Although undoubtedly there is a strong current of skepticism running through the poetry of Philip Larkin, Don W. King argues that Larkin’s use of sacramental motifs suggests a pattern illustrating an ever-present—though often muted—fascination with transcendent meaning. That is, despite Larkin’s agnosticism, his frequent focus on sacramental motifs belies the idea that he dismisses completely the possibility of there being transcendent meaning. The focus of this essay is upon the sacramental in his poetry—what it is for Larkin, its regular appearance in poems that may be better called meditations and its role in what Seamus Heaney calls the “visionary moment.” Mr. King is Professor of English at Montreat College.
A study of Philip Larkin’s four volumes of poetry, The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974), confirms that his poetry is “an affair of sanity, of seeing things as they are.”1 Typically, his is a skeptical vision; indeed, he has been called “unillusioned, with a metaphysical zero in his bones.”2 Undoubtedly there is a strong current of skepticism running through Larkin’s poetry.3 According to Philip Gardner, “the consolations of religious belief are no more available to Larkin than they were to Matthew Arnold; the ‘sea of faith’ has ebbed.”4 However, other critics, while admitting that Larkin “has often been regarded as a hopeless and inflexible pessimist,” suggest that his “poems are not as narrowly circumscribed as has often been claimed.”5 Chief among these revisionists is Seamus Heaney. Although noting that Larkin’s poetry “refuses alibis” about the “conditions of contemporary life,” Heaney writes:
There survives in him a repining for a more crystalline reality to which he might give allegiance. When that repining finds expression something opens and moments occur which deserve to be call visionary. Because he is suspicious of any easy consolation, he is sparing of such moments, yet when they come they stream into the discursive and exacting world of his poetry with such trustworthy force that they call for attention.6
Moreover, Heaney says “in the poems [Larkin] has written there is enough reach and longing to show that he does not completely settle for that well-known bargain offer, ‘a poetry of lowered sights and patently diminished expectations.’”7
What has not been discussed by these revisionists, however, is the frequency with which these moments of visionary, mystical flight, these gesturings toward the eternal land of the spirit, these moments of longing or yearning for a bygone metaphysical experience appear in Larkin’s poems containing sacramental settings, motifs, images, and symbols.8 Although individual poems such as “Church Going” and “The Building” have been partially explored from this point of view, no one has surveyed on a larger scale the sacramental in Larkin’s poetry. Accordingly, here I argue that Larkin’s use of sacramental motifs suggests a pattern illustrating an ever-present—though often muted—fascination with transcendent meaning. That is, despite Larkin’s agnosticism, his frequent focus on sacramental motifs belies the idea that he dismisses completely the possibility of there being transcendent meaning. The focus of this study, therefore, is upon the sacramental in his poetry—what it is for Larkin, its regular appearance in poems that may be better called meditations, and its role in what Heaney calls the visionary moment.9
The sacramental in Larkin’s poetry is not, of course, linked to fully realized experiences of Christian grace. While a sacrament is defined normally as a sign, seal, or symbol of Christian experience or profession—the visible means by which divine grace is sought or conferred—in Larkin’s poetry the sacramental may be defined as that which suggests a metaphysical mystery or secret somehow just beyond human understanding. It is not holy or sacred, but instead is evocative of Heaney’s visionary moment. Sometimes there is the suggestion that the speaker in one of his poems ascertains the sacramental intuitively; often this occurs unexpectedly while the speaker is meditating on some unrelated topic. This experience, while momentary, belies Larkin’s otherwise terse, slightly repressed inventory of a world “with lowered sights and patently diminished expectations.” His sacramental relics may have relinquished their transforming power, but the fact that he muses on them at all indicates they have not lost for him their mysterious, secret appeal. He is fascinated with how to interpret the sacramental in light of his own penchant for skepticism.
There are many poems where sacramental motifs—ambulances “like closed confessionals,” baptism, churches, church-substitutes, the Eucharist, faith healings, graveyards, weddings, and paradise—are used to expose visionary moments. Andrew Motion notes that the “value of rescuing the affirmative aspects of his work from neglect is not to make him seem a covertly optimistic poet but to expose the typical structure of his poems as a debate between hope and hopelessness, between fulfillment and disappointment.”10 More importantly, the argument here is not that Larkin’s use of sacramental motifs demonstrates latent Christian belief; instead, I am suggesting that his essentially skeptical view of life is tempered by sacramental motifs that suggest his “durable respect for the Christianity of the past.”11 Often his sacramental images reveal an unspoken longing for the visionary gleam once linked to metaphysical belief. It is as if these sacramental motifs, while stripped of their traditional Christian meanings, are used by Larkin to show a yearning or longing for a visionary moment.
As if to highlight Larkin’s sacramentalism, many of his poems are meditations: deep, thoughtful reflections on personal experiences. Typically, a speaker begins by contemplating a character, setting, or idea—often within a secular context—and then as he processes his thoughts there is a shift to a new and unexpected perspective. In his musings on the experience, its sacramental significance thrusts itself momentarily to the surface and challenges his skepticism. Many of these meditations contain rhetorical questions (a common occurrence in Larkin’s poetry) that the speaker appears to answer in a skeptical way while gesturing in a hesitant, fleeting way toward a metaphysical one. Frequently the speaker is surprised at the dissonance this experience causes—his long-held skepticism is undercut briefly and the glimpse of something mysterious and secret is intensely alluring. As a chronological survey of his four volumes shows, Larkin’s skeptical speaker has his cynicism modified by these visionary insights. Each volume deals progressively more directly with sacramental motifs, culminating in three poems in The Whitsun Weddings that are focused explicitly upon sacramental themes. Although his last volume, High Windows, appears initially to concern a speaker untouched by sacramental motifs, a closer examination shows that the visionary insights continue to impact and temper his skepticism.
In The North Ship sacramental motifs appear infrequently. Although words like “angel,” “grace,” “miracle,” “paradise,” “saint,” “sanctuary,” and “seraphim” dot the volume, only “To Write One Song” focuses upon a sacramental motif.12 The poem begins with a speaker who meditates on his desire to write a song “As sad as the sad wind / That walks around my bed.” He goes to a graveyard to “visit the dead,” perhaps to gain melancholic inspiration in a manner similar to the eighteenth-century “graveyard” poets. At first his visit to “Headstone and wet cross /Paths where the mourners tread” works to produce the sadness he desires; the graves help to “call up the shade of loss.” But then, unexpectedly, the morning sun floods the scene and the graveyard is no longer a place of sadness:
That stones would shine like gold Above each sodden grave, This, I had not foretold, Nor the birds’ clamour, nor The image morning gave Of more and ever more, As some vast seven-piled wave, Mane-flinging, manifold, Streams at an endless shore.
On the one hand, the graves are “sodden,” suggesting that the souls within are waterlogged, held down. On the other, the unexpected moment when the grave-yard is washed in golden sunlight suggests a visionary insight akin to Thomas Hardy’s in “The Darkling Thrush” when the speaker there is encouraged by the bird’s song: “That I could think there trembled through / His happy good-night air / Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.”13 Here, Larkin’s speaker is clearly surprised: “This, I had not foretold.” Furthermore, that this image gathers itself up into a “seven-piled wave” to stream “at an endless shore” is an apt ending to a paradoxically visionary moment: affirmation in a graveyard. Although it would be stretching things to say that this affirmation may carry with it traditional Christian overtones akin to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” it is possible to say that a mysterious, unexpected transaction occurs catching the speaker off-guard in this short meditation.
Larkin’s second volume, The Less Deceived, uses religious language sparingly, but it contains his most sacramental poem.14 “Church Going,” his most anthologized poem (and deservedly so), is, according to Larkin, about “going to church, not religion. I tried to suggest this by the title—and the union of the important stages of human life—birth, marriage and death—that going to church represents.”15 In this meditation a passing bicyclist is taken completely by surprise by the strong feelings of identification he has with a rather mundane, perhaps seldom used, church. The visionary moment occurs when he tries to articulate this identification. The meditation begins as the bicyclist pauses for a few awkward moments inside a small, empty church. At first his thoughts make it just “another church” filled with religious relics: “little books,” a “small neat organ,” “some brass and stuff / Up at the holy end,” “parchment, plate, and pyx.”16 Although there is nothing special or noteworthy about the church, the fact that it is a religious place filled with sacramental associations leads him into a whimsical act of respect: “Hatless, I take off / My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.” His whimsy continues as he touches the baptismal font, looks about at the church’s successful renovation project, and then mounts the lectern to preach “here endeth.” The irony of these words as “the echoes snigger briefly” is linked to the poem’s title; that is, there is a sense in which this is a meditation about how the church is going out of use in modern life—it is irrelevant in contemporary English society. The phrase “here endeth,” therefore, suggests the church’s redundancy. On the other hand, “here endeth” suggests paradoxically that his own church going is not over, not ending, and so the echoing sniggers are directed at him from an imaginary audience.
For instance, it is clear the bicyclist enjoys, for a reason he has difficulty articulating, church going. As he leaves the church he offers an Irish sixpence (worthless or “funny” money); while the offering is in one sense irreverent, it does recall Ireland as deeply religious, and W. B. Yeats, an early influence on Larkin, whose emphasis on ritualistic ceremonies outside of traditional Christianity, is significant for this discussion. As he drops in his token offering, the bicyclist reflects:
The place was not worth stopping for. Yet stop I did: in fact I often do, And always end much at a loss like this, Wondering what to look for.
Not only has he stopped this particular time; it is clear he stops at churches often. Each time, however, he admits to being similarly frustrated: though churches apparently have no sacramental significance for him, they do have some significance that he longs to understand. At this point in his meditation, he yearns for a visionary moment (that is why he has stopped once again at this particular church), but he remains unenlightened. Thus his musings continue (perhaps this explains why “Church Going” is one of Larkin’s longer poems) as he struggles to explore what it is that draws him to stop and to visit churches.
As he plumbs the depths of his ecclesiastical attraction, he begins to wonder; actually for much of the rest of this meditation he is wondering about churches. Larkin’s use of wonder and wondering is instructive since both words support the notion of the bicyclist’s admiration, astonishment, surprise, and amazement at the incommunicable yearning he feels in churches. His wonder, his curiosity perhaps mingled with doubt, characterizes the poem until the very end. He wonders what will happen once “churches fall completely out of use.” Will they gradually become museum pieces (cathedrals “chronically on show”), deserted shells, animal stables (“let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep”), haunted houses (“unlucky” places), or magical fortresses? What will happen when the numinous, the mysterious, the secret, the sacramental, and the divine about churches fade into history? “But superstition, like belief, must die, / And what remains when disbelief has gone?” To his rhetorical question he answers: “Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress,sky, / A shape less recognizable each week, / A purpose more obscure.” At this point his skepticism deflects his wonder and the possibility for a visionary moment appears unlikely.
But then he wonders again: who will be the last people to visit churches? His first answer suggests with sustained irony that the final visitors to the church will be ecclesiastical anthropologists, antique collectors, or “Christmas-addict[s]” who will scatter through the church intent on carting off whatever they deem worthy of reclamation, in the process stripping the church of its now forgotten religious dignity. However, his second answer is very revealing since he wonders if the final visitors will include someone like himself:
Or will he be my representative, Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt So long and equably what since is found Only in separation—marriage, and birth, And death, and thoughts of these—for which was built This special shell?
Clearly his wondering here indicates a longing for the visionary; though believing the sacramental significance of churches has been undercut, he still finds himself “tending to this cross of ground” because of what it once represented and affirmed, at least on the ceremonial level—birth, marriage, and death. As Tony Whalen writes, the speaker “demonstrates a longing for its ritual integrity, its past vitality.”17 Moreover, churches are important to him because they are “the visible and outward sign of devout contemplation, bringing into focus the bearing of ethics, philosophy, and history upon human nature.”18
After this pre-visionary thought, the meditation ends in as close to a fully realized visionary moment as can be found in Larkin:
For though I’ve no idea What this accoutred frosty barn is worth, It pleases me to stand in silence here: A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognized, and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete, Since someone will forever be surprising A hunger in himself to be more serious, And gravitating with it to this ground, Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, If only that so many dead lie round.
The speaker, unable to believe in the transforming power of traditional Christian faith, yet affirms the sacramental power that churches hold on the human imagination. In them he finds his hunger or yearning for the visionary, the mysterious and the secret most nearly answered: “some will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious.” Parkinson goes too far when he argues that the poem “is a typically mid-twentieth century negative-seeming affirmation of the need for faith and of the existence of faith under the most unexpected guises and circumstances.” However, he is closer to the truth when he adds: “The connotations of the words in Larkin’s poem are used to disarm the skeptical reader of his own skepticism for long enough to persuade him to admit the necessity and legitimacy of metaphysical speculation.”19 Thus, “Church Going” is one of Larkin’s poems where the visionary moment is most nearly realized and least tempered by skepticism.
In The Whitsun Weddings there are three poems that employ sacramental motifs. In “Faith Healing,” the emphasis is on a sacramental event as Larkin investigates the phenomenon of faith healing. Both biblical authority and traditional Christian practice recognize the relationship between physical healing and personal faith. There are numerous examples of Jesus and his disciples healing people based on faith, the most notable being the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years; after she managed to touch Jesus, he said to her: “Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well” (Matt. 9:22). In addition, since Pentecost (Acts 2)out breaks of revival within the church often have been accompanied by physical manifestations including glossolalia, physical healings, and other emotional phenomena. George Whitefield, the most famous preacher during the Great Awakening of the early 18th century, frequently is considered responsible for encouraging such physical displays among those who heard him. According to one authority, “certain bodily disturbances…made their appearance in connection with some British and American revivals. Many persons were affected with violent breathings and convulsions and other physical symptoms.”20 Other reports note “emotionalized men and women weeping, groaning, shouting, jerking, and dancing, or falling into trances and torpors.”21 More recently some television evangelists have carried on this tradition.
In “Faith Healing” a detached yet interested speaker describes a contemporary faith healing service.22 “Moustached” women “in flowered frocks” are pictured as being persuaded forward during such a service by the healer’s gentle voice, “Within whose warm spring rain loving care / Each dwells some twenty seconds.” The irony of this brief twenty seconds of compassion is sustained throughout, as the healer, with his “deep, American voice,” asks “Now, dear child, What’s wrong” (emphasis Larkin) and directs “God about this eye, that knee.” Some of the women are so affected by the healer’s apparent concern and spiritual power that they linger and
...stay stiff, twitching and loud With deep hoarse tears, as if a kind of dumb And idiot child within them still survives To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice At last calls them alone, that hands have come To lift and lighten.
In these convulsed, moaning, and pathetic women Larkin explores the desperate human need for love and affection, especially the way in which many of us tend to individualize a stranger’s generalized affection, thinking it is intended for us alone. However, the poem creates a different kind of tension regarding the way the speaker and the women respond to the healer’s offer of a visionary moment. While the women embrace his touch freely, anxious to experience the sacramental power of his hands, the speaker is suspicious, willing to see in their reactions nothing but a kind of wish fulfillment. That is, though the women find comfort in their emotional and physical exertions, the speaker’s skepticism suggests his sense that theyare duped, used, and exploited.
For instance, when he shifts from description to meditation in the last stanza, he echoes the healer’s question rhetorically, “What’s wrong?” His answer is, “all’s wrong.” That is, he believes that what moves these women forward to the healer is not faith, neither theirs nor the healer’s (they do not even appear to have physical infirmities that need correction), but instead what moves them and “What’s wrong” is that “in everyone there sleeps / A sense of life lived according to love.” He says that some people’s lives gain meaning “by loving others” (these are few) while others (the many, like these moustached women) imagine “all they might have done had they been loved.” If only they had been loved, they would have been well and not ripe for the healer’s temporary solace. “What’s wrong,” the speaker goes on to intimate, is that no amount of faith, no touch from the healer, is enough to cure or heal that inner damage—a deep, lasting, and measureless awareness of life lived unloved: “That nothing cures.” He believes that the sacramental impact of the healer’s touch is only momentary:
An immense slackening ache, As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps, Spreads slowly through them—that, and the voice above Saying Dear child, and all time has disproved. (emphasis Larkin)
The simile comparing the stiff, twitching women as they slump into their renewed life of pain (their “ache”) to the weeping of the thawing “rigid landscape” is very effective in that it suggests both the coldness of a life lived without love and the fleeting nature of the healer’s supposed personal affection. These women look for a sacramental, visionary moment in the healer, but the speaker suggests it is an illusory, fleeting one.
Consequently, Larkin’s interest in faith healing has little to do with traditional Christian thought or practice; indeed, the poem seems almost to mock that tradition. Unlike “Church Going” where there was a real yearning to get behind the sacramental, the mysterious, the secret, in “Faith Healing” the speaker can only describe what he sees. When he meditates on the sacramental meaning of the moment, he dismisses it as, at best, the desperate attempts of lonely women to experience human love, or, at worst, as a sham concocted to manipulate them. Yet his skepticism is not complete. In the poem Larkin captures the innate human need to look for love and compassion in others, even if the object of such hope is a religious con man.
In “Water” Larkin takes one of the most sacred motifs of traditional Christianity and speculates on how he would give a different sacramental meaning to water if he “were called in / To construct a religion.”23 In this poem, his speaker meditates on how he would change the meaning of this sacramental element. He says that “going to church / Would entail a fording / To dry, different clothes.” Implicit in these lines are at least two Christian allusions. The first is the notion that all Christians must metaphorically ford the river of death. The most famous example of this fording occurs in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress; there Christian comes to within sight of the Celestial City, but blocking him is a deep, bridgeless river. When he attempts to ford the river, his feeble faith wavers, and he starts to sink. However, Christian recalls the Scriptural promise from Isaiah 43: 2: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.” Accordingly, Christian, inspired by his recollection of Scripture and its attendant sacramental power, finds “ground to stand upon” and is able to ford the river successfully.
The second allusion is to baptism. Larkin is recalling traditional Christianity’s teaching that baptism is a necessary symbolic identification each believer must make with Christ:
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6: 3-4)
The meaning of baptism is mysterious; Christians do not really die when they are baptized, but instead they die to the power of sin in their lives. This does not mean that they no longer sin, but that they are no longer slaves to sin. And baptism is not the start of this death to sin (it begins at the moment of spiritual conversion or regeneration), but rather it is an outward sign that this process of dying to sin has begun. Even for Christians this doctrine is mysterious (and divisive), so it is not surprising that Larkin attempts to invest it with new meaning; baptism is mysterious and as he seeks to understand it, he creates a new, personal interpretation of its meaning as a visionary moment.
For the speaker in this poem water does not function as a metaphor either for death or for Christian baptism; paradoxically, one fords the water “to dry, different clothes.” It is not a symbol of how necessary it is for believers to be immersed in a faith requiring self-sacrifice and self-denial; rather, he says one must pass through water to attain a completely new and different physical condition. Perhaps his “dry, different clothes” are meant to contrast with the traditional Christian notion of a being washed clean by the blood of Christ’s body. Yet water in his new religion does have biblical associations: “My liturgy would employ / Images of sousing, /A furious devout drench.” Here there are echoes from the creation; the deluge of rain that led to the Great Flood; the parting of the Red Sea; John’s baptism of Jesus (where the Word—the ultimate liturgy—was literally soused); Christ himself, the living well; and the river of the water of life in the final chapter of Revelation. The speaker ’s liturgical service would emphasize water primarily on the literal level as a vigorous cleansing agent; indeed, the violence suggested by the “furious, devout drench” resonates with the idea of water as an abrasive, eroding, blistering physical agent.
In the concluding lines of this meditation, the speaker tries to provide a hint of the new visionary moment water will produce in his religion:
And I should raise in the east A glass of water Where any-angled light Would congregate endlessly.
These lines picture the high priest of this newly constructed religion as raising not the traditional communion cup of Eucharist (for some the most spiritually significant sacramental image of traditional Christianity), but instead a glass of water that functions as a prism. Instead of the wine of Eucharist that represents on multiple levels the blood of Christ, including both its outpouring and its renewing power, the water of this new religion works as an affirming, refractory medium. As a prism, water might be expected to bend the light and produce the colors of the spectrum, but there is no mention of color in the poem, not even stained glass. What congregates here is “any-angled light,” endlessly; that is, though the new religion lacks the color and vibrancy of Christianity, it too is eternal, endless, offering a secular affirmation for living. Motion argues that the glass of water is “an imaginative” apprehension of endlessness, in which knowledge of time and its constraints, and of self and its shortcomings, is set aside.”24 Though as with “Church Going” the sacramental meaning of “Water” remains slightly beyond the speaker’s ability to express, he approaches the visionary moment in this meditation.
The third poem from The Whitsun Weddings employing sacramental motifs is the title poem of the volume. Pentecost (from the Greek pentekostos, meaning “fiftieth”) celebrates in the Christian church the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles as recorded in Acts 2. Pentecost Sunday or Whitsunday (from the tradition of wearing white clothes on that day) is the seventh Sunday after Easter and in the Anglican church is observed by feasts; it is also a favorite day for baptism and joining the church. A more subtle allusion may be to the “wit” that the Holy Spirit bestows (knowledge and wisdom) to worshippers on that Sunday. Marriage, a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church but not in the Anglican (and other Protestant churches), clearly carries with it sacramental associations in that a man and woman agree to set themselves apart for each other and no one else; it is a kind of holy pact between individuals sanctioned by the church. While for Larkin these particular sacramental associations may not have been important, in his poem he explores how marriage can be seen as both powerful and renewing. In the poem a detached rail traveler begins by saying:
That Whitsun, I was late getting away: Not till about One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out.25
As he travels along he notices both the heat and the lovely landscape, at first unaware of the people: “At first, I didn’t notice what a noise / The weddings made /Each station that we stopped at.” Once aware, however, he takes careful interest in all of the people connected with the wedding parties. He meditates on the grinning girls with “pomaded” hair, “parodies of fashion,” standing on the station platform; on fathers with “seamy foreheads;” on “mothers loud and fat;” and on “an uncle shouting smut.” To this he notes the cheap and tawdry dress that marks off “the girls unreally from the rest.”
Yet rather than adopt a skeptical view of these weddings, the traveler finds in them affirmation. He muses that for the fathers weddings are “huge and wholly farcical,” while the women share “the secret like a happy funeral.” The girls grip their handbags tighter and stare at a “religious wounding.” Such expressions, according to David Timms, “express the importance, even the sacredness, of marriage-days.”26 As his train rushes toward London, the traveler feels that the train is bringing, in these newlyweds, a redemptive, life-giving power, and the visionary moment is realized: “And what it held / Stood ready to be loosed and with all the power / That being changed can give.” In spite of his skepticism, he cannot help but see in these marriages power and renewal—power in the sense that human love which is the basis of marriage is implicit in these new brides and grooms and renewal in the sense that these fresh new wives and husbands may produce children and thus re-energize the population.
The poem ends with this visionary moment extended:
We slowed again, And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
Although the shower of arrows clearly has connections with Cupid’s arrows and/or sexual climax, there is a subtle sacramental invocation of the descent of the Holy Spirit associated with Whitsunday, particularly as the life-giving image of rain waters the idea that these marriages may provide the basis for renewal in the great city. Larkin, as in “Church Going,” uses sacramental resonances of marriage in “The Whitsun Weddings” to affirm human life by promoting “what is enduring rather than what is decaying.”27 Additionally, as in “Church Going” this poem is overt in its presentation of the possibility of visionary moment connected to a sacramental motif.
In High Windows two poems illustrate Larkin’s use of sacramental motifs, although skepticism appears to negate any visionary moment. As if to illustrate this, both poems utilize church-substitutes rather than churches. In “The Building” Larkin explores the role of a modern hospital as a church substitute. Barbara Everett notes that “the poem’s undertones of allusion are so ecclesiastical or metaphysical that, even at the literal level, ‘The Building’ could almost as easily be a church as a hospital.”28 The poem opens with a very somber, sober speaker who meditates deeply on death. As he thinks and observes patients in a hospital, he begins to use traditional sacramental language. For instance, people come to the hospital “to confess that something has gone wrong.” Others come “to join / The unseen congregations whose white rows / Lie set apart above.”29 The great metaphysical question (“What happens to me when I die?”) is ever present in the minds of the patients, yet they labor to keep their fears below the surface of daily life, even in a hospital where such questions must often be faced honestly. As the patients await their own diagnosis, “their eyes / Go to each other, guessing.” Though they wear a veneer of normalcy, they know that “past these doors are rooms, and rooms past those, / And more rooms yet, each one further off / And harder to return from.” Asthey fight back their fears, they try to while away the time reading torn magazines, drinking tea, or looking out the windows of this high-rise hospital. Ironically, from the windows of this hospital they can see “a locked church.” However, unlike the locked church, the hospital they are sitting in is open to all; in fact, there is easy access: “All know they are going to die. / Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end,/ And somewhere like this.”
The poem ends with a subtle shift as the patients become parishioners seeking a visionary moment:
That is what it means This clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend The thought of dying, for unless its power Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes The coming dark, though crowds each evening try With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers.
Unfortunately, these lines do not suggest that they find in the hospital a substitute for a church. Instead, the hospital is shabby, dreary, and sterile. Words like “transcend,” “cathedrals,” and “propitiatory” are ironic markers; that is, they indicate that while there is a real need for the sacramental, for a visionary moment when facing death, what the hospital offers is unsatisfactory. Though perhaps more accessible than a church (after all, the nearby church is locked), the hospital cannot “contravene the coming dark” of death, and the final lines intimate a pathetic, almost futile effort to oppose this coming darkness: “though crowds each evening try / With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers.” As a church substitute, the hospital is inadequate, and, at the same time, the local church is shut.30
“High Windows” is filled with religious terminology and ideas, and is “about the way successive generations dispense with the taboos of their predecessors.”31 Initially this meditation appears to substitute sexual climax for a sacramental visionary moment. For example, the speaker is envious of the sexual freedom enjoyed by the younger generation:
When I see a couple of kids And guess he’s fucking her and she’s Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, I know this is paradise Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives.32
His irony appears bitter as he notes that now eternal bliss no longer is reserved for the religiously faithful as a heavenly reward; instead, the sacramental image of paradise can be found in the here and now, in the heave and ho of sexual intercourse, in the momentary ecstasy of sexual climax. Although for the speaker such a paradise is surely illusory, qualified, and ironic, the young strive to be free from sexual consequence since “she’s / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm.” He goes on to say that the young can shirk off other responsibilities and duties as well: “Bonds and gestures [are] pushed to one side / Like an outdated combine harvester.” For the young, modern life is simply a pursuit of immediate, sensual thrill; they go “down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly.” Larkin’s use of “the longslide,” an allusion to the fall of man, undercuts this apparent paradise. And “endlessly” (reminiscent of “Water”) is also intended ironically. It is not that the sexually liberated young find endless or eternal happiness through their sexual freedom; rather, it is that as each new generation of the young marches forward, their pursuit of freedom is an endless process.
The scramble by the young for sexual freedom and the corresponding envy of the old leads into the second part of the poem where the speaker reflects upon his own youth “forty years back.” He notes that when he was young, the older generation thought about him as he does now about the younger generation, but with one crucial difference: forty years ago the older generation envied the freedom the young would have regarding religion:
That’ll be the life; No God any more, or sweating in the dark About hell and that, or having to die What you think of the priest. He And his lot will all go down the long slide Like free bloody birds.
Here the meditation shifts to a deeper level and begins to focus squarely on the sacramental or perhaps a desire to avoid the sacramental. The speaker considers that his elders had been certain that he and the other youth of the day would escape from the burden of religion. God would be gone, an idea whose time had passed; fear of hell would vanish; hypocritical posturing toward the clergy would be unnecessary. The youth of forty years back, so the older generation thought then, would find freedom from religion and would “all go down the long slide” to happiness. Yet here too he is being ironic, for what did they actually slide to? Possibilities include death, ennui, and terminal cultural decadence, but none of these lead to happiness. The connection between the first two parts of the meditation is the ironic idea that happiness will come when various restraints upon human behavior are lifted. Forty years back when God “was alive,” people wanted God to be gone so that they would not need to worry about his judgment (hell) nor his messengers (priests). In the speaker’s immediate present, however, the young think that if only everyone could enjoy sexual freedom, then everyone would be happy.
The third part of the poem is very reminiscent of the ending of “Water,” particularly its emphasis upon the lack of color:
And immediately 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.
Words and phrases suggesting sacramental motifs include “high windows,” “sun-comprehending glass,” and “endless.” As we examine the speaker’s use of these words, we can see that rather than finding paradise through a throwing off of restraints, he finds his skepticism tempered by a difficult to articulate, metaphysical longing that brings about an affirmation regarding human existence.
The first of these phrases, “high windows,” perhaps indirectly alludes to stained glass windows in churches where we find scenes of religious life and duty richly depicted. George Herbert’s “The Windows” compares stained glass windows in a church to a preacher:
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word? He is a brittle, crazy glass, Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford This glorious and transcendent place, To be a window through thy grace.33
In Herbert’s poem the stained glass windows preach, while in Larkin’s poem these high windows, perhaps those in a modern skyscraper, do not; they are not stained by religious art. They are transparent, silent, and crystal clear, functioning as “sun-comprehending glass.” These windows see only the bright reality of the sun (not the Son) and beyond it to the vastness of space. Accordingly, these windows “see through” the artificiality of traditional religion and its sacramental images, suggesting a “new” secular truth: that human life is without transcendent purpose and is “nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” The return to the word “endless ”is ironic. Religious and sexual freedoms are sought “endless[ly]” as ways to achieve purpose. The truth, Larkin suggests, is that neither is able to do so. There is no church, no priest, no message, no link between man and God. The “endless” truth is that human purpose and religious belief are impossible. What we are left with in the poem, however, is not despair, since the final tone of the poem is affirmative. One critic has noted about the ending of “High Windows” that though human life is ultimately a void, it is “not altogether an unfriendly void; indeed, it sounds attractive, though dizzying.”34 Ironically, the image of the high windows affirms the speaker ’s longing for the sacramental; the high windows are symbols that “manage to transcend the flow of contingent time altogether.”35
It is not the purpose of this essay to construct a religious rehabilitation of either Larkin or his poetry. Indeed, the strong undercurrent of skepticism running through his poetry precludes that possibility. Still, Larkin’s poems that employ sacramental motifs are instructive in several ways. First, although Larkin’s audience is primarily secular, it shares with him a familiarity, tenuous and distant though it may be, with many of the sacramental motifs he evokes. Consequently, Larkin uses sacramental motifs to show his audience that while for them the ceremonies, rituals, terms, and forms of traditional Christianity have lost their transcendent meaning, they retain an affirmative, secular reality.36 That is, sacramental motifs are touchstones for an investigation of meaning and purpose. Although “he clearly has no faith in inherit and reliable absolutes,” the fact “that individuals must discover and develop their own internal resources” gives these meditations “a powerful sense of affirmation.”37
Second, in spite of his own rejection of religious faith on a personal level, Larkin understands the human need for affirmation, placing him with other modern spiritual nay-sayers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Albert Camus. As Larkin examines various sacramental motifs, he muses on how they once provided humanity with ideas and objects invoking the reality of transcendent meaning. In a poem like “Church Going” Larkin values the nostalgia of days when belief in traditional Christianity was easier; indeed, it is the immortal “longings revealed by the supposed atheism of Larkin’s awareness of mortality, which continues to keep his metaphysics warm in his best known poem.”38
Third, Larkin’s attitude toward traditional Christian belief is rarely bitter or satirical; instead, as with Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy, his characteristict one regarding the difficulty or impossibility of religious faith for modern, secular man is sadness. In a poem such as “Days” from The Whitsun Weddings Larkin captures this sadness poignantly:
What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us Time and time over. They are to be happy in: Where can we live but days? Ah, solving that question Brings the priest and the doctor In their long coats Running over the fields.39
While we all struggle with the question of meaning, particularly in our post-modern era, Larkin suggests that neither traditional Christian belief nor modern psychiatry can supply the answer, even though each is eager to make the attempt. Gardner notes that Larkin’s own inability to accept traditional Christian belief may have at the back of it nothing more than Arnold’s in “Dover Beach”: “the feeling, simply, that religion may have been possible once but is now outmoded.”40 Thus, as with the speaker in Arnold’s poem, Larkin hears “the eternal note of sadness” and offers echoes of the same sadness in his poetry.
Larkin’s use of sacramental motifs indicates that whether we believe in God or not, we tend to think and conceptualize about something or someone outside of ourselves. Otherwise, for many, this is too dark, too bleak, too empty a world. In his use of sacramental motifs, Larkin tempers his characteristic skepticism found in a poem such as “Wants” from The Less Deceived:
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone: However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards However we follow the printed directions of sex However the family is photographed under the flagstaff-Beyond all this, the wish to be alone. Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs: Despite the artful tensions of the calendar, The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites, The costly aversion of the eyes from the death-Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.41
Through the visionary moments his sacramental motifs produce, Larkin communicates the innate human tendency to seek affirmation and to look outward at a meaning larger than one’s self. Motion notes that Larkin’s views link him with the long line of native English poets including William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Hardy, Edward Thomas, A. E. Housman, and W. H. Auden. All use “a moderate tone of voice and accessible language;” all are “centrally concerned with the relationship between themselves and their towns or landscapes;” and all “habitually express a sense of communion with their surrounding in exalted or even semi-mystical terms.”42 For Larkin this sense of communion is often linked to sacramental motifs, and the semi-mystical is often approached by way of a visionary moment. In the poems or mediations where this occurs, his typically skeptical view of human existence is partially tempered, and he “opens stops that he usually cares to keep muted.”43 Although these gestures toward the eternal land of the spirit are infrequent, their presence at all argues against a reading of Larkin that is limited to skepticism. At the very least there is often a tension in his poetry between his desire for a quasi-religious experience and his sense that life is a mess. This tension is essentially that of many post-moderns and explains why Larkin speaks so powerfully to them. His is a secular voice crying in the wilderness—suspicious yet longing for the visionary, the mysterious, the mystical, the sacramental.
Cite this article
- Philip Larkin, “Big Victims: Emily Dickinson and Walter de la Mare,” New Statesman 79(March 13, 1970): 368.
- Calvin Bedient, Eight Contemporary Poets (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 70.David Timms argues that Larkin’s poetry as a whole “sees life as a bleak, sometimes horrify-ing business” (Philip Larkin [New York: Harper and Row, 1973], 97). Ian Hamilton agrees andadds that the biggest problem with Larkin’s poetry is its “rather narrow range of negativeattitudes” (“Four Conversations: Philip Larkin,” London Magazine 4 [November 1964]: 102).Eric Homberger calls him “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket” (The Art of theReal [London: Dent, 1977], 74), while Geoffrey Thurley writes about Larkin’s “central dreadof satisfaction” (The Ironic Harvest [London: Arnold, 1974], 145).
- For instance, in “Kick up the fire, and let the flames break loose” from The North Ship (Lon-don: Faber and Faber, 1945), Larkin writes about the human need for companionship; hesuggests that when we are with a friend, we “prolong the talk on this or that excuse” in aneffort to avoid being alone. Unfortunately, “when the guest / Has stepped into the windystreet, and gone, / Who can confront / The instantaneous grief of being alone?” (17). Al-though we find some comfort and meaning in the company of a friend, as soon as we are leftalone, the reality of our personal isolation crashes down upon us with frightening implica-tions. Another example, “Going” from The Less Deceived (London: Marvell Press, 1955) isabout death, and, according to Andrew Motion, is the kind of poem for which Larkin “is sooften regarded as an unrelievedly pessimistic poet” (Philip Larkin [New York: Methuen, 1982],69). The poem begins with an ominously overpowering image: “There is an evening comingin / Across the fields, one never seen before, / That lights no lamps.” The approachingdarkness intimated here is suffocating, deadening, confining. In addition, it is frightening:“Silken it seems at a distance, yet / When it is drawn up over the knees and breast / It bringsno comfort” (21). This is no “down blanket” of a quiet evening bringing with it the kind ofpeace Keats writes about in his “Sonnet to Sleep”:O soft embalmer of the still midnight,Shutting with careful fingers and benignOur gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,Enshaded in forgetfulness divine.Instead, Larkin’s poem ends with a series of questions underscoring the “going” of light, or,more to the point, the coming of a vast, nullifying darkness:Where has the tree gone, that lockedEarth to sky? What is under my hands,That I cannot feel?What loads my hands down?Many poems, such as “Mr. Bleaney,” “Nothings to be Said,” and “Dockery and Son” fromThe Whitsun Weddings (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), and “The Old Fools,” “Going, Go-ing,” and “This Be the Verse” from High Windows (London: Faber and Faber, 1974) strikesimilarly skeptical chords.
- Philip Gardner, “The Wintry Drum: The Poetry of Philip Larkin,” The Dalhousie Review 48(Spring 1968): 96.
Motion, 59. In addition, C. B. Cox says that his poetry “expresses uncertainty” and “a feel-ing of rootlessness,” but “his mood is never one of despair, and often there is a deep yearningfor an escape from futility” (“Philip Larkin,” Critical Quarterly 1 [Spring 1959]: 14, 15-16).Barbara Everett argues that all of Larkin’s poems “pursue a faithfulness that will make themin some sense ‘like a heaven’: but this heaven is essentially a fallen Eden, a dwindling Para-dise glimpsed always from the outside and through a vision of limits” (“Larkin’s Eden,” English 31 [Spring 1982]: 45-46). Tony Whalen writes that “Larkin’s tendency is to record hismoment of mystical flight and at the same time hold back from the ‘swing along to theinfinite nothing’ . . . His classical attitude holds him back from the conclusiveness of faith.”Whalen also sees in some of Larkin’s poems “a gesturing toward an eternal land of the spirit”(Philip Larkin and English Poetry [Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1968], 52-53).
- Seamus Heaney, “The Main of Light,” in Larkin at Sixty, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London:Faber and Faber, 1982), 132. Later in the essay he adds that often Larkin’s skepticism is modi-fied by a mood he calls elysian, and he cites poems like “At Grass” from The Less Deceived,“MCMXIV” from The Whitsun Weddings, and “How Distant” and “The Explosion” from HighWindows as examples of this mood. All these poems, says Heaney, “are visions of ‘the oldPlatonic England,’ the light in them honeyed by attachment to a dream world that will notbe denied because it is at the foundation of the poet’s sensibility” (137).
- Heaney, 138.
- In a recent essay Robert Snyder touches upon ideas I explore in this essay: “Larkin . . .frequently qualifies such bleakness with fleeting images of a transcendental reality that liesjust beyond the verge of recovery. Latent in Larkin’s work is the implied construct of a mythicwholeness or immediacy whose unavailability in the present leaves merely the [camera-like]mapping of a desacralized sphere. For [Larkin], then, dispossession is our universal heritage,and he recurrently surveys what loss of that aboriginal ‘ground’ of being continues to mean.Read from this perspective his texts trace the outlines of a spectral ‘something’ that nowmanifests itself only as the abysm of ‘nothing’” (“Elbowing Vacancy: Philip Larkin’s Non-Places,” Papers on Language and Literature 43.2 [Spring 2007]: 116-117).
- 9I use the term “sacramental” in the broadest possible sense to include not only sacramentssuch as baptism and communion, but also matters related to the church, the human longingfor meaning, and the mysteries of human existence that perhaps suggest the transcendent.
- Motion, 72.
- Whalen, 59.
- The North Ship, 29.
- The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2. 8th Ed. (New York: Norton, 2006), 1871.
- Another poem in this volume, “Wedding-Wind” (15), focuses not on the sacramental sig-nificance of a young woman’s marriage but instead on the wind as a powerful metaphor ofher new relationship with her husband.
- Hamilton, 73. In addition, R. N. Parkinson says that “the whole tone of the poem expressesdoubts about the validity of atheism either as a creed or as an attitude.” See R. N. Parkinson,“‘To Keep Our Metaphysics Warm’: A Study of ‘Church Going,’” The CriticalSurvey 5 (Win-ter 1971): 224.
- The Less Deceived, 28-29.
- Whalen, 59.
- Parkinson, 229
- Ibid., 231.
- Benjamin Lacy, Jr., Revivals in the Midst of the Years (Hopewell, Virginia: Royal Publishers,1968 ), 27.
- Ibid., 75.
- The Whitsun Weddings, 15.
- Ibid., 20.
- Motion, 78.
- The Whitsun Weddings, 21-23.
- Timms, 119.
- Ibid., 117.
- Everett, 43.
- High Windows, 24-26.
- Everett writes that “for all its realism, the poem grows towards and into something as littleof time and place as any symbol is, a noble metaphysical construct built out of the present’sconcrete-and-glass” (44).
- Timms, 105.
- High Windows, 17.
- Mario A. Di Cesare, ed. George Herbert and the Seventeenth-Century Poets (New York: Norton,1978), 30.
- Grevel Lindop, “Being Different from Yourself: Philip Larkin in the 1970’s,” in British Po-etry Since 1970: Critical Survey, eds. Peter Jones and Michael Schmidt (Manchester: CarcanetPress, 1980), 50.
- Motion, 59.
- Motion, 60.
- 8Parkinson, 233.
- The Whitsun Weddings, 27.
- Gardner, 94.
- The Less Deceived, 22.
- Motion, 19.
- Heaney, 134.