“And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”
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Like an outdated combine harvester,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.
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 All of these things, Larkin tells us, were “pushed to one side / Like an outdated combine harvester.”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.
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.
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.
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:
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.