About Philip Larkin

Reading some Philip Larkin poems the other day I noticed a theme of self-criticism. It has helped me understand his enigmatic attitude towards religion that writers such as Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton have written about. He was an atheist and in his startling poem about death called Aubade he famously calls it “a vast moth-eaten musical brocade/created to pretend we never die”. One notices a hint of disappointment in that description. Like anticipating to see a wonderful old painting but only finding some kitsch Virgin Mary replica.

The most direct expression of this self criticism is in “Wild Oats” where he describes going out with a girl when he was young who ultimately rejected him:

“Parting, after about five

Rehearsals, was an agreement

That I was too selfish, withdrawn,

And easily bored to love.”

 

Wild Oats has a connection with another poem called “High Windows” where he describes seeing young people and envying their free joy as “everyone young going down the long slide/To happiness, endlessly”. He thinks that rejection of the old morality has something to do with it “That’ll be the life;/No God any more, or sweating in the dark/About hell and that”. But ends with this vision of high windows:

“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.”

 

In “Vers de Societe” Larkin returns to the theme of an inability to connect with others hinted at in Wild Oats. A wistful description of quiet evenings is interspersed with strangely forceful injunctions; “All solitude is selfish” and “All virtue is social”. Then it ends with:

“Only the young can be alone freely.

The time is shorter now for company,

And sitting by a lamp more often brings

Not peace, but other things.

Beyond the light stand failure and remorse”

 

This explains that powerful description of the fear of death that Larkin expresses in Aubade which you really should read in full. I hadn’t before realised how important to that poem is the phrase “Time torn off unused”. Larkin has the sense that there is only so much time to do what is worthwhile and reproaches himself for not doing enough. But with his English and Anglican Christianity no longer driving him, but still making some quiet demand below the hum of thought to do something worthwhile, what is it that should be pursued?

The only answer that Larkin could find is in his poem “An Arundel Tomb”. He describes a man and woman who have been buried in adjacent graves with a single inscription that has been slightly eroded in the passage of time. Presumably they had some changing and dynamic relationship but it is captured for posterity in the only way it can be. So he ends that poem:

“Time has transfigured them into

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be

Their final blazon, and to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love.”

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Frightening Tides

A moment of still, falling from routine

Led by signs with no destination

Following lights that do not illuminate

Thoughts spoil in sudden gestation

 

Dreading the onward march

That shreds the numbered years

And roars from a yawning void

Ever distant yet ever near

 

Obligation will quieten the hum

Bid you on from a coward’s hold

On soft oblivion in a child’s evening

Times of grace face days of cold

The Only Commandment

Choose the ever reaching branches

Choose a flower over the grave

Choose a partner who dances

But first of all, choose life

 

Choose a foolish word over silence

Choose fire instead of ashes

Choose a lasting defiance

But first of all, choose life

 

Choose to feel, even to love

Choose to create not destroy

Choose to face what’s above

But first of all, choose life

 

Choose a dying breath over sleep

Choose when you have no choice

Choose to climb from deep

But first of all, choose life

The Unfinished Poems

Like the dream that fades with morning

The silence that fills the air

We almost say what cannot be said

And see what’s almost there

 

Like music that says more than words

Every second a failure but now

It may never be read yet always speak

In a whisper of a vow

 

Those who shout to make themselves heard

Cannot find what we have found

In forgotten pages of abandoned books

Heard in the silent sounds

 

The heart conceals what it can’t articulate

Like a soul that cannot sing

We reach to heaven and break a part

And fall with an angel’s wing

Ashes Against The Grain

Some say life is an eternal stream

Sensations drifting on clockwork currents

Numbing conscience in a listless dream

And falling finally in a void recurrent

 

I do not answer the somnambulists

Who wash thoughts in binary numbers

If you will not march into the mist

Nothing can wake you from your slumber

 

For all the heroes are tragic

Every light has its shadow

Logic is rooted, not magic

Waved frantically in meadows