Tuesday, March 24, 2015

`The Natural Flights of the Human Mind'

For a long time, the title poem of Philip Larkin’s 1974 collection High Windows left me disappointed. The opening stanza of “High Windows” with its famously deployed “fuck” seemed unworthy of him, a cheap shot. By the early seventies, the word had gained a currency unimaginable a decade earlier. One heard it casually uttered in songs and university classrooms (by students and professors), domesticated enough to show up in Hollywood films if not yet on television. Larkin was not above bathroom or locker room humor, but in his letters I never held profanity against him. It seemed perfectly natural between him and a friend like Kingsley Amis. That’s how we talk, and surely letters (and emails) carry on conversation by other means. Likewise, the “fuck” in “This Bethe Verse” seemed precisely calibrated, le mot juste for the occasion. 

Perhaps it was the overtly sexual use of the word in “High Windows” that made it seem gratuitous and discordant. In “This Be the Verse,” “fuck” is playing its familiar, all-purpose role in modern English. I’ve lived with “High Windows” for forty years and finally have come to terms with Larkin’s use of the word. He changes the poem’s diction and tone subtly across five stanzas. At first he’s glib and colloquial. Not a word in the opening stanza would be unfamiliar to “a couple of kids” today, except possibly “diaphragm” (or “paradise”). Is this the leering of a dirty old man? Is Philip Larkin writing a poem of envy about the newly liberated youth of the nineteen-sixties? Not quite. There’s a sad knowingness in that slide between stanzas: “everyone young going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly.” Like a ventriloquist, Larkin then puts words in the mouth of a middle-aged man envying the speaker’s younger self – words that surely were never uttered. At last, in the final stanza, the rhythm and diction grow up and take on the tone of an older, sadder observer:          

“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 poem is about expectations and their delusory nature. The young are filled with hope, and should be, and who are we to take it from them? With little basis in the text, I’ve always read the final stanza as set in a church sanctuary. “High Windows” is not about sex after all. It confirms what Dr. Johnson wrote in The Rambler #2, published on this date, March 24, in 1750: “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”

1 comment:

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Larkin is my poet laureate of nostalgia--unsparing, unsentimental nostalgia.

I have always read this poem the same way I read "This Be the Verse". The young, in one another's arms, as Yeats more delicately put it, are a different breed from the aged who are/were a different breed from their parents, those Victorian fools.

Larkin looks at the young people and reflects that the older generation once looked at him and perhaps envied his freedom from institutional religion. The old are filled with a certain bitterness that the young have it much easier than the old once did. And so it goes, back to the beginning. Like you, I've always read the "high windows" as placing the setting in a church, the more so as it follows the reflection about the older people feeling bitter about enforced religion.

I really like "At Grass," "MCMXIV", "Churchgoing," and "An Arundel Tomb".