Larkin is fascinated by Time and Change. Discuss using two or three poems.
Philip Larkin is very much obsessed with death, and the transience of life- how finite it is, and how brief the journey is between birth and death. In his poetry, he attempts to put his thoughts regarding life, death, time and change, to reflect his Mind on paper.
Some of the better reflections, I thought, can be found in his poems The Trees, Annus Mirabilis and The Old Fools.
In ‘The Trees’, Larkin discusses the apparent resurrection of trees, and, in doing this, looks at the aging and death of humans, as a species.
The first two lines of the second stanza say, ‘is it that they are born again/When we grow old? No, they die, too.’ Here he mentions the renewal of a trees foliage year after year, the way a tree appears to die, and become reborn as a new tree with the coming of the new year- they ‘begin afresh’.
Trees live, just the same as all other things that live, and that life eventually ends for them, just the same as all other things that live- they live only once and die only once, but it seems (with the obvious exception of evergreens) that yearly they die, and yearly they are reborn. It’s their ‘yearly trick of looking new’.
What Larkin wanted to know was, why haven’t humans, who are at the top of the evolutionary ladder, managed to find a way to go through the cycle of life yearly as trees had done for aeons before them, and not simply build oneself up and break oneself back down again once over the course of their life?
In ‘Annus Mirabilis’, Larkin explores a different kind of change over time- the change of society’s values. The Annus Mirabilis in question here is 1963, where ‘sexual intercourse began’, ‘Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP’, the miraculous year where youth culture really showed the world it was here, and to get used to it.
Before the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll, there really was no youth culture, and people dressed like their parents, listened to their parents’ music, ate and slept like their parents and generally were expected to mirror their parents. Then, almost out of nowhere, in the 1950s, came a White man who sang the Blues and swung his hips obscenely. Today every hip-hop video has wall-to-wall honeys in metallic bikinis shaking their tail-feathers all about, but to the conservative ‘50’s, it just wasn’t on, for a young man to swing his hips in that way.
Suddenly, it felt like youths were liberated- not only in music, but in sex, as well. The ‘60’s were the time of Sexual Revolution. The Pill was invented in 1959, and prior to this time people would marry at 16, just for the sake of sex. Now that contraception was available, people felt they could have all the sex they wanted- it was the time of free love. And nobody had to marry so early any longer.
The ‘60’s was basically the decade of revolution. With the Beatles came boys with long hair who made songs about acid trips, and took music to strange new places. And then there was the Chatterley Ban.
A man named D.H. Lawrence wrote a book called Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The writing has been described as mediocre, and nothing much to get into a fuss about (I haven’t read it yet, though I plan to, but I trust this person’s opinion), but the ‘graphic sexual content’ of it got the publishers, Penguin, taken to court. People wanted the books taken off the shelves, burned, and the writer crucified. Penguin subsequently won the case, which blazed a trail for all other writers, who began to take advantage of this freedom of expression. True, there was pornography before Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but this book got erotic literature and films into the mainstream.
The general feeling in the 1960’s was one of emancipation, liberation, and freedom. The great mass social shift, the revolution, is described in the poem as ‘up till then there’d only been::::/a shame that started at sixteen’, ‘then all at once, the quarrel sank:/everyone felt the same’.
The third kind of change Larkin explores in his poetry is the gradual, but also (paradoxically) very dramatic shift to old age. He explores this in the Old Fools.
The Old Fools is about senile dementia, and begins rather cruelly. When Larkin wrote this, he would have known all about dementia, with an 89-year-old mother to look after (I don’t think he did look after her, but he would have at least visited her, on the occasion, out of a sense of duty). Larkin describes it as a ‘hideous inverted childhood’, that after the human body and sensibilia have been built up gradually from conception to birth to about age 35, from total dependence to major dependence to independence, the body begins to break down to a thing totally dependant on others for its survival, in no control of itself (‘when your mouth hangs open and drools/ and you keep on pissing yourself’)- it’s life, only inverted.
After a point, Larkin tries to be sympathetic with the old and senile- perhaps he realises that that’s where he’s headed.
The thing that strikes Larkin most about Old Age is that it comes along so gradually that it can’t be noticed by the affected party- this is what he’s really afraid of. ‘Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines-/how can they ignore it?’ ‘why aren’t they screaming?’.
Luckily for Larkin, he didn’t have to go through what he feared most, he was given a free ticket out of it by some unseen God a little early, in the form of cancer of the throat.
But Larkin tried to dismiss his fear as irrational, realising that it had to, necessarily, happen to all of us- all of us unfortunate enough to live to that age.
The poem ends with the chilling few words, ‘we shall find out’, and find out we shall. This line is rather like the line from another of his poems, ‘Ambulances’, where he writes ‘all streets, in time, are visited’.
Larkin had many fears. A fear of eternal nothingness, which is a depressing thought, even more so than the threat of Hell, which at least promises existence; a fear of old age and senility; and a fear of death.
But Larkin was also a minor philosopher, and had no time for fears. In his poetry he tried to explain to himself the various oddities of human existence.
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