This is an essay from a module I absolutely adored at QUB-British Poetry 1945-1995. I really didn’t like a lot of my degree, especially the English half but this module in my final year reignited a love of learning about literature.
Within the poetry of Philip Larkin and Tony Harrison there is a concern for a post-war Britain which is questioning and remoulding its identity; “English poets are being forced to explore not just the matter of England but what is the matter with England” (Heaney, 1976 102). The manner in which their work does so differs greatly; Larkin hails from a middle class upbringing in Coventry in the Midlands, Harrison from the working class streets of Leeds in the North. In this essay I will look at how Larkin and Harrison perceive the condition of Britain to be in a state of national decline. I will argue that Larkin is primarily concerned with a decline in security and dominance of the middle class and Harrison is preoccupied by the failings of Welfare State Britain to create true social mobility for the working class.
Britain emerged victorious from the Second World War, which lasted from 1939-1945. Victory came at a price; both in terms of having spent more than a quarter of its wealth and being economically exhausted, and also in terms of the human costs of war. Around 400,000 Britons were killed, a figure that includes soldiers and civilians. War had forced citizens to be tougher and this sense of having to engage with the absolute realities of life is reflected in the literary cannon of the time. Larkin was the most prominent poet of The Movement in which the “Neo-Romanticism of the 1940’s is denigrated and opposed” (Corcoran 79). J.D Scott, literary editor of The Spectator defines The Movement in 1954 as “bored by the despair of the 40s, not much interested in suffering, and extremely impatient of poetic sensibility” (Chatfield, The Observer, 2009). Corcoran writes that:
“The poetry’s melancholy, its sense of loss, its fatalism or weary determinism are profoundly in tune with the deepest insecurities and anxieties, hesitations and fumblings of identity of an English audience suffering the withdrawal from imperial and colonial power in the aftermath of the war” (Corcoran 87).
This absolute emotional detachment is strongly evident in “Here” in which Larkin writes vaguely of an industrial city of the North; evident in the opening lines, “Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows/And traffic all night north…” (Larkin 79), but never once feels it is of importance to name the city; “Gathers to the surprise of a large town:/Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster” (Larkin 79). Larkin presents a lyrical beauty to this apparent average view; in light of the Blitz of Britain between 1940 and 1941, the sight of unbombed buildings would perhaps be perceived as quite beautiful. If the poem had not have made explicit reference to the northward bound direction of the train’s journey, this town could be any in Britain. It portrays a Britain in which what unites citizens is the shared availing of a homogenous, consumerist culture. “ A cut-price crowd” (Larkin 79) pursue “their desires” (Larkin 79) of “Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies/Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers-“ (Larkin 79) In the desolate, fragmented Britain Harrison presents in “V.”, these elements of consumerist culture brashly stand out, “The big blue star for booze, tobacco ads,/the magnet’s monogram, the royal crest” (Harrison 220) .
It is vital to note that the poet’s voice is separate from the “cut-price crowd” (Larkin 79) who are described as “residents from raw estates” (Larkin 79). It is clear that there is a judgemental undertone to the description. In “Going. Going” this division is seen again, evident in Larkin’s choice of pronouns. “I thought it would last my time” (Larkin 133) when discussing the green fields of an idealised England “where village louts could climb” (Larkin 133) on trees and “As the bleak high-risers come/We can always escape in the car” (Larkin 133). Larkin uses “my time” (Larkin 133) not “our time”, thus insinuating separate communities which are then elaborated upon with mention of the “village louts” (Larkin 133) who would appear to be working class men. However, the most tellingly classist tones emerge in writing of the arrival of the “bleak risers” (Larkin 133) and how “we can always escape in the car” (Larkin 133). Whalen asserts that “Larkin does not give us a social ideology” (Whalen 91) yet it seems obvious that Larkin if he is to be read as social poet, is one in which condescension for the working class in British society is prominent. Paulin’s claim that Larkin has an “elitist distaste for British mass society” (Paulin 164) is supported in how Larkin dehumanises hundreds of families to the “high risers” (Larkin 133) they live in. The middle class of Britain “can always escape in the car” (Larkin 133). Even ownership of a car is a clear indicator of the class divide between the speaker in the poem and the inhabitants of the emerging town or city encroaching into the countryside. As Corcoran writes:
“The urbanity, civility and decorum of the typical Movement poem derive in part from the class backgrounds, education and academicism of some of these poets…The typical Movement poet shared some of the characteristics of the ‘coming’ class, that lower middle class newly empowered by the post-war Labour government…” (Corcoran 83).
Harrison too benefited from the socialist government of Britain in the 1940s, specifically from The Butler Education Act of 1944 which enabled bright, working class children to avail of a grammar school education. In ‘V.’ he speaks of “the places I learned Latin, and learned Greek/and left, the ground where Leeds United play” (Harrison 216). Yet “V.” chronicles a Britain in which the majority of working class men have not like Harrison, transcended the class they were born into. Both Harrison and Larkin fail to make any attempts to address the reality of post-war Britain for women. “V.” captures the crisis of identity working class men of the North were faced with under the London centric Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, determined to close the mines with no concern for mass unemployment:
“Ah’ll tell yer then what really riles a bloke,
It’s reading on their graves the jobs they did-
butcher, publican and baker. Me, I’ll croak
doing t’same nowt ah do now as a kid” (Harrison 221).
The skinheads in “V.” temporarily escape their grim reality by getting drunk at football games and vandalising the graveyard. We do not learn of any means working class women escape. Indeed having a means of escapism could be a privilege of the men, with women confined by and large to traditional roles in the home such as the presumed mother calling in the boys playing, “They never seem to tire of their ball/though I hear a woman’s voice call one inside” (Harrison 225). Larkin’s poetry is too concerned with a male crisis of identity, be it instead a middle class one. His emotional repression is a reflection on the “stiff upper lip” personality expected of English gentleman; “angry and not being allowed to show emotion, he writhes with anxiety inside that sealed bunker which is the English ethnic of privacy” (Paulin 167). The decline in the British Empire and loss of imperial influence after World War Two had a direct impact on middle class men’s sense of self-esteem and confidence shown in Larkin’s case by a letter to a friend in which he is states he is ashamed to live in a country which spends more on education than defence (Paulin 176). In “The Whitsun Weddings” the young women on the train are presented only in their aesthetics, personified by their clothes, “then the perms/The nylon gloves and jewelry-substitutes/The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochers” (Larkin 93). Both poets adhere to traditional form which reflects these crises of male identity, although Harrison finds ways to “fashion truly oppositional meanings out of fundamentally bourgeois establishment poetic forms” (Spencer 17). Harrison’s reliance on traditional form would suggest a working class doubt of his place among the British poetry establishment; the bourgeois poets such as Larkin. Harrison wants to prove he has a command over the perceived rules of writing poetry, but it is this diligence to knowing the rules that allows Harrison to simultaneously keep and break them to different extents. Harrison himself has described “metre as being for him ‘an existential need’ and, crucially, ‘like a life support system. It means I feel I can go close to the fire, deeper into the darkness’” (Astley 43). “V.” consists of 112 rhyming quatrains, perhaps from the outset appearing like a very safe choice of form. Harrison models his epic poem on Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, published in 1751. “V.” takes inspiration from Gray’s poem in also using alternately rhymed (a b a b) four line stanzas but breaks away from Gray’s steady, pensive, lumbering lines. This is most strongly evident in Harrison’s verses being laden with expletives, written in capitals to achieve maximum shock to the reader:
“how people ‘fell asleep in the Good Lord’,
brief chisellable bits from the good book
and rhymes whatever length they could afford
to CUNT, PISS, SHIT and (mostly) FUCK!” (Harrison 217).
This stanza sees Harrison offer a bold juxtaposition between the increasingly irrelevant Church and its failure to instil respect and fear in the youth of Britain of the 1980’s, whom brazenly vandalise the graveyard with obscenities. This stanza also offers a strong example of Harrison’s rejection of Received Pronunciation in his choice of words to rhyme with, most notably “book” (Harrison 217) and “FUCK!” (Harrison 217). If an individual with a Received Pronunciation accent were to read this poem aloud the rhyme would simply not exist. Harrison’s working class Leeds accent allows for full rhyme with “book” (Harrison 217) being pronounced sounding like “buck”, thus entirely rhyming with “FUCK!” (Harrison 217). Harrison’s work in this sense is reminiscent of Heaney’s awareness in “Singing School” of an Ulster dialect unnerving, like Harrison’s Northern accent, the “Lawns of elocution” (Heaney 135) when Heaney writes about sycamore trees “With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled” (Heaney, 1998 135).
Harrison’s “work shares with the bulk of English poetry its reliance on the iambic foot” (Spencer 17) but again within this apparent restriction, he finds ways to break from tradition. The first stanza of “V.” makes distance from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by disrupting the iambic beat. Gray’s poem complies strictly with pentameter; Harrison shifts within stanzas, his metre. The iambic beat is kept intact in line 2 but elsewhere is unsettled. The imagined internal dialogue in “V.” between Harrison and a skinhead allow for Harrison to include the vernacular of the working class of Leeds with his use of elision ignoring the notion that poetry should be spoken in “proper” English:
“If mi mam’s up there, don’t want to meet ‘er
listening to me list mi dirty deeds,
and ‘ave to pipe up to St fucking Peter
ah’ve been on t’dole all mi life in fucking Leeds!” (Harrison 222).
The above stanza includes four uses of elision. In contrast, Larkin’s use of pentameter Easthope argued in the 1980s highlights his outlook being compatible with the ideology of bourgeois form (Spencer 20). Running throughout Larkin’s work is a lament for the loss of order in the changing England of the 1950’s to 1970’s. In “MCMIV” the speaker yearns for pre-war Britain which had a much more entrenched class divide prior to the creation of the NHS, council housing and free schooling to secondary level for all. This romanticism of class division is seen in describing “differently-dressed servants” (Larkin 99) as “Never such innocence/Never before or since” (Larkin 99). It is doubtful if the working classes would be so romantic of pre Welfare State Britain. Harry Leslie Smith, a WW2 veteran writes in The Guardian of his sister dying of TB, which was a common cause of death for working class citizens prior to free healthcare at the point of entry (Leslie Smith, 2014). A strict adherence to pentameter fits in with this yearning for an England in which the middle class is more dominant as pentameter makes poetic verse much more compatible with RP standardised English by legislating for the number of syllables in each line, cancelling out elision and making transitions at word junctures difficult, thus promoting a middle to upper-class dialect (Spencer 17).
Larkin and Harrison struggle with the changing morals of post-war Britain, a concern cutting across classes. In “Church Going” published in 1955, the speaker clings to the tradition of Church attendance but merely for the sake of it. The poem questions the dwindling relevance of Christianity in the increasingly secular England of the 1950’s. Larkin’s lines which wonder “When churches fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into…” (Larkin 58) seem to be answered in “V.” with both Methodist and Church of England billboards which used to advertise religious messages now “are filled with cut-price toilet rolls” (Harrison 227). Thirty years later, it seems that consumerism has become the new religion of Britain. “Church Going” provides an example of Larkin departing from a tight adherence to iambic pentameter, which the majority of the poem is written in, however it is not used in every line:
“Since someone will forever be surprising” (Larkin 59).
This line is one example of breaking away from the five iambs per a line with an extra syllable present. The majority use of formal iambic pentameter is fitting to the solemn focus of the poem but the poem is both recognising the role religion plays in British society and questioning its usefulness. This element of critique ties into a break from the standard metre. The title itself presents a double meaning which can be taken plainly as going to Church, or the Church “going” from having purpose for post-war Britain. In “High Windows” Larkin offers commentary on the decline in morals in terms of the sexual liberation which began in the 1960’s. “High Windows” is published in 1971; a decade after the contraceptive pill became available on the National Health Service. Additionally, abortion is legalised in the United Kingdom (with Northern Ireland exempt) in 1968. The speaker comments enviously on teenage couples guessing “he’s fucking her and she’s/Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm” (Larkin 129) which is a “paradise” (Larkin 129) “Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives” (Larkin 129). These freer sexual mores are linked later in the poem to the speaker looking back forty years to his youth and predicting the loosening hold religion will have on sexual activity, “No God any more, or sweating in the dark//About hell and that” (Larkin 129).
The envious tone Larkin employs in “High Windows” is unusual as he is generally “a poet of failure and disenchantment” (Whalen 6) in terms of his perspective on the social condition of the Britain he finds himself living in. He harks back to an England he never knew, to an extent reminiscent of the politics embodied by Nigel Farage in United Kingdom Independence Party of today’s Britain. Indeed Heaney describes Larkin as a poet of “composed and tempered nationalism” (Heaney, 1976 100). In Harrison’s “Clearing” the beginnings of Britain becoming a multi-cultural state are documented within the second half of the poem, with the speaker’s father’s house being sold to a Jamaican family. Harrison highlights how white English residents often felt increasing immigration was a manner in which Britain was declining with the landlord’s relief at being able to sell and his racist assertion that the neighbourhood “being mostly black, ‘s on the skids” (Harrison 125). This feeling of non-whites as a threat to England’s identity is evident in “V.” as well, with Harrison’s father’s most benevolent reference to immigrants being “coloured chaps” (Harrison 226). The increasing xenophobia of England is shown in the graveyard graffiti including “a swastika with NF (National Front)’s” (Harrison 218), “PAKI GIT” (Harrison 220) and “NIGGER” (Harrison 220), stemming from low unemployment rates and working class men blaming their immigrant neighbours for taking their jobs, as opposed to failings of Thatcher’s government in providing adequate employment.
In conclusion, it can be seen in Larkin’s rejection of Neo-Romanticism there is a distinct worry for the status and security of life for the middle classes of Britain. Larkin, looks by and large, longingly to a past with a stricter feudal order. Harrison, in a much more confessional and tormented style, looks more so to the future, worried and sceptical that Britain will not be able to provide any degree of stability to the lives of the majority of working class men. Neither poet cares for the experience of women in the period of post-war Britain they find themselves living in, and both comment on the demise of Christianity’s influence over Britain. Consumerism is to paraphrase Marx, the new opium of the people.
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Larkin, P (2002) Collected Poems, London: Faber and Faber
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Chatfield, T (2009) ‘The Movement Reconsidered; edited by Zachary Leader | Book review’, The Observer, 23rd August, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/23/movement-reconsidered-amis-larkin
Clavane, A (2013) ‘Tony Harrison’s poem V is a timeless portrayal of working-class aspiration’, The Guardian, 18th February, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/18/tony-harrisons-poem-v-working-class
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Whalen, T (1986) Philip Larkin and English Poetry, Basingstoke: Macmillan.