Tag Archives: analysis

Two Types of Pessimism

Thomas Hardy’s comprehensively if not especially catchily titled collection Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses includes an introduction by the author framed as an ‘Apology’ against the charges of ‘pessimism’ which dogged him his whole career.

In the piece Hardy protests that ‘what is today [this was just over a century ago, in 1922] alleged to be “pessimism” is in truth only questionings in the exploration of reality, and is the first step towards the soul’s betterment, and the body’s also.’ If way to better there be, he quotes from one of his own poems, ‘In Tenebris’, it exacts a full look at the worst.

Hardy is a profoundly pessimistic writer, sometimes to the point of perversity. Awful things happen in the books: there is one scene in Jude the Obscure that made me cry on the train. There is a lingering air of melodrama in ‘Late Lyrics’, too, where the characters (most of the poems are ballad-like stories) are forever betraying each other or encountering misfortune of some kind. He is never shy to point out that bad things happen to good people. 

In Hardy’s day, the charge of pessimism went hand in hand with censure, particularly over the way he challenged Victorian sexual morality and religion. Hardy’s universe does not appear to have a Christian God or any more abstract sense of benevolence.

What is interesting about the ‘Apology’ is that Hardy does not say simply that ‘what is alleged to be “pessimism”’ is simply how the world is or appears to him – which is what his most famous acolyte Philip Larkin did whenever he was accused of a similar attitude.1 It could be that Hardy felt that gambit was unnecessary: he was describing Victorian rural life as he witnessed it, with all its attendant cruelties.

Instead, Hardy takes his critics on their own turf and defends his perspective as useful – even positive. ‘Pain to all… tongued or dumb [i.e. to humans or animals],’ he writes, ‘shall be kept down to a minimum by lovingkindness operating through scientific knowledge, and activated by the modicum of freewill conjecturally possessed by organic life when the mighty necessitating forces – unconscious or other… happen to be in equilibrium, which may or may not be often.’

If this is hope it is incredibly qualified and not a little obscure. But despite the forbidding grandeur of phrases like ‘mighty necessitating forces’ there is a recognisable, positive philosophy here in which compassion is linked to finding and applying rational solutions to moral and social problems.

In a reissue of his first collection, The North Ship, Philip Larkin says that, shortly after those poems were published he threw off the influence of W. B. Yeats’s symbolism in favour of Hardy’s more plain style, paving the way for the ‘mature’ Larkin voice of The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings.

Critics have largely gone along with this story, though some suggest Yeats’s influence might have been stronger, and continued longer, than Larkin let on. But you don’t, I think, admire a writer to the extent of identifying yourself with them, as Larkin did with Hardy, without also engaging with their broader vision. Which makes the differences in their ‘pessimism’ particularly telling.  

Two key themes that Larkin and Hardy have in common is their attentiveness to suffering and their tendency to attack the sexual morality of their day. Hardy’s ‘Apology’ makes him out to be in some ways a good Victorian liberal, holding out for ways of alleviating human misery and for a time when people can love according to their true selves, even if this rarely happens for the characters in his work.

For Larkin, on the other hand, suffering and sexual privation – for him, the two were usually associated with one another – were not problems to be resolved but states which offered insight into the true nature of life, and which became the starting point of his own poems. Larkin takes Hardy’s so-called pessimism (which Hardy claims is only a qualified hope for others) and turns it into something both more personal and more intractable – almost a kind of mysticism.


1 See for example the remarkable interview with John Haffenden, subsequently published in Viewpoints: poets in conversation with John Haffenden (Faber, 1981) and Further Requirements (Faber, 2001). Haffenden presses Larkin on this point several times.

NB the cover picture is a detail of an 1983 etching of Thomas Hardy by William Strang (National Gallery of Scotland)

Are we being educated here?

In one of the lectures given while he was Oxford Professor of Poetry, on ‘clarity and obscurity’, the now Poet Laureate Simon Armitage recalled attending a poetry reading with a non-poet friend (all the lectures are available to listen to here).

After the reading, the friend asks Armitage about the mini-introductions the readers had given to their poems: why, his friend wants to know, don’t they put them in the books? In reply, Armitage reels off various defences – a book is a privileged space, that any one explanation might preclude other readings.

“I still think they should put them in the books,” his friend says. “Or in the poem.”

While he doesn’t go as far as advocating for written intros, Armitage goes on to describe how poems can be more or less generous with the information they offer, and suggests that the modern tendency to hold something back – those references which have a personal, or particular, but unexplained resonance – is an attempt by poets to recreate the kind of enigma which form previously provided.

Free verse is sometimes defended as a more inclusive way of writing, so it is curious that it often goes hand in hand with obfuscation, deliberate or otherwise. What, Armitage asks, if obscurity is just another ‘club membership by which the ignorant and uninformed are kept outside the door’?

Several of the examples of the poems Armitage discusses are ekphrastic poetry: responses to works of art. He shows how some contemporary examples require the reader to be familiar with niche works of art (allowing for the fact nicheness is relative). Other poems do not even reference the work they are responding to: only someone ‘in the know’ would know the poem is a response at all.

What, Armitage asks, is the thought process behind deciding not to give the reader this kind of information? And what does that say about our responsibilities as readers?

By contrast, W. H. Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, one of my favourite poems full stop, describes the whole picture: it takes what Armitage calls a ‘belt and braces’ approach, even at the risk of providing ‘unnecessary subtitles’ to a familiar image.

That image, The Fall of Icarus by Breughel, was not familiar to me when I first read the poem, though I knew the myth. But that is the point. The poem still works: it might even work if you didn’t know the myth, or at least make you want to seek out both the story and the picture. The enigma is in the delivery of the idea of the awful ordinariness of suffering (in the rhymes, as Armitage puts it).

I think the questions Armitage is raising are important ones, although, like him, I am not clear about the answers. There are no universal references, but poetry cannot be a private language.

I also wonder if, at least more recently, the internet has encouraged writers to feel like they can demand more of their readers. Armitage describes having to Google a sculpture in order to properly appreciate one poem. If Auden’s readers had wanted to see Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus for themselves they would have had to go to Brussels (I Googled that), or find a reproduction.


NB In the spirit of explanation, the title of this blog is taken from a line in Armitage’s lecture and the header image is an excerpt from The Fall of Icarus (c.1555).

‘Their Lonely Betters’ (W. H. Auden)

There is a game which critics like to play where they trace the career of a poet and try to track the ways in which what they wrote changed over time, what those turning points say about the poet, their poems, and the times they were living in.

Like all good games, this one is endless. There are as many answers as there are people; there is always a different position to take about what the change was, or how it happened, or what ‘version’ of a poet is best. Or, like Philip Larkin did, you can pretend you are above the game by saying you don’t believe that poets ‘develop’ at all.

W. H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden had a long career. In the 1930s he was the most famous young poet of his generation in England. When he died in 1973, he was living in Austria, having left England for America just before the Second World War.

Auden is a perfect subject for the game, in two ways. He captured something in the atmosphere in the thirties in a way no other poet did, the connection between private anxiety and public foreboding, the emotions of ‘dread, guilt, disaster or disease’ which have made so many people compare then to now. But his career also has an obvious ‘turning point’ to get the game started: when the war that his poems had done so much to presage broke out, his poems changed.

John Sutherland says that Auden has two identities. On the one hand, ‘he is… the greatest English lyric poet of the 20th century,’ and, on the other, he is ‘a top-ranked American lyric poet of a rather different, more reflective character’. Larkin, writing as a young-ish man in 1955, was less charitable: Auden’s later poems too often seemed to be written ‘by someone no longer capable of strong feeling, or of conveying strong feeling in poetry, or of thinking it matters whether it is conveyed or not’.

Larkin played the ‘development’ game like a master, even as he professed his own disbelief in it. He even had an answer (‘no more than a hint’) as to why this had happened: ‘[Auden’s] decline as a poet dates from the time he cut himself off from… the insecurity that England represented’. He praises the old Auden’s ability to find, amongst that insecurity, ‘images, rhythms and phrases that completely won the reader’s confidence, no matter how little was otherwise conceded’ (those readers included Larkin, whose schoolboy poems were largely attempts to copy him).

Auden scared himself with his own precocious powers of persuasion. Later, he scrupulously revised poems to edit out, or supress entirely, moments where he thought that he had been too breezy about politics, or too certain about the truth.[1] Auden’s ability to express ‘The Age of Anxiety’ was always about more than his ability to convince, or the way in which he reflected specific responses to a specific time and place. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have lasted.

What counted was Auden’s feeling for the feeling of unease. On the one hand, he could create suspense in all the ways Larkin admired about the early poems: by being elliptical, alluding to warfare, or espionage, or actual disease, and writing in a way which makes you feel like he is leading you on a secret mission, though you have no idea what the object is, only that it probably isn’t good (‘Control of the passes, was he, saw, the key’). Auden also played against expectations by using familiar forms in unfamiliar ways, particularly the creepy bastardisations of nursery rhymes and ballads that lull the reader into thinking something innocent is going on, before pulling the rug from under you.

Auden’s consistency was in effect, not form, or even tone: he is trying to make you feel uncomfortable. ‘Their Lonely Betters’, written in Auden’s post-war period, is a good example of how his later style developed, while retaining that ability to unsettle (follow the link to read the full poem). Auden starts with a simple image of himself doing what the lucky have been doing a lot of recently: sitting in his garden, listening to the birds.

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

The tone is firmly tongue in cheek, but we are prepared for a kind of argument. Perhaps it is God withholding words from the vegetables and the birds: Auden had ‘reconverted’ to Anglicanism at this point. In any case, the argument appears perfectly legible whether you believe in a creator or not. It is the difference between humans and nature. He continues:

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,

And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

In ‘only proper’ and ‘Robin-Anthem’ already you can see the extension of that ‘garrulous, ingenious, playful-sentimental’ and ultimately going-nowhere tone of voice which convinced Larkin these later poems were devoid of feeling. The tone extends into the third stanza, which lays out the argument even clearer: ‘Not one of them was capable of lying’. This is all done in such perfect, almost too perfect rhymes, and a simple, lightly skipping rhythm: the first line or two of each stanza have an extra syllable, running down to the end, but the rest are regular. 

Something changes, however in the final stanza, and when it does, it changes the whole poem. First, there is the brilliance of the first line. It wakes you up.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

With its rolling ‘l’s, the line leaps off the tongue. That skipping, extra syllable suddenly sounds a lot more serious, an incantation rather than a going-through-the-motions. The line seems to sum up the argument so far: able to speak, people are ‘better’ than nature, but they are lonely, divorced from its certainty and happy ignorance.

The next line then seems to back this up, by letting us see the loneliness which language entails: ‘who count some days and long for certain letters’. The natural thing to expect is ‘count the days’. If someone is expecting something, we don’t usually talk about counting individual days. Or Does Auden mean that for some people, only some days ‘count’?

It’s not clear. The uncertainty stops you in your tracks. We have been stopped twice, in fact, first by the clarity of the first the line, then by the uncertainty of the second. The l in ‘long for certain letters’ picks up the speed and the skippishness of the line before, but only partly, so we also have a further sense of falling, and that sense is compounded by the early break in the third line: ‘we, too’.

It is a break in sense, too. Auden is pointing out our similarities with animals and vegetables. Some emotions are instinctive. The uncertainty which was first introduced by the word ‘some’ has been there all along.

There is a kind of mirroring between the helplessness of the person waiting for ‘certain letters’ and the flowers in the second stanza who are waiting for the bees to decide who they can ‘mate’ with.[2] It is not so much the sadness of being separated from nature that Auden is drawing out (which is, after all, not so sad — how could we be anything other?).

Dependent, as we are, on language, we are vulnerable to one another, and Auden is writing about that vulnerability, the loneliness and uncertainty which is a part of being human, of being loved and unloved, and doing so in ways which, Auden feels, we cannot control. Despite the certain-sounding rhymes of ‘weep’ and ‘keep’ (they end in consonants) the final lines land as a question, almost an accusation.

Until I wrote this thought I agreed with Larkin about Auden’s ‘development’. But there is ‘strong feeling’ here: the feeling of uncertainty. Perhaps Auden isn’t sitting so comfortably in his beach-chair after all. 


[1] This included the astonishing poem ‘Spain’, with its reference to ‘necessary murder’ in defence of the Spanish Republic (George Orwell objected), as well as another now totemic poem, ‘September 1, 1939’, where Auden changed the final line ‘we must love one another or die’ to ‘we must love one another and die’.

Larkin inherited this uncertainty. Just a year after he criticised Auden’s later work, he would write his own confident-sounding last line about love in ‘An Arundel Tomb’: ‘what will survive of us is love’. He, too, thought it too confident. It is the same line.

[2] I have stolen this point about the birds and the bees from John Sutherland’s article.

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.

‘High Windows’ (Philip Larkin)

Inevitably, I am going to talk about Philip Larkin. Inevitability is part of the universe of Philip Larkin’s poems — the inevitability of death, but also the impossibility of escaping where we come from. ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’.

The poems I’ve been writing about here have been one step removed from ‘normal’ language. Larkin stays close to speech by using it directly. Most strikingly, he swears. A lot. Expletives are par for the course in modern poems, but kids still recite that line in the playground.  

For some this nearness to real life – which, for Larkin, meant a recognition of its limits – was a limitation. Couldn’t he cheer up a little? Write with more swing? Then there is the man himself. Though his writing (and career) is shot through with a deep, genuine concern for other people he died a lonely, racist alcoholic.[1]

The question of who poets are, and how we as readers feel about them, is particularly pressing with Larkin because it is often his voice which draws you to him in the first place. He is the sweary misanthrope who writes about ordinary lives in ways that are both true and beautiful, bitter and generous.

A great deal of Larkin’s nastiness was directed at himself. About ‘High Windows’, the poem which lends its name to his final collection, he wrote ‘I don’t think it is very good: I called the book after it because I like the title.’[2]

Most writers dislike most of what they write most of the time, but the savagery of Larkin’s self-criticism still shocks. In his workbook, the final three words are replaced by ‘and fucking piss’. This is not very helpful, given I’m going to explain what I like about it. In fact, I think the way ‘High Windows’ works says something important about how poetry works in general.

‘High Windows’ kicks off with somebody chatting away. This is the classic ‘Larkin’ persona, a frank enough observer of post-war society to talk about sex, but an outsider (a creepy one at that):

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s   
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm
[…]

But a Larkin poem, and this one especially, is also a series of different voices. This is one of the things I like about them.[3] ‘You use them when you want to shock.’ Larkin wrote about swear words: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever shocked for the sake of shocking.’ [4] The next stanza adds another category of person, old people, and the language shifts again:

I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—   
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester
[…]

You could argue there are as many voices in a poem as there are strong words, which is to say, words with associations, words which put us in mind of people or ways of life which aren’t directly represented in the poem. Now we are in the realm of social analysis. It is Larkin the librarian talking: the language (‘bonds and gestures’) is almost academic.

Having warmed up, Larkin shifts tone again, dramatically, by imagining a specific voice, this one italicised to make it clear it is meant to be a reported speech. This voice is still recognisably Larkin-ish – bitter, ironic — but it’s not Larkin himself. Instead he imagines someone ‘old’ observing his own generation, jealous of their freedoms:    

[…] He
And his lot will all go down the long slide   
Like free bloody birds.

The italics draw the reader in, convincing you that you are at least dealing with a real, fallible person, however unfamiliar or uncomfortable their perspective might be. Throughout Larkin’s poems the uncertainty and self-criticism sits alongside grand generalisations about life: the latter wouldn’t hit so hard if they weren’t accompanied by the former.

The shifting of tones I am talking about here performs a complimentary, but different, function. For one thing, hopping between voices is just more fun than being talked at, endlessly: it adds variety. But I also find something refreshing about the way a poem can hold so many different perspectives together in one place, if only for a moment.

It is like the opposite of a Zoom call: you get something like an encounter with a series of genuinely individual voices, but also, at the same time — whether through the sheer weight of voices, or that ‘third person’ voice used for sweeping metaphors or grand, universal statements — a momentary sense of coherence. And you get both sensations, the personal and the collective, without the unwelcome, impossible demand of having to commit entirely to one or the other, either fully empathising with another person or submitting yourself to some greater, impersonal whole.

This is one way of thinking about why poetry might be valuable, now, in lockdown, although it’s only a version of why it’s always been valuable. If poems were only about helping us to empathise with other people, the current vogue for them would suggest that, usually, we get our fill of that elsewhere.

But poems are something else: a movement between self and not-self. No other art, and no part of normal life, does this in quite the same way. If people are turning to poems now it might be because our understanding of who we are, and how we relate to other people, is under such pressure.

You can see this in the difference between a poem on a page and a poem read out loud. Philip Larkin was recorded reading many of his poems and I find it curious to hear how he intended them to be read. Inevitably any reader only has one voice, and one voice is all it takes to break the spell.

Larkin once said he didn’t want to be a professional poet, working the lecture circuit, because he wouldn’t want to go around ‘pretending to be himself’. This is another of those self-deprecatory remarks that hides a serious point about the difference between the poet and the poem: by manipulating tone on the page, the writer gives the poem a life beyond them. All of this comes together in that astonishing last stanza:

[…] And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:   
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The tone shifts decisively, for the final time. Here is that universality, the grand statement, the highly symbolic image of the window with the blue sky behind it. Larkin’s reflection on the way different generations see each other has led him to see the way they are each part of something bigger, which is a kind of nothingness, which is a kind of freedom. But we have been prepared for this as readers, precisely because he has worked his way through a series of individual voices first.

It is as if the journey from being ‘Larkin’ at the beginning, through the various other guises, has stripped him of that overbearing personality which announced itself so forcefully at the beginning. The poem is a kind of ‘long slide’.

That is why the recording of Larkin reading ‘High Windows’ doesn’t work for me: it fails on the final word, where Larkin — pretending to be himself — stresses ‘endless’ like someone lost or confused, or slightly afraid of the sublimity of it all. The suspense only holds on the page.   


1. Larkin said that deprivation was for him ‘what daffodils were to Wordsworth’. That one line remains probably the best key to the poems and the person.

2. Larkin said: ‘It’s a true poem. One longs for infinity and absence, the beauty of somewhere you’re not. It shows humanity as a series of oppressions, and one wants to be somewhere where there’s neither oppressed nor oppressor, just freedom. It may not be very articulate.’ (From The Complete Poems edited by Archie Burnett.)

3. Larkin originally wanted to write novels. He published two — Jill and A Girl in Winter, both very different, and both a little uncertain, yet both as beautifully written as the poems. With typical self-deprecation Larkin said ‘he wasn’t interested in other people enough to be an author’. What he was signalling, however, was that he at least knew that being interested in other people was important. He knew what he lacked. By comparison, you do not come away from T. S. Eliot’s poetry thinking he has any real interest in the way other people feel. But Eliot was a publisher who also wrote a lot of criticism so his views about literature have spread, while Larkin, with the obvious exception of the poems, and a long career reviewing jazz records, largely kept his mouth shut.

4. He said it was ‘part of the palette’, (i.e. not necessarily his) which implies he was recording what he was hearing. You can tell Larkin was self-conscious about the swearing, because he brings it up unpromoted: ‘I have a new collection of poems coming out early next month. My advance copy seems full of four-letter words, not at all likely to please a JP! Perhaps you can ban it.’ The person he was writing to had just been made a magistrate. When Larkin started writing publishers could still be prosecuted for ‘obscenity’. (The Complete Poems)

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.

‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ (Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop is (maybe) most famous for her poems of place: she spent much of her life living in South America and wrote collections called Questions of Travel and Geography III (there was no ‘I’ or ‘II’). ‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ was written while working at the Library of Congress in Washington, in an office which looked across to the vast white wedding-cake ‘Capitol’ building which houses the US House of Congress — the capitalised ‘Dome’ of the poem.

View of the Capitol’ sounds like an austere painting, but the poem gently mocks the seriousness of its surroundings. It does what it says on the tin: it is what she sees – and her experience of seeing it. 

Moving from left to left, the light
is heavy on the Dome, and coarse.
One small lunette turns it aside
and blankly stares off to the side
like a big white old wall-eyed horse.

We start with this description of sunlight moving across the dome. It’s a light airy poem. Bishop apparently called it ‘trivial’. I like it as much as any of her serious ones. There may be trivial or non-trivial American allusions I don’t pick up here too. There are some similarities with Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’: the use of ordinary, unpoetic language, the touch of the surreal in the imagery. The lunette, for instance, which I think is a kind of window, is compared to a horse.

Running through the entire poem, until the final stanza, there is a regular, unbroken metre of four beats to a line. But Bishop deliberately undermines that metre from the beginning. ‘A big white old wall-eyed horse’ feels a beat too long. I don’t think it is: but the vowels are long. Also, there are four adjectives where you expect three. The gap ‘old’ creates between the two ‘wh’ sounds slow you down too. It is slightly ugly, in a good way. Later in the poem, a brass band appears.  

On the east steps the Air Force Band
in uniforms of Air Force blue
is playing hard and loud, but – queer –
the music doesn’t quite come through.

The Air Force band is dressed in Air Force blue. The repetition is a kind of faux naivety: you’re not supposed to repeat words. Here, it contributes to the ease with which the poem moves forward. It helps that the word ‘Air Force’ is light and breezy, too. Air doesn’t sound like anything, but the word ‘air’ hardly exists either. There are no hard consonants in ‘force’.

But the music ‘doesn’t quite come through’: it comes in snatches, caught in the ‘giant trees’ like ‘gold dust’. The next stanza paints a pathetic picture: the leaves wave ‘limp stripes’ of sound into the air. The metaphor itself is a bit limp. It stretches too far. What’s in strips, the sound? Or is it still something to do with the trees? I think the idea is that the sound takes on the shape of the gaps in the trees.

Yet, in the final stanza, this set up – the indeterminacy – resolves itself:

Great shades, edge over,
give the music room.
The gathered brasses want to go
boom — boom.

Bishop asks the trees to ‘edge over’. The ‘gathered brasses’ of the band (gathered like a herd of animals) want to ‘boom — boom’. If you’re not supposed to repeat words, you’re definitely not supposed to just print out the sounds. These rules may just be a product of my id — I don’t believe in them, but I’m sure someone does. Even the brasses seem a bit pathetic: they ‘want’ to make an impressive sound but the stilted rhythm undermines them. The ‘boom’, in short, is deliberately childish. Bishop brings the military band down to size: the climax is an anti-climax. 

If the brasses are brought down to size, the ‘great shades’ are promoted. Bishop asks them, politely, if they could ‘edge over’. But the act of asking, like the notion that the brasses could ‘want’ to boom, isn’t just playful: this is how it looks and sounds. We are sitting at the window with Bishop. We can imagine, from here, willing the trees to just edge over a bit, see the sound of the brasses trapped in the leaves, feel the distance – the way the different senses overlap.

The American poet and novelist Ben Lerner has a theory that all poems are failures because they attempt to represent the ‘perfect’ poem which we all have in our head and this isn’t possible (I paraphrase). I don’t agree. The experience here is the playfulness of seeing and you can’t fail at that. If you could, you wouldn’t be playing.    

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.