Philip Larkin’s 1964 volume, The Whitsun Weddings, contains two poems describing train-journeys. One of them is the volume’s title-poem and is one of the most famous (and best-loved) poems in English since the Second World War; it has been said that with this work he brought a whole new English landscape into poetry. The other poem, entitled “Here,” is not quite so well-known but gives an equally powerful description of the English landscape—and perhaps a rather more unsettling one. It describes the reverse-journey to the one depicted in “The Whitsun Weddings,” from London to Larkin’s home-town, Hull—and beyond. It is, indeed, the “beyond” that is so peculiarly powerful and unsettling a factor in this poem.
Although it opens the volume, we know from Anthony Thwaite’s chronological reordering of the poems in his edition of The Collected Poems that it was actually written three years after “The Whitsun Weddings,” and it can in some ways be seen as a reappraisal of the experience recounted in the earlier poem. Or rather, while “The Whitsun Weddings” recounts in close detail a particular journey on a specific day, the poet seems determined in the later poem to reconsider the experience of travel, removing all personal traces from the description. Indeed, it seems in the end to become a poem about the abolition of personality, which is subsumed into the landscape.
[private]There is always something mysterious in the power that Larkin’s poetry exerts on the reader. Originally seen as a down-to-earth debunker of romantic pretentiousness (the title of his second volume, The Less Deceived, is significant), he is now often compared to the great Romantics. He himself has implicitly invited the comparison, declaring that “deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” which can only serve to remind us that much of Wordsworth’s own poetry was founded on deprivation; even as he celebrates daffodils or “the splendour in the grass,” he is acknowledging the fact that such visions are rare—and can never mean to him now what they once did: “The things which I have seen I now can see no more” has a tragic simplicity, and could be applied equally well to much of Larkin’s own poetry. The critic John Bayley has even compared Larkin to Keats, stating that much of his poetry seems to take place on the “cold hillside” which provides the final landscape for “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”
While Larkin would have refused to confer any special importance on his childhood experiences, there is no denying the sense of loss that underlies his poetry, which can be attributed to an acute awareness of the passing of time and youth (“the strength and pain of being young”). It was once possible to dream of “swagger[ing] the nut-strewn roads”; in part the plangent sense of yearning in his poetry derives from the knowledge that for others this dream is “undiminished somewhere.”
“Undiminished” is in fact a peculiarly Larkinian word. We find it in that brilliant late poem “Sad Steps” and in the early “Reference Back,” where he describes the “long perspectives” of time that “show us what we have as it once was, / Blindingly undiminished.” It is one of those characteristic negatively-prefixed adjectives that Christopher Ricks has pointed to as typical of Larkin’s poetry. We might add to Ricks’s observation that such negative prefixes are equally characteristic of the poetry of another great Romantic, Shelley (“unextinguished hearth,” “unawakened earth,” “Prometheus Unbound,” “unacknowledged legislator”). In both poets, the negative adjectives unfailingly evoke the positive they are supposedly denying—or they are themselves clearly positive in meaning; Larkin, who is apparently accepting Robert Frost’s injunction to learn “what to make of a diminished thing,” is in fact continually evoking the memory or the possibility of an undiminished existence.
This helps to explain those moments of apparent transcendence in Larkin’s poetry, where against all expectations the poem suddenly seems to rise to a higher plane—to go “elsewhere.” The unexpected turn in his poetry can sometimes be achieved through curious twists of syntax, as in the final sentences of “Mr Bleaney” or “Ambulances,” where the final words give a new shape and meaning to the sentence—and, consequently, to the whole poem. Often it comes about through a very deliberate shift in register; a poem that begins with the line “Groping back to bed after a piss” rises surprisingly to such rhetorical heights as “O wolves of memory! Immensements!” In “Church Going,” he moves from the comic realism of “Hatless, I take off / My cycle-clips in awkward reverence” to the stirring solemnity of “It pleases me to stand in silence here. // A serious house on serious earth it is . . .”
The persona Larkin has created in his poetry and which contributes so greatly to our sense of a distinct and individual voice, no matter how disparate the forms and subject-matters of his poems, is capable of a great range and variety of emotions. We may initially identify the voice as that of a sadly humorous pessimist, like a bookish and sexually aware Eeyore, but the persona is forever revealing unexpected depths and longings. Often enough this is the result of looking more closely and seeing things “in different terms,” as the speaker does in “Whitsun Weddings,” who eventually focuses more carefully on “what’s happening in the shade”; in so doing he opens himself to a whole new experience of life, with its varied joys and sadnesses.
However, these moments of apparent transcendence are not always achieved through an emotional shift on the part of the persona. There are some poems that consciously avoid the comic, personal touch and this is the case of “Here.” Although, as already stated, it appears to be a companion piece to “Whitsun Weddings,” Larkin deliberately eliminates all personal references. It is clearly another train-journey that is being described but we have no sense that the narrator is an actual passenger on the train. Indeed, one of the mysterious elements in this poem is precisely the point of view of the speaker.
Another way of putting it would be to say that the title itself is by no means clear: where is “Here”? The word first appears in line 10, in the second stanza: “Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster . . .” For this reason many have seen “Here” as Larkin’s “Hull poem,” the only one in which he provides a detailed description of the town and its inhabitants. However, although the movement of the opening stanza seems to be carrying us unequivocally on a train-journey northwards, destined to come to a halt in a major town, the poem—and the journey—does not in fact cease there. We are swept on beyond the city in the third stanza: “And out beyond its mortgaged wheat-fields . . .” The word “Here” is repeated three times in the last stanza, which brings the poem to a mysteriously transcendental conclusion far from the town—and far from the train-lines. The word “Here” now seems to refer to a state of mind rather than to any specific geographical location.
How does the poem achieve this mysterious power to move and to disturb? It is undeniably partly due to the mastery of its structure and the wonderful sense of balance that the poet manages to maintain. We are held somehow between stasis and movement; what we might call the syntactical energy of the poem’s first sentence, which sweeps on all the way through to stanza four, propels us forward—or rather carries us forward, since the suggestive power of the poem partly lies in the fact that we, as readers, become passengers in the poem’s steadily traveling carriage.
The balance is also to be found in the masterly way Larkin handles the descriptive details. To a certain extent one could call it a “list poem,” since much of the description consists of an accumulation of visual details:
swerving to solitude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river’s slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud . . .
There is a marvellous equilibrium here; the crowded line 6, with its simple list of five unqualified features of the landscape, is followed by the more stately line 7, which, being devoted to just one feature, actually manages to suggest the phenomenon it describes; just as the river widens out, so does the clause and (apparently) the poetic line; this is then followed by line 8, with its careful caesura and its beautifully chosen adjectives. Such subtle effects serve to avoid the possible monotony of the straightforward list, and to give variety and movement to a poem from which, as already mentioned, the poet has deliberately effaced the personal point of view.
This self-effacement is most clearly manifest in the second stanza, when the sentence which was begun in the first stanza reaches its main verb. Larkin here uses one of his syntactical surprises; after the present participle that opens the poem (“Swerving east”), one might now expect the sentence to continue: “We arrive,” or even just “The train arrives.” Instead, the main verb that opens the stanza (“Gathers to the surprise”) forces us to relocate ourselves syntactically—and perhaps geographically. The participle itself, it seems, acts as the subject of this verb; the effect is to make the point of view less characteristically personal than it is in most of Larkin’s poems; although the voice retains a certain note of ironic individuality, it is less clearly positioned than usual.
This remains the case in the second and third stanzas, which describe the “large town.” Again, we have the use of lists, containing elements carefully chosen and balanced:
Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster
Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water . . .
As before, he creates a sense of variety; the first line lists four architectural or urban features, while the second line gives us just two, qualified by his characteristic compound adjectives, consisting of combinations of nouns (or adverbs) and participles. The first stanza had contained just two: “harsh-named halts” and “gull-marked mud.” These epithets multiply in the second and third stanzas (“flat-faced trolleys,” “fishy-smelling / Pastoral,” “grim head-scarfed wives,” “mortgaged half-built / Edges,” “Fast-shadowed wheat-fields”).
In his description of the town, he manages to achieve a highly effective blend of the generalised and the particular. Although most of the nouns are in the plural, the descriptive epithets are so brilliantly chosen that we cannot fail to recognise that these features of the town—and its inhabitants—have been carefully observed (even if the observer, as already mentioned, has quietly effaced himself). He has succeeded in making the very ordinariness of the town a “surprise.” The residents, although seen with what might seem some ironic condescension, are at least granted the dignity of one of the few active verbs in the whole poem; they “[p]ush through plate-glass swing doors to their desires . . .”
The sentence carries us on through the city and “out beyond its mortgaged half-built / Edges.” From the bustle of the city, created so effectively with the crowded, alliterative lines, where people and consumer-objects are crammed together in consonantal clusters, we are taken again out into the emptiness of the open countryside. Larkin here uses one of his most striking enjambments, bringing this 24-line sentence to a conclusion in the opening line of the fourth stanza; he uses not only enjambment but a carefully placed poetic inversion, leaving the object of the final verb stranded in stanza three, while the subject and verb form the first half of the first line of stanza four:
And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges
Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,
Isolate villages, where removed lives
The effect is that of a visual pun—and of a deliberately stated epigram. These two words help to illuminate so much of Larkin’s poetry—and one is reminded how intensely he always seeks clarity, finding it in sometimes surprising circumstances (“Smaller and clearer as the years go by”).
After the seemingly interminable opening sentence, he gives us one of the shortest sentences in the whole poem, relying on synaesthesia for effect: “Here silence stands / Like heat.” The result is to make the reader halt and wonder whether we have finally arrived at our destination. The poem does continue, although we are at least allowed to pause. The poet then provides another of his almost anaphoric lists:
Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends . . .
We are allowed for one moment to wonder whether the leaves “thicken” and the “weeds flower” precisely because they are “unnoticed” and “hidden,” and we are perhaps invited to recall Thomas Gray’s image of the “flower born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” But before we can dwell too long on such possible allusions, the poet strikes us with one of his most brilliant compound adjectives: “luminously-peopled air.” It is as mysterious and suggestive as the “sun-comprehending glass” that concludes “High Windows.” It carries us upwards and outwards. We realise that these final lines are taking us away from the brilliantly-captured particularities of the earlier part of the poem; in one sense the images become vaguer, less sharply-focused: “bluish neutral distance,” “a beach / Of shapes and shingle.” We are being taken into a less concrete world, one of light and air. Perhaps no poet has paid such attention—such devotion, one might almost say, of this famously secular poet—to the great elemental phenomena of the sky and the sea. The final lines are deliberately simple, but superbly suggestive:
Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.
Here again are two of his characteristic negatively-prefixed adjectives; the final three words of the poem are a simple enough expression, but by being deliberately unclear in their attribution (who or what is “out of reach”?), add to the overall sense of a transcendental experience that is as overwhelming as it is mysterious. The whole poem has been building up to this final featureless vista; the adjective “unfenced” may remind us of one of his shortest but most epigrammatically powerful poems, “Wires” in the volume The Less Deceived:
The widest prairies have electric fences,
For though old cattle know they must not stray
Young steers are always scenting purer water
Not here but anywhere. Beyond the wires
Leads them to blunder up against the wires
Whose muscle-shredding violence gives no quarter.
Young steers become old cattle from that day,
Electric limits to their widest senses.
This early poem is generally read as an ironic recognition of the need for “limits” to our “widest senses”; while this may be generally true of Larkin’s poetry—and his acceptance of the restraints of formal verse is just one indication of this trait—“Here” suggests that we should also recognise that one of the reasons his poetry is so unsettlingly powerful is his equally ironic recognition of the fact that old cattle can—and do—still dream of being young steers.[/private]