5 Timeless poems by Philip Larkin

Mike Cormack 4 August 2022

In the centenary year of Philip Larkin's birth, we reflect on the profound writing of one of the 20th-century's greatest British poets

August, 9 2022 marks the centenary of the birth of Philip Larkin.

Although he once said, and I very much agree, that nothing worth learning can ever be taught, I treasure being introduced to his poetry during Higher English.

He remains one of the most popular English poets of the twentieth century, and so his recent removal from the English curriculum by some examination boards is a baffling move.

He doesn’t fit easily into our ideas of a great poet—he’s too jagged, too dour, too hostile to verbosity and mediated feeling. He would detest selfies and social media.

However, his deep and genuine feeling, his concern for clarity, his superb handling of poetic forms, and his frequent lyricism all continue to be a delight—nearly thirty years since my first encounter with him in the English classroom. Here are some of my cherished personal favourites.

“Here”

This epic poem opens The Whitsun’s Weddings, Larkin’s second mature volume of poems, and is a major statement of intent, as though to show that The Less Deceived (published by a tiny outfit in The Marvell Press) was no fluke.

"Here" is basically the evocation of a train journey “Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows / And traffic all night north” to Hull, and includes some of Larkin’s most evocative details, where “residents from raw estates” go shopping for “sharp shoes, iced lollies / Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers."

But the astonishing part is “out beyond its mortgaged half-built hedges”, where “past the poppies bluish neutral distance / Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach of shapes and shingle."

"Larkin is sometimes thought of as a cynical curmudgeon, but a number of his poems hint at some kind of nirvana"

And then the staggering conclusion: “Here is unfenced existence: / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.”

Larkin is sometimes thought of as a cynical curmudgeon, but a number of his poems hint at some kind of nirvana, an ineffable numinous plane just out of reach.

The phrase “unfenced existence” isn’t just about freedom from the petty constrictions of suburbia, but expresses (to me, at least) the sense of the world being matrixed and divided and catalogued, or the Buddhist concept of maya, and that maybe Heaven is where there are no categories, where everything is unbounded.

I get chills reading that. Chills.

“The Trees”

Ancient oak tree with huge branches and leaves stretching over footpath in Epping ForestThough Larkin dismissed his own poem as "bloody awful tripe", it is now one of his most famous pieces

Larkin’s attention to the joys of nature often comes through (in poems such as “Coming”, “Cut Grass” and “Spring”) but is perhaps best expressed here in this short but exquisite poem.

In three stanzas, Larkin moves from the sense of new buds on the tree reminding him of death (a nice inversion there) to a reminder that death is a rebirth and hence a chance to “Begin afresh”.

But the real story of the poem, I feel, is how the stark isolated syllables of the first stanza (“leaf”, “said”, “like”, “kind”, “spread”) modulates in the final stanza to a sibilant richness, with its repeated “th”, “sh” and “s” sounds, with words like “thresh”, “thickness”, “castles” and “afresh, afresh, afresh”.

This, and the envelope rhyme which evokes the “rings of grain” from the second stanza, make “The Trees” a beautiful, perfect poetic miniature.

“High Windows”

Sexual jealousy isn’t a common subject in poetry, even for the Beat poets (who tended to celebrate libidinousness rather than commiserate its disappointments).

Larkin was always too undeceived to believe in the freedom promised by the sexual revolution of the 1960s (see also his hilariously satirical poem “Annus Mirablis"), but here he casts himself as the embittered outsider looking in.

“When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking the pill or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives."

"Larkin was always too undeceived to believe in the freedom promised by the sexual revolution of the 1960s"

But this jealousy is beautifully, incredibly modulated – not towards care or compassion or empathy or wisdom, but towards the non-verbal, the ineffable and inscrutable:

“immediately

Rather than words come 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.”

Who knew Larkin could be so mystical?

“Church Going”

The outside of a church building and tower with cross on the roofThough Larkin was a sceptic of Christianity, his love of ecclesiastical architecture shines through in "Church Going"

This poem is Larkin’s “Stairway To Heaven”, a glorious extended piece summing up all of his talents and gestures (without the Jimmy Page guitar solo).

An extended rumination on visiting an empty church and the decaying role of religion in modern life, “Church Going” was first published in The Spectator in 1955 (and got TS Eliot, then at Faber & Faber, interested in him, though Larkin had already signed The Less Deceived over to The Marvell Press).

"This poem is Larkin’s 'Stairway To Heaven'"

Like “The Trees”, it modulates beautifully throughout the poem, this time going from jerky enjambment and mid-line caesura at the start (indicating the speaker’s ignorance and uncertainty) to the full lines of the final stanza (indicating authority and finality).

For instance, at the start Larkin describes:

“Another church: matting, seats and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ." 

By the end we have lines that read almost like a prayer:

"A serious house on serious earth it is
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much can never be obsolete,
Since someone will always 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."

To gradually shift from one to the other over seven stanzas is a remarkable display of poetic control.

Similarly, the complex rhyme scheme (ABABCDEFE), self-dramatisation, move from incident to general truth and fine novelistic detail (the cycle clips and the Irish sixpence, for example) are regular Larkin techniques.

Here, they come together in an utterly masterful poem.

“Long Lion Days”

After High Windows was published in 1974, when Larkin was just 52, his poetic output essentially dried up.

In the remaining eleven years of his life are several short poems that weren’t published until his Collected Poems of 1992 (as well as his final extended poem, “Aubade”).

“Long Lion Days” is one of these. Just ten lines long, none with more than five syllables, but as an evocation of the ripeness of nature it’s glorious:

“Whatever was sown
Now fully grown;
Whatever conceived
Now fully leaved
Abounding, ablaze -
O long lion days!”

Like the wheat, trees and fruit it evokes, the poem seems to burst with fruitfulness. Glorious.

Banner photo credit: Kevan via Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

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