Without thinking much about it, I assumed the windows in “High Windows” were the sort you see in churches, tall and narrow like gun ports, well above the heads of worshippers. Some are made of stained glass; others, transparent and colorless. Seated in a pew, you see only sky, foliage or a tall adjoining building. Such high windows admit light and limit vision, perhaps with the intention of minimizing distraction and focusing attention on the service within.
Larkin wasn’t thinking of church windows. For most of his life he occupied rooms at the tops of houses. He dreaded living on the ground floor. At Hull, he lived in a university flat for almost eighteen years – the top flat. There he wrote most of The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and all of High Windows (1974). But he may not have been thinking at all about top-floor windows. In his notes to The Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett suggests Larkin’s “high windows” are “a purely mental image, rather than a verbal reality.” The final stanza, with its unexpected logical hinge, seems to substantiate this:
“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.”
A Pascalian blank, coldly frightening, as in “Ambulances”: “And sense the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do, / And for a second get it whole, / So permanent and blank and true.” Larkin punctures another illusion. He articulates what we merely push aside. All is vanity. Such coldness isn’t for everyone. In a 1981 interview Larkin says the ending of “High Windows” shows a desire" to get away from it all,” and goes on:
“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.”
Larkin finished writing “High Windows” on this date, Feb. 12, in 1967.