Philip Larkin and The Movement

The Meaning of the Term “Movement”



The term “Movement” refers to the work of a group of poets of the nineteen-fifties. These poets were John Wain, Donald Davie, Kingsley Amis, Thorn Gunn, and a few others too. Philip Larkin was also one of the poets believed to be intimately related to the Movement. These poets were believed to have rebelled against the inflated romanticism of the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties. The work of these poets was regarded as a victory of common sense and clarity over obscurity and mystification, and of verbal restraint over stylistic excess.



Not a Well-Organized Group of Poets with a Well-Defined Programme


It has been admitted by many critics that the poets of the Movement did not exist as a coherent literary group. But it has also been admitted that these poets operated as a significant cultural influence. The Movement was the product of specific views about literature and society; and it, in its turn, helped to establish and to propagate those views. The Movement, says a critic was surely not a well-organized group of poets with a clear and consistent programme of ideas. But this group did have a shared set of values and assumptions closely related to the moods and conditions of postwar England. Many of Larkin’s poems undoubtedly reflect some of those values and assumptions. The characteristic features of the work of this group of poets might roughly be described as dissenting and nonconformist, cool, scientific, and analytical. Stylistically, the poets of this group share an avoidance of rhetoric ; and they employ an austere tone and a colloquial idiom. As for Larkin, the appearance of his poems in several anthologies of the nineteen-fifties encouraged the idea of his collaboration with the Movement. In course of time, critics began to point out several other common features in the poetry of this group. An honesty of thought and feeling was added to the clarity of expression among those features.


The Volume of Poems Entitled “New Lines”


In 1956 an anthology of poems was published under the title of “New Lines” by Robert Conquest who began generally to be regarded as the most representative poet of the Movement. It was Robert Conquest’s introduction to this anthology which largely encouraged the belief that this new poetry represented a reaction against the excesses of the romanticism of the 1940s. In this introduction, Robert Conquest asserted that the poets of the nineteen-forties had produced poems marked by a diffuse and sentimental verbiage, while the new poets (of the nineteen-fifties) believed in a rational structure and intelligible language. He further asserted that the poetry of the nineteen-fifties represented a new and healthy general stand-point, and the restoration of a sound and fruitful attitude to poetry. The new poetry, he said, was free from both mystical and logical compulsions, and was empirical in its attitude to everything. According to Robert Conquest, the new poetry (that is, the poetry of the Movement) was also characterized by anti-dogmatic attitudes and by a kind of aesthetic purity and philosophical detachment. The chief target of Robert Conquest’s criticism of the poetry of the nineteen-forties was Dylan Thomas even though he was not named.


Some Common Features of the Poetry of the Movement


A resemblance in attitudes and techniques is certainly evident in much of the poetry of the Movement that was anthologized in the 1950s and also in the nineteen-sixties, and it is useful to compare such poems as Larkin’s Deceptions and Kingsley Amis’s Alternatives, or Donald Davie’s A Christening and Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings. The use of wit and irony is a prominent feature, and this often produces a poetry which seems defensive and guarded. Much of this poetry surely strives for clarity and intelligibility; but there are poems which seem tame and trivial. The prevailing tone of the poetry of the Movement is urbane and academic; and many of the poems are too neatly prescriptive and look like pieces of versified literary criticism. Some of the titles provide an indication of “bookish” or “middle-brow” attitude: Kingsley Amis’s A Bookshop Idyll, D.J. Enright’s The Verb to Think, Donald Davie’s Rejoinder to a Critic and Too Late for Satire, and John Wain’s Reason for Not Writing Nature Poetry and Poem without a Main Verb. The cool, ironic aloofness or intellectual detachment in some of the poems of the Movement can be somewhat shocking, as in Amis’s Shitty; but very often it leads to a denial of the human potential for change and development, as in Davie’s A Christening with its deeply cynical line: “What we do best is breed.”


Other Common Features


One other critic has summarized the main characteristics of the poets of the Movement in the following manner:


They all display a cautious scepticism and favour an empirical attitude. Aiming at colloquial ease, decorum, shapeliness, elegance, they are trying to bring back into the currency of the language the precision, the snap, the gravity, the decisive, clinching finality which have been lost since the late Augustan age.


The Movement poets are thus seen as representing a new classicism in English poetry. This critic further says that the work of these poets is characterized by a general retreat from direct comment on, or involvement with, any political or social doctrine.


The Whitsun Weddings as a Movement Poem


Yet another critic says that the poets of the Movement have a definite ideology or a specific line on sex, religion, and politics. This critic has offered some enlightening interpretations of Larkin’s poetry. He regards The Whitsun Weddings as a poem belonging to the Movement, and he also says that Larkin continued to defend and develop the principles central to the Movement programme.


Another Comment on the Poets of the Movement


The same critic also says that the Movement poets were not actually rebellious but were, in many ways, meekly submissive and often tending to compromise and conservatism. In this context he writes:


As spokesmen for the new self-proclaimed lower-middle-class intelligentsia, the Movement was forced into an ambivalent position; on the one hand, opposed to the old order; and on the other hand, indebted to, and respectful towards, its institutions.


This critic believes that, in spite of its mood of dissent and its anti-establishment attitude, the Movement offered only a token rebellion and d not try to change the prevailing social structure. This critic also says that the Movement’s social and poetical ambivalence extends into the formal and structural texture of the poetry in terms of hesitations, qualifications, and conversational asides.


Larkin and the Movement


This critic has shown how well the poem Church Going fits the Movement ‘programme by carefully balancing agnostic dissent with a leaning towards tradition and belief. This poem, according to him, appears to be both reverent and irreverent. The poem has a traditional iambic structure and a lucid, rational argument; its speaker is presented as an ordinary, fallible, and clumsy individual. It is a poem which testifies to the persistence of both the English Church and an English poetic tradition. These features of this poem are in keeping with the Movement preferences. But there are important ways in which Larkin’s poetry deviates from the Movement principles. Larkin’s work is more expansive and more wide-ranging than that of the other Movement poets. Many critics believe that Larkin is a better poet than Amis, Wain, Enright, and Davie, though they have not specified why they think so. Actually, Larkin’s poetry, in contrast with the work of the other Movement poets, exemplifies a deeper imaginative understanding of social experience and its contradictions, and it shows, at the same time, a far greater range of formal and stylistic devices and a more profound sense of the linguistic and aesthetic possibilities of modern colloquial English.


The Attacks on Larkin’s Poetry


In 1963 a second anthology of contemporary poetry, “New Lines II” appeared. It too was edited by Robert Conquest who once again paid a tribute to the poets of the Movement. While he admitted that the work of Philip Larkin was, in some respects, an essential continuation of the main tradition of English poetry, he emphasized Larkin’s anti-modernism. Actually Robert Conquest was replying to Alfred Alvarez’s strong criticism of the poets of the Movement, and in particular the work of Larkin, for failing to deal with the full range of human experience. Another critic had also criticized the Movement poets. He had done so on the ground that their work showed a lack of motivating impulse, and had little of particular urgency or importance to say. “Urgency” soon became a key-word in the critical vocabulary of Alvarez, and the index to what was especially lacking in Movement poetry. An even more powerful attack on Larkin and the Movement had been made by another critic even before Alvarez joined the fray. This critic had expressed a distate for what he called the “intense parochialism” of Larkin’s poetry. This critic had said that the Movement represented not so much a creative redirection as a total failure of nerve. Later, the same critic objected to what he called a wry and sometimes tenderly-nursed sense of defeat, and a melancholy introspection in Larkin’s poetry. These features seemed to possess a peculiary English appeal, wrote this critic:


Larkin’s narrowness suits the English perfectly. They recognize their own abysmal urban landscapes, skilfully caught with just a whiff of English films (of the nineteen-fifties). The stepped-down version of human possibilities, and the joke that hesitates just on this side of nihilism are national vices.


This critic particularly mentioned Larkin’s defeatism, narrowness, parochialism, and pessimism. Subsequent critics have, however, challenged this view and have tried to show that Larkin’s poetry shows a more affirmative view of human existence.


Other Faults of Larkin’s Poetry, as Alleged By Critics


While Tomlinson had condemned Larkin’s alleged parochialism, Alvarez dismissed the “gentility” of the poetry of the Movement and demanded the quality of “urgency”. With reference to the poetry of Larkin, this critic made an adverse comment on the following lines: “Hatless, I take off/My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.” (from Church Going). This is how he commented on these lines:


This, in concentrated form, is the image of the post-war Welfare State Englishman: shabby, and not concerned with his appearance: poor—he has a bike, not a car; gauche but full of agnostic piety; under-fed, under-paid, over-taxed, hopeless, bored, wry.


According to Alvarez, Larkin has tried to show that the poet is not a strange creature inspired; that, on the contrary, he is just like the man next-door—in fact, he probably is the man next door.


There is, nevertheless, a good deal of truth in Alvarez’s over-all assessment of Movement poetry, especially in his definition of the “gentility” which he found in it, and which he wanted to be replaced by “urgency”. According to Alvarez, gentility is a belief that life is always more or less orderly, people always more or less polite, their emotions and habits more or less decent and more or less controllable: that God, in short, is more or less good. What poetry, according to Alvarez, needed was a new seriousness, and a recognition of the forces of evil and disintegration which had emerged from the two World Wars, from the concentration camps, and from the threat of a future nuclear war. Commenting on Larkin’s poem At Grass, this critic said that, in spite of some of its merits, this poem was not really about anything in particular.


No Epiphanies and No High Points of Beauty or Truth is Larkin’s Poetry


Subsequently, most of the hostile reactions to Larkin’s poetry followed the line of criticism adopted by Tomlinson and Alvarez. The American critic, M.L. Rossenthal, asserted that Larkin’s poetry was marred by a petty bitterness and by the sullenness of a man who found squalor in his own spirit and felt afraid of liberating himself form it. Another critic complained that there were no epiphanies in Larkin’s poetry, and no high points of beauty or truth or love in it. This critic admitted that the ordinariness of Larkin’s poetry imparted a certain kind of humanity to it; but he criticized this poetry for its failure to transform the ordinary world in order to provide an uplifting vision for his readers.


Larkin’s Humanism and His Democratic Views


Donald Davie (himself one of the Movement poets) was one of those who defended Larkin’s poetry, saying that Larkin tolerated the intolerable for the sake of human solidarity. Indeed, Donald Davie made a very important remark about the nature of Larkin’s humanism and the democratic basis of Larkin’s poetry. Davie saw Larkin as a very “Hardyesque ” poet with a thoroughly English soul. “The England in Larkin’s poems is the England we have lived in,” Davie said. Yet another critic , defending Larkin, admitted that Larkin’s subject-matter in his poems was limited but he praised the manner in which Larkin’s poetry exemplified the decline of the ideal, the decline of romance, and the decline of possibility which characterized post-war thought.


Alleged Lack of Human Kindness and of Solidarity in Larkin’s Poetry


Another adverse critic of Larkin’s poetry pointed out that the numbness and caution in Larkin’s poetry were not so much symptoms of post-war culture as facets of Larkin’s individual psychology. This critic saw Larkin’s poems as being deficient in human kindness, and lacking even the solidarity claimed for them by Donald Davie. In the final stanza of The Whitsun Weddings, one critic found Larkin trying to open his heart to others, or about others; but the heart, he said, was dead. According to him, this poem not only displayed the educated writer cut off from the people, but a man whose perceptions, curiosities, and versifications could not be creative. This critic saw the speaker in this poem simply as Larkin; and he accordingly showed a deplorable inability to respond to the poem as structure and discourse.


A Strong Defence of Larkin’s Poetry


One other critic wrote a very stimulating essay in defence of Larkin. This critic challenged the view that the outlook of Larkin’s poetry suffered from a limiting and debilitating gentility. He asserted that in Larkin’s poems there frequently was a progression from a poise or a pose to an exposure or an epiphany. Where one critic had lamented the want of epiphanies in Larkin’s poetry, this critic asserted that Larkin’s poetry celebrated the unexpressed, deeply-felt longings for sacred time and sacred space. He also said that Larkin’s poetry embodied “forgotten patterns of belief and ritual”, and he cited The Whitsun Weddings as a good illustration of it. According to this critic, the most important aspect of Larkin’s poetry is its emphasis on the ways in which Christianity seeks to accommodate itself to a world in which the old patterns of belief have disappeared. While the adverse critics held that Larkin’s poetry was rather dull and unexciting, Larkin’s defenders have been emphasizing the transcendent element in his poetry.

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