Phillip Larkin’s distrust of myth, allusion and tradition, as announced by the poet himself (O’Neill and Callaghan, 2011, p. 167), while he admitted that this was perhaps careless on his part, it does set him apart and against the vast majority of the Western literary tradition: Homer and Virgil and the obviously mythological subject of their epics; Shakespeare and his constant allusions to pagan gods; Milton and his reworking of biblical material; all the way into contemporaries such as Hughes and Heaney.
His distrust of myth can be seen as a very bold and presumptuous point of view. Larkin, however, was hardly alone in his breaking away from tradition, as he became to be associated with what came to be called the Movement, a reaction against Neo-Romanticism of the 1930’s calling for a turning to reason and common sense over emotions and mysticism, of restrained ‘low’ rhetoric against over excessively stylised language (Regan, 1992, p. 13). While hardly a very united group on their stance on Myth, Larkin largely dismisses it claiming to have no interest in the ‘common myth-kitty’ (Larkin in O’Neill and Callaghan, 2011, p. 168). While his disbelieve in pre-established myths and ‘high’ rhetoric might very well stem from a simple reaction to the over use of classical and biblical allusions (p.167), it is intrinsic of his nature as a decidedly post-war writer (Regan, 1992, p. 23) with intentions to ground his poetry in the empirical here and now of ‘reality’. Larkin displays an aversion to extremes and foreignness resulted by a giant social trauma caused by the Second World War, which caused poets like him that matured between the Wars, to become unwilling to engage with ‘whatever is out there’ (Hughes interview in Faas, 1980. p. 201).
Ironically that brings Larkin to rely on an idealized England of the pre-war period that is, in itself, a mythical construct of nostalgic imagination. Good examples are his early poem ‘At Grass’ with its ‘classic Junes’ where people were still recognizable from each other, and the slightly more recent poem ‘MCMXIV’ where he gives history itself a mythical treatment (O’Neill and Callaghan, 2011, p. 165)
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.
Here with the idea of loss of innocence, we have another version of the myth of the fall of humankind from paradise (O’Neill and Callaghan, 2011, p. 168). This is the myth about the end of a golden era of perfection, the foreboding ‘Lasting a little while longer’, and the idea of men leaving, immediately brings to the reader the reason of such descent from grace, the War. This idyllic Elysian idea of England in the pre-war era lies at the very heart of most Larkin’s poetry (Heaney, 1997, p. 29). Movement poets are full of nostalgia and longing for an age preceding the war (p.170), possessed with the idea that they understand the way things are. Most of the initial critic defence of Larkin’s poetry comes with praise of its social realism (Regan, 1992, p. 9), his constant use of wit and irony makes for a guarded poetry (p. 18) that ranges from the bitter derision of reality to the melancholic acceptance and askance for a healing that it considers impossible. In Larkin’s poetry there is a constant looking at religion as the now dry source of spiritual healing (Whalen, 1986, p. 59). It can be seen in his ‘Church Going’ poem, where the hatless narrator takes off his ‘…cycle-clips in awkward reverence’ and poignantly claims ‘Someone would know: I don’t.’ He thinks the church is not worth stopping forth and ‘Yet stop I did: in fact I often do’. He goes on to muse on the fate of the church when belief finally dies and yet the poem ends with an acknowledgement of the lure of faith and its once held power over humankind,
A hunger in himself to be more serious, / And gravitating with it to this ground, / Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, / If only that so many dead lie round.
However, the power of the church does not come from the idea of God, but from the fact that people once believed in it. Larkin, with his paradoxical absolute denial of extremism, is confronted with what to put in the place of the now dead God (Motion, 1997: 33) and finds some degree of solace in the familiar natural and common (p. 34) and yet the spiritual void is too great and constantly screams for healing. Nonetheless, Movement poets in their cocksure belief of the superiority of their views of cool logical aloofness become stuck in their urban, academic tendencies generating poems that sometimes are nothing but tame and trivial and resulting thus in a suppression and even rejection of human possibilities for change and development (Regan, 1992, pp. 18-9).
Larkin, however, is generally considered to be a deeper poet then his Movement comrades (p.24). While not engaging with myth in a classical fashion in his poetry, Larkin deals with all the major themes of time, death, chance and choice (p.33), baring the mythic body to its bare skeletons. Ironically, to achieve this effect he was forced to create a mythology of himself (Motion, 1997, p. 50) as ‘Larkin, the myth’, the modernist hater that has nothing to do with mythical metaphors but whose personal life is mixed with his myth (Tolley, 1991, p. 1) to such an extent that its hard to tell where one starts and the other ends.
That does not mean that his poems are impossible to read with a mythic frame of mind, only that they are very hard to do so. Some poems lend themselves more easily to mythic interpretation then others such as ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ that, while demythologising the matrimony sacrament with its ‘parodies of fashion’ and ‘uncle shouting smut’, has its journey from the countryside to the city, from innocence to experience, its life journey passing through marriage in one of its many stops. Another example is ‘High Windows’ with its inversed Eden in the beginning where the narrator, by imagining two youngsters having an intercourse, knows that ‘this is paradise’ – its high windows of life looking to the ‘endless’ sky of eternal nothingness. Further examples are the eponymous trees in ‘The Trees’ with their apparent constant Antaeian renewal, and the unbroken eggs of ‘The Explosion’ which all allow themselves to certain levels of highly metaphorical and even mythical reading. It is not that Larkin did not wholly embrace the ideas of the Movement, whose very existence as an art movement was contested by some of its members, of being the art asked for by the masses (Chaterjee, 2006, p. 103) nor that he did not ultimately attempt to obtain the ‘pure individual experience’ as opposed to inherited cultural convention (Gadd, 1997, p. 7). Simply it seems impossible to completely run from metaphorical meaning as it is impossible to write in a complete vacuum and it is up to the reader to have the final word on the interpretation of a text. Another kind of myth is that of the expectations of love, which Larkin approaches and explores in several of his poetry (Regan, 1997, p. 38). Larkin then consciously shuns myth in an attempt to better capture his perception of reality through a logical mindset which generated a generally worldly and easy to follow poetry, but that is at times shallow and lacking in depth with the exceptions of when his mythic and metaphoric subconscious burst through his carefully composed poetry, either intentionally or unintentionally.
In the last three posts, I analyse the use of myth by three very different poets, all controversial in their own manner. Firstly, Ted Hughes, with his reworking of biblical and classical material in the controversial Crow, where he attempts to reach the depths of our subconscious and make meaning making clear to our conscious mind. Hughes shows the fluidity of meaning and lack of certainty of life through a somehow positive point of view with his eponymous character. I then look at Heaney, who explores the nature of political and human identity and its inherent violence, endless cycle of conflict and incongruence through the use of mythic figures such as Thor, Hercules and the goddess. Finally, I analyse Phillip Larkin, who defines himself against the use of myth creating poetry that are as snapshots of life, but becoming embroiled in the subconscious social myths of nostalgic past and incapable of completely escaping mythical metaphors such as journeys. Through them we see how myth is an important part of our psyche, comprising our attempts to understand the world around us and weaving themselves into our very subconscious.
- Chaterjee, S. K. (2006) Philip Larkin: Poetry that Build Bridges. New Delhi: Atlantic.
- Gadd, M. (1997) Myth. London: Routledge.
- Larkin, P. (1989) Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber.
- O’Neill, M. and Callaghan, M. (2011) Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry: Hardy to Mahon. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Regan, S. (1992) The Critics Debate: Philip Larkin. Basingstroke: Macmillan.
- Regan, S. (1997) New Casebooks: Philip Larkin. Basingstroke: Macmillan.
- Tolley, A. T. (1991) My Proper Ground: A Study of the work of Philip Larkin and its development. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Wagner, J. and Lundeen, J. (1998) Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos. Connecticut and London: Praeger Publishing.
- Whalen, T. A. (1986) Philip Larkin and English Poetry. Basingstoke: Palgrave
- William, G. D. (2004) Myth: A Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.