A Critical Analysis of The Trees, by Phillip Larkin
in naturalle, poems, reviews
by Phillip Larkin
The trees are coming into leafThis poem meditates, laments and celebrates the life cycles of trees. It is an evocative mix of emotions, delivered with an economy of words.
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
The first stanza conveys the poet’s melancholy – instead of deriving joy and hope from the tenacious growth of plants as they sprout new leaves to welcome a season of warmth – the poet see their budding ‘greenness’ as ‘a kind of grief’.
The choice of ‘greenness’ and ‘grief’ is inspired; these two words alliterate and the repetition of the internal vowel ‘e’ in both creates a haunting rhythm. It concludes the first stanza with an impactful and melodic image by associating a colour with an emotion.
The second stanza wonders about the cosmetic youth of trees. It asks rhetorically if the trees are ‘born again’ while humans are destined to ‘grow old’. The poet then decides that no matter how tender the growing leaves are, the trees’ appearances are merely superficial facades. Their true age will forever be inscribed in the ‘rings of grain’ within their trunks.
This middle stanza relates to the preceding one. In the first stanza, budding leaves are compared to sentences that are incomplete, dangling, not heard, ‘like something almost being said’. This startling comparison is a reminder that the seasonal budding of trees is not merely about living; it’s about the many deaths that that have been accumulated, now ‘written down in rings of grain’.
The final stanza is somewhat hopeful, with the vivid image of the trees’ thick thrashing crowns, luxuriant and energetic in the sunshine each May. The rhyming couplet - 'May' and 'say' - along with the repetition of ‘afresh, afresh, afresh’ wraps the poem up, with a succession of succulent sounds, almost as though the leaves themselves are whispering these words.
At a surface level, Larkin is examining the growth of trees, casting his eyes on leaves, trunks and whispering crowns. However, one cannot help but extrapolate this cyclic nature of growing in green plants into the cyclic nature of life itself. This is a lucid and compact poem, composed and calm, that laments how everything is dying, no matter their desperate attempts to stay youthful and hold onto life.
Larkin, Philip 1922–
Larkin is an English poet, novelist, and essayist. The subject of his poetry is his personal experience, the setting that of common provincial life. Larkin has consistently rejected what he feels to be the obscure symbolism of contemporary poetry and its focus on aesthetic problems. His concerns are humanistic, and a recurrent theme is man in his relationship to nature. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Philip Larkin husbands his talents charily. High Windows, his first volume in ten years, contains only two dozen poems and his total output has been sparse. This poetic reticence is appropriate to his effort to face modern life objectively and honestly; he does not spin out words for their own sake. Behind the individual poems lies his awareness that the universe is ultimately empty, like the high windows of his fine title poem. His acceptance of impending oblivion causes him to see the everyday pursuits of people, including himself, with irony and elegiac sadness. Larkin is distinctly of our time, yet the verse itself is traditional and ordered. His tone is cool and his emotions in check—there is no rage here against the dying of the light.
His longer poems are often confrontations with mutability and death since for him the recognition of death is the beginning of wisdom. "To the Sea" and "The Old Fools" are successful examples in this collection, but he is most explicit in "The Building," a description of a hospital that becomes a meditation on death….
[A] sense that life is finite and rounded with oblivion underlies all his poems, but he is not usually so solemn [as he is in "The Building."] Slang and comic irony enliven many of his shorter poems, such as the very clever "Annus Mirabilis." Often, as in "Vers de Société," a light beginning gives way to a serious conclusion. "This Be The Verse" begins like a jingle and is sprightly in meter throughout, although it develops the grim idea that our psychological miseries increase from generation to generation. His subjects are contemporary, but his verse has a traditional quality in its use of tight structures and in his diction. Often he manages to combine the right smack of the Elizabethan plain style with the wit of later times. (p. 270)
Larkin depicts himself as a detached observer, affectionate towards life but not a swimmer in the mackerel-crowded seas. In "Posterity" he imagines his biographer complaining at being stuck with "One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys" whose work does not come from "out of kicks or something happening." In "Money" his unspent bank account reproaches him, "I am all you never had of goods and sex./You could get them still by writing a few cheques." But his awareness that experience is fragile and transitory prevents him from regretting very deeply his alienation from it. This becomes clear in "Money" when he turns around the equation he draws between his savings and "goods and sex"—like money the things of this world cannot ultimately prevail:
I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad….
For me, his ability to face and live in a world of limited and uncertain meaning is provocative; he accepts what drives other poets to evasions or despair. I was attracted to Larkin by the wit and beauty of his verse, but I have come to value more its clear-voiced honesty at a time when many of us conceal ourselves in rhetoric or retreat into silence. (p. 271)
Stephen S. Hilliard, "Wit and Beauty," in Prairie Schooner (© 1975 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1975, pp. 270-71.
Philip Larkin describes ["Jill," his] first novel, originally published in 1946, as "in essence an unambitious short story." This is a modest remark, and the modesty is not misplaced, for "Jill" is indeed a quiet, gray, inconclusive little book, with a gray hero, and a plot so slight that readers might be forgiven for thinking, as I did, that the final blank pages of the volume were a mistake of the printers, and that some dramatic denouement had been accidentally omitted. But this is not so: the inconsequential ending is deliberate. Some might expect this of Larkin, the poet of half-tones and gray moods, suburban melancholy and accepted regrets, but in fact the poet is much better at conclusions than the novelist: most of Larkin's poems, at least in his last three volumes, are remarkable for their devastating and bitter punch lines. In "Jill," there is much of the gloom, little of the bitter precision of wit.
Nevertheless, it is an interesting book for several reasons. It was written when the author was 21, and has some most accomplished passages of descriptive prose—notably the hero's visit to his bombed hometown, Huddlesford. (Larkin's own birthplace was Coventry, one of the most heavily bombarded towns in Britain.) At the least, it is a noteworthy piece of juvenilia by one of England's finest poets. It also has, according to the American critic James Gindin, the first example of "that characteristic landmark of the British postwar novel, the displaced working-class hero."…
As a working-class hero, in fact, John is singularly spineless: unlike the defiant and ambitious characters that people the novels and plays of Amis, Wain, Braine, Osborne, Wesker, he seems all too keen to learn the ways of his social superiors, even when those ways [are] repulsive…. None of the joys, all the embarrassments of youth are carefully catalogued. Maybe this is Larkin's point. Being young was not much fun in those days, for that kind of boy. In a poem published recently, "Annus Mirabilis," the older Larkin deplores the fact that the younger Larkin missed out on the good times, and was too old for the wonderful year of 1963, when the Beatles and sexual intercourse were invented. Times have changed, and "Jill" is certainly a useful sociological record by which to date those changes.
But perhaps the most curious section of this volume is Larkin's own introduction. There are, in fact, two introductions, one written in 1963, and a postscript to it, composed specially for this edition in 1975. Anyone interested in the history of attitudes and ideas will find these compelling reading. In the 1963 section, Larkin sets out, ostensibly, to explain wartime Oxford to the American reader….
In the 1975 addendum, Larkin remarks that despite all efforts to dissociate himself from the feeble John, he still finds readers identify him with his own creation. This annoys him, as does, apparently, the passing of the collegiate system that his own novel renders so unattractive. And, finally, he disclaims the myth that he was himself a scholarship boy…. [It] is worth remarking … that it is an extraordinary thing for an Englishman to say…. One wonders what the 1984 introduction will have to say about British education. (p. 5)
Margaret Drabble, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 16, 1976.
[This] lyrical little novel ["A Girl in Winter"] … still ranks as one of the best embodiments of pre-Second World War manners and turns of speech, and of the particular charms of the English shrubs and mists that grace the landscapes of Turner and Constable…. The book's main flaw is that the reader is led to expect an up-to-date account of the family [with which the central character, Katherine, had been involved], which never comes…. Despite this defect, Mr. Larkin's painterly descriptions of green country lanes, weathered punts, and soft English skies, and his wry ones of such native types as a braying colonial hunter who speaks with "leaden sincerity" and a girlish spinster who looks like "a large tea-rose gone well to seed," more than justify the reissue of this minor classic. (pp. 209-10)
The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 6, 1976.
[The] readiness to proclaim [Larkin] as the true voice of our contemporary English experience, the instituting of him as Laureate of the Ordinary, make up the agreed basis of his general acceptance in a manner that brings one fact home with depressing clarity: the place which Larkin occupies in the esteem of many, as spokesman of the English sensibility, has not had to be arduously won—changing our consciousness, for instance, that we may appreciate the language of his—but is there and ready for him more by default than by pronounceable achievement, like an inheritance which at last, in slow, permeating obviousness, can no longer be denied him. The meek shall inherit the earth, but only, it seems, when the great have left it, together with our contentiously vital scepticism, or when the humane mind of an age is too worn down, enervated, or badly frightened to enable it to challenge not only the dubious humility of a Larkin but the kind of accepting vision which could possibly conceive of him as a major poet. For what essentially disturbs, beyond the fact that his poetry is found important or congenial, is the existence of the larger phenomenon which such popularity confirms—that is to say, the lineage of commonplace writing (and defences of it) to which contemporary acclaim of Larkin should point us back.
Larkin's kind of success is only possible because he has precisely tuned his poetry till it now speaks with perfect confidence for that tradition of inadequacy, where failure to feel becomes a virtue, which has been evident in English poetry since Hardy but which has a more far-reaching lineage. If, as now, one tries to trace some of the gradations in this line of descent, it should quickly become evident that commonplaceness exerts its charms more calculatingly, and, in English writing of the last fifty years, has been more subtly apologized for, than may be realized…. The view from Larkin's train offers 'no historical perspective, no measuring of present against past', according to Davie [in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry]—'Canals and smashed cars come along with hedges and cattle simply because they come along like that in any railway journey through England, as we all know'—but though, in that comment, we can see how the null, the deathly indiscriminateness of the poetic mind, has enough appearance of the bright and the living to be given the credit of honest reporting, Davie's intelligence does not make Larkin's supposed observing power the main reason for finding him attractive. How it is that Davie, with his real sense of literary and historical perspective in which Larkin's poetry is set—'Those slow canals have wound through many a poem about England since T. S. Eliot's Waste Land …'—can come to rest, so welcomingly, on a poet who shuns any such wider cultural visionings, is suggested by the assumptions of this sentence: 'And precisely because poem after poem since The Waste Land has measured our present (usually seen as depleted) against our past (usually seen as rich) Larkin's refusal to do this is thoroughly refreshing—at least, we recognize with relief, we can take all that for granted, take it as read.' There seems, oddly enough, the implication in this remark that Larkin's 'refusal' to make a well-worn contrast is positively there with enough strength to take us into a refreshed, unblinking sense of the present, whereas the poetry suggests nothing as vital as a 'refusal', more a failure to care, or see why he should have to care, about the past or the living present. On Larkin's train we have the appearance of movement through the present, the sensation (if not the profounder sense) of perceived contemporaneity, as if the life-motion, by which we might feel the past active in our present, has been degraded to an unknowing, uncaring transience…. [The] relief which Larkin's poetry affords to Davie, I suggest, comes from finding in work of such lowered expectations (Larkin's 'level-toned acceptance of that England as the only one we have') a refuge for the idea of civilization, of self-control and courtesies, which is threatened by those forces manifested in the confessional, 'extremist' poetry of Lowell, Sylvia Plath, or Berryman, and cheered on to the breaking-point by Alvarez. In the light of such poetic claims, it is what Larkin does not seem to claim, rather than the self he does possess, which makes him have for Davie the credit of lowered-sights modesty, the semblance of the civil, honest-speaking voice. In fact, the negation which Larkin so carefully specializes in could only be imagined as fit ground, the repository of civilized values, by someone who has arrived at him, as Davie has, in refuge from the loud, chaotic, confessional voices which he hears from Lawrence to the present. But the endorsement of Larkin has more significance to it than the act of preferring the small-visioned but seemingly civilized poet to the vigour of others—where vigour, in Davie's confusing of it, is not distinguished from the brash, the apocalyptic, the civilization-denying forces. Larkin, or Larkinism, is what one inevitably does arrive at if one is driven to occupy a far smaller ground for a liberal idea of civilization than it originally and confidently seemed to embrace. It shows not that civilization and the impetus which has created it can be actually contracted to the modestly miniature, the negativity of small decorums and poignancies. Such a concept of the civilized seems to betray the idea, not preserve its force, and it suggests that one's idea of the civilized may from the very beginning have been narrower, more straitened, and less sympathetically vital, than it is eventually disclosed to be. (pp. 3-4)
A seeming contemporaneity of vision, a compassionate-looking embrace of the English present, together with a carefully gauged lowering of sights: these represent the poles between which [Larkin's] writing fluctuates without any … emotional clumsiness…. The persuasiveness of a kind of poetry that can … provide the appearance of modest wisdom suggests how well Larkin, in his grasp of commonplace writing, has cleared away without regret much that Auden clings to. (pp. 10-11)
Indeed, what marks Larkin off so distinctly from Auden's fumblings about the value of being ordinary is the deathly inadequacies which his contempt and clarity of purpose bring him to celebrate. His is not just the case of the Philistine mind which yearns for some semi-tragic prestige to gloss over his own reluctance to see beyond his undeveloped, withered feelings: Larkin's Philistinism is, more unpleasantly, an aspect of a very purposeful mind dedicated to the breaking down, the dissolving away into multiplicity, ambivalences, of direct or definite feeling…. [This] is what strikes one about the déjà vu quality of Larkin's poetry: the re-cycling of feelings that seem both sprightly and stale at the same time…. Larkin's 'posthumousness', the falsely life-like concreteness with which he puts together the picture of lives meeting in novelistic congruence, is not something that is ever quite faced for what it is. The formalism, the semblance of solidity and disillusionable ideals, may be a brightly-lit montage of effects that Larkin drains the light from into a fade-away flatness, a sense of life's cheats, but the shining, clichéd falsity of those pictures of the ideal exert a continuing fascination which the disillusionment feeds off—a tawdry focused framework which the unfocused haze of resentment and nullity cannot abandon, and thereby show itself as truly dead…. What life is Larkin has not the positiveness to suggest; what it negatively is not, in dulled equivocalness, is his real concern and one that depends on the over-lit falsity of promises and idealism to verify. The sensibility never ultimately has to be in its times, whatever the appearance of truth-telling anecdotalism…. (pp. 11-12)
'The commonplace needs no defence', says Plomer but it needs Larkin's special ability, his power of creating religiosity out of emotional dissolution, the total numbing of distaste for the vulgarized, to make a defence not seem necessary. Aboard the train in 'The Whitsun Weddings', the poet cannot be placed by us in any exact state of educated or class-consciousness: borne along on 'this frail/Traveling coincidence', and watching the newly married couples getting on the train to London and the wedding parties seeing them off … the poet, as in other poems, can seem (except for the stereotypes and over-tinted lighting) almost inside his moment, almost tolerantly among the world of relationships. But as London approaches, that approximated sense of coherence, of human solidarity, breaks up: a 'slackening ache' takes over, a braking movement which, as in 'Here', signifies that sapping of momentum 'That being changed can give'. It is not Yeatsian 'change', the perception of one movement ending and another newly beginning, but the simple process of deadening that now emerges as the foremost motive:
We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
To make a slackening of coherence look like something religiously beneficent, the disintegrative become energetically fecundative, is a piece of brazen suggestiveness on Larkin's part which is very characteristic. But equally manipulative is the kind of reader's response which can construe from Larkin's equivocal emptying of the present's significance, 'out of sight, somewhere becoming rain', the liberality of the agnostic who modestly keeps life's options open.
There is no modesty of that kind here, and it will not do, therefore, merely to see Larkin, as Alvarez sees him, as a postwar Welfare State embodiment of the 'gentility principle' in English conventionality—a writer whose attitude to death (unlike that of Sylvia Plath where 'death appeared as a positive act, an intense confirmation of identity') makes it 'nothing more than a dank tailing-off … the logical end to the denials he habitually practises in his work', a thing only frightening 'because it lies outside routine and amiable comfort.' Larkin's deathly, disintegrative consciousness is more persuasively and wilfully at large in the poetry than may be evident to a critic who wants to confine it behind a class-category of clerkish, timid suburbanism, while reserving the name of courage for those who actively embrace death. Larkin's 'posthumousness', with close links to Sylvia Plath's kind, is a phenomenon which is representative of a continuing diminution of feeling that carries on from the War and which has become almost an unremarked feature of poetic and dramatic consciousness. (p. 12)
Richard Swigg, "Descending to the Commonplace," in PN Review (© PN Review 1977), Vol. 4, No. 2, 1977, pp. 3-13.