Philip Larkin presents glory and success in life in a negative and often debasing nature. The overriding pessimism and bleakness in his poetry frequently debilitates the grandeur and triumph apparent in life. Despite endeavouring throughout life for achievement and prestige, his poems suggest that individuals will inevitably become “the old fools” no longer able to “alter things” or “(dance) all night” with former dignity replaced by the monotonous routine of “thin continuous dreaming” and “baffled absence”.
Larkin’s underlying gloom attacks that which is traditionally seen as grand such as nature in ‘The Trees’, where the seemingly positive symbols of regeneration like “buds relax and spread/ their greenness” are undermined as Larkin proclaims pessimistically “no, they die too” and the suggestion that nature only “(begins) afresh” to cease and wither.
Likewise the aspects of society that are typically viewed as worthwhile and admirable such as marriage, love and optimism of youth are derogated in ‘This Be The Verse’ by the blunt, plosive and shocking declaration of “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” and again by the confrontational and envious tone of “When I see a couple of kids/ and guess he’s fucking her” added with the assurance that “this is paradise” in ‘High Windows’. Larkin’s cynicism corrupts perceptions of glory and success as anything achieved is immediately mocked and attacked.
As advancement and progression take place in the surroundings through modernisation Larkin points out the negativity and destruction of this development. In ‘Going Going’ the “bleak high-rises” and “split level shopping” devastates to the world the poetic voice previously lived in, where he thought in hope “there would always be fields and farms”. Instead the simple realisation is that the “first slum of Europe” will appear “and that will be England gone”.
The economic references also portray a sense of greed and damage, which the government endorses, through moving “work to unspoilt dales (Grey area grants)! ” Larkin suggests the success achieved is seemingly just an outlet for greed and disorder. The common representation of children and the glory of innocence and hope are further devalued through Larkin’s poetry. The sense of optimism of a new generation is dismissed as youth loses the values and are merely the “crowd in the M1 cafi??” added to the blunt vernacular of “kids”.
The aspirations of youth are destroyed when compared to the disintegration of life in ‘The Old Fools’ where all success and glory has been reduced to “not knowing how, not hearing who, the power of choosing gone”. Likewise in ‘This Be The Verse’ the poetic voice emphasises the reality of life by proclaiming “don’t have any kids yourself” disregarding the beauty of new life and definitively ending the romanticised view of having children. Romantic or false idealism is shattered in Larkin’s poetry; the quintessential views about the life are rejected through the utter realism of the provocative language and prosaic colloquial diction.
In ‘The Old Fools’ midway through the depressing judgement of old age the “million petalled flower” is mentioned and is exposed for the falsehood it is – a stereotypical idea – ultimately revealing the inescapable death to come. In ‘MCMXIV’ the patriotic attempts to fight for the country which are met with excitement and “grinning” is changed to the ominous attitude of “never such innocence/never before or since”. Larkin highlights the distorted view of life and recognises the actuality of how bleak it is. Glory and success of life is also undermined through the constant reminders of ageing and death.
Larkin presents a tedious existence where “man hands on misery to man” and despite all efforts, and apparent fulfilment there is the sombre actuality that “death will be such another thing/ with all we have done not mattering”. Larkin’s blunt facts about our finite duration undermine the glory that is life and diminish success. There is uncertainty in all of Larkins poems, what seems initially negative can be seen in a positive light. Larkin’s poetry is mostly pessimistic and despondent however there are elements of recognition of the glory and success of life, in ‘Going Going’ Larkin speaks about England positively.
Larkin patriotically admires “the meadows, the lanes, the guildhalls, the carved choirs” which is overshadowed by the bleak and despairing context of the poem. Larkin’s use of confrontational diction is contrasted with occasional soft, poetic images such as “the sun comprehending glass, and beyond it the deep blue air, that shows nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless” in the final stanza of ‘High Windows’. The sense of openness and infinite is shown through the contemplative caesuras and vagueness of the stanza, its positivity towards life is in stark opposition to the blunt colloquialism and specific reference to “a couple of kids… ucking” mentioned in the first stanza.
Larkin’s presentation of glory and success is clouded in ambiguity as the negative content of his poems often present thoughts which could be interpreted as positive but could as easily be negative. For example in ‘MCMXIV’ the “thousands of marriages lasting a little while longer” could be viewed as positive as they stay together and strong for each other – or is just the partner just waiting for their husband to die? Hence why the marriage is lasting longer?
This type of uncertainty is further used in ‘The trees’ where nature begins “afresh, afresh, afresh” possibly highlighting the glory of nature or emphasing how people are not fresh and nature only starts again to die. In ‘To put one brick upon another’ it is clear that working life is not imprisonment, as if routine is taken away there is nothing. Larkin often debases all that is important to people in their lives such as love, marriage and work – however it is clear that some passages of his work, though debatable, refute the bleak cynicism of his work.
The poetic voice in Larkin’s poetry is characteristically dispirited and sullen which at times seems to be mocked by Larkin himself. Overwhelming opposing thoughts undermines the glory and success of life. However at times Phillip Larkin seems to portray a sense of his poetic voice being overly pessimistic and miserable. For instance in ‘High Windows’ Larkin acknowledges that he was like the people he attacks by wondering if “anyone looked at (him) forty years back and thought that’ll be the life” suggesting that the poetic voice is unduly critical.
Similarly in ‘The Old Fools’ Larkin is dismissive and viciously denounces elderly people but the judgmental tone changes as the poetic voice simplistically realises “we shall find out” the juxtaposition of the tones emphasises how the poetic voice is relentlessly bleak. Larkin’s own ridicule of the poetic voice would seem to support the success and glory of life as it undermines the attack upon it through exposing the poetic voice to feel this way due to their own jealousy and resentment.
The overriding sense of failure and disappointment devaluates glory and success as anything that is achieved is viewed in a cavilling light. Modernisation, marriage, and parenthood are all analysed until fault appears – the simple blunt declaration that “they fuck you up your mum and dad they mean not mean to but they do” in ‘This be the verse’ dismisses the effort made by parents to raise their children. Likewise the simplicity and initial joy of life in ‘Days’ that are “to be happy in: where can we live but days? is shattered by the ominous hints of death with the “priest and the doctor”.
Perhaps this suggests an afterlife, however Larkin’s strong views and attacks on the nature of religion and people’s beliefs such as in ‘Church Going’ where the poetic voice ends “at a loss” after visiting the church declared as a “special shell” which will inevitably “like belief…. die” would seem to contradict this. Larkin seems preoccupied with failure and seeks out disappointment, which invariably echoes in life and crushes that which is held as successful and gratifying.