Although his style is not overly difficult compared to some poets, Philip Larkin is a difficult poet to read. His vision of life is dark, depressing, and unremittingly cynical, although he does employ a comical tone at times to tackle what he sees as the absurdity of life. His poetry presents ordinary experiences drained of their traditional meanings. The speakers of his poems often look back at the past and see only unfulfilled lives, while they wait for death.
In the poem “Church Going” we have a speaker who travels daily to a church that is slowly losing all its religious meaning in modernity as more and more people turn away from religion, yet there is an irony in the poem that he keeps returning to this now meaningless place in search of something that he can’t quite articulate. In the last stanza the poem tells us that he keeps returning to this “serious house on a serious earth” in order to fill “a hunger in himself to be more serious.” Although the church and its theology that it represents no longer has deeper meaning for this speaker, it stands in as a symbol for all that’s missing in his life. In other words, he doesn’t want religion and can’t believe in it anymore, yet he can’t stop searching for a deeper meaning to give his life some purpose. It stands as a symbol of his search for meaning, even as it is slowly losing its meaning. The church “was proper to grow wise in,/If only that so many dead lie round.” This final line of the poem is a major theme that appears throughout Larkin’s other poems. The only real truth, the only destiny we have as human beings, is that we will die in the end. The cynical tone implies that the true wisdom offered in church isn’t religion itself, but the recognition of our fate. Many of Larkin’s other poems explore death and imply that it is the very fact that we will die that makes all experiences meaningless.
If the future frightens him because of impending death, the past doesn’t fill him with nostalgia either, only regrets for an unlived and wasted life. From “I Remember, I Remember”:
“ ’Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort.”
Whereas many writers would look back at their childhood with nostalgia for some lost golden years, Larkin often speaks of his childhood in his poetry as wasted time and makes it sound unhappy.
Indeed in one of his most famous poems, “This Be The Verse” he even questions the role parents play, not raising us to be virtuous or making us happy well-adjusted individuals, but corrupting us with their faults:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”
The vision of the poem extends further, suggesting one generation gives only misery to the next generation in an endless cycle, which leaves the speaker to conclude that a person shouldn’t have kids.
A strong sense of regret pervades these poems. Consider for example these lines from the poem, “Toads”:
“Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on.”
Larkin writes poems about speakers with unfulfilled dreams. They sometimes imagine a different kind of life, but they cannot give up the comfy boring middle-class lifestyle in the end. Larkin, however, in his poem “Toads Revisited” also isn’t afraid to show the imaginary life longed for in the original poem also has its faults.