Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems

Collected PoemsLarkin is the most beloved English poet of the post-war era and a major influence on a wide community of writers, in prose and verse, on both sides of the Atlantic. Reading his Collected Poems, comprising his four publications The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), High Windows (1974) and his uncollected poems, including the phenomenal Aubade, proved a glum undertaking, requiring frequent breaks of more comedic fare, for Larkin is a poet of disappointment, of lives not lived, loves left unexpressed or better left unexpressed, and always there is death, lurking behind every corner and outside every window, delineating the limits of the possible, sneering equally at our ambitions and escapes. Once again, rather than attempt to discuss his poetry in the abstract, I will choose a few representative poems for close reading.

High Windows

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes 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.

I suspect the opening stanza has lost none of its power to shock, even as we approach a half-century since its publication. Larkin is in his fifties at the time he begins work on “High Windows,” past his sexual prime and working in a college library where, no doubt, he saw many couples enjoying the sexual liberation begun in the 1960s with the widespread availability of the contraceptive pill. Their unions are decidedly unromantic, “bonds and gestures pushed to one side,” like a combine harvester in disrepair or rendered obsolete, a particularly apt simile given that the combine is a tool used for the harvest: are our courtship rituals mere tools in service of reproduction? This thought occasions the next, in a remarkable transition: did previous generations look upon him with similar jealousy, not for the sexual freedoms the current generation enjoys but for the spiritual or religious freedoms of Larkin’s generation?

Both these freedoms share the metaphor of a slide, a descent into happiness, but the descent is contrasted with the image, the thought, conjured by his musings: high windows, reminiscent, perhaps, of those found on church facades, that look out upon “the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” Consider the remarkably similar conclusion to Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” published some forty or fifty years earlier, describing a listener, who, “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.”  For Larkin, sex and religion (described in Aubade as “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade”) are natural responses to the meaninglessness created by death: the former procreative, a feeble attempt at creating something lasting, the latter “created to pretend we never die” (still Aubade), a denial of death’s erasure of meaning. And, properly understood, it is not death itself that Larkin fears, but the “nothing” that death creates, the endless nothingness that awaits us all and makes a mockery of our lives.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

I include this poem less out of a desire to analyze or dissect it than because it is representative of Larkin’s particular cynicism – though I’m certain he, like all good cynics, would call it honesty or accuracy of observation. Here is the procreative process that provides our best defense against mortality (Shakespeare’s twelfth sonnet: “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense / Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence”), bequeathing no happy legacy or continuation of life but misery, deepening like a costal shelf, and best dealt with by avoidance entirely.

A Writer

‘Interesting, but futile,’ said his diary,
Where day by day his movements were recorded
And nothing but his loves received inquiry;
He knew, of course, no actions were rewarded,
There were no prizes: though the eye could see
Wide beauty in a motion or a pause,
It need expect no lasting salary
Beyond the bowels’ momentary applause.

He lived for years and never was surprised:
A member of his foolish, lying race
Explained away their vices: realised
It was a gift that he possessed alone:
To look the world directly in the face;
The face he did not see to be his own.

This is one of Larkin’s lesser-known poems, which I reproduce for sentimental reasons. Like Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, Larkin (or his narrative voice, if you prefer) accuses himself of honesty, the ability to be objective in his judgments about people, to “look the world directly in the face.” It is a cruel irony that the vantage point that gives a writer the best perspective on humanity is, by necessity, one which also separates them from humanity; you see the herd more clearly from outside than from within. Thus, though he can look the world directly in the face, he cannot recognize himself in that face, cannot find sodality with the very people whose vices he can so uniquely understand.


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

In my judgment, Aubade is Larkin’s best poem, and certainly the most representative of his work. It contains all of the themes explored in greater depth in his smaller poems, “the good not done, the love not given, time / Torn off unused,” synthesized into a frighteningly honest assessment of death that mocks with equal levity religion and philosophy. Religion is a “moth-eaten musical brocade,” clearly the worse for wear and requiring more credulity than Larkin can muster, and philosophy is “specious stuff” that counters death’s nothingness with still more nothingness, offering no real consolation. This, indeed, is a special way of being afraid, one “no trick dispels,” and that builds up to the best-known lines Larkin ever wrote: “Courage is no good: / It means not scaring others. Being brave / Lets no one off the grave. / Death is no different whined at than withstood.” Consider just how much human folly has been exerted in denying Larkin’s claim to gain some idea of the forcefulness of it.

The final stanza wakes him from his melancholy reverie and returns him to thoughts of telephones and offices, of the “intricate rented world” (pause, briefly, on “rented world”; in just two words he has conjured up the whole concept of our finiteness). “Work has to be done,” he informs us, and, really, what other choice do we have?