Philip Larkin and His Adjectives

His Plain Far-Reaching Singleness

I have two of Philip Larkin’s poems by heart—“Sad Steps” and “Aubade”—though I admire many more, and it was while reciting the former poem silently to myself during a particularly boring meeting that I noticed a number of things for the first time, most of them related in one way or another to the poet’s use of adjectives:

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.
Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this . . .

There’s much here that’s typical Larkin, from the word “piss,” to the metrical compression of the line it ends, to the off rhyme it makes with “cleanliness.” What struck me most, though, was the adjective “cavernous” modifying “sky” in line two of the second stanza. I’d noted it before, noted the way it renders the space described at once enormous and claustrophobic. What I hadn’t seen was the allusion to Plato’s metaphor of the cave. This being Larkin, of course, there’s no sense that there is a higher world beyond the cave to which we might escape.

How had I missed this? And what else had I missed? Well, for one thing, there’s the way “cavernous” and “wind-picked,” the latter a wonderful coinage in itself, and again, an adjective, combine here to turn the land and skyscape of the poem into the Cavern of the Winds. Earlier, in the last line of the first stanza, there are “[t]he rapid clouds,” the adjective “rapid” not only indicating the relative speed of the clouds, but conjuring up an image of whitewater. It doesn’t seem too much of a leap, when imagining whitewater flowing through a cavern, to recall Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and its “stately pleasure dome” here:

Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

By the time I had gotten this far in my rereading of “Sad Steps,” I was beginning to wonder if I had misjudged, not just this particular poem, but Larkin the poet. What was the Cavern of the Winds doing here, given Larkin’s scorn for “the myth kitty”? And the brief but profound allusions to Plato and Coleridge—where these really the hallmarks of the poet who wrote “Get stewed / Books are a load of crap”? Of course, the title “Sad Steps” is itself an allusion to sonnet 168 from Astrophil and Stella, and of course Larkin, as a writer, reader, reviewer, and librarian, loved literature. He was as much the average bloke at the pub as Frost was the average New England farmer. Still . . .

In more narrowly technical terms, I was struck by how abundant adjectives are in the poem, and by how inventive Larkin’s use of them is. I realized that, at some level, I had accepted a false chain of logic that went something like this: Larkin is a master of the plain style. The plain style is characterized by a relative paucity of adjectives. Therefore, adjectives play a relatively minor role in Larkin’s poetry. While this didn’t prevent me from appreciating individual cases here and there in the poetry where the use of adjectives was crucial, it did effectively block me from seeing what those cases had in common. Once I started looking for adjectives among my favorite Larkin moments, I realized that they were everywhere. I thought of the speaker in “Dockery and Son,” and his description of himself as “[d]eath-suited, visitant,” of the “wide farms” and “short-shadowed cattle” in “The Whitsun Weddings,” and of the “harsh-named halt” and “gull-marked mud,” among numerous other examples, in “Here.”

I thought in particular of the first stanza of “Aubade,” and the speaker’s meditation on “Unresting death, a whole day nearer now.” Larkin is obviously playing off the fact that we refer to the dead as resting in peace, yet if the adjective doesn’t quite personify death, it certainly portrays it as a relentless, vaguely intelligent force—active, as opposed to the utterly passive dead. The adjective really seems to refer to at least three things simultaneously: to death, which never rests, and presumably never will, as long as anything is left alive; to the dead, who cannot be said to “rest in peace” because they cannot be said to exist in any meaningful sense; and to the speaker, who is lying awake in bed contemplating mortality. I thought, too, of the conclusion of the poem, where “The sky is white as clay, with no sun.” There the adjectival phrase “white as clay” has the finality of earth thudding on a coffin lid. Then there was the last stanza of “High Windows”:

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.

Again, it’s an adjective, “endless,” that helps to define the speaker’s existential situation. Larkin isn’t the sort of poet who plays ostentatiously with the physical appearance of texts, but the choice of “endless” as the concluding word of “High Windows” certainly encourages us to look beyond the period that marks the poem’s end to the white space beyond it, or, if we hear the poem recited, to the silence that follows. In addition, the brilliance, both figurative and literal, of “sun-comprehending” is obvious: in a poem that up to now has been relentlessly demotic, the shift to a more “poetic” diction parallels the sense of momentary exaltation that the image of “the sun comprehending glass” calls up in us. The allusion to, and variation on, the opening chapter of John’s gospel—“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not”—rings some of the same changes as the “cavernous” sky in “Sad Steps.” There, the possibility of transcendence was invoked, only to be snatched away; here, it is Christ’s incarnation and salvific presence in the world that are diminished until they are only a trick of the light.

That same instinct to simultaneously exalt and undercut is at work elsewhere in “Sad Steps” as well. Notice how much the poem owes to the adjective “laughable” in line six: “There’s something laughable about this.” A reader not prejudiced by previous knowledge of Larkin’s poetry and persona would be understandably puzzled at this point. The view described in the prior lines doesn’t seem in the least bit “laughable,” either in the sense of being comic or pathetic, and the description itself is both fresh and skillful. Obviously the speaker knows something about the landscape, or about his own reaction to it, that he hasn’t yet shared with the reader. The third stanza does little to clarify this point, as it contains a description as effective as any so far, and one of its most beautiful phrases, “Stone coloured light”:

The way the moon rushes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart,
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below
Then, in the fourth stanza, the speaker turns openly sarcastic:
High and preposterous and separate
Lozenge of love! Medallion of Art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements!

There’s a lot one could say about the ways in which Larkin manages to invoke romantic images of the moon even as he mocks them, but I’m interested here in those three adjectives, “High and preposterous and separate.” To take them individually: The moon is “high” both literally and in the sense of being the object of lofty meditations throughout the ages. Perhaps—though this may be going too far—the moon is also “high” in the sense of resembling the host held aloft at a high Anglican mass. Certainly it is literally separate in the sense that, although it appears to be part of the speaker’s view, it is in fact beyond the earth’s atmosphere, and so “not of this world.”

The middle term, “preposterous,” is the odd word out here, being the entirely subjective judgment of the speaker, and applying more to the traditions surrounding the moon, and to the speaker’s own emotional and poetic investment in those traditions, than to the moon itself. The relationship among these three terms is complex, and is made more so by the order in which they appear. Why is “preposterous” not the first or last adjective in the list of three? Either option would seem more logical, and the former would have the additional advantage of preserving the meter and rhyme. What the actual order does, however, is to reproduce the ambivalence felt by the poem’s speaker at the level of syntax.

This practice of playing adjectives not only off the noun they modify, but off of each other, in fact runs throughout the poet’s work. Here is the second stanza of MCMXIV. The scene is a small English village just before the First World War:

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day

Those “dark-clothed children,” seem already in mourning for their elders, don’t they? And the advertisements are literally made of tin, of course, but the there is also a suggestion that, just as someone with a “tin ear” will have difficulty hearing pitch and tone, so the advertisements are slightly off, slightly inappropriate given the shortages and rationing that are to come.

Even more subtle, however, is Larkin’s pairing, across an enjambment, of the adjectives “bleached” and “established.” In context, of course, there is no contradiction between the two: those names that have been printed on the blinds the longest will also be those (barring a renovation on the part of the owner) that are most thoroughly bleached away. To be “established” is to be older, and thus further along the path to oblivion. The longer one survives, the less time one has to live. And yet, the two actions, establishing and bleaching, are in a real sense opposites; in trying to do one, one attempts to avoid, or reverse, the other. To put it another way, we are doomed if we do, and doomed if we don’t, and here Larkin conveys that hard truth with marvelous economy.

But to finish up with “Sad Steps”: There’s another allusion, I think, in the penultimate stanza where Larkin uses enjambment to make us briefly consider the adjective “plain” as one more in a series of nouns (the first two of which are in turn nominalizations of adjectives):

One shivers, slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young, that it can’t come again
But is, for others, undiminished elsewhere.

The poem’s subject and the location of the speaker—he is, after all, standing at a window, looking out over a nocturnal landscape—together with the rhyme of “plain” and “pain,” allude to “Dover Beach.”

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Of course, Larkin’s take is even less optimistic: Faith is so out of the picture it does not even warrant a mention, Western culture is in part “laughable,” and to crown it all the speaker does not seem to have a beloved to address. Indeed, we could read all of “Sad Steps” as a skeptical, weary response to “Dover Beach,” itself a weary response to all that had come before it. The last adjective in the poem, and the penultimate word, “undiminished,” is wonderfully Larkinesque, in that it seems to make a promise, and to undercut that promise, at the same time. In the split second it takes the mind to register the fact that “un” is a grammatical bulwark against diminishment, the prefix registers simply as a negation, almost a diminishment in itself.

In terms of poetic models for Larkin’s use of adjectives, the most obvious seem to me to be early Auden and, most surprisingly, Dylan Thomas—surprisingly, because we’re conditioned by literary history to think of Thomas and his fellow “Apocalyptics” as the figures that Larkin and other poets of the Movement were reacting most strongly against. In fact, Larkin made no secret of his early admiration for Thomas: He mightily enjoyed the poet’s reading at Oxford, and in one of his letters from the war years, he reports subjecting a friend to a daily barrage of “jazz and Dylan Thomas.” Then there’s his suggestive mention years later, in a review of a recording Thomas made, of the Welsh poet’s “adjectival combination-punching.” Though Larkin cooled on Thomas’s poetry, it’s still possible, I think, to see the influence of the author of such phrases as “the lilting house,” “the windfall light,” and “the swallow thronged loft” in the work of his younger, soberer contemporary.

And although it’s more difficult to pin down, I suspect there is also an influence from jazz itself, at least as understood by Larkin. In his introduction to All What Jazz, the poet remarks on those elements that distinguish New Orleans jazz from the bop that followed, and in doing so describes the authentic “jazz tone” as “distinguished from ‘straight’ practice by an almost human vibrato.” Now, vibrato is a kind of musical trembling, and I would argue that Larkin is after just such an effect in his more unusual orderings and combinations of adjectives. Lest there be any doubt as to what he meant by “human vibrato,” there is this, from a brief column entitled “Vocals”:

Some years ago it started to be a form of approbation of a jazz singer to say he (or she—usually she) ‘used his voice like an instrument’. I was never very happy about it; to start with, it ran counter to the accepted theory that the basis of jazz instrumental intonation was using your instrument like a voice, and a Negro voice at that—wide vibrato, thick, rasping, and so on.

Larkin didn’t apply these dicta uncritically to the writing of poetry, of course, and certainly no one ever mistook him for the voice of Black America. Still, the ambivalences and contradictions that Larkin cultivates in his poetry at so many points do make his work more “human” and “rougher.” In the sense that they seem to point to places between or among the words on the page, those points also resemble the “bent” notes of blues, in which the player moves from one note to another via the microtones residing in, and in between, the notes recognized by Western music.

Finally, there’s a way in which these lists of adjectives emerge from and simultaneously reinforce the sense that Larkin’s is a speaking voice. We accept these very carefully chosen, often unusual, adjectives as the product of such a voice not because they necessarily sound like the sort of thing one might say in everyday conversation, but because they make us hesitate slightly and doing so convince us that the speaker himself is hesitating in the act of expression. Larkin still, for all the inventiveness he displays in deploying adjectives, manages to come across as extraordinarily—almost ostentatiously—plainspoken.

About Bill Coyle

Bill Coyle's poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including the Hudson Review, The New Criterion, the New Republic, and Poetry. He is a translator from the Swedish, and his versions of the poet Håkan Sandell have appeared in PN Review and Ars Interpres and are forthcoming in the anthology The Other Side of Landscape. Mr. Coyle teaches in the English Department at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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