(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 3. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)
"Wanking at ten past three": Larkin's posthumous love poetry
volume remarks: "If there is a central theme running throughout all of Larkin it would have to be that of love and the difficulty of attaining satisfaction within it (2)." A lot has been written about the treatment of this subject in th.e four collections published by Larkin himself. In this essay I'd like to have a closer look at the "new" poems in an attempt to unearth Larkin the poet, a figure almost forgotten after all the hype of Larkin the man since the publication of his letters and Andrew Motion's biography. I propose to trace the theme of love in the pieces not published in Larkin's lifetime and to relate them to the other much-discussed love poems.
The most salient feature in the poem I quoted at the outset is the use of four-letter words, the element that astonished my linguist friend so much: "wanking at ten past three", "someone else feeling her breast and cunt". Janice Rossen has called this "strong language": indeed, "for matters about which he feels passionately, Larkin uses strong language (3)." As Barbara Everett observed, "Larkin's four-letter words... may offend precisely because they figure in an idiom otherwise so well-behaved or well-adjusted, even cautiously temperate (4)." The obvious parallel to the first two stanzas of this poem are the opening lines of "High Windows": "When I see a couple of kids/And guess he's fucking her and she's/Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm" (CP, p.165).
Just as in that poem the speaker uses vulgar expressions "in order to shock us with the force of his feelings of exclusion (5)," as Janice Rossen puts it. The sense of exclusion is even more poignantly brought home in "Love Again", as the speaker is excluded not from young women he doesn't know, but from a specific woman he particularly fancies. In order to stem the tide of rage and frustration he reduces the whole complex of emotions to mere carnal desire. In the first stanza images of heat ("The bedroom hot as a bakery") and inflammation ("And the usual pain, like dysentery") add to the devaluation of the feelings grudgingly acknowledged to exist. Revealingly dysentery is an inflammation of the large intestine, i.e. the persona's innermost being, a rending pain in the lower part of the body, indicating the speaker's vulnerability in the non-intellectual, emotional and sexual sphere. Even the opening words debunk the complex emotions entailed by the phenomenon of love: love again implies a weariness on the part of the speaker; this disillusioned attitude is hammered
2. FILKINS, Peter. "The Collected Larkin: But why put it into words?"
Iowa Review 14.2, 1990, p. 176.
home by the choice of "wanking"; this is the crudest possible way of expressing the manifestation of the incurable isolation and self-centeredness of the persona, preventing him from making real contact with a member of the opposite sex on a deeper level. However, this deeper level is reduced to the female sexual organs in the first line of the second stanza ("Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt"), whereas communication on a more comprehensive emotional level, as implied by eye contact, is dismissed as a lash-wide stare, something aggressive fixing the man "on a pin" ("Prufrock" l.57), as it were; indeed, the persona's consciousness is not far from Prufrock's: someone else is drowned in the woman's stare, she is immediately turned into a femme fatale or Prufrock's sea-girls turned sirens.
This is one of Larkin's ways of grappling with the characteristic dichotomy
betwen the unattainable unattractive woman., and the unattainable desirable
ideal beauty. In "Wild Oats" these two types were represented by "the friend
with specs" and "bosomy rose":
Normally, the angel beyond the speaker's grasp, such as the desirable woman in "Love Again", is turned into a demon. In "Wild Oats" irony served as a protective shield against the rending pain of not being able to reach the goal of one's desires: "In my wallet are still two snaps / Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on. / Unlucky charms, perhaps" (CP, p.143).
In "Love Again" the speaker's deeper feelings are kept at bay by vivifying the desirable woman through the use of vulgar language and then turning her into a man-eating ogre drowning her victims in her "lash-wide stare".
However, all this is only insinuated, the speaker refrains from putting it into words. In a typical Larkinesque manner the poem "takes off" in the final stanza, leaving the welter of emotions behind and moving onto a general philosophical level by the use of metaphor and symbol:
... but why put it into words?
The tree spreading through other lives swaying them on "in a sort of sense" is a symbol of the natural life-force, an unconscious drive keeping them in motion in a gentle undulating movement, as trees are swayed by the wind. Other people are swayed on, that is, according to the OED, "directed one way or another" in their journey through love and life. Again, the persona's sceptical attitude towards this natural ground-swell is expressed by the qualification "in a sort of sense": from a rational point of view the meaning of other lives may not be apparent, yet the speaker has to admit gradually that there lurks some kind of instinctive design behind the seemingly chaotic surface of their lives, an intimation already expressed in "Dockery and Son".
The root-cause for the speaker's lack of this natural drive directing other people's lives is the standard Freudian diagnosis of a traumatic, unhappy childhood. Emotional violence "a long way back", presumably in infancy, and wrong principles of upbringing thwarted the development of natural erotic feelings. These lines could be read ironically, but the last line definitely goes beyond irony and the one-dimensional Freudian scheme: "arrogant eternity" implies the meaninglessness of all finite human endeavour, such as searching for a mate, in view of the dread of utter extinction. Again, a parallel is to be found in "High Windows", this time the last stanza: symbolically it adumbrates the metaphysical void man is faced with, in spite of the seeming liberation from moral taboos achieved by generation after generation which is highlighted in the first two stanzas:
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The consciousness of "unresting death" (as Larkin puts it in "Aubade") precludes all participation in the natural processes of life, such as mating and procreation (which is deprecated as mere "dilution" in "Dockery and Son", another poem wrestling with the same subject). In "Love Again", eternity is dubbed "arrogant" for the same reasons as in "Aubade", where life's only terminus is portrayed as "The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always" (CP, p. 208). Ultimately it is the death-wish taking over in many of Larkin's poems: "Beneath it all / Desire of oblivion runs" reads the last line from a poem characteristically entitled "Wants" (CP, p. 42); this longing for death is not explicitly stated in "Love Again", but it lurks behind the symbolic mesh of the final stanza.
The "violence a long way back" between parents and children echoes the most candid of this fundamental gulf, namely "This Be the Verse". Again, there is a rather flippant tone in the first stanza ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad") which gives way to the frightening simile of the last stanza which epitomises the human plight: "Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf" (CP, p. 180). So the poem "Love Again" does contain a kind of summa of his view of love.
Janice Rossen has pointed out that "a large part of Larkin's depiction of women has directly to do with violence against them, and he seems to speak powerfully both for a corporate group of men and from a deep subconscious level (6)." (Op. cit., p. 75) As evidence she quotes "Sunny Prestatyn" and "Deceptions", where, according to Rossen, the speaker "seems to justify violence against women by suggesting that access to the woman is something men have been unfairly deprived of" (CP, p. 74).
The subconscious spring of this aggression towards women clearly lies in his own experience of potential psychological violence at the hands of the first woman in his life, his mother. In a qualified maner this Freudian truism lurks behind the poem "Mother, Summer, I":
My mother, who hates thunderstorms,
There is no explicit reference to violence of any direct sort, but what is striking is the pent-up aggression in the mother figure. She hates thunderstorms, a natural phenomenon in which energy is released openly and aggressively. A compulsive cleaner, she applies her housewifely routine metaphorically to every perfect summer day in order to discover the dreaded aggressive, potential element in it. Too much brightness and happiness seems to contain the potential or emotional storms. The bee-metaphor for the clouds ("swarms of grape-dark clouds") enhances the aggressive, stinging aspect; the Larkinesque compound "grape-dark" somehow smacks of Keats's famous melancholiac bursting "joy's grape against his palate fine" in "Ode to Melancholy". The rain and brittle frost of autumn, in which strong emotions are frozen, are her secure shelter. The son takes over exactly this pattern: as in "To the Sea", where it says that "the worst / Of flawless weather is our falling short" (CP, p. 173-74) he can't endure the "perfect happiness" symbolised by "summer days" because of their emotional plenitude, their intimation of the overwhelming joy of life, where emotions flow freely, giving a "bold", "rich", "clear" vision of human existence. What is expressed in this poen is not direct violence on the part of the mother, but rather the fear of the violent potential in the human psyche.
In a similar fashion, the speakers of "Sunny Prestatyn" and "Deceptions" do not act violently themselves, but they indirectly condone the violence done to women by empathising with the
perpetrators. The pent-up aggression is taken out by proxy, as it were. Likewise, in the posthumously published love poems, violence against women finds only an indirect mediated expression in the use of "strong" language in connection with sexuality. Much more often the violent feelings are turned against the speaker himself. The guilt for the inability to love is pinned on the persona, as for instance in the last stanza of "Wild Oats":
The basic theme of selfishness is also sounded in "Love":
The difficult part of love
As usual, selfishness is presented as a negative trait in he first stanza. However, there are indications that the assertion is made tongue-in-cheek. A neutral observer might call this kind of selfishness simply healthy self-confidence. The act of bonding with a person is described as "upsetting an existence just for your own sake". The hyperbolic quality of this statement is reinforced by the final exclamation "What cheek it must take". This rather distorted view of human relationships and the use of hyperbole are clear ironic pointers making the reader doubt the trustworthiness of these assertions. These intimations are borne out in the second stanza, where the other pole is presented in
similarly wry terms. Putting someone else first need not result in coming off worst yourself. The heavy spondaic four-stress line "My life is for me" expresses an almost infantile self-centredness, likened to the natural law of gravity in the following line, which semantically corroborates the impression of heaviness rhythmically enacted in the previous spondaic line.
The flippant tone is carried on into the final stanza, where the two attitudes are peremptorily dubbed "vicious" and "virtuous":
But the code of Christian morality does not square with the categories set up in the poem: likening selflessness to total self-denial and seeing it as saintly Christian virtue is blowing moral categories out of proportion. In the last four lines the facetious quality of the language increases, thus heightening the impression of self-irony. Slangy diction bordering on "strong" language ("bleeder", "get stuffed") hints at the flippancy of the statement and, as pointed out above, to sublimated aggression against the speaker himself.
In tone and subject this poem distinctly recalls "Self's the Man". There the theme of selfishness versus unselfishness is rehearsed in terms of bachelor versus family-man. The final couplet of the last stanza has the same ring:
So he [the family-man] and I [the bachelor] are the same
Only I'm a better hand
Apart from dripping with the same kind of self-irony, it is also the rhythmical pattern which is similar: to my ear the first "I" of the last line of "Self's the Man" does not bear a stress
("Or I suppose I can"), thus constituting a conscious rhetorical variation of the basic verse-pattern which enhances the semantic hiatus between the penultimate and the last line. In both poems rhe final two-stress-line follows like a thud, putting in question everything that has been stated before. The deep-seated inner conflict is swaggered off by an act of verbal bravado covering up the irreconcilable opposites within the persona.
The same attitude to the same theme is conveyed in a similar tone of voice in "The Life With a Hole in It". The use of strong language gives vent to the speaker's aggressions towards women: first the female sex is only referred to in parenthesis, but five lines later they're called "the old ratbags". The second stanza contains a contrastive presentation of two ways of existence which are both dismissed in equally derogatory terms:
So the shit in the shuttered château
The alliterations underline the things the speaker despises (or subliminally desires!) most: neither way of life suits him, but the third stanza reveals the tragic conclusion that all he is left with is the contemplation of death, "the unbeatable slow machine / That brings you what you'll get". Again, the hyperbolically dismissive language used to reject other ways of life backfires on the persona himself, as he seems to reject some of his own deep-seated desires behind the smokescreen of this extremely flippant tone. The conflict bachelor-family-man of "Self's the Man" is transformed into affluent bohemian poetic cult-figure versus poverty-stricken father of six. The same contrast was dealt with in the earlier "Reasons for Attendance", but with a different emphasis. In that poem the still younger persona watched "the dancers - all under twenty five - / Shifting intently, face to flushed face, / Solemnly on the beat of [presumably sexual] happiness"; he rejected this way of life in favour of "that lifted, rough-tongued bell / (Art if you like)" (CP, p. 80). In spite of the flip, parenthetical reference art "calls" the speaker, is literally a vocation. In "The Life With a Hole in It" the individual, an autonomous artist who sees himself aloof from society is debased to a mere lecher described in anal terms.
A more serious portrayal of a man struggling with "[his] own wants, the world's for [him]", as Larkin puts it in the last stanza of "The Life With a Hole in It", is to be found in the earlier "To My Wife". The untamable, lecherous side of the male persona is expressed in bird-imagery in the first stanza:
The colourful "peacock-fan" of the future, the "tease-birds" who only tease as long as they are in the plural form in the bushes, rather than as a singular individual in the hand, this "matchless potential" shrinks to a single-lane one-way street, holding no future, only the loneliness and isolation of "I and You". The characteristic self-centredness or even egotism of most Larkin-personae is reflected in the inversion of the common phrase to refer to a couple, "you and I". In the second stanza the narrowing-down of perspective is illustrated by the loss of the chameleon-like figure of the "mask-and-magic-man":
Displaying many faces, or rather masks, this superman type of figure originating from the realm of male wishful thinking or children's comics is never forced to show his true face, his true self. The wife's real "few properties" compare badly with the imaginary multifarious plenitude of the mask-and-magic-man's "brisk baggage". The result is a feeling of boredom, failure and suffering, a sentiment to be echoed countless times in Larkin's later work (e.g. "Wild Oats", "Dockery and Son"). Metaphorically this feeling is expressed as a "hypostasis", the sediment settling at the bottom of a fluid, in stark contrast to the airy fantasies of the uncommitted free-floating bachelor.
The main irony of the entire poem lies in the fact that this anti-love poem is cast in the traditional mould of courtly love poetry, namely the Petrarchian sonnet. The title "To My Wife" echoes the countless addresses to Celia, Delia, etc. of the Elizabethan sonneteers. The angelic, ethereal, airy mistress mostly representing a simulacrum of divine beauty is literally brought down to earth, the weighty scholarly term "hypostasis" ironically representing the heaviness and grossness of the real earthly woman, who is metaphorically compared to the sediment settling at the bottom of the fluid.
The notorious inability of the bachelor figures to commit themselves bindingly to one person is a note frequently sounded in Larkin's entire work. The other side of the coin, so to speak, the fear of loneliness is beautifully rendered in the much later poem "The little lives of earth and form":
The little lives of earth and form,
Here the hankering "for den and hole and set", i.e. reliable family-ties, is finally focussed on a specific person, "And it is you I see", rather late in the day, in 1977, if for once a sideways glance at the biography is permitted.
In a much earlier poem the problem of binding personal relationships, namely marriage, is addressed in different terms:
Images of light ("candescence") and fruitfulness set the tone: even if the primary meaning of "pregnant" cannot apply here literally, it hovers at the back of the reader's mind. In contrast to the poem "Love", "selfishness" is a positive trait here, it is "pregnant" in the etymological sense of "cogent", derived from the Latin "premere". The first category of people, the "Immodestly-accurate / Transcriptions of a dream", have a way of pressing their self on other people to assert their personality and achieve the object of their desire. The result of such a union is the primary meaning of "pregnant".
Scorn and disgust predominate in the imagery of the second and third stanzas, where the second category of people, who are very much second-rate, is presented:
Not so with the remainder:
Out of sheer fear of loneliness these second-rate creatures escape into marriage. Physical and mental disfigurement is tolerated due to "old need", probably a combination of the sexual drive of the inability to be alone. The dated slang-expression "frogmarched", meaning "a method of carrying a drunken or refractory prisoner face downwards between four men, each holding a limb" (OED) speaks volumes.
A more conciliatory note is struck in the final stanza:
At least those psychically and physically crippled beings are "gathered in", "not wasted". Even if they "tarnish", a hint at the inevitable process of ageing, thay are "at anchor", in a safe haven. A modicum of meaning and fertility is granted to them by the speaker, despite all the contempt and revulsion expressed in the middle stanzas.
What comes to mind is the ending of "An Arundel Tomb": the occasion of that poem is a sculpture representing the earl and countess of Arundel holding hands. The last stanza reads:
Time has transfigured them into
The lie of the seeming fidelity between husband and wife is finally condoned by the speaker in the qualified, grudging admission that the desire for faithful union, "our almost instinct" is "almost true / What will survive of us is love". Although the first part of "An Arundel Tomb" is totally different from the first three stanzas of "Marriages", the verb "tarnish" points in the
same direction as the lines "They would not guess how early in / Their supine, stationary voyage / The air would change to soundless damage" from "An Arundel Tomb". In both cases the passage of time erodes the vigour and brightness of love or its "effigy", be it that of union between "adder-faced singularity" and "nailed-up childhood" or of "count and countess".
As Larkin put it in another poem from The Less Deceived, "Skin", tarnishing is an inescapable process all human beings, single or married, are subject to:
Obedient daily dress
The speaker in this poem is equally unable to make the most of his "prime of life" (which Larkin defines as "This pantomime / Of compensating act and counter-act, / Defeat and counterfeit" in "Maturity", a poem written at the age of 29!) as the refugees from solitude caricatured in the second and third stanza of "Marriages":
And pardon me, that I
The "brash festivity" would have been "confidence ... mat[ing] / Only with confidence" (as he puts it in "Marriages") or "the heat of happiness" of the "dancers - all under twenty-five" in "Reasons for Attendance".
Similarly harsh images for love as in the middle stanzas of "Marriages" are to be found in the early poem "Who called love conquering":
Who called love conquering
Here we encounter vestiges of the symbolist strain in the early Larkin highlighted by Andrew Motion in his penetrating study in poems like "Absences" or "Dry Point (7)." The imagery of the first stanza is still fairly lucid, the sour/dried up flower image contrasting the speaker's view of love with the sweet flower metaphor in traditional love poetry. This is spun out in the second stanza, where the sweet flower is turned into a plurality of "demonstrative weeds" with the element of selfish expansion superadded, and therefore metaphorically "drowning" the pure, virginal "white bride" of traditional epithalamia. The selfish weeds turn into "greeds" fastening themselves firmly to and thus darkening the sun like parasitic creepers. The midwinter darkness of a northern latitude is compared to a "dire cloak" stiffening the town. This metaphor endows the chain of images with phallic connotations, the "greeds" being no longer "tiny" and "curled" but erect and aggressive. This poem echoes "Dry Point", composed three months previously, where the brutality and shallowness of sexual intercourse is expressed in similarly complex symbolic terms. In fact, the same kind of blunt sexual symbolism predominates: the "bubble restively forming at your tip" of "Dry Point" was identified by George Hartley as the emission of semen.(8). Similarly the chaste bride may be seen as being drowned by the ejaculation of semen from the stiffening male organ, an act act which brings about primeval chaos and darkness.
7. Philip Larkin. London: Methuen, 1982, p. 74-6.
Admittedly, this phallic interpretation does not do justice to the full complexity of the imagery: due to Larkin's symbolic bent at the time of composition we get metonymically transferred metaphors which do not fit logically into the symbolic pattern: if the "tiny curled greeds" are to be read as phallic symbols, then they should stiffen, not the town. From a purely logical point of view the town should be the metaphor for the white bride drowning in her bed, the metaphoric transfer bed/town is closer in terms of metaphoric similarity. But in a similar fashion to the French symbolists and the Modernists this purely logical relationship based on similarity is disrupted by metonymic transfers along the lines of contiguity. The overall impression remains that of chaos and darkness, the undoing of the act of creation by the act of procreation, so to speak.
Our little journey through Larkin's Ars Amatoria (or Ars Non-Amatoria, as the case may be) has brought us back to where we started: a dismissive view of love in general and sex in particular. I deliberately did not adhere to the chronology of the dates of composition, as love is a ubiquitous theme in Larkin and the basic conflict pervades his entire uvre. "Love Again", the poem I started off with expresses in 1977 similar feelings to "Who called love conquering", which was written 27 years earlier.
To conclude one may ask the question what the posthumously published poetic work (in contradistinction to the much-typed letters and biography!) does to Larkin's standing as a poet. I agree with Anthony Thwaite, who claims that "some of the previously unpublished poems ... deserve to stand with his best already known work" (XXIII). However, my choice of poems singled out for excellence is somewhat different. To my mind the poems on love excell: they help us get a fuller view of Larkin's desperate internal struggle, and beyond the personal level, of the late-20th-century man's inability to love and commit himself in general; they deserve to stand side by side with the celebrated pieces which have already achieved the status of modern classics.
Everett, Barbara. "Art and Larkin." Philip Larkin. Ed. Dale Salwak.
London: Macmillan, 1989: p.129-39.
(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 3. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)