Vanity Fea

'Fields We Do Not Know': Bunting and Larkin

From Andrew Sanders's Short Oxford History of English Literature:

Basil Bunting (1900-85) has proved one of the most difficult to 'place' of the major English poets of the twentieth century. He is certainly one of its most determinedly 'provincial', proud of his Northumbrian roots and culture and insistent in his use of northern words and in hie echoes of northern speech rhythms (a note to Briggflatts insists that 'southrons [southerners] would maul the music of many lines' in the poem). He is at the same time one of the most sophisticated openers up of English Modernism, one attuned to an international recasting of literary forms and one whose work is informed by the countours of non-native landscapes (in Bunting's case particularly by his extended sojourns in Italy and Iran; he worked as a British spy in the latter country in the 1950s). He was one of a very select group of inter-war writers approved of by Ezra Pound, who in 1938 had jointly dedicated hisGuide to Kulchur to him and Louis Zukofsky as 'strugglers in the desert'. His total output as a poet remains relatively slim, however. Bunting's first volume of poetry Redimiculum Matellarum was published in Milan in 1930 at the time of his closest association with Pound, but it was not until the appearance of his long poem Briggflatts in 1966 (followed by hisCollected Poems in 1968) that he attracted due recognition and a wider audience for his sometimes elusive, often complexly referential, work.

In a sense Bunting's work can be characterized by the idea of rediscovery. Like that of David Jones, his poetry re-explores historical and personal pasts, interweaving archaeology and landscape, memory and a burgeoning and reawakened sensibility. Unlike the chaste, God-haunted Jones, Bunting rejoices in his sexual identity, an identity associated in Briggflatts with the recurrent phallic emblem of the slow-workm. He also delights in the conjunctions of times and places, and it is to the well-remembered fells and exposed sea-coasts of north-eastern England that the poem returns with a sense of exact, happy, even mystical, recall in which earthly shapes are caught up in celestial patterns:

Shepherds follow the links,
sweet turf studded with thrift;
fell-born men of precise instep
leading demure dogs
from Tweed and Till and Teviotdale,
with hair combed back from the muzzle,
dogs from Redesdale and Coquetdale
taught by Wilson or Telfer.
Their teeth are white as birch,
Slow under the black fringe
of silent accurate lips.
The ewes are heavy with lamb.
Snow lies bright on Hedgehope
and tacky mud about Till
where the fells have stepped aside
and the river praises itself,
silence by silence sits
and Then is diffused in Now.

Bunting's sharp detailing has reminded some of his readers of Wordsworth's, but the sensibility which determines that detailing is distinctly Modernist.

Philip Larkin's work, which so characterized the mainstream of English poetry in the 1950s and 1960s, stands in marked contrast to that of Bunting. Larkin's novel Jill (1946) is set in an Oxford from which Arnold's 'last enchantments of the Middle Age' and Waugh's douceur de la vie have been banished by the make-do-and-mend mentality of the Second World War. 'Life in college was austere', Larkin wrote in the introduction he added to the novel in 1963; 'Its pre-war pattern had been dispersed, in some instances permanently. Everyone paid the same fees . . . and ate the same meals . . . At an age when self-importance would have been normal, events cut us ruthlessly down to size." Jill is remarkable not simply for its picture of an Oxford forced into a dispirited egalitarianism by the war, but also for its introduction of what became a common theme in the literature of the 1950s and 1960s, the awkward self-consciousness of provincial, lower-middle-class England and the upward mobility of a grammar-school educated intelligentsia. Although Larkin (1922-85) was not of the generation which benefited most from the provisions of the 1944 Education Act, he was typical of a new breed of articulate university graduate. As the key poet of the post-war decades he was also to chart other social and cultural changes with a sardonic percipience. Larkin was the most significant of a loose group of writers known in the early 1950s as 'the Movement', a group assumed by those who disliked what it stood for to be the typical product of wartime planning and the Welfare State. Evelyn Waugh, not unexpectedly, complained in 1955 of a 'new wave of philistinism with which we are threatened by these grim young people coming off the assembly lines in their hundreds every year and finding employment as critics, even as poets and novelists'. 'The Movement', which also included the novelist Kingsley Amis (1922-95), the poet and critic Donald Davie (b. 1922), and the poet and novelist John Wain (b. 1925), was united not so much by its class origins or by its beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, and jazz-appreciating friendships, but by a sensibility shaped by a shared antipathy to the cultural pretensions of Bohemia and Blomsbury and to what it saw as the élitism of much Modernist writing. It would be preposterous to cast the self-effacing Larkin as a prototype of the 'angry young man' of the late 1950s, but his was a distinctive and to some degree representative new voice.

The six volumes of verse that Larkin published in his lifetime were all modest in size. His first, The North Ship, appeared in 1945; it was succeeded by XX Poems (published in a tiny edition in 1951), by a slim pamphlet containing five further poems in 1954, and in 1955 by the volume which first made his name as a poet, The Less Deceived. His earliest published poem, 'Winter nocturne' (printed in his school magazine in 1938), clearly shows the influence of Yeats, an influence, 'as pervasive as garlic', which Larkin claimed could also be felt in the poems in The North Ship. From the mid 1940s, however, he discovered a new model of poetic restraint in Hardy. It is Hardy's example which seems to inform even the title of The Less Deceived. Much of Larkin's subsequent poetry was to bypass Modernist experiment and high-flown language in favour of traditional metrical forms and a precise and plain diction. The two later collections, The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974), point not simply to the sharpness of Larkin's ear for the inflexions of his own age, but also to a new and, at the time, deliberately provocative frankness. As the selection of his Letters published in 1992 reveals, Larkin had a private penchant for what was once coyly described as 'four-letter words'. If this vocabulary had only entered the 'polite' literary mainstream before, Larkin's long-established admiration for Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover may partly explain the plain speaking of certain of the poems published in High Windows. The language of the title poem stresses its contemporaneity: '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'. 'Annus Mirabilis', an old man's sing-song ballad, sees the paperback publication of Lawrence's book as part of a wider shift in popular culture and manners: 'Sexual intercourse began / in nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me)—/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles' first L.P.' What has since become Larkin's most quoted line ('They fuck you up, your mum and dad') opens 'This Be the Verse', a poem which at first sight appears to be a neat summary of Freudian theory and Hardyan pessimism, but one which moves into an intensely private disillusion: 'Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf. / Get out as early as you can, / And don't have any kids yourself.'

When he was asked by an interviewer in 1979 if he had felt like an outsider as a child, Larkin stressed that he had been fond enough of his parents even though 'they were rather awkward people and not very good at being happy'. 'These things rub off', he added ruefully. There is little exhilaration in Larkin's verse. Human history and human experience, as he observes them, provide few occasions for rejoicing. If he recognizes that certain inherited characteristics do indeed 'rub off', he nevertheless sees himself as alienated from both an uncomfortable past and a cheerless Godless present. In 'I remember, I remember' a series of negatives undoes the fond sentimentality of Thomas Hood's poem of the same name. In a later poem, 'To the Sea', Larkin looks back far more gaily to the seasides of his parents' courtship and of his own boyhood, but the line expressive of the continuities that the poem recalls ('Still going on, all of it, still going on') scarcely suggests a sense of liberation in or from time. The snapshots in 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album' record 'dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds' and stir a sense of alienation from 'a past that no one now can share'. Larkin's present, a late 1950s present in the poems 'The Whitsun Weddings' and 'Afternoons' , is that of an England of false cheer, cheap fashions, joyless wedding parties, drab recreation grounds, and 'estatefuls' of washing. His accounts of the past are marked by an awareness of a gulf fixed between then and now by death and ageing. In 'MCMXIV', a joint tribute to the art of Wilfred Owen and to the deceptions of photography, he describes an 'innocent' group of young recruits, 'grinning as if it were all / An August Bank Holiday lark', about to be bloodied by the Great War. The country church in 'Church Going' is inspected with an 'awkward reverence' by a 'bored, uninformed' post-Christian narrator who frets at the prospect of a future in which religion will have shrunk to a prevalent fear of death. In what is perhaps his most delicate and lyrical poem, however, history and time, an unease at the prospect of death and an uncertain glimmer of human hope are fused together into a new whole. 'An Arundel Tomb' describes a medieval funerary monument to a husband and wife who are shown lying side by side and hand in hand. The 'lengths and breadths of time' have not only marred the sculptural image, but have also served to alter the way in which all images are read and interpreted:

       Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalles strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

The Audenesque confidence of the last line is deliberately qualified by the two preceding 'almosts'. The provisionality is essentially Larkin's own.

Toads Revisited

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