Symbolist Moments in Larkin’s Poetry


Graham Banks, Former Head of English, Bedales School, Petersfield

24 May 2017


Philip Larkin was born in 1922 and his interest in poetry developed in the late 1930s at a time when Yeats and Eliot were the two towering figures and the young Auden was beginning to make his way.  Both Yeats and Eliot were influenced by symbolist poetry of the late nineteenth century.  Yeats in particular developed an elaborate system of symbols which formed the basis of his later poetry.  Eliot, together with Ezra Pound, embraced modernism with its insistence that new forms of poetic expression had to be found to represent the human condition in an industrial, urban, post First World War world.  Larkin's early poetry owes a great deal to Yeats: and though less easily discernible, the influence of Eliot is also there.

Philip Larkin later became associated with a reaction against modernism.  He famously denounced Parker, Pound and Picasso as the triumvirate who had set the arts in the wrong direction in the twentieth century.  In the introduction to All What Jazz he wrote:

Modernism… helps us neither to enjoy nor endure.  It will divert as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying or more outrageous: it has no lasting power.

Here he implies that more traditional forms and subjects are what art needs.  Larkin regularly maintained that all arts needed to be accessible by ordinary people without the mediation of professional ‘elucidators’.

Such a stance set him clearly swimming against the intellectual current of the nineteen sixties when modernist experimentation was venerated.  His poetry of the fifties and early sixties allowed people to pigeon-hole him as bourgeois rather than bohemian, secular rather than spiritual, plain speaking rather than grandiloquent.  To his supporters he was returning poetry to the language and experience of ordinary people.  To his detractors he was narrowing the scope, turning his back on the exciting new territories opened up by Yeats and Eliot and all that they had learnt from the French symbolists.

Larkin himself felt the need to free himself from the influence of Yeats and consciously replaced it with the influence of Hardy.  Hardy’s poetry of precisely observed emotion expressed through formal verse structures sat within a distinctly English tradition and preceded the incursions of the modernists.  In a 1955 letter to Robert Conquest Larkin wrote:

I feel we [‘Movement’ poets] have got the method right – plain language, absence of posturings, sense of proportion, humour, abandonment of the dithyrambic ideal – and are waiting for the matter: a fuller and more sensitive response to life as it appears from day to day…

This reflects the qualities of clarity and direct expression which have often been seen as central characteristics of Larkin’s poetry as well as a rejection of the Dionysian tendencies of Romanticism and modernism.  He expressed more fully what he felt was wrong with modernism in a passage from Required Writing:

It is as obvious as it is strenuously denied that in this century English poetry went off on a loop-line that took it away from the general reader.  Several factors caused this.  One was the aberration of modernism, that blighted all the arts.  One was the emergence of English literature as an academic subject, and the constant demand for a kind of poetry that needed elucidation.  One, I am afraid, was the culture-mongering activities of the Americans Eliot and Pound.  In any case the strong connection between poetry and the reading public that had been forged by Kipling, Housman, Brooke and Omar Khayyam was destroyed as a result.  It is arguable that Betjeman was the writer who knocked over the ‘No Road Through to Real Life’ signs that this new tradition had erected, and who restored direct intelligible communication to poetry.

The list of Kipling, Housman, Brooke, Omar Khayyam will be echoed by other lists later.  It is part of Larkin’s attempt to find a place for his poetic voice in an English tradition that doesn’t include Yeats, Eliot or Auden.

Larkin’s own early poetry had been strongly influenced by Yeats who, in turn, was influenced by nineteenth century French symbolists.  In his late twenties and thirties he strove to suppress this Yeatsian influence and started to look to Hardy as a model.  Andrew Motion, in his biography of Larkin, observes that, after the publication of The Whitsun Weddings in 1964, and in response to reviewers like A Alvarez, who criticised his subject matter as ‘commonplace’, Larkin’s ideas on poetry ‘hardened into a set of inflexible reactionary prejudices.’  Motion goes on to say, ‘He took every opportunity to repeat in public the names of plain speaking poets who formed his pantheon: Hardy, Edward Thomas, Betjeman (and later Stevie Smith and Gavin Ewart).’

By the mid-sixties Larkin was a major literary figure and had clearly set out his stall.  He was a descendant of a succession of English poets untainted by modernism, uninterested in the judgements of professional academic critics and writing for a general public.

It has long been acknowledged that Larkin’s own account of his poetry is not the whole story.  In a 1980 essay entitled ‘Philip Larkin: After Symbolism’ Barbara Everett demonstrated that Larkin’s mature poetry still owed a great deal to the symbolists; and Andrew Motion, in his 1982 critical study Philip Larkin, develops similar ideas.  This evening I intend to explore some of the ways in which the symbolist moments emerge out of, and relate to, the plain-speaking which predominates in the poetry.

Before moving on to the poems themselves it is worth having a moment to consider what Larkin really thought of Hardy, however much he might have admired the verse.  Andrew Motion, in ‘This is Your Subject Speaking’, his elegy for Larkin, records this exchange:

You suddenly asked me:

If you could meet one poet

- they could be living or dead -

Which one would you choose?

Partly to please you I told you


Hardy.  Hardy!

All he would say is: Motion?

One of the Essex Motions perhaps?

Then came your candid guffaw,

Here we see Larkin mocking the narrow parochialism of which he was often accused, imagining Hardy having a preoccupation with old English families just like Tess Durbeyfield’s father.  He may have admired aspects of Hardy’s verse but that did not make him an idolater.

In Andrew Motion’s study he sums up Larkin’s use of symbolism thus:

Larkin adopts the dislocations, illogicalities and imaginative excitement of symbolism to redeem himself from distressing daily circumstances.  But his commitment to the real world is too great for him to achieve this kind of escape easily or often.

This account is helpful in guiding us towards what we will be looking for in the poems: ‘dislocations, illogicalities and imaginative excitement’ in a poet largely noted for coherent discourse, photographic description (the poet Craig Raine described Larkin as ‘a camera’) and a tone somewhere between phlegmatic, ironic and melancholic. Such moments should be easy to spot.

The word symbolism can be slippery, however.  After reading Motion’s study in draft Larkin wrote this to him:

You do seem to use ‘Symbolism’ to mean a wide spread of things sometimes, from ‘metaphorical’ to plain barmy, but it’s a convenient label.

Critics can be vague sometimes about distinctions between metaphors, symbols and symbolism.  Larkin’s ‘Toads’ might help to clarify.  When he begins the poem ‘Why should I let the toad work squat on my life’ this is a metaphor: work is something with the unappealing characteristic of a toad which metaphorically sits on him and squashes the freedom out of his life.  When he gets to ‘something sufficiently toad-like squats in me’ we have moved beyond metaphor to symbol: the toad stands for anything, external or internal, which limits and thwarts our aspirations in life.  The poem therefore has symbolism in the simple sense that it contains a symbol, but it is not a symbolist poem.  The symbol in ‘Toads’ is easily paraphrasable whereas the symbols of symbolist poetry defy paraphrase: they exist because there was no other way of expressing the thought.

Before going any further I would like to look briefly at some examples of the kinds of language which many readers will think of first in relation to Larkin.  ‘Mr Bleaney’ has most of the ingredients.  Here is the simple, precise description: ‘Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,/Fall to within five inches of the sill’, the ‘sixty-watt bulb’.  Here is the sense of mundane, empty lives: ‘his preference for sauce to gravy’, ‘Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke.’  Here too is the demotic language to express it all: ‘stub my fags’, ‘jabbering set’, ‘plugging at the four aways’.  In addition there is another Larkin trademark which will be significant later: the last two stanzas mark a complete change of style.  These eight lines form one sentence with the complicated grammatical structure of the main clause coming only in the final three words.  A simplified form of the sentence would be ‘I don’t know if Mr Bleaney stood and watched… lay on the fusty bed… and grinned, and shivered.’  To which must be added, ‘and I don’t know if he did these things without shaking off the dread that how we live measures our own nature.’  The implication is that the poet himself did all these things and experienced that dread.  The central thought is both deflected from the poet by being in a sentence ostensibly about Mr Bleaney and is tucked into a subordinate clause in a complex sentence.  The shift in tone is first indicated by the assonance of ‘frigid wind/Tousling the clouds’: a first introduction to the fact that, although the sentence appears to be about Mr Bleaney, it is really about the poet.

Similar effects can be seen in ‘The Old Fools’ from High Windows.  Here Larkin wants to look at old age with a brutal directness.  The poem may seem cruel unless one remembers that it arises from Larkin’s own lifelong fear of death.

He starts with a grim picture of old age:

Do they somehow suppose

It’s more grown up when your mouth hangs open and drools,

And you keep on pissing yourself

The poem rises above this grisly catalogue of old age in two superb images.  The first is this:

It’s only oblivion, true:

We had it before, but then it was going to end,

And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour

To bring to bloom the million petalled flower

Of being here.

That ‘million petalled flower’ is all the evidence we need of Larkin’s love of life and almost overrides the pessimism of the poem.

The other striking image is ‘extinction’s alp’.  Larkin creates an extended metaphor of the elderly as mountaineers too close to the summit to see it whilst we can see their precise location:

The peak that stays in view wherever we go

For them is rising ground.

This precisely captures the difference between the way the elderly are viewed and the way they view themselves.  The ‘million petalled flower’ and ‘extinction’s alp’ are imaginatively apt metaphors for life and death respectively, but they are not strictly symbols.

‘Dockery and Son’ takes us perhaps a shade closer to symbolism.  It can be seen as a typical Larkin poem in which the general gloom of life focuses eventually on the particular gloom of death.  On his visit to Oxford he tries a door which is locked.  On the return journey he ‘ate an awful pie’ and the whole experience leads to the dismal conclusion:

Life is first boredom, then fear.

Whether or not we use it, it goes.

This might be seen as the ultimate Larkin gloom and most of the poem is spent agonising over choices in the past that have shaped the present.  The form is discursive, full of questions and contradictions.  It does, however contain these lines:

… and walked along

The platform to its end to see the ranged

Joining and parting lines reflect a strong

Unhindered moon.

This moon, strong and unhindered, is the only positive thing in the poem apart from the ‘dazzlingly wide’ college lawn; and why mention the joining and parting lines unless they represent something that relates to the poem’s main concerns?  The poem is about loneliness and Larkin’s determination to keep relationships at arm’s length.  It is presented as a matter of fact account of everyday experience, and yet it contains this extra element.  The joining and parting lines in the moonlight seem to have a significance, but it is one that is hard to pin down.  This is getting close to symbolism, and symbolism of a different kind from that of the toad.

The short poem ‘Water’ from The Whitsun Weddings shows how Larkin moves us from the familiar to the transcendent.  It begins:

If I were called in

To construct a religion

We must pause here to imagine what possible circumstances could lead to someone being called in to construct a religion.  Why should a religion need to be constructed?  Calling someone in implies a company that advertises its religion-constructing capabilities.  All this reduces religion to trade.  He then says:

I would make use of water

‘Make use of water’ conjures the pragmatic rather than the spiritual.  The details that follow are partly comic, mixing religious symbolism with the everyday: ‘a fording to dry, different clothes’, ‘a furious devout drench’.  Then in the final stanza this half jokey notion of a constructed, marketable religion ends with:

And I should raise in the east

A glass of water

Where any-angled light

Would congregate endlessly.

Here are two of the features that characterise Larkin’s poetry when he moves beyond the everyday: light and the idea of infinity expressed in the poem’s final word, ‘endlessly’.  It may start as an ad-man’s constructed religion but it ends as a device for reaching for the infinite.  Here is a symbolism beyond paraphrase.

The poem ‘High Windows’ works in a similar way.  It begins with the familiar demotic and everyday features: ‘a couple of kids’, ‘he’s fucking her’ and the details of contraception arrangements.  This is the present, the here and now, and is ironically presented as a paradise which the poet is too old to share: ‘everyone young going down the long slide/To happiness, endlessly.’  Looking at this poem directly after ‘Water’ helps us focus on the importance of that last word - ‘endlessly’.  In ‘Water’ it represented the search for the transcendent, but here it sits uneasily after two stanzas so rooted in the immediate present.  The second section of the poem takes a longer view as he wonders if his parents’ generation envied the freedom from strict religion his generation enjoyed, just as he is envying the sexual freedom of the next generation.  This shift of perspective has similarities to that which we saw in the last two stanzas of ‘Mr Bleaney’, but in ‘High Windows’ it will be taken a step further.  The third phase of the poem is introduced by the word ‘immediately’ which at first seems to bring us back to the present but actually marks a move towards the infinite.

Here Larkin specifically goes beyond words: ‘Rather than words comes the thought’ as if this thought cannot be put into words.  The thought, as in ‘Water’, is about light and the infinite.  It is not straightforward, since it is couched in negatives – ‘nothing’ and ‘nowhere’ – but it marks a total change of view compared with the shift of perspective earlier in the poem.  The ‘sun-comprehending glass’ is as far removed as can be from the everyday images that abound in Larkin’s poems, but it defies explanation.  It makes an impact on the reader but each reader will understand it in their own way.

Larkin once said, ‘One writes really to reproduce in other people the particular sensations or thoughts or emotions that you’ve had yourself.’  This accounts for the need for precision and clarity in the poems, but is somewhat at odds with a symbolism the effects of which on the reader are going to be unpredictable.  Larkin had done that from early on, however.  The poem ‘Days’ was written in 1953 and, after asking ‘Where can we live but days?’ ends with:

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

Why are they running over the fields?  Is it to stop the question being asked?  Is it because the questioner might be suicidal? Where is the person asking the question?  Each reader of the poem will have their own mental image and their own answers to the questions it raises.  In his 1977 book Professing Poetry, John Wain, critic and friend of Larkin had this to say about ‘Days’:

I call this poem ungraspable because, while perfectly clear as to content, it is scarcely paraphasable; it offers an image which conveys a very clear metaphoric message, but (except by writing many lines of diluting prose) it is not possible to put it into other terms.  All one can do is describe the mental picture that the poem gives one, a picture chillingly direct in its implications.  The substance of the poem is of course in the last four lines; the first six are simply a launching pad.  What do the last four lines make you see?  To me, the picture is of a cluster of houses on the outskirts of a village, where the streets run out into fields.  It is evening; the lights are just coming on; and in one of the houses somebody is dying.  Across the dusk laden fields, two figures are approaching; they wear long overcoats and are bearded and side-whiskered like characters out of Chekhov or Alphonse Daudet; the doctor, I think, is a doctor of philosophy but he might conceivably be a physician.  What gives my mental picture the obsessional character of a nightmare is that the two figures are running.  If they were merely walking sedately towards the dying person’s house, deep in consultation, the scene would be terrestrial; in fact, it is metaphysic.

What is really striking about this is how little of Wain’s ‘mental picture’ is actually in the poem.  It is also very unlike my own mental picture and, I suspect, most of yours.  Similarly, those high windows of ‘sun comprehending glass’ are for me stained glass windows in a church, though for other readers they may be altogether different.

As a final example of Larkin’s symbolism we will turn to ‘Money’ from High Windows.  It begins in a familiar vein:

Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:

‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?

I am all you never had of goods and sex.

You could get them still by writing a few cheques.

This is not unlike ‘Why should I let the toad work squat on my life?’ or ‘blarney/My way to getting/the fame and the girl and the money/All at one sitting.’  Here are the mundane details of ordinary life (‘a second house and car and wife’) and the demotic language (‘however you bank your screw’).  The half joking tone is accentuated by the rhyming pairs – ‘sex/cheques’, ‘wife/life’ and ‘save/shave’.  Then we come to the final stanza, knowing Larkin’s tendency to change tone at the end:

I listen to money singing.  It’s like looking down

From long French windows at a provincial town,

The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad

In the evening sun.  It is intensely sad.

At the start money was speaking reproachfully and we heard exactly what it said.  Now it is singing, but what kind of song?  And in what way is listening to this song like looking down from long French windows?  Why the precise detail about the windows?  The slums, canal and churches have featured in other poems, like ‘Here’ and ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ but why have they become symbols for this intense sadness?

Those ornate, mad churches perhaps offer a clue as to why Larkin turns to this symbolism which lies beyond paraphrase and borders on the mystical.   Larkin’s exact contemporary and fellow Movement poet, Donald Davie, ended his poem ‘Or, Solitude’ with this stanza:

The metaphysicality

Of poetry, how I need it!

And yet for years it was

What I refused to credit.

In one printed version Davie replaced the word ‘metaphysicality’ with the phrase ‘transcendent nature’ to make even clearer the difficulty, but necessity, for a poet of the Movement accepting that something in poetry goes beyond plain speech and rationalism.

Similarly, Larkin - atheist, death fearing, nature loving observer of ordinary lives - feels a need for something else, something transcendent.  It comes to him sometimes in these moments of symbolism, but they are closely related to other poems where the effect is reached without recourse to symbolism.  ‘Show Saturday’, which he placed immediately before ‘Money’ near the end of High Windows, is largely a catalogue of all that can be seen at a country show.  The day ends and the people disperse to their ordinary lives.  The poem ends:

Back now, all of them, to their local lives:

To names on vans, and business calendars

Hung up in kitchens; back to loud occasions

In the Corn Exchange, to market days in bars,

To winter coming, as the dismantled Show

Itself dies back into the area of work.

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.

This is not exactly symbolism, and yet the Show has come to mean much more than the sum of its parts as listed earlier in the poem.  The repeated ‘Let it…’ is like a prayer, and the phrase ‘regenerate union’ in the last line suggests a mystical force at work through the Show which dignifies and elevates human life above the tawdriness of everyday existence.

Something similar happens in the much earlier poem ‘Church Going’ from The Less Deceived.  Here we have the typical Larkin persona ‘bored, uninformed’ who refers to ‘some brass and stuff/Up at the holy end’.  He wonders what will happen when churches go out of use altogether and:

… who

Will be the last, the very last, to seek

This place for what it was; one of the crew

That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?

Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,

Or Christmas addict…

Here we have the demotic language – ‘crew’, ‘ruin-bibber’, ‘randy’, ‘addict’ – presenting an unflattering view of humanity before he turns to his own reasons for visiting the church, which he had earlier dismissed as ‘not worth stopping for’:

… because it held unspilt

So long and equably what since is found

Only in separation – marriage, and birth,

And death, and thoughts of these…

The church, like the country show, again seems to dignify and elevate human life.  The final stanza begins:

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognised, and robed as destinies…

The idea of ‘blent air’ picks up the image in the previous stanza of holding things unspilt and united which would otherwise be found ‘only in separation’, and the metaphor of robing our compulsions as destinies suggests a transition from the limits and frustrations of daily life.

The endings of ‘Show Saturday’ and ‘Church Going’ do not work in quite the same way as the symbolist endings of ‘Water’, ‘High Windows’ and ‘Money’, but they achieve something similar.  They assert that there is something greater and more mysterious in human existence than is apprehended in the clear vision of everyday and that the mystery is essential.

©   Graham Banks 2017


Bibliographical Note

Larkin published four collections of his poetry in book form during his lifetime. These were The North Ship (July 1945) - influenced heavily by WB Yeats; The Less Deceived (1955), influenced by Hardy: The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974).  Larkin also issued typescript booklets of his poems, most of them before 1945. Many uncollected poems were published in magazines and periodicals, or remained in manuscript, never reaching the four main collections.

After Larkin’s death in 1985, his friend the poet Anthony Thwaite (one of his two literary executors) edited a volume of Larkin’s Collected Poems, published by Faber in 1988. A revised edition appeared in 2003. Thwaite attempted to arrange all the surviving poems in chronological order of composition.  In doing so, however, he eliminated, or at least disguised the published order familiar to readers of the four volumes mentioned earlier.  An Appendix, on pp. 313-318 of this edition lists the order of poems in the individual collections, including XX Poems (April 1951), The Fantasy Poets No.21 (March 1954) and the unpublished typescript In the Grip of Light (1947).  Thwaite’s Introduction opens with this paragraph:

‘This edition aims to include, first, the poems completed by Philip Larkin between 1946 and the end of his life, together with a few unfinished poems which Larkin preserved in typescript: and, second, a substantial selection of his earlier poems, from 1938 until the end of 1945. In the first section, sixty-one poems appear in print here for the first time; in the second, twenty-two. In each section, all the poems are arranged in chronological order of completion, determined wherever possible by Larkin’s precise dating of manuscript or typescript.  When such dates are lacking, I have had to rely on other evidence, usually - in the case of published poems - on the date of publication.’

In the wartime years, Larkin still had ambitions to become a novelist, and he did publish two novels immediately after the end of the Second World War - Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). It was his old friend and contemporary from St John’s College, Oxford Kingsley Amis, who went on to be one of the leading novelists of his day. Later on, his reputation as a poet established, Larkin published All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961-1971 (revised edition 1985) and the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse, chosen by himself (1973). In 1983, Faber issued a prose collection entitled Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982, which was followed in 2002 by Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews (2nd edition ed. Anthony Thwaite).

There were many earlier critical studies of Larkin’s work before the full-length biographies of Andrew Motion (1993) and James Booth (2014). The main ones are by David Timms (1973); Simon Petch (1981); Anthony Thwaite (1992); Stephen Regan (also 1992); Stephen Cooper (2004) Richard Bradford (2005, more a biographical study) and Richard Palmer (2008). In addition, Maeve Brennan, Hull colleague and close friend, published The Philip Larkin I Knew in 2002, and Zachary Leader The Movement Reconsidered: Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie and their Contemporaries (2009). This last was one of several books on ‘The Movement’ in British post-war poetry, including one by Blake Morrison which appeared in 1980. The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite, came out in 1992, while Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica (Jones) was published in 2010, Monica - his long-term companion - having died in 2001.  Again, this collection was edited by Anthony Thwaite.

The crucial reference volume of Larkin’s poetry is The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, edited with an introduction and commentary by Archie Burnett, and published by Faber in 2012. The rich and informative critical commentary section of this splendid volume means that it really supersedes Thwaite’s edition, though it is useful for the reader to have Thwaite nearby for comparison. Burnett retains the sequence of the four published volumes intact, unlike Thwaite. He follows this with a 23 page section covering other poems published during the poet’s lifetime, from ‘Winter Nocturne ‘ to ‘Party Politics’, and including the now-famous ‘Aubade’. This is followed by a large section which includes all the poems not published in the Larkin’s lifetime - in fact a considerable body of work, running to 200 pages, beginning with ‘Coventria’ and ending with ‘Bun’s Outing’. As if this were not enough, Burnett ends with a very short section which consists almost entirely of a single poem, ‘The Way We Live Now’ (to be recited in a clear Welsh voice), which is headed ‘Undated or approximately - dated poems’. This is an indication of how generally meticulous Larkin was about the dating of his work. Indeed, there is a 19-page Appendix (pp. 687-705) listing Dates of Composition of all the work.  The Commentary in Burnett’s edition follows the above sequence exactly, making the whole volume a treasure –trove of interest and usefulness.

Andrew Motion, Larkin’s second literary executor, published Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life in 1993. Motion, who was Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009, had emerged as Larkin’s chosen biographer. However his was by far from being the last word, and in 2014, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, by James Booth appeared to general acclaim, published by the Bloomsbury Press. Professor James Booth had been Head of the English Department at Hull University, and had been a colleague of Larkin (Chief Librarian at the Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull) for some seventeen years. James Booth was also the author of New Larkins for Old: Critical Essays (2000) and Philip Larkin: The Poet’s Plight (2005).

© Dr Robert E. Blackburn   2017