The three poems I have chosen to analyse here represent three gigantic steps in Philip Larkin’s writing life, as there is a great distance in years separating them:
“Church Going” is from 1954 and was published in The Less Deceived, 1955.
“Sad Steps” is from 1968 and belongs to High Windows, 1974.
“Aubade” is from 1877 and was printed separately in Larkin’s lifetime, though published posthumously as part of Anthony Thwaite’s edition Collected Poems, 1988.
However, Larkin’s most characteristic theme, death, is present in all of them.
In “Church Going”, a passing countryside cyclist stops at a seemingly small church on a weekday when there is no service. Once inside, the pervading stillness makes him think of the diminished meaning, even the frivolity and vacuity of the reasons that bring people to a place of cult, whose decay is fatal. He does not share them, but nevertheless he finds “It pleases me to stand in silence here”, it takes a hold on him, the seriousness of the impulse that has brought so many others there. The place possesses still some significance that must be respected: it is the place where “all our compulsions meet, are recognized, and robed as destinies. And that much can never be obsolete.” Men in quest of wisdom –the wisdom to unravel destiny- have long been attracted to this “serious house” on this “serious earth” and now lie buried round. Larkin finally tells us though that if any wisdom they attained, it was in death.
As to what Larkin felt for religion as expressed in this poem, it is a delicate and ambiguous matter. Critics have both stated that Larkin was a religious man who believed in God and an agnostic. But it cannot be denied that, being interested in such a transcendental issue as death, and in spite of aiming to maintain a clear, free, cynical voice, he often touches on religion and was fully aware of how deeply it affected man. I think Larkin deconstructs the essence of belief in this poem, as symbolized by an empty church surrounded by dead, who “lie round”, playing on the polysemy of the word “lie”, which can both mean lie down and tell an un-truth. In this case, he considers himself not deceived by religion. But at the same time, he admits there is an unavoidable need to believe in order to provide some stability in life and avert despair. This justifies faith, however superficial, and deserves respect. Nevertheless, eventually we are left in the dark as to if Larkin is able to benefit from what religion can give man. A clue could be the first two lines of the poem: “Once I am sure there’s nothing going on/ I step inside, letting the door thud shut”. He states he is sure “nothing is going on”, affirming his incredulity, but the door closes on him, trapping him in his historical and social context: after all, he belongs to a society that does believe.
“Sad Steps” are the steps that take Larkin, returning from the lavatory at four in the morning, instead of back to bed, to look out of a window and find the moon staring at him from the night sky. As this poem alludes to Sir Philip Sidney –odd, the coincidence in the name, isn’t it? – and his 31 sonnet from Astrophil and Stella, in which Sidney’s persona speaks through Astrophil, we are reminded of how Philip Sidney-Astrophil questioned the moon, in the height of his youth, on the meaning of his mistress’ ingratitude. Philip Larkin-Astrophil does not question the moon, just momentarily sees it as endowed with all the 16th century rhetoric, to shiver then and see it with the bleakness of 20th century eyes. The moon is ever silent; it needs not speak of its eternity and man’s brief, however fulgurant or self-deceived, lot. In spite of this, that “being young (…) can’t come again”, Larkin acknowledges that “but (it) is for others undiminished somewhere”. Age preys on Larkin, that is why his steps are sad, but he senses Sidney will be forever young. Why? Is this some metaliterary implication?
“Aubade” tells about –or drearily sings to- the oncoming routine of man at the time of dawn of a much-repeated day, haunted by the fact that only death awaits him at the end. What is most striking about this ruthless poem is the fact Larkin chose to call it “Audabe”. An aubade is a morning song of quite old origin, with a twofold character. On the one hand, it is a joyful greeting of dawn; on the other, a sad lovers’ parting or a warning for them to part. Larkin has completely subverted these topics and blended them together, and the outcome is the dramatic song the poet sings to the coming dawn, a moment of doom, of extinction, that will forever part man from his dearest lover, life.
Rhyme and metre, both much cherished by Larkin though always masterfully unobtrusive, build up the skeleton of this poem. The pattern consists of five ten-line stanzas composed of a Venus and Adonis stanza (ababcc) followed by an envelope stanza (deed) which somewhat evokes the structure of an Ode. Larkin uses iambic pentameter in all verses except the ninth, which is a shorter, iambic trimeter.
In one as talented as Larkin, the fact that sometimes the verses just roughly fit the meter seems at the least strange. In my opinion, and having singled out the words that break the meter, Larkin is conveying some hidden message, much in the way J.S.Bach used to do when he broke the laws of harmony in his corals. By way of incorrect movements of the different voices in the corals, Bach used to stress words that were especially significant, such as God.
The words singled out for belonging to the shortened verses are: die – courage – sun- done. They seem to imply that death is impending and we must have courage, for as soon as the sun comes out we will be done, or finished.
If we add to these words those from the verses that have been lengthened, we get: die – never – here – more true – with – with – vision – indecision – courage – to ring – uncaring – sun – done. Death is denied here -on Earth so to say- if we have vision. If we have indecision, to ring –to make any calling for help- will only be answered with uncaring; by the time the sun comes out, we are done. Can vision, as a form of deep understanding, avert death?
“Church Going”, the closing hour of Christianity announced with the words “Here endeth” the poet pronounces in the empty church; “Sad Steps”, a middle-of-the-night reverie, wanting to save an alter ego, Philip Sidney; “Aubade”, a sunrise song, though awestruck, which calls extinction as “not to be anywhere”, ultimately condemning Sidney too. But later adding “It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know, have always known, know that we can’t escape. Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.”
A final question is left unanswered: What side goes? What side does not? Are these the body and the soul? Is a soul possessed of “vision” allowed to remain?
Yet, let me return to the verses of The North Ship, 1944, which Larkin rejected for being immature and too idealistic.
East and West the ships came back
Happily or unhappily:
But the third went wide and far
Into an unforgiving sea
Under a fire-spilling star,
And it was rigged for a long journey.
Larkin’s is this third ship, The North Ship, bound to go over “the edge of vision” that in Aubade detains man, but not him, who will capture “vision” and go beyond; bound to look at stars and be burned by its fires, bound to ride a sea that will not forgive him his boldness. And he will not return, because this ultimate quest for truth and wisdom has no end. We could even say it suffers not from death. Hence the fear, the horror, even the indecision; but nevertheless, the urge to go on.
Life offers the possibility of being sailed in any of these three ships, but only the North Ship rewards with completeness. Larkin chose this most dangerous ship discarded by many, unseen by many. But not apparently. The route of this North Ship lies in Larkin’s optimistic undertones, which are however, not easy to see. As Sisir Kumar Chatterjee mentions in her study Philip Larkin: Poetry that Builds Bridges, understanding Larkin implies “not separating its pessimistic overtones from its optimistic undertones, but by relating them in a perspective that holistically subsumes both within a perceived pattern of completeness and integrity of vision, in which the negative and the positive are not mutually contrary but complementary to each other.”
Before actually looking at Larkin’s This Be The Verse, a fourth and such a famous poem of his it can be said to have entered folklore, we should take a close look at Stevenson’s Requiem. For a late romantic and adventurer such as Stevenson, death was only too well integrated in life, was, in fact, its fulfilment. Or such seems to be his will from this poem, which was indeed engraved onto his Samoan tombstone. “Will” is the key. “I laid me down with a will” he says, after making use of two very interesting imperatives: “Dig the grave and let me die”, which shows he is making preparations while still alive and is even wanting to die, perhaps against the will of another. All of this is done in the darkness of nighttime, though stars lit up the sky filling it with beauty and erasing all threats. The final lines, “Home is the sailor, home from sea, / And the hunter home from the hill.” suggests death is the well-deserved rest of a life of completeness in one’s tasks, in one’s being. Things ending the way they should and ending because they should. In death, a continuation of life’s splendour.
A similar feeling of things being the way they should, though here in life, we get when reading the starting lines of Lorca’s Romance Sonámbulo, “Verde que te quiero verde. Verde viento. Verdes ramas. El barco sobre la mar y el caballo en la montaña”, 1924. Curious, this allusion to the sailor and the hunter, symbolized by their steeds, ship and horse. Curious, because the context is altogether different and wide apart from both Stevenson and Larkin. Or not? This would require further looking into.
On the other hand, in 1957 appeared a novel by William Humphrey called Home from the Hill, which was to become in 1960 a major film by Vincent Minnelli with the same title. This story portrayed the consequences to him and those surrounding him of a womanizer of traditional male values. Robert Mitchum, who plays the part of Captain Wade Hunnicutt, is portrayed as a very able hunter, both of wild boars and of women. In fact, for himself he has captured the very best of women, Hannah, though she turns out to be his match. On coming back from his hunting territory, the “hill”, he finds she is decided to turn his life into hell, which makes him insist on returning to the hill or, if he cannot do so, sending his son in his stead. The consequences of his father’s dissolute life –which is caused, among other reasons, by his wife’s rejection of him; she is not one to submit to the male role- fall on his son Theron, played by George Hamilton, who, adding a few faults of his own, also makes a mess of his life. The only one to come somewhat well off from this situation is the Captain’s illegitimate son, Rafe, who has a character that allows him not to perpetuate the line of faults committed by his elders. He has no children himself but fathers as his own Theron’s illegitimate son. In a way, the biological line is broken –at least the one springing from Hannah and the Captain- and some soothing happiness can ensue when Rafe sees that Hannah accepts him as the Captain’s legitimate son.
I wonder if Larkin saw this film. It was very famous in its time and was selected for the 1960 Cannes Awards, though it was not granted any. But it is quite clear the issues dealt with, human condition as negative and not deserving further repetition, parents-children relationships, education in the absence of love, and others, are shared by both film and poem. It even seems as if the fact the film has a wholly inland setting is counteracted by Larkin’s mentioning of the “coastal shelf”, a very frightening image, on the other hand, which suggests the earth eroding secretly under our feet, secretly pursuing a future of dissolution. We can add to this the fact that Larkin was a great womanizer himself, a women hunter capable of handling up to three different love affairs at the same time.
So there stands “Home from the Hill” as a bridge between Stevenson and Larkin. As concerns the contents. Preceded, maybe, by Lorca’s poem.
As to the form, both are written in iambic tetrameter, though they have different rhyming. Stevenson’s Requiem rhymes aaab cccb, while Larkin’s poem rhymes abab cdcd efef.
The points of view expressed are, on the other hand, completely opposite to each other. Stevenson’s is a Requiem, a chant to death, a word that in Latin means “rest”, which is what the living desire for those who are dead. Rest from much living or from much suffering. Its relation with Christian liturgy is, besides, obvious. Larkin, due to the many reasons I have already formulated above, would never abide to such an attitude to death, despite suggesting no more children should be had, which is in itself another form of death, a much ampler one, one that would lead to the extinction of the human race. Yet, of course, ones understanding of death can only come from ones experience of life and Larkin’s dissatisfaction and disillusion with life are undeniable, they were his particular mark as much as the mark of his time.
One final remark. The fact Larkin titled his poem “This be the Verse” drawing a direct line between his and Stevenson’s poem, a connection that would otherwise probably pass unseen, suggests he knew the attitude reflected in it would be the one to enter posterity. He was, thus, willingly leaving in the dark the many hints at a more positive thought that appear in his poetry, the short glimpses of light. The reasons for this I cannot tell. Maybe he, like Cioran, did intimately desire the existence of a god in which he could believe without feeling he was being deceived.