A Study of Philip Larkin's Poetry


Although it is connected with the 'Hardy themes,' the question of free will as a theme of Larkin's poetry requires special attention. He asks if there is free will, what its limitations are, in what area it operates, or if it is all an illusion. He explores the relationship between free will and commitment, freedom and responsibility, autonomy and love. He questions why, if choice exists as a cause, it never brings desired results. He wonders if choice is a lie designed by the human ego to hide from itself actual helplessness, or whether fate or circumstance is the lie invented to rationalize weakness and insufficiency. Man seems continuously to choose, plot his course, turn in the direction charted, and land at a port that was not on the map. In poem after poem, Larkin encounters these questions, and turns them one way to reveal a partial truth and another to invalidate the revelation.

A recurring type among Larkin's characters is the 'loner,' the 'outsider', the man who chooses to choose, who asserts his individuality by refusing to become party to nature, social forms, or the will of another. To these personae, the inherent conflict between nature and mind, reality and ideality, will and necessity includes the incompatibility of participation and vision.

The speaker in "Spring" finds the price exacted for participation is blindness. He views the microcosm in the park from the vantage point of detachment. like one surveying from a hilltop, who sees the entire configuration of the battle, the deployment of its troops, Its gains and losses with a clarity of perspective denied one of the participants.

Green-shadowed people sit, or walk in rings.
Their children finger the awakened grass,
Calmly a cloud stands, calmly a bird sings,
And, flashing like a dangled looking-glass,
Sun lights the balls that bounce, the dogs that bark,
The branch-arrested mist of leaf, and me,
Threading my pursed-up way across the park,
An indigestible sterility.

Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
Is earth's most multiple, excited daughter;

And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.

The scene depicted in the first six lines is a confusion of humanity, artifacts, and nature; of young, old, animal, tree, cloud. Propelled by verbals: "set", "awakened", "stands", "sings", "flashing", one image follows another with the speed of a kaleidoscope. Yet is all "calm", "branch-arrested" as all the parts harmonize into a vision of nature like a Grecian Urn where circularity of movement is equivalent to stasis. The speaker refuses to enter the revolving, unbroken cycles of the mating season imaged in the "bouncing ball", the "walk in rings." Instead he threads linearly across the outer circumference. Different from what he views, he knows himself thinking and self-consciously sees himself moving as though in a "dangled looking-glass". He rejects spring's gratuities of excitement, flower, water, knowing they are not free. In short, he refuses to be "digested" by inhuman forces. In return for such refusal he is rewarded with a uniquely human gift--vision.

The dual idea that physical involvement precludes both sight and autonomy occurs early in Larkin's work. In poem "XXXII" of The North Ship, it occurs as a conflict between sexual love and creative impulse (a conflict which Freud insisted was actual and purportedly lived by). The speaker of the poem, after having spent a night with his lover, waits in the hotel courtyard "while she brushed her hair" and finds poetic inspiration, which had been absent for a year, now suddenly returning. It is not the girl but the inspiration that cannot be "clutched" or "forced", which is elusive, skittish, coquettish, but promises a perfection of fulfilment: