Second World War - Sample Essay
“English poets are being forced to explore not just the matter of England, but what is the matter with England” (Seamus Heaney). Discuss. It is an inevitable fact that the consumers of literature – laymen and literary critics alike – tend to group together texts and authors into separate categories, and attach to each category a number of supposedly ‘common’ characteristics and idiosyncracies which all its members apparently share. Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, and their poetry, are no exceptions.
Larkin and Hughes are often linked together when discussing English poets, and do have a number of things in common: they were born within eight years of each other, they wrote and published their poetry at similar times, and both are identified with the north of England. Both men were writing at a time when the notion of a stable and established England was being undermined, largely due to the rapid social change initiated by the termination of the Second World War.
Thus both poets were heirs to a unique poetic impulse which sought to reject the old order of modernism by employing creative and innovative forms of expression: the new consciousness of a new generation. Yet although Larkin and Hughes are frequently grouped together as ‘English post-war poets’, a term which suggest homogeneity, there is in reality more diversity in their approaches than is commonly assumed.
Indeed, while Larkin is categorised as member of ‘The Movement’ – a group of poets whose focus was “an emphatically English provincialism”1, Hughes resists overtly making England his subject matter, choosing instead to portray elemental forces in order to distance himself from the practices of ‘The Movement’. The Whitsun Weddings portrays different aspects of England, which all come together to create a recognisable vision of contemporary society. The colloquialisms and ‘low’ diction employed in the collection is perfectly suited to Larkin’s focus on ‘common’ life.
Larkin’s England is a country that has been violated by the spread of industry, and is now languishing in a state of national decline, as depicted in ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ – a poem in which an image of beauty, albeit artificial and material, is violently destroyed because it is “too good for this life”. Yet paradoxically there is an awareness that this is the only country we possess, and is therefore precious. The Whitsun Weddings faithfully presents England as it exists, so that the reader, who is imaginatively engaged with Larkin’s poetry, is able to see with clarity England’s flaws and occasional virtues.
Larkin is fascinated by the relationship between the individual self and the landscape it inhabits. 2 Particular poems in The Whitsun Weddings, such as ‘Here’, depict a geographical landscape, a rather flat portrait of England beyond which Larkin then moves by linking the physical panorama to the human condition. England is not merely a landscape, but a state of being, and a place that we inhabit physically and mentally. Yet the ultimate responsibility, that of deciding what is the matter with England, and to what extent its failings are responsible for the shortcomings of society and the individual, is left to the reader.
The success of Larkin’s poetry lies in his ability to recognise and capture common emotions and experience. In ‘Mr Bleaney’, this sense of ordinariness, even banality, is heightened by the simplicity of language and the inclusion of unremarkable details: “stub my fags / On the same saucer-souvenir”. The sparse description of the material surroundings shared by the absent Mr Bleaney and the poet reinforces the poverty of their comparative lives: “Flowered curtains, thin and frayed, / Fall to within five inches of the sill.
” The comfortless nature of the environment is extended to the general nature of existence. It is only routine that can give comfort or meaning to a life that is otherwise devoid of meaning: “he kept on plugging at the four aways–/ Likewise their yearly frame”. This sentiment is expanded in ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’, where the security of routine becomes the sole purpose of life in England: Living in England has no such excuse: These are my customs and establishments… Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.
In ‘Mr Bleaney’ the opening situation that is relevant only to the poet gives way to a vision that carries deep implications for all mankind. The awareness that: “how we live measures our own nature” is endowed with poignancy by the universalisation of sentiment; the individual “I” of earlier stanzas is replaced by the generalised pronoun “we”. It is no longer simply the predicament of the imaginative construct of Mr Bleaney: it is our predicament too. Thus the poem is a social commentary, which focuses upon the impoverished existence of the ‘common’ man.
The final two stanzas, with their complex syntax, deferred clauses and single tortured sentence, create the sensation of helplessness, which is conclusively affirmed by the final idiom “I don’t know”. This is the general conviction of ‘Mr Bleaney’: that the real meaning of life in England is permanently elusive. Rare moments of insight will only deliver frustration and resignation. Ultimately we are left with an eclipse of meaning, and a void that will be filled by routine.
An unattainable England of days gone by is recalled in ‘MCMXIV’, and a comparison is drawn between this idyllic past and modern society: Never before or since, As changed itself to past Without a word Larkin identifies the First World War as being responsible for a break in English consciousness by annihilating both the “innocence” of the time and the “grinning… moustached archaic faces”. ‘MCMXIV’ celebrates the beauty and stability of this era, in contrast to the England of frustrated expectations and disappointed that is typically characterised in ‘Essential Beauty’.
Contemporary England is presented as a place where deviation from social norms, although often desired and occasionally attempted, can never be wholly achieved because each individual destiny is at the mercy of unseen forces. ‘Dockery and Son’ dramatises the poet’s realisation that his efforts to break free from societal expectations, to become like the “strong/ Unhindered moon” by relinquishing the conventional responsibilities of materialistic culture, have not delivered the freedom he yearns.
Ultimately, the notion of choice is a fallacy: the poetic persona had the option to buy into convention, or the choice to opt out of the capitalist existence and achieve nothing. Clearly his quest to find liberty by possessing: “no son, no wife, / No house or land” has delivered nothing but the sudden: “shock / Of finding out how much had gone of life”. The poet’s acknowledgement of his own failure, and by implication the general failure of mankind, is made all the more poignant because it is a static resignation. The poet remains inert at the end of a station platform in Sheffield; he has nowhere to go, physically and imaginatively.
Our last impression of Larkin is of a passive and powerless figure, who is able to discern that, whether or not he partakes in it, life goes on regardless: “Life is first boredom, then fear, / Whether or not we use it, it goes. ” Railway imagery is a prominent component of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, a poem which comprehensively illustrates Larkin’s vision of England. The poem documents a train journey, which moves from images of landscape, through the observation of social rituals, and terminates with an intense moment of sophisticated insight, which entirely transcends contingency.
‘The Whitsun Weddings’ mirrors the momentum of the train that carries the detached Larkin and the wedding parties that invade his carriage: as the train nears it destination, the pitch and intensity of the poem are heightened. Larkin establishes himself as an individual observer, detached from the activity that surrounds him and endowed with acute abilities of perception. Thus details would be regarded by most as unworthy of note are related with an innovative originality: ” A hothouse flashed uniquely”.
The industrial and the pastoral are seen to exist side by side, the two ways of English life juxtaposed: “Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and / Canals with floatings of industrial froth”, and even united: “Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat” The constant replaying of the same social ritual soon impinges on Larkin’s consciousness. The “dozen marriages [that] got under way” possess an absurd quality: there is no distinction between any of the wedding parties that join the train.
He sees “it all again in different terms”, and the mass exodus to London by the newly married couples is played out almost like a pantomime, complete with stereotypical characters. Larkin comments on the farcical nature of the rites, often with some distaste: Mothers loud and fat; An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms, The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes, The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that Marked off the girls unreally from the rest. While each couple supposes themselves to be unique, Larkin and the reader are aware that they are merely part of a larger fabric of similar ceremonies.