A Lethal Fall
Philip Larkin gave the name High Windows to what proved to be his last collection of verse (published in 1974, 11 years before he died). The phrase had been used as the title of one of the poems included, and also occurs at the poem’s end:
the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
This grand and abstract finale is not much like what precedes it. The speaker of ‘High Windows’ sees ‘a couple of kids’ as typical – ‘he’s fucking her and she’s/Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm’. The young people’s pre-Aids freedom from moral constraints, assessed with brutality but also an angry humour, sets them down in ‘paradise’ – at least in the envious eyes of ‘everyone old’ watching ‘everyone young going down the long slide/To happiness, endlessly.’ Perhaps, the speaker reflects, an elder looked at him ‘forty years back’ with similar thoughts about escape from the blight of religion, no ‘sweating in the dark/About hell and that’. Hard upon this follows ‘the thought of high windows’.
Strong and terse as it is, ‘High Windows’ may not be one of Larkin’s very best poems. As happens elsewhere in his work, a juxtaposition of social caricature with sudden withdrawn reflection can make for difficulty. A manner of casual colloquiality does not necessarily produce a movement of thought that is transparent. Yet Larkin did name his collection after this poem; and in considering the meaning of these words we can’t simply exclude their context. But explanation of the ‘high windows’ has tended, unsurprisingly in a peculiarly biographical age like our own, to be biographical. Andrew Motion’s life of the poet mentions the windows of Hull University Library; Maeve Brennan, who worked in the library, alludes in her memoir of Larkin to the flat in Hull’s Pearson Park where he lived for many years. It is probably hard for a biographer or writer of memoirs not – unconsciously and retrospectively – to condition his or her subject’s story by reading in from the work itself. Richard Bradford’s recent life of Larkin, First Boredom, Then Fear, seems to illustrate the belief that the man who wrote ‘Mr Bleaney’ and ‘High Windows’ must have lived like Mr Bleaney but with higher windows: Bradford describes him, during 1955, as a ‘lodger’ on the ‘top floor’ of a house in what are now the ‘northern suburbs’ of Hull. Larkin rented, in fact, a three-room ground-floor flat from a university colleague, who lived with his family in the main part of this pleasant early 19th-century, Jane Austenish house, in what remains the fine country village of Cottingham.
When Bradford writes that ‘“Mr Bleaney” was of course the result of all this,’ he inadvertently shows not only that lives don’t completely explain poems, but that lives shouldn’t be pushed to help poems explain lives. As Mallarmé pointed out, poems are made of words, not ideas. The high windows of the poem have an imagistic quality both conceptual and brilliantly icy: they are verbally ‘thought’, at home on the printed page, and bespeak an intellectual crystallisation – even perhaps literary echoes so fused and long assimilated as to be as far from the surface as the windows themselves. A while ago now I suggested (in ‘Philip Larkin: After Symbolism’, first published in 1980) that Larkin’s ‘high windows’ focus an oblique and ironic inheritance from French literary Symbolism, a notion that still seems to me accurate. For Mallarmé and Valéry, ‘windows’ symbolise the high aesthetic vision which (they believed) alone redresses the loss of the transcendental in modern life. A strong devotion to the artistic calling is plain in Larkin’s earlier writing. The last stanza of ‘Water’ (1954) fuses priest and poet with a solemnity only faintly touched with self-mockery:
I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
‘Water’ and ‘High Windows’, written 13 years apart, are just alike enough in their endings to make their differences striking. The last lines of ‘High Windows’ retain the Symbolist quality that is haughty, obscure and esoteric. But the rest of the poem suggests a quite dissimilar literary world, toughly at ease with its own brutalities. William Pritchard has written well on the vivacity the younger Larkin learned (with Auden, it has to be added, as a forerunner) from the playful rhythms and rememberable idioms of dance-music lyrics. His cool plotting and harshly humorous caricatures seem to me to derive from another form of entertainment art: American crime fiction.
Larkin enjoyed crime novels (as did, of course, T.S. Eliot). As a reviewer and essayist, he gave respect and appreciation to such various talents as Ian Fleming and Dick Francis, Michael Innes and Gladys Mitchell – all British writers. It is hard to believe that he hadn’t read, at some time between its first British publication in 1943 and the writing of ‘High Windows’ in 1967, a book by the writer regarded by many as the American master of the form: Raymond Chandler’s The High Window. Larkin may well have retained not merely the title of this very sophisticated thriller but the form of its action. Chandler’s Los Angeles private eye, Philip Marlowe, is summoned out to Pasadena by a prospective client, the brutally dominating if falsely genial Mrs Elizabeth Bright Murdock, who instructs him to find a rare gold coin missing from her late second husband’s collection of Americana. She assumes that her detested ex-daughter-in-law has stolen it. In fact, the thief is her weak and vain son, Leslie, who has taken the coin at the behest of his vicious collaborator, Vannier, so that Vannier may organise a system of counterfeits for sale.
This plot Marlowe disentangles through the book’s two packed days, with three involved murders in them. But there is another, late emerging story. Vannier is a blackmailer. He holds the Murdocks in his power because he possesses a photograph that shows Mrs Murdock senior pushing out of a high window her first husband, a failing businessman whose only wealth was his life insurance. Throughout the eight years since her crime, she has loaded responsibility for it on to her pretty, gentle and neurotic secretary, Merle, who has regularly carried to the blackmailer guilty payments for what she herself never did. The private eye (who calls himself a ‘shop-soiled Galahad’) resolves this plot too, taking Merle back to her simple parents with hopes that she will love somebody worthier than the vile Murdocks (though Marlowe’s cynical kindly friend doubts if she will ever develop beyond something like a nun or a librarian).
This inner story of browbeating within a respectable bourgeois household may have touched a nerve in Larkin. But more than this: Chandler’s crime fiction always has an effect beyond what might casually be expected of the genre. (Auden described Chandler as a remarkable artist, his subject ‘The Great Wrong Place’ – a phrase that reverses Henry James’s image of the earthly paradise, ‘The Great Good Place’.) The corruption of human dreams in and around America’s dream-factory, Hollywood, is his main subject. In The High Window, the most domestic and suburban of his books, assured pseudo-ideals of self-respect in a well-off and complacent Californian household breed murder, cruelty and something like perversion.
The book mixes realism and fantasy into a menacing comic poetry, which at moments aspires to myth. In the Hollywood house of the now murdered Vannier, Marlowe casually picks up a fallen picture, a reproduction of a historical painting showing ‘A man leaning out of a high window. A long time ago’. His eye dwells on the image, and he repeats these sentences to himself, three more times in a half-page, until focus suddenly ‘snapped into place’. Underneath the reproduction is hidden the vital photograph of a man falling from a high window, pushed out for what his death will bring. The Golden West uses its romantic symbols of love and marriage, its rare coins and its high windows, for fake and lethal ends. Somewhere under the narrative there is probably even a folk-memory of the primordial Fall itself.
During this scene of discovery late in the novel, the reproduction becomes a photograph, the photograph a symbol and the symbol a title. The title is never quite organic to the story. All the same it earns a nod of recognition from the reader, as if the wit of a metaphysical conceit were being recognised. This is true too of Larkin’s poem. Both novel and poem have a form that feels nervous and disjunctive and yet convincing. They also share a nostalgic, embittered dream of what ‘High Windows’ ambiguously calls ‘paradise’. Larkin’s tone is not easy to specify, with envy, contempt, rage and pity fused into one reflective, even yearning irony: an irony not far from Chandler’s hard romanticism. Moreover, for both writers paradise transposes into a fall. Larkin’s happy, mindlessly lustful young, loosed by 1960s fashion from bonds and responsibilities, are ‘going down the long slide/To happiness, endlessly’; and from ‘forty years back’ there comes as a backwards echo the elders’ dream of freedom from the burden of religion – ‘He/And his lot will all go down the long slide/Like free bloody birds.’
Various in style, and when young anxiously euphemistic, Larkin is in his late work an artist of monosyllables and four-letter words. He works the ambiguity of unambiguous obscenity with technical brilliance and even beauty: the phrase ‘free bloody birds’ glosses unimprovably, with scorn and pathos, certain human dreams of freedom. All the coarse trenchancies of the major part of the poem define dreams as things to be free with, and free from, if freedom – free-falling – is anything but an illusion. Here, as elsewhere in his work, grossness and ideals interpenetrate, as enemies and functions of each other. The element of the meretricious (what Noel Coward called the potency of cheap music) may be the reason that Larkin loved and remembered books like Chandler’s. Unhappy with the claims and stances of Modernism, Larkin cherished arts that were composedly unpretentious. The culturally refined English-public-school Chandler began, of course, by publishing in pulp magazines. His studied, ornate fictions cannibalise (his own word) plot elements, character types and atmospheres first established in a context of popular thuggery (Black Mask); and the brilliant novels remain entertainment literature, violent, funny and rapidly readable.
Larkin’s poem holds together more lastingly, perhaps, than the novel. Its strangeness of movement and flatness of tone achieve an enigmatic largeness. Impatient with certain kinds of rational analysis (he would compare himself as a critic with Balaam’s ass), Larkin was finally uninterested in the sort of social set-up required of the novelist, and could find a context for his verse in mere bewilderment, in lucidity about intangible loss. But Chandler’s novel played a part. Like its two narratives, Larkin’s two images are layered in time, present and past: a blithe sexuality is analogous to a condition of lost gods. Freedom and loss, ideals and illusions, height and emptiness define the human idea of liberty, a window looking out on blue nothingness. ‘High Windows’ is Larkinian. But without the interaction of two perhaps long-buried literary memories, a French symbol of aesthetic elevation and an American thriller’s photograph of a lethal fall, Larkin’s own poem might never have come into being.
Source-study doesn’t tell much about an individual work of art. Even a masterpiece like Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu is superbly informative about Coleridge’s reading without necessarily saying much about his best poems. Nonetheless, something may be learned from a pair of sources as unusual as the two – from Mallarmé and from Chandler – that can be glimpsed in ‘High Windows’.
Taken together, these images suggest that there are two kinds of high window – one that brings vision and one open to a fall – and that they are, unfortunately, the same window. It may be helpful to consider this double source as a clue to Larkin’s whole career, its steady development and its early ending. In a half-century (the postwar period) mainly characterised by minor literary work, Larkin’s poems have a claim to major status; but this is not uncontested. The grounds of the protests against him may lie in his response to his moment of writing. His ungainliness of address was perhaps his only style of being original, his only route to a breadth and depth that might be called major. The strength of his position was his understanding of how double the high window had come to be, a source of imaginative vision that was at the same time morally ambiguous.
It would be wrong, of course, to see this aesthetic ambush as a special feature of the mid-20th century. All periods – at least in Britain – have seen the arts as essentially a bad thing. Both of Larkin’s source writers had to exist within a knotted and troubling past and future. Mallarmé used traditional Christian symbolism to speak of the way art superseded a now lost Christianity. Chandler had an obvious ancestor for his private eye – mockingly called Marlowe for its Renaissance sound – who haunts the mean streets of a modern city and struggles, like Hamlet, to maintain a code of personal honour among the corruptions he engages with. Shakespeare laments in Sonnet 110: ‘Alas, ’tis true, I have gone here and there’ (his own ‘mean streets’); and in the next poem sees his writing hand as like a dyer’s, stained black by his profession.
The problems of a mass culture like the 20th century may be felt as weighing heavier on the artist. In order to survive its industrial moment, symbolistic Modernism invented a removedness from ordinary life, an aesthetic abstraction. But it was not removed enough. Its windows could – and in writers such as Pound and Wyndham Lewis did – open out onto political Fascism. The inhumanities of Symbolism were retrospective and Right-minded politically; those of populist genre-fiction looked Left and towards the future. But Chandler, who began in pulp fiction, found no easy way out of it, except into drink and desperation. Compared with the ornate richness of his first novels, the very plainness of The High Window shows that its writer was already bored with the limitations of what he was doing. For all their skill and readableness, the late novels are touched by staleness, sentimentality and pretension. Chandler earned his current status by bridging the gap between pulp fiction and literary art; and the present fecundity of the genre, which displaces the tired orthodox novel, suggests what he accomplished. Our current culture is one of technological marvels and big-budget romances, such as poetry and drama and the novel barely survive in, and the language itself decays into noise. The whole process could be seen as something like Larkin’s ‘long slide’.
Chandler’s boredom with his profession deepened as he became a rich and successful screenwriter. In his last depressed years Larkin became disenchanted with the jazz that had been a passion for so long; and that disillusion surely invaded the poetry he found harder and harder to write. But beyond illusion and disillusion, he was caught in a struggle to sustain his early elevation of his calling without allowing his verse to congeal into cold Symbolist inhumanity; or, on the other hand, to soften and coarsen in order to please the audience caricatured harshly in ‘Fiction and the Reading Public’, or in ‘Sympathy in White Major’.
The ardour of Larkin’s youthful vocation is voiced in ‘The Dedicated’ (1946), where a reverence for literary art defines itself in terms of both religion and love, thereby making clear the seriousness of his valuation: but the effect is blurred under the pressure of his earnestness. The result is an imagery not far from the pre-Raphaelite in its fusion of the churchy and the amorous: ‘the feet of the angel’, ‘the innermost chamber’, ‘Eternal requirings’, ‘the colder advent’, ‘The quenching of candles’ and ‘Some have for endeavour/ To sign away life/As lover to lover’. What comes through is a melancholy extremity, an almost Eliotic stress on the need for self-sacrifice in readiness for what may be a single visitation of ‘the dove’.
Fifteen or twenty years later, in The Whitsun Weddings, the thinking about art is in general tougher and darker, while the tone is colloquially open and clear. A calling seen as unrewarding, idiotic and possibly culpable gives an uncompromising power to the smilingly anecdotal ‘Send No Money’. The poem is a mid-life crisis verbalised (‘Half life is over now’), and it impeccably balances belief and unbelief, love and hatred, ‘wanting’ and ‘finding out’. It sets a childish commitment (‘Oh thank you, I said, Oh yes please’) against its ashy fruits (‘In this way I spent youth/Tracing the trite untransferable/ Truss-advertisement, truth’). ‘Send No Money’, a poem about the folly of poetry, is also a ruthlessly fine poem. Its nonchalance, its concision, its sociable ferocity simultaneously justify and cancel out the point apparently being made: hence the characteristic effect of Larkinian humour. The last lines are a splutter of laughter, rage, misery, expostulation, acceptance, ‘truth’. The medium for thinking aloud in has perfected itself, while the substance is as honourably complex as ever. Any attack on Larkin’s ‘philistinism’ will focus on poems such as ‘Send No Money’, or even more on the notorious ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, which ends: ‘Books are a load of crap.’ But ‘Reading Habits’ is not bent on doing the dirty on books, but only on people who read books badly, on art that is used to ‘cure most things’ – books as utility, as fantasy, as junk food. This is aestheticism making its weapon out of philistinism. The process is, again, curiously comparable with Eliot’s argument in the more patently moral context of Murder in the Cathedral against doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
The comparison is possible because the young Larkin evidently absorbed much from Eliot – as ‘The Dedicated’ shows, with its fusion of religion, art and love. But Larkin made the ambiguities of the religious workable for himself. Taken in isolation, the phrase ‘high windows’ is bound to imply the ecclesiastical: the great windows of English Gothic church architecture. In ‘High Windows’, the mind is edged away from anything Gothic or ecclesiastical by the dislocated austerity of the image. And this very churchlessness is a part of the pain and brilliance of the image. The collection High Windows – perhaps beginning even with the lack of a definite article in the title – reflects a withdrawal from the social actuality of Larkin’s two preceding books. This late volume possesses brutalities of language and image, but they serve to express a confrontation with the social that is changed and equivocal: ‘When I see . . ./And guess . . ./I know’.
Few churches feature in High Windows, unless we count the ‘churches ornate and mad/In the evening sun’ that shine in the last simile-stanza of ‘Money’. But churchiness (the word is Hardy’s) seems to have a presence in the work early and late. ‘Water’ (1954) adapts procedures of baptism and communion; ‘Church Going’, from the same year, still represents echt Larkin for a body of warm admirers, even if (or because) it begins by making sure ‘there’s nothing going on’, and ends among the dead. In ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ (1958), it doesn’t seem wholly without meaning that the weddings are at Whitsun (Whitsun, White Sunday or Pentecost, commemorates the coming of gifts of speech to the disciples); or that in ‘Healing’ (1960), the healing is by faith, however untrustworthy. High Windows, too, has its cryptic touches: the parsonically named ‘This Be the Verse’ is the rudest poem in it; while the superb trilogy celebrating time-bound professions, ‘Livings’, uses for its title a word that glosses the professional substance of the clergy. ‘Solar’ opens with an archaic ‘lion face’ mistakable for a godhead, and its last lines are a liturgy for unbelievers:
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.
Larkin considered taking orders and would later describe himself as an ‘Anglican agnostic’. Not long before his death he read steadily through the Bible, with a dutifulness positively Victorian. His reaction was to find it all stunningly unbelievable. None of this indicates a suppressed religiosity. But an aptitude for belief and a leaning towards the ecclesiastical balance a pragmatic conviction that not much beyond the moral could or should be believed in. The tangle of convictions here matches the continual struggles of his aestheticism. In ‘High Windows’, the sexual young and the secular old balance within a sense of paradise (‘I know this is paradise’) that may be latency or simple illusion. ‘High Windows’ is not an argument, nor even a satire, but the windows look out on nothing; and the long slide to happiness is like a fall.
Those who judge The Whitsun Weddings to be Larkin’s best volume (and certainly it is brilliant, uniting a large technical grace with a novelist’s social alertness of intelligent observation) might well find High Windows recessive by comparison: depressed, energyless and even defeated. Clearly, Larkin’s last decade or so was shadowed, and the ebbing of his poetic gift was at once the cause and effect of great heaviness of spirit. Having (to take a hint from ‘The Dedicated’) given up the rewards of the closest personal relations in order to write, he found that he couldn’t write either. A life fully in the world had seemingly been exchanged for alternatives in themselves disconsolate: ‘Unchilded and unwifed, I’m/Able to view that clear.’
So Larkin writes in ‘The View’ (1972), a slight late piece he left uncollected. Since the 1988 Collected Poems, the previously unpublished poems that it includes have met a warmth of interest that blurs a good many critical issues. The theory may be that Larkin held back work so as not to wound the susceptibilities of survivors; and that such work therefore has the extra appeal of the private, the autobiographical, even the secret. This is probably a fallacy. Because of his hard-worked-for ease of manner and style (with the early stammer controlled if not overcome) it is easy to think him a far less conscious and deliberate artist than he was. He held back work that was merely ‘personal’, a self-relieving or self-pitying expression of mood. In short, and against all appearance, he valued impersonality as much as any Modernist.
If there is a darkening in High Windows, it does not come from simple depression: it is, rather, an intensification of his labour to reconcile opposing tendencies. This last collection is distinguished by conflicting extremities: on the one hand, a hardness or desperation caught in the four-letter words and images of obscenity; and, on the other, a radiance or resplendency. The two things fuse: there is a richer use of light than in previous work, but it is usually vesperal: ‘a big sky/Drains down the estuary like the bed/Of a gold river.’ High Windows is enlarged but also undermined by sustained doubt and misgiving: the sense that a life of art must be perpetuated in the face of the knowledge that the whole pursuit may be futile, even injurious. These poems read like forlorn hopes: they are luminously lit and worked structures, full of feeling, but embody a meaning like the memories alluded to in ‘Forget What Did’, a remarkable account of an abandoned or suspended diary (‘I wanted them over,/Hurried to burial/ And looked back on//Like the wars and winters/Missing behind the windows/Of an opaque childhood’). The image of something – of life itself – ‘missing’ behind windows is more curious and complicated than Larkin is always allowed to be, as is the description of a childhood as ‘opaque’. But the words ‘missing’ and ‘opaque’ in themselves help to focus the difficult achievement of late 20th-century poetry.
The first-written of the book’s poems was ‘Solar’, a glowing secular psalm to the sun. But its first word is ‘Suspended’, and the ‘Suspended lion face’ might almost suggest a hanged god, swinging in the void. The poem’s ‘lion face’, and its ‘Single stalkless flower’ and its ‘Gold’, are appealingly archaic, suspended in the more or less medieval past. The word ‘Solar’ itself, of course meaning primarily ‘of the sun’, can also mean that solar or solarium which was a glass structure on a medieval or Renaissance house, from which therapeutic sunlight could be caught. To call a poem ‘Solar’ is to give it, or make it, a high window. But the sun that streams through the window has its own shadow of the equivocal. The sun is isolated, existing only within ‘Lonely horizontals’, and ‘Spilling at the centre/Of an unfurnished sky’. ‘Spilling’ is not quite the same as the psalmic cup that ‘runneth over’, but holds the sense of anxiety or accident that is in ‘Suspended’ and ‘unfurnished’: and this last word sounds as if remembered from Eliot’s mocking description of Milton’s empty heaven. This final stanza has the sun ‘unclosing like a hand’, a generosity whose climactic note of the human may include the writing hand too.
The quality of suspension touches all the best poems here. The high windows themselves are an evident example, being an unhoused glassy thought suspended in air that ‘shows/Nothing’, and ‘is nowhere’. But the setting itself is also a nothing that is nowhere: this is verse with a new relation to social place and time. The earlier Larkin could provide a sharp contemporaneity when necessary; but in High Windows society is a ‘crowd of craps’ (as in ‘Vers de Société’), its voices boiling down to the seven lines of unfeeling cliché packed into the last stanza of ‘Sympathy in White Major’. There is a new and slightly magical invention of place, at once exact and non-existent, too much a mirror of sentience to be precisely a novelist’s. Thus, the ‘college’ in ‘Livings III’, often assumed to be All Souls, Oxford, has in ‘Snape’ and ‘sizar’ plain allusions to Cambridge, and is as far from locality as the ‘Chaldean constellations’ that shine over the poem’s ending. Another wonderfully realised social encounter (at first sight), ‘Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel’, is filled with meaning by being emptied of everything else (‘all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds’; ‘In shoeless corridors, the lights burn’). Once voided in this way, the building turns into a benighted symbol, somewhere far back in time, where forts are isolated and ‘Waves fold behind villages’.
‘Friday Night’ restricts itself to a play of imagination that could have sounded Georgian, had the poem not been so far from the cute. Larkin has added to the perspective of high windows the low-level toughness of pulp fiction: and the result, in the best of these poems, is an austere lack of banality. A more craven or less committed writer would not have known what to do with the ‘unsold evening paper’, the ‘full ashtrays’, the ‘Conference Room’. But this aesthetic litter can shock and then awe in its exposed familiarity when ‘suspended’ against the night coming on. The same steadiness of hand stacks ‘The Card-Players’ with all its staggering, pissing, belching, snoring, croaking, farting and gobbing – an effect that is, enigmatically, not merely funny but beautiful. Creaturely grossness, ‘the secret, bestial peace’, holds a human counterbalance against the high void outside the room, beyond the ‘Wet century-wide trees’ and the ‘surrounding starlessness’.
Card-players take chances, and in many of these poems there is a faint sense of risk, even beyond the risk of offending unready readers. The calm and exquisite coarseness of some of the writing is difficult because lacking solemn social or populist pretension. With all its simplicity it is often in fact demanding. The ‘century-wide trees’ are a good example of a poet’s quizzical paradoxes and synaesthesias. The trees may have taken a century to grow that wide, or they may be as wide as centuries are long, or they may reflect the way a work of art can naturally cross centuries into our present: these are poems that play card-games with time and place through words. A locale can seem magically real in its toy-like self-consistency only by forfeiting the deceptions of the cosily social: thus the inhabitants here – Hog, Dog and Prijck – occupy a lamp-lit place that is a room, or an inn, or the 17th century, or a painting, or more probably all of these. The card-players themselves are creatures living through a game of chance, because temporal affairs are fortuitous, like our bodies.
Most of the best writing in High Windows is timeless; some poems use another time as a ground-bass or metaphor. ‘The Card-Players’, with its conventions taken from Dutch 17th-century genre painting, assumes a position outside the frame, or on this side of the window: what happens is far away and long ago, but matters now. ‘Solar’ medievalises, though the unclosing hand seems near. ‘Friday Night’ travels back to a Dark Age (‘Night comes on’) of remote forts and villages, observed in the knowledge that reading and writing are themselves an ‘exile’ from all times and places. This new historicising style comes closest to narrative – or to the novels that Larkin once hoped to spend his life writing – in the marvellously brisk and sad ‘Livings’, which moves from the young businessman caught hopefully in 1929, the beginning of the great economic slump, to the candle-lit academics whose worldly conversation confines their world to what seems like the later 17th century. Even the triumphant high-windowed ‘Lit shelved liners’ of the lighthouse-keeper have some smack of the Edwardian Titanic.
Smaller, less narrative poems create a past-present moment that is in the same way embodied and ghostly, rich and suspended. ‘Dublinesque’ is a lived-in magic-lantern film, an old photograph of a 19th-century funeral taking place at this moment, ‘Down stucco side streets/Where light is pewter/And afternoon mist/Brings lights on in shops’; it has echoic sound too, with the beat of hands clapping time, and a voice singing. ‘The Explosion’ evokes an accident in the late 19th or earlier 20th century, its miners lost in time as well as in fatality, ‘men in pitboots/Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,/Shouldering off the freshened silence’. In the separate (or ‘isolated’) last line of the poem, one of the miners – who had on his way to work found and restored to its grasses a nest of lark’s eggs – is imagined, himself restored, holding out ‘the eggs unbroken’: an extreme effect that depends on human feeling, but also on all the reconciled doubling effects of the lines that go before it.
The skylark nests low and flies high, singing: another echo, perhaps, of the poet’s reticent love of reconciled high and low worlds. Larkin’s shortest poems can catch this sense of depth and range and substance in remarkably few lines. ‘Cut Grass’ begins with the near oxymoron of its title, communicating the intense and transient summer life in the scent of dying grass. ‘It dies in the white hours’: the word ‘white’, repeated in the last verse, echoically brings the cut grass (suggestive of human life, too, because ‘All flesh is grass’) slowly up to the final loftiness of ‘that high-builded cloud/ Moving at summer’s pace’. The long slide down to happiness is reversed, as the poem elegiacally climbs.