PHILIP LARKIN  ( 1922 – 1985 )

LIFE: Larkin was the main representative of The Movement. He was born in Coventry of a middle-class family. Despite the company of an elder sister, Kitty, Larkin felt deeply isolated during his early childhood, tormented by self-consciousness and shyness and frustrated by a stammer. In an early poem he described childhood as ‘a forgotten boredom’. He also remarked that his biography could begin with his life at the age of twenty-one and omit nothing of importance. He was educated at Oxford where he met the friends with whom he created The Movement. He also met there George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Kingsly Amis. As a permanent job he worked as a University librarian first in Belfast and then in Hull but he was also a very influential jazz critic and wrote for many newspapers. He received The Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry and the Shakespeare Prize for the contribution to European Culture. He never married and lived as a single all his life.
WORKS: He wrote two novels and a hundred poems, but his reputation as a poet rests on a limited number of poems. He chose not to be a prolific poet because he was persuaded that a great poet may write only few poems a year, only one or two. His poems are collected in four collections.
INFLUENCES: In his early poems he was influenced by Yeats, Dylan Thomas and Auden. His first Collected Poems appeared in the school magazine The Coventrian. When he founded The Movement, he rejected and dismissed them as ‘bollock’ or ‘shit’. He found a new model in Thomas Hardy, with a poetry rooted in everyday experience, describing physical landscapes and familiar habits. In his later poems he expressed a grim vision of life and used a more bitter tone.
CONTENTS: Larkin was very much interested in contents. He wrote:” Content alone interests me; content is every thing.” In his poetry he described mainly the provincial England of the post-war where he had lived most of his life. It is the grey, permissive England of the unsatisfied middle-class seen in its grey decadence. He described it with true realism through a series of details about people and places: cheap fashion, wedding parties in badly furnished hotels, dirty car-park and so on.
FEATURES: Larkin believed that our lives are beyond our control and that man is not free to choose. According to him we are driven to live the way we live both by habits and by a force stronger than our will. This force was the same force that Hardy called Immanent Will, a universal power that Schopenhauer described as indifferent if not hostile to the Fate of man. Like Hardy, Larkin was charged with Nihilism* and considered as one who had no faith in man and in God. But he was a passive nihilist because he rejected authority and attacked accepted ideas, but he didn’t replace old values with new ones.
LANGUAGE AND STYLE: His poetry was simple in language and style. He rejected the mythological historical style of Eliot and Pound and the politically committed poetry of the 1930s. He addresses to ordinary readers, so the language is sober, almost devoid of metaphors, clear and rational, supported by a precise punctuation. The general tone is often laconic and unrhetorical.
THE ROLE OF THE POET: The poet’s task was to communicate and to give pleasure. To this purpose he wrote:” Poetry, as all art, is inextricably bound up with giving pleasure, and if a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience, he has lost the only audience worth having.” He thought that poetry was also an act of preservation;” I write poems to preserve things I have seen, thought, felt … both for myself and for others … I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.”
THEMES: In all his poetry there are few recurrent themes: old age and death, experience, awareness, the passing of time, love, reality and dreams.
Time is seen as an enemy that destroys dreams and increases disillusionment because it shows us what we have and are at present, compared to what we hoped to have and to become.
He often compares old age and youth and expresses our sense of present loss and shattered dreams through the dichotomy between the expectations of youth and the reality of present life.

Old age is a time of complete disillusionment and youth a part of life which contains the germ of future failure; the childish joys and aspirations of a promised happy and fulfilling future is only a deception and the past becomes a series of missed opportunities and the present is always deluding. In this background, Love is an illusion, too, and a painful deception.
In Eight Contemporary Poets the critic Calvin Bedient wrote:” Larkin presents not a world elsewhere but life just here, denuded of libido and sentiment. Like Hardy, he uses imagination precisely in order to show what life is like, when imagination is taken out of it.”

*Nihilism: Definition of various radical philosophies, whose followers refuse every affirmation of any positive value. The label comes from the Latin nihil, which means nothing. The term” nihilism” ,already used for pointing out in the Middle Ages the Christian heretics, returns in the 18th century to designate doctrines that deny determined systems of values. Between 1850 and 1860 in Russia the nihilists were those young intellectuals who, under the influence of the western ideas, repudiated the Christianity. The term  was taken back by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in two principal meanings: the first one (negative nihilism) to point out the phenomenon of the decadence of the western man, educated by the Christianity to the asceticism and the renouncement towards the life; the second (nihilism in positive sense) to point out the active negation of the consolidated ethic and the traditional values and its substitution with a new system of values.

                                    ANNUS MIRABILIS

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up till then there’d’ only been
A sort’ of bargaining
A wrangle for a ring
A shame that started at sixteen.
And spread to everything.
Then all at once the quarrel sank
Everyone felt the same
And every life became
(A brilliant breaking of the bank
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

This is one of Larkin best late poems, written in 1967. The Latin phrase of the title, meaning the wonderful year, was traditionally used in the past to refer to several exceptional events all happening in the same year. Larking chose it because he wanted to stress the importance of the year 1963 for the exceptional events happened in that year: the sexual revolution of the early 1960s.
It is made up of four stanzas of five lines each, rhyming ABBAB. The first and the last stanza are identical and may be considered a sort of refrain like in a Ballad. Both stanzas have got the third line in brackets and are somewhat identical because they have got only some different terms, ‘which … rather/though… just too’, and they account for the difference because they give respectively a different sound: the former sounds ironic, the latter sounds bitter. The language is simple and clear and the atmosphere is joyous and mocking. The poet connects two events to the sexual revolution: ‘the end of Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first L.P.’ The former refers to D.H.Lawrence’s novel, banned for obscenity (the ban was lifted in 1959) and the latter to   ‘The Beatles’ who became the symbol of the new free life of the 1960s.

The second and the third stanza deal with how things were before and after the sexual revolution. In the past sex was considered ‘a shame that started at sixteen’ and was linked either to prostitution, ‘a sort of bargaining’ or to marriage, ‘a wrangle for a ring’. It was something embarrassing to speak about. After the revolution things changed, ‘all at once the quarrel (between man and women) sank’ because they both shared the same ideas and had a common attitude towards sex, ‘everyone felt the same’, and there was a sudden explosion of freedom of behaviour. Sex becomes ‘a quite unlosable game’ not to be ashamed about, and every form of transgression becomes ‘a brilliant breaking of the banks.’ The poet agrees with the sexual revolution even if he, who was a single, regrets and complaints about his age. He is only in his 40s, but at the time there was a common belief that men over forty years old were not so much interested in sex as before.


“This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies*  till  *Bodies: car factory where he worked
They moved him.” Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,             *(sfilacciate)
Fall to within five inches of the sill,*                           *(davanzale) 

Whose window shows a strip* of building** land,    * (striscia)  **(edificabile)
Tussocky, littered. “Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.”
Bed, upright  chair, sixty-watt bulb,* no hook      *Upright: not very comfortable 

Behind the door, no room for books or bags —
“I’ll take it.” So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub* my fags**         * crush, put out  **cigarette                      On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing* my ears with cotton-wool, to drown**    * filling   ** to cover, muffle                   The jabbering set* he egged** her on to buy.      * harsh-sounding radio-set  ** convinced   I know his habits — what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy,* why                *(salsa al sugo di carne)

He kept on plugging at the four aways*.     *He did the football pool * (partite in trasferta)
Likewise their yearly frame*: the Frinton** folk            *habits  **a cheap seaside resort    Who     put  him up* for summer holidays,  * lodged, took him as guest                              And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke*     *Stoke: an industrial city in the Midlands

But if stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling* the clouds, lay on the fusty** bed    *(arruffare)  **odore di muffa)             Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,*   * smiled bitterly                                    And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted* no better, I don’t know. * deserved

This is one of the typical poems by Larkin both for the set and for the content: the England of the middle-class in its grey decadence. Mr Bleany, the protagonist, is a very grey person, isolated and alienated from society. The poet, describing Mr Bleany’s room, makes us realize his failure. The poem starts in a theatrical way, like a play: the setting is Mr Bleany’s room while the scenery consists of a window with flowered curtains. There are three characters on the stage, two are present, a new lodger and the Landlady (the ‘her’ of line 14), and one absent (Mr Bleany) . The room is described in detail both inside and outside. The atmosphere inside is shabby, dingy, bleak (in cattivo stato, incrostata di immondizia, tetra) and squalid, as we can see from the adjectives in the first two stanzas: ‘thin, frayed, tussocky and littered.’ The landscape outside is ‘a strip of building land.’ The room is described in detail both through the objects present and the ones absent. There are ‘upright chairs (not very comfortable), a sixty-watt bulb (gives little light)’, a bed, a saucer souvenir and a radio-set. There are no coat-racks, no books, and no bags. We are given a lot of information about Mr Bleany: he worked at the Bodies, was moved, took care of the Landlady’s garden, used to play at the Pool, had no interests in book and was unmarried.
The poem is in a dialogue form. The high-point is in the third stanza when the new lodger takes Mr Bleany’s place and identifies with him doing the same actions he probably had done and using his bed, his saucer- souvenir and his radio-set. The banality of Mr Bleany’s life is conveyed by some information about his habits. In the last two stanzas the poet wonders about the true nature of Mr Bleany. Stanza six starts describing Mr Bleany’s mind and thoughts. The poet wonders whether he was aware of his failure. He, who had worked hard, had only got ‘a hired box’ thinking that ‘it was home’, He was perhaps aware that he deserved ’no better’. In this stanza the poet introduces the idea that what we have and the way we live are strictly connected to what we are actually worth. His life, too, has been a failure and the final ‘I don’t Know’ identifies the poet with Mr Bleany and emphasizes his own failure.

This Be the Verse

                                They fuck* you up, your mum and dad.        *(rovinano)
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

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.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

The title of this short poem was taken from a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, Underwood, and it was an inscription on a gravestone. Then many critics consider this poem as Larkin’s testament. The poem deals with one of Larkin’s dearest themes: youth as a part of life which contains the germ of future failure. The childish joys and aspirations for a fulfilling future is only a deception. The guilty is the adult who wants his son to become like him and so deceives him. Larkin was persuaded that Old Age was a time of disillusionment because in that Age we realize our failure. Then it is a responsibility of ours not to deceive the young generation. We have to leave them free to follow their own values, to make their own experiences and to create their own style of life. The language of the poem is simple and colloquial and the tone is one of pessimism. The poet has a grim vision of live: ‘Man hands on misery to man.’ If the young want to be different they have to ‘get out as early ‘as they can to avoid of being fucked up. ‘Your mum and dad’ fuck you up’ because they create psychological and emotional problems to their children. They don’t know that, ‘they may not mean to, but they do.’ Whishing to have their children to their likeness, they ‘fill you with the faults they had / and add some extra.’ Then ‘man hands on misery to man’ because ‘they were fucked up in their turn’ by their parents, the ‘fools in old-style hats and coats.’ The faults are transmitted from generation to generation. There is only a way to escape, ‘don’t have any kids yourself’, that is not to have responsibilities.

NOTA:appunti presi da testi vari e rielaborati. Nessuna considerazione personale


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to PHILIP LARKIN

  1. Livia says:

    Finalmente gli appunti di letteratura!!!
    Grande prof, a prestissimo! 🙂

  2. Antonio Q. says:

    grazie prof!!

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