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Examine the themes of pain & suffering in The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and The
North Ship (1945).

Amitava Banarjee has stated, “The overall picture of human life that emerges from

Larkin’s poems is one of ingrained sadness, dullness…and the failure to lead a

meaningful life” (Banarjee 438). Indeed, discontentment and failures are hallmarks of

Larkin’s view of post-war Britain, and “often assumes cosmic implications and

symbolizes a fragmented, disjunctive, and indifferent world” (French 85). Larkin wrote

for an audience "who drift, loaded hopelessly with commitments and obligations and

necessary observances…deserted by everything that once made life sweet" (Tierce 96). It

is from this observation that one can draw parallels between the examination of pain and

suffering in Larkin’s poetry and the Buddhist perspective on the subject. According to

Buddhism, life is made up of three defining qualities, or three signata: anicca

(impermanence), dukkha (dissatisfaction) and anatta (no-soul) (Harris 36). However,

ignorance of these concepts as a part of existence would cause pain and suffering

(samsara) to an individual (Harris 44), which then results in either attachment or

detachment to the things which caused the suffering (Harris 46). This paper’s focus is to

detail the evidence that proves this hypothesis true and how this theory is manifested in

Larkin’s poetry. The central text chosen for this study is The Whitsun Weddings by

Philip Larkin, and the secondary texts are The North Ship by Larkin and What Buddhists

Believe by Elizabeth J. Harris.

(224 words)

Anicca encompasses the transient nature of existence, hence its translation

“impermanence” (Harris 36). Change is inevitable in life; whether it is “health,

beauty…youth, friendship nor romantic love, possessions nor status.” (Harris 36). This is

a fact that Larkin accepted; in an interview with Robert Phillips, Larkin had this to say

when questioned about his belief in happiness:

“…’happiness,’ in the sense of a continuous emotional orgasm, no. If only

because you know that you are going to die, and the people you love are

going to die.“ (qtd. in Phillips 16)

A good example where this view is evident in Larkin’s work is the poem Afternoons from

The Whitsun Weddings anthology. The poem begins with the line “Summer is fading”,

alerting the reader to a change that is already underway. The summer in this line could

have a double meaning; one being the literal summer that is the setting of the poem. The

other is the metaphorical summer, symbolizing the stage of life the “young mothers” are

in, that is the prime of their youth. Either way, this state of being is already ending, hence

the persona stating that it is “fading”. Another instance which highlights the

impermanence of objects is the “…ruining [of the couple’s] courting places/That are still

courting places”, the courting places again symbolizing the young mothers’ youth. The

meaning these lines carry is a paradigm of impermanence: All things will come to an end.

Love Songs In Age is less abstract in its message, but just as poignant nonetheless. The

poem is based on Larkin’s mother, Eva, after the death of her husband Sydney Larkin.

(493 words)

Like Afternoons, the poem does not talk exclusively about love, but rather it “mourns the

passing of time and the regrets of old age as much as the disappointments of love.”

(Swarbrick108). The “songs”, or records that “she” has kept are symbolic of both the

promise of love and “the unfailing sense of being young”. These things, like everything

else,“ we regard as lovely, delightful, they ultimately become otherwise and part from

us.” (Harris 37). If the records symbolize love, then time has not treated them kindly:

“One bleached from lying in a sunny place,

One marked in circles by a vase of water,

One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,

And coloured, by her daughter-“

The second characteristic, dukkha is a result of this impermanence. While its direct

translation means “suffering”, it is better defined as “the fundamentally unsatisfactory

nature of human existence” (qtd. in Harris 37), as opposed to merely physical pain. This

dissatisfaction is palpable in Afternoons. The decay of the young mothers essence leads

the persona to conclude that their life is now “hollow”, much like how an aging tree rots

from the inside. This hollowness makes the young mothers feel as though there is a loss

of meaning to their existence; this is how they suffer as a result of the changes.

In the poem XXIII from The North Ship, the persona is questioning the possibilities that

might be achieved in an unrestrained life (“If hands could free you, heart”). The “heart”

(742 words)

in this context could be interpreted as representing several things, the most obvious and

common association being love. This “heart” (which is synonymous with passion) could

also be representative of life in general. Regardless how one sees it, it matters little to the

poem’s ultimate message. Despite setting himself free, the persona is still unable to find

the comfort or satisfaction he desires (“I should find no bent arm, no bed/To rest my

head). Again, the persona’s dissatisfaction is caused by the fact that “All beauty under the

sun--/Still end in loss”. The contrast in imagery from the first stanza is something to be

noted as well. The first stanza sweeping in its imagery, with its use of polysyllabic words

(“Far, beyond every part/Of earth this running sky/Makes desolate?”) extending and

slowing down the meter when read aloud, thereby heightening the lightness of the stanza.

One might even say that the first stanza “flies”. Coupled with the personification of

nature (“running sky”), it further augments the stanza’s hopeful tone. The imagery

present in the second stanza consists mainly of earthly landscapes (“…fields, pit-

vallies…”) as opposed to the more celestial scenery in the first stanza, bringing the reader

back down to earth, both literally and figuratively. The diction is now monosyllabic,

rendering the rest of the poem much harder than when it first started. Which, in essence,

what this poem is all about: we learn very quickly that whatever happiness we achieve is

impermanent. Therefore, there is no such thing as complete and eternal happiness.

Anatta, meaning “no-soul” or non-self”, can be explained by applying the concept of

anicca to the individual. The human condition is not static; it is not immune the “process

of change and impermanence present within every phenomenon” (Harris 38). There is a

(1039 words)

strong lack of personal identity in Afternoons, which would be an illustration of anatta.

There is no focus on a particular individual; instead, the persona refers to the subjects of

this poem collectively as simply the “young mothers”. Everything in their life is equally

impersonal, from their relationships to their homes, as the collective diction used in this

stanza (“husbands”, “estateful”) renders its subject devoid of any personality. The fact

that the husbands are described as standing “at intervals” gives the impression that they

are being mass-produced on a conveyor belt in some factory, dehumanizing them. Even

something that is supposed to be as personal as a wedding album is generalized. Hence,

the pun on the word “lying”. This emphasizes the “young mothers” loss of their former

identity, the fact that “something is pushing them to the side of their own lives”.

Similarly, the records in Love Songs allow the widow to relive, albeit briefly, her feeling

of youthful exuberance. In “Relearning how each frank, submissive chord”, she regains a

small fragment of her former self. For a moment she is not the grieving widow she is

now, but a young women whose life lay ahead of her:

“Spread out like spring-woken tree, wherein

That hidden freshness, sung,

That certainty of time laid up in store”

Ignorance or denial of these states of existence is, according to Buddhism, the root

cause of suffering in this life. When individuals “cling to the illusion that happiness is

something to be gained permanently” (Harris 43), they are left disappointed when this

(1297 words)

goes away. Thus, they will either attempt to attach themselves more to “the pleasant” and

or consciously avoid the unpleasant. It is fitting that the poem that best exemplifies this

concept would be titled Ignorance, from The Whitsun Weddings anthology. Ignorance,

according to Buddhism, is defined as “not knowing what human existence really is.”

(Harris 43). This is a state the persona feels society is caught in, something he finds


“Strange to know nothing, never to be sure

Of what is true or right or real,

But forced to qualify or so I feel,

Or Well, it does seem so:

Someone must know.”

Despite this uncertainty however, there is still an expectation for individuals to “qualify”

in deciding what they believe to be the truth. This forced conclusion does not lead to

enlightenment; instead it leaves them with a false sense of security that the world exists

according to their conditions (“…or so I feel”). This ignorance results in society

possessing a warped sense of existence and its meaning. The second stanza lists all the

things that ignorance distorts; society’s perception of what is essential to our happiness

(“…what they need”), the structure of existence that they mold their lives around (“Their

sense of shape…”) and obligation to reproduce (“…punctual spread of seed”). Yet, even

with all of these preconceived notions, individuals are still not the masters of their life.

(1528 words)

The persona goes on to say that although society may pretend to know what is right and

wrong (“Even to wear such knowledge-“), it is instinct that determines how they live

(“…for our flesh/Surrounds us with its own decisions-“). In the end though, they are still

living in a state of ignorance and uncertainty (“And yet spend all our life on

imprecisions”). Society is unaware that there is no such thing as a static existence;

everything is in a constant state of flux. Hence the line “That when we start to die/Have

no idea why”. The “we” in this context does not necessarily mean only the physical self,

but also the things that a person may feel defines them, such as their work, possessions,

relationships, etc. Therefore, when this way of life changes and “dies”, all that is left is

confusion and pain over this loss.

Larkin chose to reflect the message in Ignorance in its form and structure. The

poem’s rhythmic meter as a whole is regular and controlled, as is its rhyme scheme

ABBCC. This rhyme scheme could reflect the fact that we are forced to “qualify” and set

everything in order. The first line in each stanza is the odd one out because it lacks a

rhyme pair; interestingly enough, the first lines are where the persona comments on the

“strangeness” of everything. The subsequent lines however, follows convention in that

each possesses an accompanying rhyme pair. The internal discrepancy of this rhyme

scheme suggests that it was structured that way for the sake of some sense of consistency.

There is however, a slight irregularity towards the end of the poem: the enjambment

between the last line of the second stanza and the first line of the third stanza (“Yes, it is

strange, //Even to wear such knowledge“). The persona’s “strange” comment has been

(1835 words)

displaced from the expected fist line of the last stanza, adding an element of surprise to

the poem. When read aloud, this makes the poem sound oddly disjointed, if only because

of the contrast with the earlier regularity of the meter. Change is unpleasant, especially

when it comes unexpectedly.

Utilising form and structure to reinforce a poem’s content was a device Larkin relied

on heavily. Even when he wrote The North Ship anthology “he already had a clear idea

about the kind of poetry he wanted to write” (Banarjee 429), that is poetry where “form

and content are indivisible” (qtd. in Phillips 21). The regular rhyme and rhythm in XXIII,

while conforming to an archetype Romantic poem’s lyrical quality, is rigid and

controlled, with indented second and last lines of each stanza. While indentations are

usually utilized to draw the reader’s attention to a line and consequently, the meaning it

carries, it does not do so in this poem. It would be difficult to say that the indented lines

in the second stanza carry any significant meaning (“For I could run”, “To rest my

head”). Perhaps it could be interpreted as such: the second stanza has been forced to

conform to the structure of the first stanza. The one instance in this poem where there is a

break in its rigidity is in the fifth line of the second stanza (“Still end in loss: “).

Compared to its corresponding line in the first stanza, this line is catalexic. There is

literally a “loss” in its meter, forcing a pause upon the reader. Not only does this

emphasize the poignancy of the line, in true Larkin style the structure of the line reflects

the meaning the persona tries to get across to the reader. The forced structure of the poem

results in the reader feeling the loss of the syllable. Likewise, if one tries to ensure that

(2151 words)

something remains unchanged, when it inevitably does change the feeling of loss

becomes all the more greater.

Love Songs In Age is a case where the scars from emotional attachment remain. The

deep attachment lies in the fact that the records represent the hopes and dreams she had

about love and its “much-mentioned brilliance”. Even now, this fantasy of love still

lingers (“Broke out, to show/Its bright incipience sailing above”), promising perfection

(“Still promising to solve, and satisfy”). The poem seeks to make the reader empathise

with the woman’s nostalgia with its song-like quality. The lyrical feel of the poem is

achieved with its regular rhyme and rhythm. The enjambments force the lines to conform

to the lyrical structure, in addition to creating a smooth flow in the meter. The reader, like

the woman can’t help but be enthralled by this song. Sadly, nothing in this world, not

even love, can “set [everything] unchangeably in order”. There is no cure-all for the

wrongs in this existence; and anything that may seem to do so does not last, according to

anicca. In this case, this theory has proven to be true; the song ends, and “So/To pile

them back, to cry,/Was hard…”. Her attachment is what is hurting her now, and she is

forced to “lamely [admit] how/It had not done so then, and could not now.” Likewise, in

Afternoons the young mothers find that everything is changing. This change is beyond

their control, and because of their attachment their previous identity and things that were

supposed to complete them, they must suffer the consequence. It also seems that the cycle

is destined to repeat itself with each subsequent generation. The children, despite their

mothers “setting [them] free”, cannot break free of their attachments to their mothers. At

(2448 words)

the end of the day, they reject their freedom and “Expect to be taken home”. However,

pain can also cause the opposite effect, which is an aversion to things for fear that it

might cause further pain. The persona in XXIII is aware that no matter the circumstance,

everything will eventually “Still end in loss”. As such he develops an aversion towards

forming attachments and rejects setting his “heart” free (“I would not lift the latch”).

Pain and suffering is a cycle; society forms attachments to things that are

impermanent and transient. When these things are lost or changed, they either cling

tighter to it or let go of it completely. Larkin wrote about the everyman and their

attachments, as well as their detachments. He wrote poetry in an attempt to make sense of

this never-ending chain of suffering in life, and succeeded. Amidst the confusion and

ignorance of a life defined by impermanence, suffering and change, the subtleness of

Larkin’s poetry draws the reader into a new state of self-awareness; the first step to

clarity in existence. Larkin does not seek to give orders in how society should live; he

only shows the cause of our unhappiness and allows society to decide how they want to


“You are on your own. You are master of your own life. But you must also

hold responsible what you do.” (Harris 50)

(2679 words)


Banerjee, Amitava. ‘Larkin Reconsidered.’ Sewanee Review 116.3 (2008): 428-441.

Harris, Elizabeth J.. What Buddhists Believe. England; Oneworld Publications, 1998.

Larkin, Philip. The North Ship. England; Faber and Faber Limited, 1945.

Larkin, Philip. The Whitsun Weddings. England; Faber and Faber Limited, 1964.

Phillips, Robert. ‘The Art of Poetry: Philip Larkin.’ The Paris Review Foundation, Inc 30
(1982): 2-30.

Swarbrick, Andrew. Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin. London;

Macmillan Press Ltd, 1995.

Tierce, Mike. ‘Philip Larkin’s “Cut-Price Crowd”: The Poet And The Average
Reader’. South Atlantic Review, Vol, 51, No. 4 (Nov., 1986): 95-110.