Notes on Larkin

The late British poet Phillip Larkin wrote two novels before turning full time to poetry, yet many of his anti-romantic themes are apparent in these novels. Indeed, some critics feel he had potential enough to become the novelist of the 1950s. Jill, 1946, is an Oxford novel, but decidedly different from Waugh’s nostalgic Oxford of the 1920s. Set during the war years (1940 to be exact) Jill depicts the first term of John Kemp, a shy, working class scholarship boy from the north of England who has been plucked from his grammar school class by an ambitious but essentially shallow master. Drilled in English literature, John works hard and gets into Oxford. There he rooms with a wealthy but arrogant rowdy named Christopher Warren.

Kemp feels at sea, lonely and unambitious. After an initial period of admiring Warren and his equally dissolute crowd of friends, who alternately exploit and ignore him, he finds solace by creating an imaginary young girl named Jill. He composes letters from her, eventually progressing to penning her diary, which reveals her unhappiness and loneliness at an all-girl’s school. One day in a bookstore he sees a young girl who resembles his imaginary creation. He sees her again elsewhere in town but is maddeningly unable to make her acquaintance. Eventually he discovers that she is a cousin of Elizabeth, a sometime member of Warren’s drunken circle.

After some initial setbacks, he determines to meet Jill. Unfortunately, he drinks too much before the rendezvous , misses his opportunity, gets lost in the rain, and finally finds Warren, Elizabeth and Jill exiting a party. In his inebriated condition (and romantic delusion) he seizes the girl and kisses her, whereupon she screams and Warren punches him. His drunkenness in the rain brings on a bout of pneumonia, and as the novel closes he is lying in the college infirmary reflecting over his behavior. He realizes that even if he had succeeded in forming a relationship with “Jill” it would have ultimately made little difference:

...he fell to pondering within the framework of a dream how the love they had shared was dead. For the fact that in life he had been cheated of her was not the whole truth. Somewhere, in dreams, perhaps, on some other level, they had interlocked and he had had his own way as completely as life had denied it. And this dream showed that love died, whether fulfilled or unfulfilled. He grew confused whether she had accepted him or not, since the result was the same: and as his confusion increased, it spread to fulfillment and unfulfillment, which merged and became inseparable. The difference between them vanished.
Kemp’s happiness, fulfillment, and success come to bear little difference from his unhappiness, unfulfillment and failure, and he follows this realization by asking “how could there be any difference between any other pair of opposites? Was he not freed, for the rest of his life, from choice? ...What control could he hope to have over the maddened surface of things?”
This negation of ambition and romantic aspiration becomes Larkin’s poetic program, but is it a complete negation? I think not. Negation is a poor starting place for theology, and Larkin’s negations are often themselves undercut (barely) by a hesitancy about doubt itself. His is an obverse of the hesitancy that afflicts the high Romantics. Instead of fearing that “it may come to nothing,” Larkin’s poetry is often quietly haunted that it may come to a something we are unable to fully grasp (or is forever incapable of being grasped). In his well-known poem “Church-going” (1955), for instance, the narrator finds some inarticulatable solace standing amid an empty church whose dogmas he no longer believes:

A serious house on serious earth it is
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Indeed, his poems often “gravitate to this ground.” At the moment Kemp becomes less deceived, his attention turns toward the wind-thrashed trees outside his infirmary window:
He watched the trees, the tops of which he could just see through the window. They tossed and tossed recklessly. He saw them fling their way and that, throwing up their heads like impatient horses, like sea waves, bending and recovering in the wind. They had no leaves. Endlessly, this way and that. They were buffeted and still bore up again to their full height. They seemed tireless. Sometimes they were bent so low that they passed out of sight, leaving the square of white sky free for a second, but then they would be back again, clashing their proud branches like antlers of furious stags.
And here is the same image in his poem “Trees” (1974):

The trees are coming into leaf again
Like something almost being said;
Their recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In full-grown freshness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Note the hesitancy. Newness, hope, promise is “like something almost being said.” It is something that “seem[s] to say, begin afresh.” Yet it does not say it with certainty. Note also the way Kemp’s observations move upward to the white square of sky (“white,” Larkin says elsewhere, “is not [his] favorite color”). Nevertheless, this looking up, albeit with uncertainty and an inability to articulate a final hopeful message, appears over and over again. Here’ s his poem “High Windows” (1974):

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 miniature, the last line captures the essential Larkin move. It appears to come to nothing, but its haunting endlessness preserves a doubt that gnaws at a complete nihilism. The “high windows” are indeed transparent and ultimately revelatory of empty sky, but they do frame one’s view above. They are windows that forever tempt one to look up.

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