In this collection there is a running theme of seeing and being seen. The first poem I will refer to whilst exploring this idea is ‘High Windows’. In this poem Larkin appears to be watching the younger generation, this was written at a time when the pill had just been invented and Larkin is shown to have resentment or jealousy for this vicarious freedom. The crude language used in the first stanza gives this impression;
‘When I see a couple of kids
And I guess he’s fucking her…’
This language along with the harsh ‘k’ sound throughout the stanza shows the bitterness and his longing for the freedom the younger generation have. ‘I know this is paradise’ shows the desire he feels. Larkin throughout many of his poems expresses his view of being old himself, he feels as if he is missing out on an opportunity and a freedom. He speaks of the old ‘bonds and gestures [being] pushed to one side’ explains how he can see all the old customs that he’s used to have been forgotten, this again would make him feel old. In the third stanza he says ‘I wonder if anyone looked at me, forty years back’ This not only expresses his awareness of his age, but this switches to poem around, it speaks of how the generation before him saw him the way he sees the generation after him.
Larkin’s generation got rid of the idea of heaven and hell, atheism was acceptable, people weren’t ‘sweating in the dark about hell and that’. They no longer had to worry about sins made against God, and he wonders if his elders were jealous of his religious freedom as he is of the sexual revolution. ‘Like free bloody birds’ again shows a very sarcastic and bitter side of Larkin.
In the very last stanza the image of windows are given, as if he himself is looking out. ‘The sun comprehending glass’ reflects the light but doesn’t quite reach Larkin. He speaks of what he can see beyond the glass and that is simply ‘deep blue air’, a blankness that shows ‘nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.’ The picture portrayed by this last line is that the windows may be too high to look through. The windows can also act as a barrier between him and the real world outside. The blankness in the sky that he is observing shows isolation, Larkin was an atheist trying to find meaning in life and this reflects the emptiness that he feels.
The next poem I have chosen to explore is ‘The Old Fools’. Larkin sees what old age does to people, old age is seen to scare Larkin, and in this poem he is shown to be resenting the elderly for reminding him of what will happen to him. This is clearly shown in the first stanza where Larkin asks a series of rhetorical questions such as; ‘Do they suppose its more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools…’ he uses crude language to describe their actions and behaviour, ‘and you keep pissing yourself’ shows the lack of control people have over their bodies when they grow older and Larkin appears to almost be mocking this. He then moves on to describe how he sees them sat in ‘thin continuous dreaming’ or ‘watching light move’ seeing as they haven’t got the ability to do anything else. Larkin expresses his frustration, ‘why aren’t they screaming?’ represents how Larkin doesn’t understand why they don’t put up a fight against old age. This phrase can be related to a poem by Dylan Thomas – ‘do not go gently into that good night…rage, rage against the coming of the night.’ Larkin now starts to speak about death.
‘At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever’
This describes how all the experiences you have are gone, how your mind and body disintegrate and how there is nothing beyond. ‘With no one to see’ gives the impression of no God and no one is able to see you when you’re buried in the ground.
In the third stanza Larkin speaks of ‘lightened rooms inside your head’. This describes what Larkin is considering an older mind to be like, ‘people you know, yet cant quite name’ you’re able to see and recognise the people in your thoughts but remembering their names is perhaps a step too far. Whilst they’re sat in their dreams perhaps this is what’s going through your head. ‘Some lonely rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live’ The suggestion that elderly people live ‘not here, not now but where it all happened once.’ They live in the past and in their memories. They no longer see the future, or what little of it is left. Larkin sees them knowing that is how he will end up one day.
The last poem I have chosen to use is ‘The Explosion’, the final poem in the
Collection. This poem was based o the Trimdon pit disaster in 1882. Larkin claimed to have heard a record of a folk song sung by Johnny Handle and is seen to have based this poem on it. The poem starts of straight to the point and gives an ominous feeling from the beginning. ‘Shadows pointed towards the pithead’ gives almost a premonition or a warning to the men entering the pit. ‘In the sun the slagheap slept’ also acts as a warning due to the personification of the slagheap making it almost dragon like, a monster with the potential for damage (this can also be related to the Aberfan disaster). We now see the miners entering the pit, they are shown to be working class miners, covered in soot etc; ‘coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke’ gives this impression which is key in comparison to the ending of the poem. A light-hearted moment is then created;
‘One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark’s eggs’
Showing this light-hearted moment before the disaster makes the event more tragic. Larkin describes them all as part of a family community, ‘fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter’. Their doom is once more suggested as they enter ‘tall gates’ which could be seen as representing heaven and/or hell, both of which are prefigures of death. ‘there came a tremor’ marks when the explosion happened, very little was felt above ground but the sun was ‘scarfed in a heat-haze, dimmed’. Larkin uses this to create a freeze frame.
We now skip time and move on to the funeral and the eulogy and then comes possibly one of the most significant stanzas throughout the collection where the ‘wives saw men of the explosion’ and instead of being dirty and covered in soot as they were seen before they are now seen to be ‘larger than life’ and ‘gold as in a coin’. This contrasts and gives Larkin the transendant moment he has been looking for throughout the whole collection. The men have been spiritually transformed and glorified as if angelic. This sight challenges Larkin’s atheist beliefs, where he usually sees death as nothingness he appears to accept the fact that the wives have in fact seen their husbands and that the men appear ‘walking somehow from the sun towards them’. This gives the impression that there may be something after death and ends the collection on a very positive note. This sighting of the wives is therefore very key to the collection as Larkin finally finds what he is looking for and some meaning through this vision.