Wednesday, 12 February 2020

High Windows

On this day in 1967, a few months before the supposed 'Summer of Love', Philip Larkin signed off on the poem that was to give its title to his last collection, High Windows...

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Like an outdated combine harvester,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.

It's a poem that epitomises, almost to the point of parody, Larkin's late style (or one of them): a pungent blend of the plainest of plain speaking and strictly formal poetic structure, beginning blokishly (like This Be the Verse and Sad Steps) with a four-letter word and, in the course of a few stanzas, arriving in a wholly different imaginative world with that beautiful, mysterious closing image. Such endings are very often what raise Larkin's poems to greatness, and that is certainly the case here. As for the formal structure, that is, as ever with Larkin in this mood, artfully disguised as matter-of-fact prose. The four-line stanzas are rhymed (or half-rhymed) ABAB, except for the first two, where the most jarring words in the poem – 'diaphragm' and 'combine harvester' – deliberately break the pattern. The last line of every stanza carries over into the next: the enjambment at the end of the first stanza is the boldest, but that at the end of the fourth stanza makes the bridge for the poem to cross from the banal to the sublime, aided by the internal rhyme that links 'free bloody birds' (birds on a slide?) to 'rather than words'.
And those mysterious high windows? I visualise them as the windows of a tall modern building (on campus perhaps), but was Larkin thinking of church windows, I wonder? Larkin himself, perhaps fearing he was becoming too high-toned, scrawled a pencil addition to those beautiful last lines in their first draft: 'and fucking piss'. Incorrigible, wasn't he...

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