Larkin is often portrayed as being obsessed by death, but High Windows is as much about life as it is about death. How true do you find this statement? Larkin was 52 when High Windows was published and the collection is dominated by poems about the loss of youth, time passing and the imminence of death. Even in poems not explicitly based on these themes, they are still hinted at. Although some of the poems are about youth, some about aging and some on death, in a way all these are referring to mortality.
I agree that there are poems, such as Show Saturday and To the Sea, which celebrate aspects of life but there are far fewer poems about life than about death. The Building is one of the bleakest poems, where Larkin describes a hospital and the stark inevitability of death. The poem builds up an atmosphere by the enigmatic treatment of the building; Larkin avoids spelling out that the building is a hospital but treats it as an atheistic cathedral, left in the atheistic society.
Larkin begins the account outside the building.
It can be seen from far away and resembles a ‘lucent comb’, emphasising the busyness of the workers and the way in which individuals are depersonalised, like bees in a hive. Its height is repeated in the 4th stanza as evidence of its importance within today’s society. The comparison with the ‘handsomest hotel’ suggests that is far more important to everyone than anything that the commercial world can bring: emphasising that death will eventually come to us all.
The ‘guests’ might never leave, and its porters are scruffy which slowly reveals to the reader that the building in question is in fact a hospital.
The final giveaway is the ‘frightening smell’ which everybody associates with hospitals and creates a sense of unease. It is also a modern building, in contrast with the Victorian streets and church in 6th stanza, which signifies the increasingly atheistic society, and Larkin’s disbelief in an afterlife- which makes death seem even worse. The second stanza describes mundane and ordinary objects such as ‘paperbacks’ and ‘tea at so much a cup’ making the oddness of these people being in this place at ‘half-past eleven on a working day’ even more extreme- the life changing experiences occurring in a hospital are highlighted here.
Those who wait, do so ‘tamely’, as with the elderly in ‘The Old Fools’ they have already lost their ability to choose. They simply wait to be fetched by a nurse, as if death itself is choosing them. We see the importance of choice again in the next stanza; the people are at ‘the vague age that claims/ the end of choice, the last hope’ an age which Larkin seems to feel he is fast approaching. This is where Larkin starts to analyse the situation and what it means: peoples ‘homes and names suddenly in abeyance’ shows that the waiting room is a neutral place so the rest of life outside the hospital doesn’t matter.
They are all waiting in anticipation, making the people equal. The submissiveness of these people is underlined by the word ‘confess’ which also hints at the way that the hospital now takes place of the cathedral since no-one takes comfort in religion. This is signified by the locked church in stanza 6. They are in error, as if they have sinned, and the levels they go to are ‘appointed’ to them, as if decreed by God. The further you get away from the waiting room the more severe the ‘error’ alluding to Dank’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ with the levels of hell, again illustrating the hospitals displacement of religion.
Poignantly, their eyes ‘Go to each other, guessing’ as if they might contact and share their worries, but when ‘someone’s wheeled past in washed to rags ward clothes’ the image of what they will become silences them. To communicate would risk acknowledging their mortality. The people described have lived in ‘self-protecting ignorance’ but this now comes to an end, expressing Larkin’s fixation on death. In stanza 8 the poem moves towards a conclusion, Larkin begins to spell out that we are all going to die in our own conclusion.
The ‘unseen congregations’ in ‘white rows’ are patients in their beds but also the dead in their graves. Finally at the start of stanza 9 we are told that ‘All know they are going to die’ The hospital suggests a final end to human life and represents ‘a struggle to transcend/ The thought of dying’- it offers a limited hope but doesn’t keep death itself away, just the thought of it. Larkin is sure that we cannot avoid ‘The coming dark’ and the religious offering of ‘propitiatory flowers’ is futile.
In The Old Fools, Larkin considers the incapacitated elderly and what they must think. He gives his view on what happens at death and speculates what it must be like. When Larkin wrote this poem in 1973 his mother was 87, and was in the decline described within the poem, in a nursing home. Even the title of the poem is controversial, his language shows disgust: ‘drools… pissing yourself… ash hair, toad hands, prune face’. He describes their plight as a ‘hideous inverted childhood’.
Some of the lines are mocking and the repetition of old fools in the body of the poem, the rhetorical question ‘Do they somehow suppose/ It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools… ‘ makes the tone seem harsh and emphasises the harshness of old age itself. In the first stanza only the images of the elderly memories of ‘when they danced all night,/ or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September’ humanise and soften the mood. The rhetorical questions ‘why aren’t they screaming’ makes the reader associate with themselves and endeavour to find their own answers.
Larkin abruptly switches to metaphysical speculation in the second stanza. The simplicity of the language makes Larkin’s view of death seem matter of fact: we are reduced to ‘the bits that were you’ and the rhyming of ‘you’ and ‘oblivion, true’ seems to make light, ironically of our lives being reduced to nothing in this way. However Larkin then gives his view of a pre-life state being the same as death, yet that time we were going to be born and ‘bring to bloom the million-petalled flower/ of being here. ‘ Yet this time there will be nothing else, again illustrating his atheism.
The confusion of the elderly is an omen of the coming oblivion, perhaps it is because if they were fully conscious they would not cope. In the third stanza, Larkin empathises with the elderly, with the image that being old might be ‘having lighted rooms/ Inside your head’ occupied by people who are familiar but not quite identifiable. This is a sensitive view of the mental state of those who begin to lose touch with reality. The ‘sun’s/ Faint friendliness on the wall’ is so slight a comfort as to emphasise the overall bleakness of life for the elderly.
Larkin tries to explain to himself and the reader the ‘air of baffled absence’ surrounding the elderly as their desire to live in the past, but still forced to live in the present. The image of the rooms inside peoples heads growing farther away is like the receding hospital rooms in The Building, each room being nearer to death. For me the most striking image is ‘Extinction’s alp’- the word extinction seems more extreme than death, if possible, and the use of the singular (instead of Alps as we would usually say) makes death seem even more unavoidable, and it is death’s very proximity that makes it harder to see clearly.
It is ahead of us all our lives which clearly shows that Larkin is obsessed with it. Old age in this poem is e seen as horrifying, because it is so humiliating and you are left without choice. The final line ‘we shall find out’ leaves the reader reminded that it will happen to them. Larkin, then, is very concerned with death in High Windows; he regrets the passing of his own youth and contemplates old age, the inevitability of death and human fear of death throughout the collection.