Philip Larkin’s Poetry Essay
Philip Larkin’s Poetry
In what ways does Larkin’s poetry show his attitude to death? In Philip Larkin’s poetry there is a profound sense of unease about death. Larkin, throughout his poetry, obviously contemplates the inevitable end that is death. In his poetry Larkin uses great observational skills, noting and writing about everyday circumstances in cinematic detail. With death, though, Larkin has nothing to observe. He cannot draw any precise conclusions about something that he has not directly experienced. I think, therefore, that Larkin shows a fear of death through his poetry, but also a deep fascination with it.
I intend to show Larkin’s attitude to death through a number of his poems. In these poems Larkin certainly does show a fascination with death, but hopefully I will also show that Larkin’s attitude is not completely negative and that Larkin may see that death can have a redeeming end.
The first poem from my selection that I will use is “˜Ambulances’, a poem where even the title suggests relation to death. In “˜Ambulances’ the emphasis is definitely placed upon death, the first line actually hints upon Larkin’s attitude to death. He begins by setting a very sombre image within the reader’s mind, saying “Closed like confessionals”¦” An almost dooming phrase. The instant image given by this one line is dread. Most people dread going to confession and the thought of disclosing one’s secrets and sins can make it seem even more daunting.
Larkin actually had no love for religion, in fact it was quite the opposite, and the comparison made between ambulances and confessionals can actually be seen as an attack on ambulances, showing that they are a front, concealing the inevitable. The comment upon the path that they take “”¦they thread Loud noons of cities” may be used to represent death being everywhere, and like a thread it is woven into our lives. One may also see a religious reference within this phrase, showing that God who is supposedly with us always is now replaced with death looming over us. Even amongst the vibrancy and lively atmosphere of the city, perhaps even a rush hour, death still looms.
We see Larkin’s great observation; he almost absorbs everything he sees, ” … giving back None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque.” Larkin sees as ambulances as representing death, which takes life, carrying it off but never returning it. He also shows not only his own fascination with death, but also the fascination all people have. Whenever people see the ambulance they immediately stare.
The imagery of death as Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque and They come to rest on any kerb creates an impression upon the reader making them look at their own mortality and they realise that death is the one truth we all must encounter Larkin is bleakly honest when he says “All streets in time are visited…” This clearly shows that death is also common in all places and paints a picture for the reader to understand.
“Then children strewn on steps or road, Or women coming from the shops Past smells of different dinners…” Larkin takes everyday chores experiences and relates them to death, showing how commonplace death is. The image of children being ‘strewn’ reflects the randomness of death. An image is evoked from the reader of bodies scattered and strewn after death has finally reached them. Even the youthful cannot escape death, children are susceptible.
“… see A wild white face that overtops Red stretcher blankets momently As it is carried and stowed” The use of enjambment rushes the reader through the lines and ives a sense of panic at the sight of this person being taken away. The use of the word “˜stowed’ shows that the body is just like an object being stowed away, an unimportant “˜thing’.
Larkin then describes death as “the solving emptiness”. Life is seen as having such a meaningless nature and that death is there and “…lies just under all we do.” Death constantly threatens us in everything we do. This shows the fragility of human life.
“And for a second get it whole, So permanent and blank and true.” This truth is inescapable, the repetition of ‘and’ drags out this whole meaning. The utter truth is that death is forever, like the ambulances, we do not return. Larkin shows that people think of death, but when they see the truth that death holds it frightens them and they place it in the back of their minds. This is shown when he says “The fastened doors recede …” These fastened doors are the doors of the mind closed to what they don’t want to know, what they cannot possibly comprehend.
As the body was stowed the people whisper “poor thing” but “at their own distress “. These people do know that all streets in time are visited, including their own. When anything bad occurs, one naturally reacts by comparing the situation to one’s own life. We are sympathetic but naturally selfish. We all see death, including Larkin, as an image of a “..sudden shut of loss Round something nearly at an end…” The shut of the ambulance doors represents death closing in around life that is “nearly at an end…” Larkin’s language when he describes death as ‘something’ gives it anonymity life no longer has a source of meaning because Larkin sees death to be a stronger power which overpowers life. Death removes the uniqueness and identity of life; everyone comes to the same end.
“And what cohered in it across The years, the unique random blend Of families and fashions there At least begin to loosen.” Larkin could be referring to the mix of genes we have inherited over the years and that death can loosen this blend. This also shows that we are ‘unreachable’ by anything but death.
“The traffic parts to let go by…” This shows the traditional respect for the sick and the dead. This respect has been built up through the fear of death. I know that this is true to me, personally and obviously to Larkin also.
Larkin ends with a very daunting cadence; “Brings closer what is left to come, And dulls to distance all we are. ” This cadence, to me, seems very dramatic. It brings into perspective the whole theme of mortality. Larkin makes us think of how fragile and short life is.
Larkin must really fear his own mortality. I suppose everyone fears death to a certain extent, but not many people would care to, or even dare to contemplate what happens after death in as much detail as Philip Larkin. These thoughts must frighten him and anything to do with death and mortality must scare him. Another poem, that is not only relevant to the question, but is also on the same theme as ‘Ambulances’ is called ‘The Building’, the building being a hospital. Larkin describes the hospital as “Higher than the handsomest hotel” I think that this line is misleading and somewhat ironic, it is falsely attractive.
It paints an almost positive picture of a hospital, but I feel that Larkin resents the height of it, after all, the bigger the building the larger the capacity it can hold. The building is “Like a great sigh out of the last century.” So this building is obviously a modern construction, a quite incongruous and disturbing building in it’s nineteenth century context. Larkin’s tone then changes to fear: “”¦what keep drawing up At the entrance are not taxis; and in the hall As well as creepers hangs a frightening smell.” Larkin makes a reference to ambulances here also. He refers to them drawing up outside and the smell in the halls being “˜frightening’. He almost persomifies the smell by saying it hangs over them as if it were ready to pounce on any victim.
He describes the waiting area and how the people’s faces are “restless and resigned” He obviously sees this as an area of tension evoking nervous reactions from those who await. He describes them as “”¦humans, caught On ground curiously neutral, homes and names Suddenly in abeyance.” He is saying that in this building everyone is in the same boat. They are all “Here to confess the something has gone wrong.” This is similar to the idea of the confessionals in “˜Ambulances’. As I have said, this idea strikes unremitting fear. Each person is waiting to tell of how something has gone wrong with their bodies. Death is slowly violating them.
“It must have been an error of a serious sort, For see how many floors it needs”¦” He is amazed by the size of the building, or perhaps even scared by the size of the need for this building. After all men like to covet wealth but the need for this place is so great that the expense is necessary.
“”¦and how much money goes in trying to correct it”¦” As a man is wheeled past in old ward clothes the people all turn quiet, another aspect of death that was also shown in “˜Ambulances’. The people fear their mortality when they see death creep up on others. Larkin also relates to us how trapped he feels in the hospital and how distant the outside seems.
“Far past these doors are rooms, and rooms past those And more rooms yet, each one further off And harder to return from”¦” The distance between the outside and the rooms within the hospital seems greater than any physical distance, the freedom of the outside “”¦out to the car park, free”¦” seems to be slipping away like time, into the past, like a cherished memory: “”¦outside seems old enough”.
His desperation for this freedom is so immense that he even plots, in his mind, the route he took to the hospital. He states that we are lulled into a false sense of security and fears that he may never get out.
“”¦a touching dream to which we are lulled But wake from separately”¦” We are “˜lulled’ into this false sense of security, this dream that we wake from “˜separately’, isolated and alone. He seems to pity those who, without realizing it, may have to stay for a longer period than they think, they “”¦join the unseen congregations”¦Old, young; crude facts of the only coin this place accepts”¦” The only way of being accommodated here is to be sick. His attitude of inevitable death is shown again: “All know they are going to die Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end, And somewhere like this.” He then goes on to describe life as a cliff we climb towards death and how death cannot be overcome. We may try to lighten the dark by bringing gifts, but they are merely wasteful gestures because death is so inevitable and final.
Larkin’s attitude to death, here, sees it as totally negative, we also see this view in his poem ‘ The Explosion’, where Larkin takes the form of a third person, describing an incident which claims the lives of several miners in a rural community. Here, Larkin takes the role of a narrator and in this poem his view of death is more sanguine than it is in other poems. He does not express thoughts and feelings as much and I feel this shows how impersonal death really is. The poem has three distinct sections: before the explosion, the moment of the explosion and its aftermath. The first line arouses a feeling of expectation; “On the day of the explosion’ We know that from the beginning of this poem that the explosion, and therefore death, is imminent. There is also a hint of Kinship that Larkin may have held for ‘the men in the pits’.
He makes the men seem real by talking about ‘Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter’ which makes the reader feel the humanity of the men and therefore sympathise with them. These men were ordinary people with their own fears, even a fear of death. Even though these characters were killed in the explosion Larkin has tinged the ending of the poem with hope, because for an instant the love between the dead and their loved ones was so strong that it overcame death itself, allowing the loved one to see each other one last time.
“Wives saw men of the explosion…” Larkin strangely endorses the idea of an afterlife even though he was an atheist. ‘The Explosion’ ends on an optimistic note. The final line tells us of how one of the dead miners shows ‘The eggs unbroken’. These ‘eggs’ are a symbol telling us not to lose hope, for even though we may die, nature and life will always carry on. It is set apart from the rest of the poem and can therefore be seen as a climax.
So far, 1 have looked at Larkin’s dread, fear, curiosity and overall negative reaction to death. I think it is possible that Larkin may have also found a somewhat positive and redeeming aspect of death in his poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’. This poem tells of a dead earl and his wife the countess who were buried together in a tomb. Their tomb has become, through time, a tourist attraction because of the great likenesses formed from stone of their bodies. Larkin, again with his keen observational eye, looks upon statues and is shocked to find proof of hope and positivity.
“It meets his left hand gauntlet, still Clasped empty in the other,. and One sees, with a sharp tender shock, His hand withdrawn holding her hand.” This chivalrous sight surprisingly hits a tender chord with Larkin, this is surprising due to his predominantly pessimistic views. Larkin also realises that the times of chivalry, knighthood and love are gone. Their love in this time has almost been changed to an untruth, yet is still has prevailed and lasted through time.
Larkin looks at these deaths positively because he says, “…and to prove our Almost instinct, almost true : What will survive of us is love.” Larkin takes comfort in this as it reconciles and contrasts to his view that nothing exists after death. He previously described death as, “An endless meaningless.” Through looking at these poems, I found that throughout Larkin’s life, he tried and tried to find out what death was and what lay beyond it. Most of the time, we find that Larkin had a genuine fear of death, and he could not possibly surmise what lay beyond it. This could be due to his lack of faith and spirituality.
For this reason I chose’ An Arundel Tomb’, so as to show that Larkin expressed some hope in death, love was the redeeming feature. Larkin discovered something in those statues that did go beyond death, and this is why he expressed it so beautifully in his last line: “What will survive of us is love.” Larkin’s poetry almost paths a journey he took through his life in discovering the truth about death. John Carey said that “Fear of death runs through the poems, and may seem irreconcilable with Larkin’s poised realism.” I have found that Larkin’s poetry is indeed interwoven with death throughout. This may be the case, but I also believe that Larkin found something redeeming in “˜An Arundel Tomb’ and that all of his works referring to death, were steps towards his own reconciliation with death.