'I don't really notice where I live' : Philip Larkin's literary nationalities
Thesis or dissertation
- © 2012 Birte Wiemann. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.
[Introduction:]With the journalist’s playfulness John Haffenden implicitly accuses Philip Larkin of “narrow-mindedness” and “cultural chauvinism” in his well-documented interview from 1981. Philip Larkin replies with two counter-questions: “But honestly, how far can one really assimilate literature in another language? In the sense that you can read your own?” If it was impossible to read, understand and emotionally react to literature in a foreign language as opposed to literary works composed in one’s native language, the foreign Larkin scholar would arrive at a dead-end before he or she has even crossed the Channel to England. The appeal of Larkin’s poetry would be restricted to a relatively small English target group. Is it this specific group Larkin has in mind when he says that “you write for everybody. Or anybody who will listen”? A look at the standard works of Larkin criticism almost makes this likely; most Larkin critics are either comfortably sharing Larkin’s own nationality or are at least Irish, Scottish, Welsh, American or Canadian native speakers of English. Thus, we hardly seem to be in a position to judge safely whether Larkin’s own poetry can be assimilated elsewhere.
It is thus that Larkin’s oeuvre - prompted, to a large extent, by the poet’s own gruff assertion of comfortable insularity - is all too often perceived on narrowly English terms. Larkin’s cultural and national identity is taken for granted; his disparaging comments about abroad (“I hate being abroad. Generally speaking, the further one gets from home the greater the misery.”) are taken at face value.
Perhaps it takes the perspective of a foreign European and non-native speaker of English to crack open dated perceptions.
Indeed, Larkin’s engagement with cultural Otherness is profound. Tim Trengrove-Jones notes that “Larkin’s aesthetic took root and found its mature expression through specific moments of contact with the German, the French, and the Dutch” only to conclude paradoxically that these points of contact with the European Other cement Larkin’s position of English insularity. Larkin’s cultural identity will remain firmly English; his poetic engagement with cultural Otherness between Europe and America, however, transcends notions of petty insularity by a long stretch. His engagement with Ireland, France, America and Germany is so obviously premeditated that we can speak of literary nationalities. Jean-François Bayart’s comment that “we identify ourselves less with respect to membership in a community or a culture than with respect to the communities and cultures with which we have relations” is of particular significance in this context. Furthermore, Larkin’s negotiations of literary nationalities constantly exhibit points of contact with Marc Augé’s theory of non-place. It is against this background that the theory of the universality - as opposed to an assumed Englishness - of Larkin’s poetry is developed.
In the context of political and sociological theories of nation and cultural identity I will argue that Larkin’s identity in his poetry is expressed through an awareness of common humanity as opposed to cultural exclusiveness. Introducing the ancient Stoics’ idea of cultural identity as concentric circles that denote self, family, city, nation and so on, I will argue that the universal appeal of Larkin’s poetry lies in the fact that he is always as intimately conscious in his writing of the outermost circle of ‘common humanity’ as he is of narrower more socially, politically or geographically limited self-definitions. In this he differs from Betjeman and Hughes who remain more English than Larkin because they define themselves within the categories of the inner circles: class, nation, economic group. It is Augé’s non-place in its familiarity that enhances the impression of universality in Larkin’s work.
When Larkin mourns the loss of the “fields and farms” and “the meadows, the lanes” in “Going, Going”, elaborates on the “wind-muscled wheatfields” and the “[t]all church-towers” of “Howden and Beverley, Hedon and Patrington” in “Bridge for the Living” he negotiates not only the markers of English culture but also the (English) poetic tradition of pastoral. If Larkin’s non-place in its universal particularity comes at the Stoics’ concentric circles from the outside and touches on common humanity first, then Larkin’s version of provincialism perhaps entails sculpting the province in its particular universality as the smallest recognizable fragment within the circles of cultural identity. It is the less-deceived quality of Larkin’s approach to the poetic tradition that paradoxically makes a poem like “Here” a full-blooded pastoral.
“The Importance of Elsewhere” has often been discussed in the context of its confrontation of two national identities, English and Irish, and the poet’s evasion of his own national identity in the liminal space between them. The chapter on Ireland will explore how different Larkin’s negotiation of nationality is from, say, that of Seamus Heaney, who never seems to stop digging, constantly looks downwards and backwards and seems to remain safely within the parameters of Irish national identity. Terry Whalen states that Larkin’s “best poems written in Ireland were not necessarily about Ireland at all” thus underlining Larkin’s immunity against “that Irish impulse to name and fix”.
A reading of Patrick Kavanagh’s “My Room” against Larkin’s “Poetry of Departures” emphasises the fatality of assumed historico-political contexts to poetical works.
The strong influence of Jules Laforgue on Larkin is the cutting edge of a larger set of influences from France. Gautier, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and the Symbolistes all leave more or less visible marks on different phases of his poetry, and feed one of the main strands of his poetic style. Larkin is often seen to arrive at Laforgue via Eliot, but this chapter explores how differently both poets assimilate the French poet’s influence. Larkin’s ‘Dutch’ poem “The Card-Players” is a striking negotiation of Laforgue with one of Larkin’s very few realisations of anthropological, chthonic place.
Larkin’s English identity is clarified most effectively perhaps in juxtaposition with the familiar big brother, or brash cousin Otherness of America. Larkin’s loud confrontation with the American, or ‘international’ Modernism of ‘the mad lads’ who followed Pound perhaps distorts the picture. His work frequently echoes that of Eliot, and contains many modernist elements. From his early youth the States were a vivid country of his mind, black American jazz providing an essential element in his sensibility, and affected his poetry in subtle ways which are not always immediately evident. Larkin’s ‘jazz-poetry’ sets him in a context with the Beat poets, particularly Allen Ginsberg. However, jazz is not the sole point of contact with the USA. Indeed, Larkin engages with the poetry of the confessional poets and exhibits some striking intertextual relations with the poetry of Sylvia Plath.
Larkin’s encounters with Germany were in terms of actual visits early in his life, rather than a profound literary influence. Nevertheless it is significant that both Jill and A Girl in Winter, miss out on the opportunity to swear allegiance to England in time of war. This chapter will build on the evidence that, though ‘foreign’ rather than of any specific nationality, Katherine in A Girl in Winter is the imaginative product of Larkin’s experience of Germany. Furthermore, the allegedly German Katherine functions as the fully realized prototype for the alienated speakers in Larkin’s mature poetry.
Larkin’s almost proverbial exclamation “Foreign poetry? No!” is thus exposed as one of his characteristic masks. Indeed, the negotiation of and engagement with foreign poetry allows him to try on different literary nationalities without having to leave his cultural comfort zone. It is thus that Larkin’s poetry becomes universal.
- Department of English, The University of Hull
- Booth, James, 1945-
- Qualification level
- Qualification name
- Filesize: 1 MB