Percy Bysshe Shelley once said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. To Shelley, a poet was a sort of a prophet, a foreseer, a foreboder, a minister who administrated the deepest truths and was next only to God. Reverting from this transcendence, Wordsworth looked upon the poet as “a man speaking to men” and not some superhuman creature, one whose emotions and feelings were in no way different from those of ordinary men and women. To level the fact more plainly, Philip Larkin was all that and a little more. He himself once said about his poems, that they should give his readers the feeling of “a chap chatting to chaps”. The present essay endeavours to show Philip Larkin as a distant yet sympathetic observer of various aspects of life.
“BEHOLD her, single in the field,
Yon solitary highland lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!” (The Solitary Reaper)
This was Wordsworth’s take on the bewitching beauty that he occasioned and captured with absorbing senses. Larkin, however, was of the opposite kind.
“Never such innocence,
Never before or since
As changed itself to past
Without a word—the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.” (MCMXIV)
Being an anti-Romantic himself, Larkin clearly perceived life as a bag full of gifts and burdens and not the ideal glistening bottle-ship removed from all perils and disasters. For a start, consider the poem, ‘At Grass’:
“The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane;
Then one crops grass, and moves about
The other seeming to look on-
And stands anonymous again.”
The poem is about two retired racehorses who once enjoyed wide reputation and glory in their prime, but are now reduced to anonymity and oblivion. The speaker notices that, these horses who were previously cared and dotted upon for their famed positions and the money they brought in, were now left in a neglected and dishevelled state. And that one could hardly distinguish them now in the meadows, where they tread and sometimes gallop. But the speaker suggests, that the horses are now happy (probably because they are now free of the daily toil and drudgery), and the thoughts of “stardom”, so as to imply, do not annoy them like flies. The poem is extremely meaningful and significant, as it bears deep connotations and parallels with human life. Even the common man incessantly works for a living, whether he likes it or not, and finally languishes into a state of neglect and forgetfulness.
In the poem ‘Wires’, the speaker relates that young steers or calves frequently stray into the wide prairie lands in search of purer, sweeter water, ignorant of the fact that they are electrically fenced. But their innocence is marred, once they are caught in the fences, which give no farthing to their pain and torment. The speaker says that, the young steers from that moment become old cattle, as they tend to realize their limits and never stray again. These limits, bounds, fences or wires, the speaker seems to imply, are the grimmest aspects of life from which there is no escape nor evasion.
In the poem ‘Toads’ and ‘Toads Revisited’, the speaker voices an almost common question- the drudgery of everyday life. In every sphere of life, man has to work in order to earn a living. Quite normally, not everyone likes the job, but he has to make do. The speaker calls this, “the toad work” and looks upon it as an essential evil that needs to be pitched out. Here, one needs to remember that Larkin himself disliked his job as a librarian. He considered it dull and distasteful, as he confessed it to his friend Monica Jones. This work is more the work of a mercenary drudge. The speaker admits:
“Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,
And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.”