Monday, May 9, 2011

High Windows by Philip Larkin

High Windows was first published by Faber and Faber in 1974 (hardback) and 1979 (paperback). The collection is Larkin's final one, second perhaps only to Whitsun Weddings (1964) as far as critical attention goes. Many of the poems in the collection were written in the 1960s, however; certainly the subjects Larkin references (the sexual revolution, disconnection from world war, declining religiosity, generational conflict, and so forth) are recognizably of the "60s." Larkin's poetry is considered as part of "The Movement," which reacted to (modernist) poetic obscurities with a characteristic clarity of language and form while also eschewing the direct social and political commitments/stances of poets like Auden (other writers of "The Movement" include Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, Robert Conquest, and Ted Hughes).

Sterile environments:
Several of Larkin's poems in this collection vividly describe sterile, indoor environments which seem to stand for the emptiness and imaginative sterility of modern, urban landscapes (often in contrast with imaginatively fertile--but disappearing--pastoral landscapes). "The Building" describes a hospital, though the poem never names "the building" a hospital, in order to clear his descriptions of the building of prior associations. The result is a starkly defamiliarized image of a hospital as not a place of hope or scientific triumph over disease and death, but a "clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend / The thought of dying, for unless its powers / Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes / The coming dark, though crowds each evening try / With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers." In the sterile corridors, where people wait, not knowing if they "will be out by lunch, or four" or if they "have come to join / The unseen congregations whose white rows / Lie set apart above," nature (in the form of the flowers) seems weak and not to mention dead.  "Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel" presents a Hopper-esque loneliness inside of a deserted station hotel, where "Clusters of lights over empty chairs / That face each other, coloured differently" stand, and where "the dining-room declares / A larger loneliness of knives and glass / And silence laid like a carpet." Things typically used for sociability unused and lights wasted on nobody emphasize the sterility of these objects apart from human life. The final lines, italicized ("Now / Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages") contrasts the sterility of these objects with nature, which continues to have an existence beyond everyday human commerce.
Religious substitutions:
"The Building's" religious diction (see above, "congregation," "cathedral," "transcend") links modern hospital buildings to churches of the past. The church or the cathedral are no longer places of worship in a world no longer devout or even spiritual at all; yet, the poem suggests that the impulse for worship remains and can be seen in gestures like the "weak, propitiatory flowers." "Vers de Societe" comments on the relationship between a completely secularized world and the rejection of solitude. Nowadays, "how sternly it's instilled / All solitude is selfish. No one now / Believes the hermit with his gown and dish / Talking to God (who's gone too); the big wish / Is to have people nice to you, which means / Doing it back somehow." These lines suggest that the justification for hermitage was religious, and without religion, there is no longer a justification for solitude. "Virtue is social," the new creed proclaims. The poet asks, in the end, "Are, then, these routines / Playing at goodness, like going to church?" expressing the same sense as in "The Building" that despite the disappearance of God, there remains in a secular society an impulse towards worship and ritual. The "new" rituals replacing going to church in "Vers de Societe" are dinner parties and small talk.
The first stanza of "To the Sea" introduces images of people enjoying the seaside, "Steep beach, blue water, towels, red bathing caps" and the second stanza explains their significance by referencing how these enjoyments continue into the present: "Still going on, all of it, still going on!" The poet's outburst on these things "still going on" sounds like surprise, though it is a pleasant one--in the final stanza, the poet lingers on the value of continuing such rituals: "It may be that through habit these do best, / Coming to water clumsily undressed / Yearly; teaching their children by a sort / Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought." "Show Saturday" perhaps contains one of the strongest expressions that new, secular activities actually do maintain some kind of important value, though it might not be a religious one. After the people leave the colorfully described Bellingham Show, the fair which the poet describes, he gently adds a kind of blessing: "Let it stay hidden there like strength, below / Sale-bills and swindling; something people do, / Not noticing how time's rolling smithy-smoke / Shadows much greater gestures; something they share / That breaks ancestrally each year into / Regenerate union. Let it always be there."
Generational conflict, legacies:
As mentioned briefly above in the publication history, High Windows is laced with references to the 60s, and so one of the collection's recurring themes is the conflict between generations and relating to this, anxieties about legacies. In "High Windows" the problem of how the older generation always thinks the later one has it better is explored. The poet, watching kids sexually "free" and using birth control, thinks "I know this is paradise." But then he imagines others of the previous generation thinking about the "freedom" of his own increasingly atheistic and secular age: "No God any more, or sweating in the dark / About hell and that..." This reflection prompts a turn in the poem, and the final stanza rejects these limited and adolescent senses of freedom with a sublime thought (beyond words) of a more radical and truer freedom beyond human understanding: "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." Larkin's famed "This Be the Verse" alludes to Old Testament language of the sins of the fathers revisited on the sons to reject "mum and dad." Most of the poem is colloquial like its opening ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad") but reaches for a much more serious and graver notion of the human condition in the lines "Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf." These lines asks us to take seriously the condition of generational trauma; despite the ways in which people joke, in a post-Freudian era, of the ways in which parents "fuck up" their children, there is real pain in the misery which parents pass on to their children. "Posterity" is Larkin's poem in the imagined persona of his own biographer, Jake Balokowsky, who is an academic who doesn't much care for his subject matter: "'I'm stuck with this old fart at least a year; / I wanted to teach school in Tel Aviv, / But Myra's folks'--he makes the money sign--'Insisted I got tenure. When there's kids...'" While the poem ironically comments on the distance between how the biographer views his work (something to make a living) versus how others might idealize his work (a genuine intellectual pursuit), it isn't a poem which simply critiques the biographer's cynical attitudes. The lines clearly suggest that he does have something else he would have liked to do, but that the institutions which control modern academia and modern "living" more broadly don't allow him to pursue these alternatives. Thus, Larkin's legacy is not so much debased by Balokowsky but the institutional  conditions under which "biographies" are manufactured. "Sympathy in White Major" is another poem with a clear persona whose ironical position in toasting himself emphasizes the emptiness of common ways in which people remember each other. The speaker offers a laundry-list of his accomplishments which are all bromides: "A decent chap, a real good sort, / Straight as a die, one of the best, / A brick, a trump, a proper sport, / Head and shoulders above the rest; / How many lives would have been fuller / Had he not been here below? / Here's to the whitest man I know--" Though such praises are definitively rejected in the letdown of the speaker's final line, "Though white is not my favourite colour," the poem leaves us wondering what other legacies are possible in remembering those who have gone. "Dublinesque" offers a different kind of memorial through the image of an Irish Catholic funeral hearse being followed down the street by "a troop of streetwalkers / In wide flowered hats, / Leg-of-mutton sleeves, / And ankle-length dresses." These images are suggestive of a kind of rustic mourning which Larkin seems to find much more genuine in its remembrance: "There is an air of great friendliness, / As if they were honouring / One they were fond of...And of great sadness also. / As they wend away / A voice is heard singing / Of Kitty, or Katy, / As if the name meant once / All love, all beauty." The name doesn't even really matter, genuine affect is in the rituals of their procession, their dress, their clapping and their singing.
Death, dying, aging:
Larkin explores death, the process of dying, and the changes in consciousness in old age in poems like "The Old Fools" and "Sad Steps." The persona of the speaker in "The Old Fools" goes through various stages of wrestling with what happens in old age: In the first stanza, he adopts a tone of superiority, asking crude questions such as "Do they somehow suppose / It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools...?" The second stanza attempts to describe, from a distanced, materialist point of view, what happens in death: "At death, you break up: the bits that were you / Start speeding away from each other for ever / With no one to see." The "oblivion" which comes with this breaking up, the speaker muses, was also there before life. The third stanza is more speculative and imaginative, and tries to think of being old in terms of a vivid metaphor, in which being old is "having lighted rooms / inside your head, and people in them, acting," but that the people and these rooms seem more and more distant and unrecognizable. The fourth stanza ends with the futility of speculating, since, as the speaker says in a matter-of-fact way, "We shall find out." "Sad Steps" also pictures the gap in consciousness between the young and the old. The speaker, an old man "Groping back to bed after a piss," sees the moon behind the curtains, and thinks that it is a reminder of youth: "The hardness and the brightness and the plain / Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare / Is a reminder of the strength and pain / Of being young; that it can't come again, / Bur is for others undiminished somewhere." The "strength and pain" is interesting, because it prevents us from reading the poem as simply an old man wishing to be young again. What is the "pain" of youth which the old don't feel? Is it of desire, ambition, in contrast to the humbled existence of the old man's "[g]roping back to bed after a piss?"
Nature's healing/pastoral traditions:
Much of Larkin's poetry contains Hardy-esque pastoral elements, in which nature offers a kind of continuing, healing force in face of man's destructive tendencies, his suffering, and his death. In "Forget What Did," the poet wants to give up writing painful diary entries, and desires that the blank pages fill with "celestial recurrences," a phrase which vaguely suggests renewable cycles in nature ("celestial" even suggests a divine quality, rare in Larkin's poetry). "The Trees," made up of three simple stanzas of abba, explores how trees also die eventually ("Is it that they are born again / And we grown old? No they die too.") but that each year, the blossoms still insist, "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh." Nature then, is not apart from humanity in that it also "dies," and so we might tale a lesson from its blossoms to begin afresh time and time again in our own lives. "The Trees" imparts renewal and continuity which humans ignore in face of a greater preoccupation with mortality. Other aspects of nature seem timeless and eternal, like the sun in "Solar"; the poet imagines the continuous giving and bounty of the sun in these lines: "Our needs hourly / Climb and return like angels. / Unclosing like a hand, / You give for ever." Larkin's appreciation for nature and the pastoral tradition manifests itself also in less optimistic poems; "Going, going" laments the certainty of the disappearing natural landscape in England. Finally, in other poems where humans encroach on or pollute the landscape, there remains a solace expressed in nature overwhelming resilience. The grotesque habits of the "Card Players" (one of the only sonnets in the collection) in a Dutch tavern seems to go through a partial purification process at the end, by "Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial peace!" More dramatically, in "The Explosion," when a mine explodes, nature stops for a second, in an aestheticized pause: "At noon, there came a tremor; cows / Stopped chewing for a second; sun, / Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmer." This might seem like a portrayal of an indifferent nature, but the brief, aestheticized pastoral moment ushers in a heavenly vision of the dead beheld by the miners' wives in the next stanza: "The dead go on before us, they / Are sitting in God's house in comfort / We shall see them face to face."

1 comment:

Beks said...

Thank you for such a concise overview of the collection.