A Lethal Fall

Barbara Everett

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 As happens elsewhere in his work, a juxtaposition of social caricature with sudden withdrawn reflection can make for difficulty.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.

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