hey hardly meant', and the confident first impression thus is renounced as some sort of misunderstanding, or indeed as a lie, when the persona concludes that '[t]ime has transfigured them into untruth'.
Another affirmative passage is to be found in 'Going, Going', but again the context and the situation in which the statement in question is being made must be taken into consideration. With its persona deploring the increasing contamination and devastation of the environment, the poem's prevailing mood is one of downhearted resignation. Incidentally, it is characteristic of Larkin's pessimism that the question discussed here is not whether the impending ecological colloaps can still be averted after all. Rather, it is evident to the persona that the damage is already way beyond repair, and the only remaining question is that of the exact time of this final break-down. If in this context the persona projects himself into the future and with anticipated nostalgia says:
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choires. (190)
the crucial point is that if Larkin is allowing himself to speak favourably about something here, he does so only in a negative context, and the utterance, although unquestionably positive in itself, finally contrives to increase the atmosphere of despondency and bereavement that is conveyed by the poem as a whole.
As a last example of a deceptively affirmative passage in Larkin, the final section of 'Wedding Wind' shall now be considered. The poem in question is a dramatic monologue, its speaking persona a farmer's wife on the morning after her marriage. Although for her it is an ordinary working day, the young bride is in exuberantly high spirits:
Can it be borne, this bodying-forth by wind
Of joy my actions turn on, like a thread
Carrying beads? Shall I be let to sleep
Now this perpetual morning shares my bed?
Can even death dry up
These new delighted lakes, conclude
Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters? (11)
However, a number of facts are suspicious here. For one thing, this passage consists entirely of questions, which in itself would be enough to introduce a trace of doubt. But furthermore, the questions posed all imply negative answers, for even though a 'perpetual' morning shares her bed now, the young bride will finally be let to sleep, and these 'new delighted lakes' will of course be dried up by death in the end, and inevitably so, however improbable this may seem at that particular moment. The quoted passage thus says one thing, but suggests quite the opposite, and so these apparently uplifting lines are undermined by their own rhetoric: The persona's exhilaration is ephemereal.
3. Individual aspects of Larkin's predicament
The discussion so far was intended to demonstrate that uplifting, affirmative passages in Larkin not only occur very sporadically, but generally tend to be rather frail constructions as well, which on closer examination suggest behind their apparently positive veneer a much more pessimistic outlook. Accordingly, the points argued so far have been, firstly, that Larkin on the whole is indeed the bleak poet he is so often made out to be, secondly, that his work is homogenous enough to be treated as one single text in which for the most part the frame of mind of one peculiar character expresses itself, and thirdly that certain biographical circumstances seem to license an identification of this overall character with the person of the author, so that the present paper can truly be said to deal with Larkin's predicament. I shall now attempt to point out individual aspects of the situation depicted in his verse, and begin with the most general observation to be made: that there is a constant sense of failure and of disappointment underlying all the more specific emotions and cogitations of individual poems. Frequently, Larkin is just sad, and one is amazed then at the wide range of things and events, from money4 to a delayed plane,5 that can depress him then.6 But Larkin can be violently energetic as well, and so deep is his embitterment at times that he believes himself to be maliciously tricked out of something he had originaly been entitled to - altough he is very vague about who or what it was that cheated him, or the nature of his initial hopes. An illustrative case in point is the title of his second substantial volume of verse, The Less Deceived. This title is somewhat ambiguous, in that it can be understood either as a nominal or an adjectival construction, but if it is read as those who are not quite as much deceived as others it seems to substantiate Larkins pessimistic outlook, implying that we all are cheated, only some even more so than others.7
In 'Send No Money', this sense of having been cheated is voiced with embittered bluntness. As far as the persona's position is concerned, this poem is very close to Kafka's 'Vor dem Gesetz', where a man is refused admission to a building and is continually put off by the doorman for virtually all his life, although eventually, when it is already too late, it turns out that the entrance was exclusively for him. In 'Send No Money', someone is kept from getting the best out of his life by a false promise of knowledge: while in his youth his mates went to enjoy themselves, the persona kept himself apart, aspiring to wisdom:
Tell me the truth, I said,
Teach me the way things go. (146)
But his sacrifice earned him nothing, and after the initial enthusiasm is vanished it begins to dawn on him that he has been cheated:
Oh thank you, I said, Oh yes please,
And I sat down to wait
Half life is over now,
[...] Sod all.
In this way I spent youth
Tracing the trite untransferable
Truss-advertisement, truth. (146)
Larkin thus gives the impression that the reality of life as it presents itself to him falls blatantly short of what he expected. This disillusionment is particularly prominent when it comes to an assessment of what he has, or rather has not, achieved so far in life. More than once Larkin indicates the feeling that his lifetime passes unused. He talks about 'time / Torn off unused' ('Aubade', 208) and asks: 'Where has it gone, the lifetime?' ('The View', 195). But this streak of disillusionment in Larkin is not confined to his later years, as his ironic résumé after only three decades confirms:
At thirty-one, when some are rich
And others dead,
I, being neither, have a job instead ('At thirty-one', 69)
Larkin's preoccupation with failure, established so far primarily through the poems' overall subject matter, can even be traced down to lexis, that is to say to individual usages of the verb to fail and its derivations. Larkin at times appears virtually obsessed with that particular word: in 'Negative Indicative', for example, not only 'light fails' (79), beyond the lamplight in 'Vers de Société' stand 'failure and remorse' (182), and in 'Autobiography at an Air-Station' his disappointment is voiced thus: 'I set / So much on this Assumption. Now it's failed' [my emphasis] (78). In an early poem personified Failure is even adressed directly - 'You do not come dramatically ' (28) - and while this poem is aptly entitled 'To Failure' it certainly is no accident that Larkin never wrote one 'To Success'. There is a 'Success Story', however, but this title turns out to be deceptive, as the poem begins - of all things - with a definition of the verb to fail:
To fail (transitive and intransitive)
I find to mean be missing, disappoint,
Or not succeed in the attainment of [...] (88)
While these examples illustrate that one can get at what I take to be the essence of Larkin from the word level just as well as from the level of entire sentences or poems, the phrase 'my unsatisfactory prime' makes a further point about Larkin's discontent: He is contemptuous not only about things we all more or less dislike, but also about what one should expect is the best part of one's life. Even his prime is dismissed as unsatisfactory. And not only in the passage quoted above, but even more acutely so in 'Maturity':
And this must be the prime of life . . . I blink,
As if at pain; for it is pain, to think
Of compensating act and counter-act,
Defeat and counterfeit, makes up, in fact,
My ablest time. (62)
To Larkin, life obviously appears as a continuous series of set-backs, as one long process of decay, marked by the lamentable waning of whatever poor abilities one might have posessed once: 'Continuing to live [...]is nearly always losing' ('Contin-uing to live', 94). And while he occasionally treats this subject with good-humoured irony, talking about ' t his loss of interest, hair, and enterprise' (94), he is fully aware of the seriousness of his situation, and of its fatal implications: 'Life is first boredom, then fear. / Whether or not we use it, it goes' ('Dockery and Son', 153): 'Life is slow dying.' ('Nothing To Be Said', 138).
4. Specific dilemmas
A lot has been said up to now about the downhearted mood of most of Larkin's poems. Neccessarily, the discussion tended to be somewhat vague, being concerned with an overall atmosphere, rather than with precise incidents. The present section of this paper aims to detect, in addition to the rather general points established so far, a number of very clearly defined pedicaments the persona of the respective poem believes himself to be in. The basic pattern of these dilemmas is always the same: The persona cannot get what he wants, and doesn't want what he can get, or, as a variation, what he is stuck with. In 'Wild Oats', this opposition of the dull thing, person, or state that is available vs. the ideal one out of reach is realized in terms of two girls the persona once knew. One of them is a 'bosomy English rose' (143), with the most beautiful face the speaker believes ever to have seen. But for shyness or lack of confidence he addresses 'her friend in specs I could talk to' (143), implying that the other one was indeed inaccessible to him. While this is a valid illustration of the kind of dilemma specified above, its relevance is limited by the fact that it deals with one very specific incident, and one that lies twenty years back. A more substantial one is concerned with his relation to other people in general. As a rule, Larkin speaks very unfavourably of his fellow citizens. His poems are peopled by 'grinning and pomaded [...] girls in parodies of fashion',8 by 'mugfaced middleaged wives',9 'mothers loud an fat',10and 'characters in long coats, / Deep in the litter-baskets'.11 Occasionaly, he refers to certain people as a 'score / Of spectacled grins',12 'old ratbags',13 or 'a cast of crooks and tarts'.14 He is most furiously derisive when talking about '[...] those / Who leave at dawn low terraced houses / Timed for factory, yard and site' ('The Large Cool Store', 135): the common, working class people that to him are
A cut-price crowd, urbane yet simple, dwelling
Where only salesmen and relations come. ('Here', 136)
But his disesteem is by no means confined to them. In 'Vers de Société' his ridicule is aimed at the ostensibly educated members of a higher class. The poem begins with a cynical transciption of the persona's latest dinner invitation:
My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You'd care to join us? (181)
and his correspondingly crude retort is: 'In a pig's arse, friend' (181). With repulsion the persona imagines the tedious boredom of another evening 'filled / With forks and faces' (181), and himself
'[... h]olding a glass of washing sherry, canted
over to catch the drivel of some bitch
Who's read nothing but Which; (181)
Apparently, then, Larkin seems to despise other people in general, and abhors any kind of company. His dilemma now is that, as he is getting older, he finds it increasingly difficult to be alone. While in 'Best Society', a poem that Larkin has written in his late twenties, the persona's preference of solitude to the social activities he believes to be expected of him is defended vigorously, some twenty years later he sounds far less confident. The firm conviction that he himself is his 'Best Society' is eroded, and in 'Vers de Société', lamenting the loss of this ability of being alone, the persona is finally driven to accept the above invitation he had originally ridiculed so much:
Only the young can be alone freely.
... sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
Beyond the light stand failure and remorse
Whispering Dear Warlock-Williams: Why, of course - (182)
If society is something Larkin loathes, but still has to deal with, so is work, which is likened to an appalling reptile in 'Toads':
Why should I let the toad work
squat on my life? ...
Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poisons -
Just for paying a few bills!
That's out of proportion. (89)
And yet the persona goes to work every day, having to admit that 'something sufficiently toad-like / Squats in me, too' (89) - and because the alternative to that would be even more appalling: The list of people said to 'live on their wits' (89) dwindles down anticlimatically from 'lecturer' to 'lout', and mocks itself through its excessive alliteration: 'Lecturers, lispers, / Losels, loblolly-men, louts' (89). Eight years later, the toad metaphor is picked up again in 'Toads Revisited', and the basic conflict between having to work for one's living and the equally detested alternative of otherwise belonging to those who are 'dodging the toad work / By being stupid or weak' (147) is formulated even sharper than before:
Think of being them! ...
No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir ... (148)
A basic characteristic of the dilemmas discussed here is that the various options open to the persona are equally unsatisfactory. This holds true also for 'The Life with a Hole in it', a poem that seems to draw directly on Larkin's personal experience. Depicting his situation as a postgraduate, he said:
You must realize I didn't want to write poems at all, I wanted to write novels. I started writing Jill immediately after I left Oxford in 1943. It was published [...] in 1946 [...] and by that time I had written my second novel, A Girl in Winter [...] It was published by Faber and Faber [...] and I thought this was it, I'm made. But I could never write a third novel, though I must have spent five years trying to. I felt a bit cheated. I'd had visions of myself writing 500 words a day for six months, shoving the result off to the printer and going to live on the Côte d' Azur, uninterrupted except for the correction of proofs. It didn't happen like that - very frustrating (Larkin 1983: 49)
Another option for Larkin at that time, being an Oxford graduate in Literature, would obviusly have been to become a teacher. However, he obviously disliked that and decided against it, becoming a librarian instead. Some thirty years later, his situation is summed up in 'The life with a Hole in it':
[...] the shit in the shuttered château
Who does his five hundered words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and birds
Is far off as ever, but so
Is that spectacled schoolteaching sod
(Six kids, and the wife in pod,
And her parents coming to stay) [...] (202)
The basic pattern of these deadlock situations is perhaps best described in 'Sinking like sediment through the day'. The woman described in this poem is Larkin's predicament personified. When this lady is said to be 'indescribable', this means not just that life is too elusive for any definite statement to be made about it, but that it is open to whatever one is inclined to see in it, being intrinsically neither 'good' nor 'bad'. This reading is supported by the subsequent brief description of an argument between the woman and the persona. Here is the full passage:
Out of the afternoon leans the undescribable woman:
'Embrace me, and I shall be beautiful' -
'Be beautiful, and I will embrace you' -
We argue for hours. (27)
Significantly, the persona does not in the least doubt the words of the lady, but simply cannot bring himself to overcome his reluctance, take the first step, and come to terms with what the woman stands for.
There is something like an ultimate predicament covering not just individual aspects, but the totality of Larkin's situation. Bluntly put, his dilemma is that he is discontent with life, and at the same time afraid of death. While passages to substantiate his 'Horror of life' ('The Life with a Hole in it', 202) can be found virtually everywhere in Larkin's work, traces of his fear of death occur increasingly in his later volumes, and quite naturally so, because his dilemma is growing ever more severe as his lifetime gradually runs out. A remarkably unveiled expression of Larkin's fear of death can be found in 'Aubade', one of his very last poems:
[...] 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. (208)
Considering these statements, that are so evidently preoccupied with the thought of dying, one wonders what Larkin sees in death that makes the prospect so terrible for him. In 'The Old Fools' he says:
At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end. (196)
This suggests that Larkin doesn't fear eternal damnation or the fires of hell - he doesn't seem to believe in any form of life after death whatever. Nor is he primarily afraid of the painful act of dying. But what distresses him is 'the total emptiness for ever' ('Aubade', 208),
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. (208)
This conclusion is supported by a statement Larkin gave in an interview with The Observer. When he was asked, Do you think much about growing older? Is that something that worries you?, what he gave as an answer is a very close paraphrase of the lines quoted above:
Yes, dreadfully. If you assume you're going to live to be seventy, seven decades, and think of each decade as a day of the week, starting with Sunday, then I'm on Friday afternoon now. Rather a shock, isn't it? If you ask why it bothers me, I can only say I dread endless extinction. (Larkin 1988: 55)
If Larkin is most typical when he deals with some kind of 'fix', a further point to be argued here is that this fix typically is hopeless, that is to say, doesn't seem to offer an easy way out. This holds true even for the poems in which a different mode of living is being discussed,like in 'Poetry of Departures'. Here, a different way of life is brought into discussion and is being contemplated only to be renounced as an 'artificial' (86) and 'deliberate step backwards' (86) in the end.
However, 'Poetry of Departures' is just one of a number of poems in which reality as it presents itself to the persona is unfavourably contrasted with life as it should be, or could have been, or with the life-style observed in other people. In 'Letter to a Friend about Girls', for instance, the addressee's splendidly permissive world,
[...] where to want
Is straightway to be wanted, seek to find [...]
And beauty is accepted slang for yes (122)
is set off sharply against what the persona himself is accustomed to: dreary places, where equally dreary girls 'work, and age, and put off men / By being unattractive, or too shy, / Or having morals [...]' (122). Other poems that present a way of living which is in apparent contrast to that of the persona are 'Sunny Prestatyn', in which the girl on the advertising poster - 'She was too good for this life' (149), - is systematically ruined by vandalism, and the advertisement hoardings described in 'Essential Beauty', 'sharply-pictured groves / Of how life should be' that 'rise / Serenely to proclaim pure crust, pure foam, / Pure coldness', thus contrasting sharply with 'gutter' and 'rained-on streets', and the general imperfections and shortcomings of real life, 'where nothing's made / As new or washed quite clean'. The opposition is indeed carried to such extremes here as to make these hoardings look quite absurd, if not ridiculous: ' [They s]creen graves with custard, cover slums with praise [...]'.15
So all of these alternative modes of living are ultimately dismissed as being delusive or unsatisfactory, or prove inaccessible because it is too late now to make a change or the persona is simply not cut out to lead that kind of life. At any rate it is important to notice that these different ways of living are not presented as real alternatives to the present situation, but serve only to let reality appear even more dreary by contrast. Accordingly, when in 'Faith Healing' it is said that '[i]n everyone there sleeps / A sense of life lived according to love' (126), this is at once qualified, so as not to be misread as a possible alternative: '[...] across most it sweeps / As all they might have done had the been loved' (126). For the women talked about in this poem, things have been going amiss for far too long to be mended now. In a sense their lives resemble the room in 'Home is so Sad': 'a joyous shot at how things ought to be, / Long fallen wide' (119). So much for the passages in which an alternative mode of living, real or illusory, is being discussed. More frequent, however, as well as more characteristic of Larkin's pessimism, are the passages that don't suggest, or even expressedly deny, any easy way out. Talking about 'the long perspectives'16 over one's past life, Larkin says:
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.
('Reference Back', 106)
For Larkin, a sense of loss seems to be inevitable as life goes on, and his fatalistic - and somewhat bewildering - contention is that the course of one's life is essentially independent of one's actions. In 'Myxomatosis', the assumption that each person has the opportunity to effectively alter his or her situation by a certain way of acting - or, for that matter, by deliberate inaction - is rejected as illusory:
I'm glad I can't explain
Just in what claws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait. (100)
My conclusion therefore is that the dilemma in Larkin is typically depicted as inevitable, as well as insurmountable. Two more passages to substantiate this thesis quite strikingly are the phrase 'Where can I turn except away [...]' from 'Long roots ...' (96), and the following lines from 'Toads Revisited': 'Nowhere to go but indoors / No friends but empty chairs [...]' (147).
Very often in Larkin one comes across turns of prases or sequences that describe some kind of standstill. This usually entails not just motionlessness, but also an oppressive kind of silence, and occasionally heat, as in 'Myxomatosis':
Caught in the centre of a soundless field
While hot inexplicaple hours go by [...] (100),
or in 'The Whitsun Weddings':
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. (114).
Further cases in point are the description of an abandoned hotel in 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel' (163), the somewhat more idyllic final stanza of 'Livings III' (188), and the white steamer in 'To the Sea', that is conspiciously said to be 'stuck in the afternoon' (173). My point here is that these descriptions of standstills, whether they are to be interpreted as a state of paralysis or a situation of deadlock, can in some sense be related to Larkin's frame of mind. A comparison of the following two excerpts might serve to make this hypothesis, that as yet may sound rather far- fetched, somewhat more plausible. In 'Show Saturday' wrestling-matches are described to be 'not so much fights / As long immobile strainings that end in unbalance / With one on his back' (199). This echoes another passage, of more general content:
Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world's for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you'll get.
('The Life with a Hole in it', 202)
Here, the deadlock image is obviously used to express a state of mind, which strongly supports the connexion I am arguing.
6. Not the place's fault
The issues discussed so far all lead up to one central question to be discussed now in the final section of this paper. If Larkin is discontent with his situation and believes he hasn't got out of live all he was entitled to, a natural question to ask is: Who is to be held responsible for this. The number of possible answers is limited, and my strategy here will be simply to go through them one by one, looking for evidence in the poems to support or refute the respective assumption.
The most obvious possibility perhaps would be that Larkin admitted some personal fault. This should be likely to entail a wrong decision in the past, and the lamentation that everything could be much better now, had he only acted differently 'then'. However, a confession of this sort is nowhere to be found in the poems. On the contrary, Larkin repeatedly indicates that it is a fallacy to think the course of a person's life is determined by one's individual actions. Passages to substantiate this fatalistic contention are those sequences in 'Myxomatosis' and 'Reference Back' that were discussed with reference to the typical inevitability of his situation (cf. 14f).
If Larkin thus denies any personal fault, the next guess would be that 'society' is held responsible, in other words, that Larkin stresses the influence of general social factors like the economic straits after the war or the neighbourhood he grew up in. But this assumption likewise cannot be sustained: There is no evidence to support it, and in 'I Remember, I Remember' it is even renounced openly in a brief dialogue between the persona and his friend about the place the former grew up in:
'You look as if you wished the place in Hell,'If society in general cannot be blamed, this doesn't neccessarily include the particular influence of education. In 'This Be The Verse' Larkin is cynical enough about parents:
My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well,
I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said.
'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.' (82)
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they have had
And add some extra, just for you. (180)
But while he certainly doesn't mince his words here, I would still argue that Larkin blames his misery not primarily on the education he did or did not receive. There is plenty of evidence in his verse to suggest that things of more fundamental importance have gone amiss, and after all his parents are half excused when he says:
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats. (180)
Thus, the three major possibilities are ruled out: neither Larkin himself, nor society in general, nor his parents and their education can be held responsible for Larkin's misery. But the question of who or what caused his unpleasant situation still is not answered. There is one very simple possibility left, one that might astonish at first or seem unsatisfactory, but still can be taken to be a valid and conclusive answer. Since there is neither person, institution or god to be held responsible, I think it doesn't seem too outlandish to assume that there simply is no- one to be blamed. Things just happen to be the way they are, whithout anyone particularly wanting them to be so - a conclusion that furthermore is very much in line with Larkin's fatalistic frame of mind as outlined in this paper. The point to be argued here is that it is an essential and by no means implausible feature of his predicament that its origin cannot be located. Exposed to a maliciously indifferent environment where, as he says, '[n]one of this cares for us',17 and without even something as abstract as providence to account for his situation, the punches Larkin has to take are just 'the blows of what happened to happen',18 his inescapable lot being the result of 'an immobile, locked, / Three-handed struggle between / Your wants, the world's for you, and (worse) / The unbeatable slow machine / That brings what you'll get'.19
The overall aim of this paper has been to arrive at a more precisely defined characterisation of Larkin's unpleasant situation. A first and fundamental step was to establish that Larkin is indeed the bleak and pessimistic writer he is generally said to be. This assessment was based on the fact that most of his work is concerned with negative aspects of life, and on the observation that a number of Larkin's apparently most affirmative statements on re-examination turn out to be qualified, or even rendered invalid, by the context they appear in. A consideration of individual aspects of Larkin's dilemma, such as his sense of failure or the feeling that his lifetime passes unused, led over to a more detailed discussion of a set of clearly-defined dilemmas, all of which were shown to share the same underlying pattern: the persona aims at something that is out of reach for him, and is at the same time unable to come to terms with what he has got. This pattern holds true for so diverse realms of life as relationships to women, social contacts in general, and work. A subsequent chapter discussed the alternative ways of living that are occasionally presented in Larkin. The main point argued there was that these alternatives are not to be understood as viable options the persona is free to chose. Rather, being eventually dismissed as unsatis-factory or altogether unattainable, they function only as a kind of foil to let reality appear even more dreary by contrast. In the final section of this paper, an attempt was made to locate the origin of Larkin's malaise and to determine the agent or entity that is to be held responsible for it. The result of this discussion was that an origin of Larkin's misery cannot be pointed at. However, emphasis was laid on the fact that this is no shortcoming in Larkin's verse or the analysis applied to it, but rather can be seen as a conclusive feature that is in full accordance with his predicament as discussed in this paper.
Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems, ed. with an Introduction by Anthony Thwaite. London / Boston: The Marvell Press and Faber and Faber, 1988.
Hamilton, Ian. 'For Conversations'. The London Magazine, vol. 4, Nr. 6 (November 1964), 71-7.
Larkin, Philip. 'An interview with the Observer'. Philip Larkin. Required writing. Miscellaneous pieces 1955- 1982, 47-56. London / Boston: Faber and Faber, 1983.
Erlebach, Peter: 'Das lyrische Werk (engl.) von Philip Larkin'. Walter Jens (ed.). Kindlers Neues Literaturlexikon, vol. 10, 16-9. München: Kindler, 1990.
1. This inference is not without problems,
however, and a general remark on the relation between author
and persona in Larkin seems to be appropriate at this point.
Current narratology objects to a general identification of
narrator or persona with the author, rightly emphasizing the
fact that they operate on different levels within the
structure of the narrative. Moreover, when author and persona
are treated as one single entity, this is in most cases due to
either a lax usage of terminology, or an inability to realize
any distinction at all. If in this paper the author Larkin and
the poems' respective persona are still for the most part
treated as identical, this is based on the premise that any
viable theory of narratology should allow for cases in which
an author does write about himself, and on the assumption that
Larkin's is just such a case.
The following biographical detail further substantiates this position. It is well known that Larkin originally wanted to be a writer not of verse, but of prose, and by his late twenties had already produced two slim novels. However, he never followed them up, and when he was asked in an interview why he didn't write any more novels, he said this: 'Well, because I can't [...] A very crude difference between novels and poetry is that novels are about other people and poetry is about yourself. I suppose I must have lost interest in other people, or perhaps I was only pretending to be interested in them.' (Hamilton 1964: 75) According to this, Larkin's poetry must neccessarily be about himself. Back
2. Page numbers without name or date refer to: Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems, ed. with an Introduction by Anthony Thwaite. London / Boston: The Marvell Press and Faber and Faber, 1988. Back
3. A page reference is provided for the whole poem here in order to avoid monotonous repetition after each quotation. Back
4. Cf. 'Money': 'I listen to money singing [...]. It is intensely sad.' (189). Back
5. Cf. 'Autobiography at an Air-Station', where the persona obviously had hoped to leave before sunset, but cannot, because his machine is several hours delayed. When he says: 'I set / So much on this Assumption. Now it's failed' (78), this response would appear a little oversensitive, did not the title indicate that something more is being dealt with here than just an afternoon at the airport. Back
6. Cf. also the title 'Home is so Sad'[my emphasis](119). Back
7. A different reading of the title is attempted by Peter Erlebach, who in an article on Larkin translated The Less Deceived into Geman as 'desto weniger enttäuscht', implying thereby a meaning as in so much the less deceived for that (cf. Jens 1990: 17). Back
8. 'The Whitsun Weddings', 114. Back
9. 'Show Saturday', 200. Back
10. 'The Whitsun Weddings', 115. Back
11. 'Toads Revisited', 147. Back
12. 'Going, Going',189. Back
13. 'The Life with a Hole in it', 202. Back
14. 'Going, Going', 190. Back
15. All quotations taken from 'Essential Beauty', 144. Back
16. 'Reference Back', 106. Back
17. 'Talking in Bed', 129. Back
18. 'Send No Money', 146. Back
19. 'The Life with a Hole in it', 202. Back