Priya Ramesh’s essay on Philip Larkin’s poetry offers a helpful positioning of reading the acclaimed librarian poet as a watchful observer of society from the margins of both literary and general society. Navigating Larkin’s balancing act “between being too immersed in spaces and practices…and being too detached”, Priya successfully manages one of her own. In taking us through his speakers’ approaches to marriage, love and religion alongside biographical and critical perspectives, she reframes the typical negative connotation of the “margins” as a disempowering site of power, and instead casts it as the central vantage point from which the individual Larkin understands and critiques the society he inhabits.
“I’m somewhat withdrawn from what you call “the contemporary literary community,” for two reasons: in the first place, I don’t write for a living, and so don’t have to keep in touch with literary editors and publishers and television people in order to earn money; and in the second, I don’t live in London. Given that, my relations with it are quite amicable.” — Philip Larkin, 1982
Philip Larkin is no stranger to the margins; it could even be said he embraces them. In many of his ingenious creations of poetry, Larkin tends to assume the role of a speaker who is opposed to adhering to the normative ways of society and, instead, watches from the sides; he watches the way lives are shaped and moulded by conforming, and comments on them with acute insight.
Larkin uses the distance between the ‘centre’ of society and his own position on the fringes as a powerful device to provide a definitive outlook on ‘mundane’ things around us in daily life and their underlying motivations as inherent to human nature. He walks a thin line between being too immersed in it to provide a holistic view and being too detached to be unable to empathise; he straddles the thin line between compassion and condescension to provide us with a fresh perspective. As Alan Brownjohn put it, Larkin inspires the kind of hope which ‘exists in the humane precision with which hopeless things are observed’.
For example, in the poem “The Whitsun Weddings”, Larkin manages to inhabit the middle ground between being too attached and being too detached. He uses a tone that is both fascinated and yet conscious of absurdity. He thus portrays love and marriage in a more realistic way — a way that is more relatable to the average man than the flowery descriptions of Romantic Era poets — and yet does not fall into the trap of being glaringly cynical.
“I’ve remained single by choice, and shouldn’t have liked anything else, but of course most people do get married, and divorced too, and so I suppose I am an outsider in the sense you mean. Of course it worries me from time to time, but it would take too long to explain why. Samuel Butler said, Life is an affair of being spoilt in one way or another.” — Philip Larkin, The Paris Review, Summer 1982.
The quote above goes some way in lending Larkin the ability to curate a speaker that can look at both sides of a paradigm.The archetypal group type-casting of not only the families (‘The fathers with broad belts under their suits…mothers loud and fat; An uncle shouting smut..’, etc) but the couples themselves in the ‘dozen marriages’ plays to the effect of suggesting the role of weddings as reinforcing a sense of community despite the class-related undertones. This is achieved through Larkin’s speaker being in the margin, or the grey area, wherein he is an active participant in neither these weddings nor the larger, social ritual of marriage, and yet their ‘frail, travelling coincidence’ makes him privy to the blossoming of an intimate relationship.
The movement of the train has a significant role; or, rather, it is the movement of the poem which mimics the stop-start galloping of a train through various stations. The placing of the dimeter in the second line of each stanza stops the flow of the poem temporarily before it wells up and heads on, full steam ahead. It also mirrors the speaker’s movement as an observer pushed into the margins, in a transient moment, involved in the hopeful purview of the couples. The closing lines of the poem read: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” This memorable final metaphor of the arrow-shower has a certain ambivalence about it, but Larkin seems to consciously make it so: the image of an arrow-shower is foreboding and ominous in the context of an arrow as a weapon. However, the arrow-shower is ‘sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain’. That it is removed from our view allows the freedom for the readers (and/or the couples) to draw their own conclusions to their marriages. The reference to rain, a timeless symbol of fertility and hope, tints it in positive light and the fact that Larkin ends on this note suggests he actively tried not to be overtly disdainful of it. As an outsider to the custom of marriage, he is without a very strong inherent personal bias in his opinion of it. He neither ordains it harshly, nor praises it to be the essence of life itself; he uses his position to succinctly show us the possibilities of all that marriage can be.
The perspective of being in the margins is also seen in the meditation on religion in “Church Going”, which takes the form of a monologue where the speaker ponders over the significance of liturgy and religious superstructure. The speaker is an outsider and does not seem a fervent follower of customs, but neither is he entirely uninitiated, since he is able to identify various paraphernalia within the church and follow some of the behaviour that is expected, such as taking his cycle-clips off in ‘awkward reverence’.
The speaker is not a detached observer, and resides in a grey area between outright agnostic dissent and an inclination to want to understand religion. He tries to follow some facets of the expected behaviour inside a church but the tension is all too palpable, as he speaks too loudly and drops a worthless coin inside the box. As he ponders further over the possible ‘death’ or ‘extinction’ of religion, he seems to suggest that religion is far beyond mere liturgy. He seems to recognise that even if the glow of sanctity diminishes in churches, their function as a storage vault of humans’ most significant milestones in life, will persist because the human desire to continue seeking validation for these moments will continue. In this context, the lines “For, though I’ve no idea / What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth, / It pleases me to stand in silence here” hold special significance. The choice of the word ‘accoutred’ reinforces this as the speaker puts forth the point that we ‘clothe’ and ‘shroud’ the insignificant happenings of our reality in religion — and the church as a proponent of religion — to make them seem extraordinary: birth, marriage, death, etc.
Larkin’s position here is one that does not entirely reject religion, but also one that is not fanatical or blind in following it. He refers to the church as a ‘barn’, which removes the grandeur from the facade of the church, and looks at it perhaps in the Nativity context wherein a significant event such as the Virgin birth of Christ can take place in a simple barn – of something that houses our hopes and thus, will persist in one form or the other. The allure of the church may no longer be reflected in the architecture resplendent cathedrals with sprawling frescoes, but the role will remain same in its essence. There is a suggestion that the church, as an institution, may be taken to be as elusive and precious as the Holy Grail. Larkin suggests that the church has ‘held unspilt’, which serves as an allusion to the church as a vessel that holds the hopes of our civilisation.
There may be confirmation bias in as much as people wanting to subjectively make what they will of the church and the significance it takes in their lives, but the human longing for the supernatural is not a passing moment in our evolution. It is all but an ephemerality, as Larkin posits in the lines: ’Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious, / And gravitating with it to this ground”.
The speaker subtly transitions from first person singular to plural as Larkin shifts towards a more universal and inclusive statement on religion. He seems to recognise that while religious customs and liturgy may be pretence, there is a deeper psychological yearning in humanity for transcendence, hence the ‘blent air (where) all our compulsions meet’. While the average person may not be able to articulate such a profound spiritual hunger, he may still gravitate to and look for the ‘serious house on serious earth’, subscribing to the prescribed practices of organised religion. This may be why the speaker feels ‘pleased to stand there in silence’, despite not knowing why. Larkin recognises this and thus adopts the singularly remarkable position of compassion-without-condescension. This was brilliantly summarised by Alan Brownjohn in his 1975 study of Larkin too: “Larkin’s own position is that of a different kind of observer, one standing a little distance away from the happiness of others, unable to feel affinity with them, yet cautiously assuming such joy as they may be able to find.”
The word margin is of course, primarily defined as ‘the edge or border of something’. It refers to the periphery, and does not always come with positive connotations. It is closely associated with being ‘marginalised’ and being in a liminal space, neither inside a circle nor outside of it, but merely on the verge. However, Larkin’s poetry shows how this position of perceived vulnerability, teetering between the one and the other, can be transformed to a position of power. The power of being able to look at something with a holistic perspective and acquire a more rounded knowledge of people, society and what drives them. Larkin thus shows us that, perhaps, there is a profit margin to be gained from standing in the margins.
PRIYA RAMESH is a first-year undergraduate pursuing Medicine at the University of Birmingham, whose life has been immeasurably illuminated by Literature. When she isn’t nursing her existential despair by playing at being intellectual, she writes about football for FourFourTwo and The Guardian. She enjoys works of dystopian fiction, is prone to telling bad jokes, and might be an insect.
Photo credit: Rachel Eng
Booth, J. (2014) Philip Larkin: life, art and love. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Brownjohn, A. (1975) Philip Larkin. Harlow: Longman Group.
Larkin, P. (2004) Collected poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Motion, A., and B. C. Bloomfield. (1993) Philip Larkin : a writer’s life. London: Faber and Faber.
Ricks, C. (1965) Philip Larkin: A True Poet. New York Review of Books, 10-11.
Philips, R. (1982) Interview: Philip Larkin, The Art of Poetry. The Paris Review 30.