82. (Philip Larkin)

After reading Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” a friend half-recalled Paul Fussell’s opinion that verse in a trochaic meter could never be plaintive; trochees lack pathos. He asked if I could think of an exception; I have. One of Larkin’s poems, “The Explosion,” is written in trochaic meter—with significant substitutions. American poet A.E. Stallings discusses the poem in a brief essay, much of which dwells on the poem’s meter. Stallings notes also that it is Larkin’s least Larkin-like poem. The poem’s trochaic meter is realized most clearly in the fourth verse:

So they passed in beards and moleskins,

Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,

Through the tall gates standing open.


But the poem’s pathos is effected by the deviations and substitutions, as well as by the trochaic extreme represented by the fourth verse. The next, fifth, verse opens with an iamb:


At noon, there came a tremor; cows

Stopped chewing for a second; sun,

Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.


The first line is iambic; the others I scan less clearly, but to my ears it is a stretch to hear them as trochaic. The deviation does not prove Fussell’s point: the deviation from meter is always a source of power, but deviation depends on interaction of norms and the breaking of norms. The trochaic base of Larkin’s moving poem remains essential to its feeling.

It’s worth reflecting on the grounds for Fussell’s opinion; it probably holds true most of the time. And perhaps this is because trochaic verse runs counter to the natural or conventionally dominant tendency of English verse to fall into iambs; trochaic verse feels strenuously performed, and the strenuous performance can cut against what we have come to feel belongs to genuine pathos and grief: a disarmed, unguarded vulnerability.

Disarming then to find in Larkin’s verse trochees that are as disarmed and unguarded as the natural rhythms of speech. But the reason for their aptness and pathos lies in Larkin’s insight into the naturalness of artifice in life. The trochees are not asked to mourn or plead for horror that the poem records: instead, they are deployed to register the movement of life before and after the event. Their artifice is essential to the life of the men and to the lives of the women who mourn their dead husbands. In the verse before the explosion, we are to feel the trochees assume the dignified naivety of patterned play: the movement of men walking, singing, in a routine and spontaneous game. And then, once once the tragedy has been registered and mourned in religious ceremony and vision, the movement of the artifice of the trochee relates differently to the matter of the verse:

Larger than in life they managed–
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them.

The poem has become an uneasy imagining of faith and hope that Larkin could not share, but which he allows others (the wives of the miners) to possess. The trochees are supposed to feel strained: the strain of a hymn sung against life; the strain of belief in what is not of this world; the artifice that consoles. The trochees, and the lines they measure, do not condescend to the women; they are the means by which Larkin’s art participates in their ritual, even though its substance lies foreign to his heart and mind.

In a distinction that has been somewhat critically received, Christopher Ricks writes of the co-presence of the Classical and the Romantic in Larkin’s poetry. That distinction, he maintains (the essay is collected in The Force of Poetry, which is not at hand for exact quotation), turns on the relation of impersonality and universality and individual feeling and self. Ricks does not claim that the Romantic abolishes the former anymore than that the Classical excludes the latter; but the aspiration or relative weighting of the two pairs of terms is not equivalent between the Romantic and the Classical, and he argues that in Larkin the possibility of either weighting can be felt. Though I simplify matters crassly in saying so, I might summarize Ricks position by saying that he finds in Larkin’s lines an ambivalence over which of the pairs to prioritize.

The trouble with that way of putting things is that the word “ambivalence” suggests that Larkin hedges—and such is a major criticism of his verse: his lax “tone,” Geoffrey Hill writes, does not set language at a pitch of accuracy but instead panders to a plurality of attitude; Larkin’s ambivalence does not, as Fielding’s irony might do (says Empson), embrace and balance the virtues of more than one side of a moral equation, but instead it scoffs at the positions it simultaneously leans on (Donald Davie is critical of Larkin on these grounds, also). Larkin’s ambivalence on these grounds is little better than his having his cake and eating it too.

Might one suggest that Larkin is ambivalent also in relating nature to artifice—another set of terms whose relative weights are differently adjusted in Romantic and Classical verse? Here, I think, “ambivalence” is the wrong word entirely, and Larkin less vulnerable to criticism.

For one thing, artifice and nature are far easier to discuss than tone in Larkin’s verse: they are formal properties of poetry, necessarily involving tone, but they also describe the stuff of which Larkin writes: the matter as well as manner: the Arundel Tomb, the hollowed shape of a formerly hallowed church, the wheat-fields from a train, even the path cleared between two former lovers (and perhaps they even surround his writing in his engaged (he had clearly read more than he would directly admit) performance of xenophobia maintaining the native tongue and the literature against the foreign and European).

Ambivalence is the wrong word because perplexity is the write word, and though perplexity might accompany ambivalence, ambivalence does not always accompany perplexity, in so far as ambivalence implies judgment and evaluation, whereas perplexity may be the balder function of making sense. And this is where Larkin’s poetry does a lot of its best work: in avoiding and evading the tone that would opine, sneer, even cherish and appreciate, but that instead would only try to distinguish, to sort into categories, or to ask how and why one category becomes another. The pathos is not directly pity in these cases—and this is not to say that pity has not place in poetry, but just to say that Larkin, whose poetry might be thought to thrive on pity more than most, writes a great deal of great poetry that is not directly pitying as much as it is perplexed over something (which might be occasioned by a situation that Larkin does in fact pity). And at the root of that perplexity is often his confusion over the distinction between, and the relation between, the artificial and the natural, categories that cannot, in themselves, be entirely justified as being natural anymore than they can be done away with as arbitrary artifice.

In “The Explosion,” the poem does not, at the end, inquire into whether the religious beliefs of the wives are antiquated or well-founded or necessary or anything else; instead, the poem ends with an effort at seeing what the women see, presenting their final vision of their husbands the vivid and aureate glow of a Byzantine mosaic, but also granting the husbands an unassuming humbleness (like a Dutch still-life) in that vision:

One showing the eggs unbroken.

Yeats was among the first major influences on Larkin, and the fascination with the relation between the natural and the artificial may have stirred first in Larkin when he read the Irish master; or perhaps Larkin what was already stirring within him in the movement of Yeats’ lines.

The demonstratively-crafted trochaics of “The Explosion,” with the brilliant vision at the end, may represent Larkin’s final, most explicit return to Yeats, possible after years working out his own methods for scratching an old, persistent itch.






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