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“And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”

January 20, 2010

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

High Windows (Philip Larkin)

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
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Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds.
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.

Bonnie MacLean’s poster for "Bill Graham Presents the Yardbirds, the Doors, James Cotton Blues Band, Richie Havens," 1967.

Larkin penned this poem in 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. From it came the title of what would be his last volume of new poetry, High Windows (Faber and Faber, 1974). The volume includes a better-known lyric on a similar theme, “Annus Mirabilis,” with its often-quoted opening lines:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterly ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

The diction tells the tale, as it does in the first stanza of “High Windows”: the Pill, freely available contraception, the on-coming Counter-culture—all these things conspired to give us a novel vocabulary in which to discuss “love” (“love” in the full-on sense, that is). We now spoke of “sexual intercourse,” a phrase so wary of euphemism as to court a kind of clinical ugliness. Or else we simply spoke frankly of “fucking.”

But in any case, it was to the “clinic” that sexuality now turned for its regime, its controls, its management, not to the mores of (say) the Greatest Generation (as we call it in America: Larkin was born in 1922); and most certainly not to the Church, with its ascetic protocols, its till-death-do-us-part’s, and its if-thy-right-eye-offend-thee-pluck-it-out’s.

The on-looking Larkin calls the new dispensation “the paradise / Everyone has dreamed of all their lives.” “Bonds” were set aside: no more commitments before we did the deed. And “gestures” were tossed aside, too: no more quaint rituals of courtship that had once kept us from, well, getting to the point ASAP. All of these things, Larkin tells us, were “pushed to one side / Like an outdated combine harvester.” The poet chooses his machinery of obsolescence precisely, here: no insemination committed, well, then, no “harvesters” needed. Plow away freely, without fear of consequence! No more reaping what you sow! “Go down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly. . .” “Everyone old”—and here Larkin would include himself, in his randier moments, which were by no means few;—”everyone old” has dreamed of this “paradise.” There’s a touch of extravagance here: Larkin generalizes his own notion of “paradise” rather too broadly than the facts probably warrant, but of course that only adds to the pathos.

Cover, Faber & Faber edition of "High Windows" (1974).

And yet as soon as he makes this confession, if confession it is, he bethinks himself of how a still older generation—”forty years back,” which is to say in about 1927—might have perceived him and his generation, as to this question of expanding possibilities for sexual indulgence: “That’ll be the life; / No God any more, or sweating in the dark / About hell and that, or having to hide / What you think of the priest.” Older folk then—if they were Larkin’s age in 1967—would have been born in the 19th century, say, in the 1880s, when the proscriptions of the Church still held men (many men, anyway) in awe, such that they felt lust as a sin: guilt and obligation beset them. Whereas, so far as they were concerned, folk born in the jazz age of the 1920s simply scotched all that outworn claptrap: God wasn’t necessarily a live option, let alone Hell; and deference to priests, whether sincere, or, as Larkin implies, insincere, was nothing anyone need worry about. So, as Larkinian assumptions would have it, older folk naturally looked on his generation with envy: this lot will be free at last of the hold religion always had on sexuality.

The implicit assumption, of course, is that most people are like Larkin in this regard: they envy a free sort of sexuality, a sexuality with no “hang-ups,” as the patois of the 1960s had it. Whether or not a bitter cynicism as to the motives of men underlies this assumption I leave it to the gods of the internet ultimately to decide. But for my part, I rather think it does, and moreover think that Larkin wishes us to see that it does: the poem is fairly bewildered at what to do about (or with) sexuality. Which is a very old plight, to be sure. As it turns out, Larkin’s last resort—on remembering that every generation probably sees its successor as ever more liberal, more liberated—is to think of those “high windows.” And what do these windows frame? “The deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” Now, what exactly is the meaning, the consequence, of that for such earthly pleasures as sex affords? God is not in his Heaven; all is not right with the world.

Manuscript page, "Posterity," a poem also collected in "High Windows." Hull University Archives, Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull.

Larkin’s problem is that he cannot really dispense, not altogether, with reference to some other possible world to better understand the one we now inhabit. He is too ulterior; he is all along telling us, in his poetry, that he is too ulterior. So the guilt abides, as one might suppose it need not necessarily abide for a man aged only 45 in the fabled “Summer of Love.” Is that really an old age, as Larkin implies? No. Though one gathers that Larkin’s “affect” was almost always that of an old man. He wore the persona like a fitted suit. Which again is part of the pathos, and also what thoroughly redeems this poem—so far as I’m concerned—from lasciviousness.

There is the longing, and then there is the assumed inability to act on it. “High Windows” chastens itself. All the old restraints on sexuality fall away, or seem to, for each successive generation (at least in the last 120 years or so): the proscriptions of religion (Christianity in this case), which once kept us, or tried to keep us, chaste, now fall into obsolescence; contraception and the pill remove still further inhibitions, and so on “down the long slide.” The idea in the poem seems to be that happiness depends chiefly on sexual freedom. But this is merely apparent: the affect of the poem won’t allow it, stands against it.

And yet, and yet—what are we to do with ourselves? That Larkinian gaze upward into a heaven unhaunted by God, into a prospect of endless nothingness, offers no relief. There simply must be something in us that wants, that needs, that desires, to qualify, restrain, and discipline sexuality. This is what the poem intimates—though not in words (as Larkin points out in line 17), but in “thought.” There is desire on the one hand, and the desire to contain it on the other. And these inarticulate desires—these desires set over against one another in uneasy rivalry—are what distinguish us as a species, if I may put it that way.

The Summer of Love, Haight/Ashbury, San Francisco.

Fear of God; apprehensions about the biological consequences of sexuality; levees set up to channel sexuality in this or that direction;—remove all of these (say, circa 1967-69) and what have we left? What new “bonds and gestures” will the young resent? What “combine harvesters” will they consign to obsolescence? What will they “hide from the priest”? What will they find to feel guilty about? Surely something. John Calvin got that much right, if nothing else. And how will the young describe these new concerns that chasten them?—in moral, medical, ethical, or practical vocabularies, or in some combination of them all? What will older folk find in their behavior, in their attitudes, worthy of an appetite for scandal (and worthy also of an aptitude for envy)? Larkin’s poem leaves us with all these questions “immediately,” as he says, and in “thought” rather than in “words.”

Or, put it another way: What will “frame” sexuality for our generation—the one Larkin speaks of here—and for succeeding ones, if those “high windows,” with their prospect of deep blue air and nothingness, suffice no better now than they did for Larkin then? Maybe it’s possible to do without “frames” of any kind, though I think the poem hardly invites us to suppose so. The prospect is too bewildering. “High Windows” seems somehow aware of what Frost, too, was aware of:

Frost, at about the time his first book appeared (1913).

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire. . .

Perhaps, given what we’ve tasted of desire, we can do with restraints on it that are, in the way of pragmatism, contingent—and felt to be so. I guess that’s what we’ve been doing ever since the Summer of Love.

Here I beg the reader to bear in mind that The Era of Casual Fridays values highly the achievements of feminism and of the gay rights movement, whether or not Larkin would or did. I’m simply trying to trace out the queries his poem abandons us to once it “thinks” of those “high windows.” To wit: Are “hang-ups” about sexuality ever really necessary? Will they be with us always, like the poor? How can we know whether our qualms about this or that channel of desire ought to be qualms? Surely few—and Larkin’s not among them—are prepared to do away with all restraints, all qualms. “Hang-ups” of one sort or another are here to stay, 1967 notwithstanding.

One more point. In “High Windows” and “Annus Mirabilis” Larkin puts “sexuality” into “history,” and he does it nine years before Michel Foucault did—and with such awfully sad aplomb, to boot: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three.” Larkin’s poetry makes it impossible to think of human sexuality as a merely “natural” enterprise. If it were merely natural, there would have been no need for Philip Larkin, or, come to think of it, for any other poet. In Larkin’s poetry, our sexuality is always partly an artifact, remade and re-described and re-disciplined, time and time again, never to be perfected, never to be understood.

Philip Larkin, photo by Jane Bown.

N.B. For the pages devoted to Larkin at the Poetry Foundation, click here. For the Philip Larkin Society, click here; and for links at that site to biographical and critical essays, click here.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Henry permalink
    January 23, 2010 12:27 AM

    1. Read – if you haven’ already – Stephen Heath’s ‘The Sexual Fix’ – very good on the issues you discuss here.

    2. I seem to remember – as usual I’m too lazy to check – that Larkin’s old mucker and fellow-admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Kingsley Amis, liked the poem, but thought the ending was Yeatsean persiflage. Larkin spent the 50s and 60s trying to flush Yeats out of his system. But the seductive and insidious Celt kept on creeping back in. Its an obvious comparison, but ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ asks similar questions about sex and aging – and evades straight answers in a similar fashion.

    3. Re: “forty years ago”. The “fools in old-style hats and coats” in ‘This Be The Verse” [also in ‘High Windows’? Christ, it would be so easy to find out – but now I must go and blow up a balloon for Marika] – back again, it was a bulbous yellow rabbit with disconcerting gimlet eyes – where was I, yes, the fools in old-style hats and coats, “who half the time were soppy-stern / And half at one another’s throats” – transmitters of that mix of sentiment and violence, 19th C. Evangelicalism’s most noxious bequest to modernity [including our own] – this sentence is never going to discover its main verb, so I might as well give up. But as you say, yearning after younger people’s yearning is less a matter of age than disposition [or motive] – a desire to cultivate a certain kind of detachment, produce a certain kind of art [back to Yeats]. I say desire, because there is an aesthetic component to the stance Larkin is adopting here – a reframing of sex as something unearthly and exquisite [and exclusive] the loss of which might be felt as keenly as any bodily coupling – ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is an important point of reference – interrupted again, now I must endeavour to stuff two balloons into a plastic shopping bag that will only hold one: a white rabbit [very Sixties!] I blew up last week, and which now has a flaccid, gummy feel to it that reminds me of Marcel Duchamp; our old friend the yellow rabbit, rude with health [but puritanical withal: those staring eyes]; and now what’s this? O Jesus, a red worm has been disinterred, blown up god knows when, which has metamorphosed into something truly horrible – like the baby alien when it comes bursting out of John Hurt’s chest, but sicklier, nastier. I don’t want to look at or even think about it. Forgive me for hijacking your web-page with this nonsense. I was going to say something about George Bernard Shaw – the conjunction of feminism, aestheticism, and squeamishness – but it’s gone clean out of my head.

    4. Reading the above, it strikes me that that I might be in need of psychiatric help. Or perhaps a babysitter.

    Henry

    • January 23, 2010 12:37 AM

      Henry,

      What you need is not psychiatric help, but a good agent: the comedy of child-rearing has seldom been done as well as you do it in speech and in print. I say so as living witness to both. (And, of course, you are very good on Larkin.)

      Warmest regards to young Marika & her balloons,
      Mark

  2. Ian Wolcott permalink
    January 25, 2010 10:24 PM

    The older I get the more clearly I see what a poor reader I am, so I think I benefit from your posts here as much as I enjoy them (that is, a lot). Sloughing off God, sloughing off sexual prohibitions… What’s left for my generation (X)? Nothing much, or else just the same old all over again: God and sexual prohibitions – at least to judge from my friends and acquaintances. But where once trod Updike and Mailer and Bellow and Roth (okay, Roth still treads), we have Chabon and Safran-Foer and Lethem: effete shoe-gazers, mostly, with at most a harmless, nerdy charm. I feel sometimes like I came into the world at the tail end of Buddenbrooks.

    • January 25, 2010 11:50 PM

      “Buddenbrooks” sent me to Google, Ian. I lack your breadth. Thomas Mann, isn’t it? And 1901.

      I was 4 during the Summer of Love, and endured merely the usual sort of adolescence in the ’70s––some fumblings, 8-packs of Miller “Ponies,” & what now is dismissively called “ditch weed.” (My memories of the Ford administration are not exactly Updike’s.)

      But desire will somehow be contained, insofar as it engages two people, with their several claims on one another; the exceptions, many though may be, seem to prove the general rule. “Through us Nature exceeds itself,” says Robert Frost. So much for “evolutionary psychology” and any arguments derived from it attempting to qualify or estrange our old friend monogamy (whether serial or otherwise).

  3. Ian Wolcott permalink
    January 26, 2010 4:55 PM

    “…desire will somehow be contained…”

    I’m reading Portnoy’s Complaint right now, which seems to prove at once the truth and the falsity of that sentiment. Heh heh.

    Buddenbrooks is not my favorite Mann (that would be Magic Mountain by a long shot). It’s your fairly typical multi-generational descent into cultural and moral decadence. Really, I guess, I should have said that I felt like I had come into the world AFTER the end of Buddenbrooks.

    But, damn, I just love Larkin. So thanks again.

    • January 26, 2010 10:12 PM

      Yes, “Portnoy’s Complaint” falls both ways. It’s a provocation that Larkin probably could never undertake––which is saying something.

      But what a perplexing end the titular character in Roth’s other great adventure in desire un-contained (“Sabbath’s Theater”) comes to: “with no one to kill except himself. And he couldn’t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.”

      Larkin, though. He is the man for me in post-war poetry in English.

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