Larkin's Vision Continued...


The second allusion is to the sacrament of baptism. Larkin is recalling traditional Christianity's teaching that baptism s a necessary symbolic identification each believer must make with Christ: "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans vi, 3-4). The meaning of baptism is in itself mysterious; Christians do not really die when they are baptized, but instead they die to the power of sin in their lives. This does not mean that they no longer sin, but that they are no longer slaves to sin. And baptism is not the start of this death to sin (it begins at the moment of spiritual conversion or regeneration), but rather a sign that this process of dying to sin has begun. Even for Christians this doctrine is mysterious (and divisive), so it is not surprising that Larkin attempts to invest it with new meaning; baptism is mysterious and as he seeks to understand it, he creates a new, personal interpretation of its meaning as a visionary moment. The second allusion is to the sacrament of baptism. Larkin is recalling traditional Christianity's teaching that baptism s a necessary symbolic identification each believer must make with Christ: "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans vi, 3-4). The meaning of baptism is in itself mysterious; Christians do not really die when they are baptized, but instead they die to the power of sin in their lives. This does not mean that they no longer sin, but that they are no longer slaves to sin. And baptism is not the start of this death to sin (it begins at the moment of spiritual conversion or regeneration), but rather a sign that this process of dying to sin has begun. Even for Christians this doctrine is mysterious (and divisive), so it is not surprising that Larkin attempts to invest it with new meaning; baptism is mysterious and as he seeks to understand it, he creates a new, personal interpretation of its meaning as a visionary moment.

For the persona in this poem water does not function as a metaphor either for death or for Christian baptism; one paradoxically fords the water "to dry, different clothes." It is not a symbol of how necessary it is for believers to be immersed in a faith requiring self-sacrifice and self-denial; rather, he says one must pass through water to attain a completely new and different physical condition. Perhaps his "dry, different clothes" are meant to contrast with the traditional Christian notion of a being washed clean by the blood of Christ's body. Yet water in his new religion does have Biblical associations: "My liturgy would employ / Images of sousing, / A furious devout drench." Here there are echoes from the creation; the deluge of rain that led to the Great Flood; the parting of the Red Sea; John's baptism of Jesus (where the Word-the ultimate liturgy-was literally soused); Christ himself, the living well; and the river of the water of life in the final chapter of Revelation. His liturgical service would emphasize water primarily on the literal level as a vigorous cleansing agent; indeed, the violence suggested by the "furious, devout drench" resonates with the idea of water as an abrasive, eroding, blistering physical agent.

In the concluding lines of his meditation, he tries to provide a hint of the new visionary moment water will produce in his religion:

And I should raise in the east
.. A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

These lines picture the high priest of this newly constructed religion as raising not the traditional communion cup of Eucharist (perhaps the most spiritually significant sacramental image of traditional Christianity), but instead a glass of water that functions as a prism. Instead of the wine of Eucharist that represents on multiple levels the blood of Christ, including both its outpouring and its renewing power, the water of this new religion works as an affirming, refractory medium. As a prism, water might be expected to bend the light and produce the colors of the spectrum, but there is no mention of color in the poem, not even stained-glass. What congregates here is "any-angled light," endlessly; that is, though the new religion lacks the color and vibrancy of Christianity, it too is eternal, endless, offering a secular affirmation for living. Motion argues that the glass of water is "an imaginative" apprehension of endlessness, in which knowledge of time and its constraints, and of self and its shortcomings, is set aside" (78). Though as with "Church Going" the sacramental meaning of "Water" remains slightly beyond the persona's ability to express, it is certain that he approaches the visionary moment in this meditation.

The third poem from The Whitsun Weddings employing sacramental motifs is the title poem of the volume. Pentecost (from the Greek pentekostos, meaning fiftieth) celebrates in the Christian church the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles as recorded in Acts ii. Pentecost Sunday or Whitsunday (from the tradition of wearing white clothes on that day) is the seventh Sunday after Easter and in the Anglican church is observed by feasts; it is also a favorite day for baptism and joining the church. A more subtle allusion may be to the "wit" that the Holy Spirit bestows (knowledge and wisdom) to worshippers on that Sunday. Marriage, a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church but not in the Anglican (and other Protestant churches), clearly carries with it sacramental associations in that a man and woman agree to set themselves apart for each other and no one else; it is a kind of holy pact between individuals sanctioned by the church.

For the persona in this poem water does not function as a metaphor either for death or for Christian baptism; one paradoxically fords the water "to dry, different clothes." It is not a symbol of how necessary it is for believers to be immersed in a faith requiring self-sacrifice and self-denial; rather, he says one must pass through water to attain a completely new and different physical condition. Perhaps his "dry, different clothes" are meant to contrast with the traditional Christian notion of a being washed clean by the blood of Christ's body. Yet water in his new religion does have Biblical associations: "My liturgy would employ / Images of sousing, / A furious devout drench." Here there are echoes from the creation; the deluge of rain that led to the Great Flood; the parting of the Red Sea; John's baptism of Jesus (where the Word-the ultimate liturgy-was literally soused); Christ himself, the living well; and the river of the water of life in the final chapter of Revelation. His liturgical service would emphasize water primarily on the literal level as a vigorous cleansing agent; indeed, the violence suggested by the "furious, devout drench" resonates with the idea of water as an abrasive, eroding, blistering physical agent.

In the concluding lines of his meditation, he tries to provide a hint of the new visionary moment water will produce in his religion:

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

These lines picture the high priest of this newly constructed religion as raising not the traditional communion cup of Eucharist (perhaps the most spiritually significant sacramental image of traditional Christianity), but instead a glass of water that functions as a prism. Instead of the wine of Eucharist that represents on multiple levels the blood of Christ, including both its outpouring and its renewing power, the water of this new religion works as an affirming, refractory medium. As a prism, water might be expected to bend the light and produce the colors of the spectrum, but there is no mention of color in the poem, not even stained-glass. What congregates here is "any-angled light," endlessly; that is, though the new religion lacks the color and vibrancy of Christianity, it too is eternal, endless, offering a secular affirmation for living. Motion argues that the glass of water is "an imaginative" apprehension of endlessness, in which knowledge of time and its constraints, and of self and its shortcomings, is set aside" (78). Though as with "Church Going" the sacramental meaning of "Water" remains slightly beyond the persona's ability to express, it is certain that he approaches the visionary moment in this meditation.

The third poem from The Whitsun Weddings employing sacramental motifs is the title poem of the volume. Pentecost (from the Greek pentekostos, meaning fiftieth) celebrates in the Christian church the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles as recorded in Acts ii. Pentecost Sunday or Whitsunday (from the tradition of wearing white clothes on that day) is the seventh Sunday after Easter and in the Anglican church is observed by feasts; it is also a favorite day for baptism and joining the church. A more subtle allusion may be to the "wit" that the Holy Spirit bestows (knowledge and wisdom) to worshippers on that Sunday. Marriage, a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church but not in the Anglican (and other Protestant churches), clearly carries with it sacramental associations in that a man and woman agree to set themselves apart for each other and no one else; it is a kind of holy pact between individuals sanctioned by the church. While for Larkin these particular sacramental associations may not have been important, in his poem he explores how marriage can bee seen as both powerful and renewing.

In the poem a detached rail traveler begins by saying:

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday<,br> Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out.

As he travels along he notices both the heat and the lovely landscape, at first unaware of the people: "At first, I didn't notice what a noise / The weddings made / Each station that we stopped at." Once aware, however, he takes careful interest in all of the people connected with the wedding parties. He meditates on the grinning girls with "pomaded" hair, "parodies of fashion," standing on the station platform; on fathers with "seamy foreheads;" on "mothers loud and fat;" and on "an uncle shouting smut." To this he notes the cheap and tawdry dress that marks off "the girls unreally from the rest."

Yet rather than adopt a skeptical view of these weddings, the traveler finds in them affirmation. He muses that for the fathers weddings are "huge and wholly farcical." While the women share "the secret like a happy funeral." The girls grip their handbags tighter and stare at a "religious wounding." Such expressions, according to Timms, "express the importance, even the sacredness, of marriage-days" (119). As his train rushes toward London, the traveler feels that the train is bringing in these newlyweds a redemptive, life giving power, and the visionary moment is realized: "And what it held / Stood ready to be loosed and with all the power / That being changed can give." In spite of his skepticism, he cannot help but see in these marriages power and renewal-power in the sense that human love which is the basis of marriage is implicit in these new brides and grooms and renewal in the sense that these fresh new wives and husbands may produce children and thus re-energize the population.

The poem ends with this visionary moment extended:

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.

Although the shower of arrows clearly has connections with Cupid's arrows and/or sexual climax, there is a subtle sacramental invocation of the descent of the Holy Spirit associated with Whitsunday, particularly as the life-giving image of rain waters the idea that these marriages may provide the basis for renewal in the great city. Larkin, as in "Church Going," uses sacramental resonances of marriage in "The Whitsun Weddings" to affirm human life by promoting "what is enduring rather than what is decaying" (117). Additionally, like "Church Going" this poem is more overt in its presentation of the possibility of visionary moment connected to a sacramental motif.

In High Windows two poems illustrate Larkin's use of sacramental motifs, although skepticism appears to negate any visionary moment. As if to illustrate this, both poems utilize church-substitutes rather than churches. In "The Building" Larkin explores the role of a modern hospital as a church substitute. Barbara Everett notes that "the poem's undertones of allusion are so ecclesiastical or metaphysical that, even at the literal level, 'The Building' could almost as easily be a church as a hospital" (43). The poem opens with a very somber, sober persona who meditates deeply on death. As he thinks and observes patients in a hospital, he begins to use traditional sacramental language. For instance, people come to the hospital "to confess that something has gone wrong." Others come "to join / The unseen congregations whose white rows / Lie set apart above." The great metaphysical question ("What happens to me when I die?") is every present in the minds of the patients, yet they labor to keep their fears below the surface of daily life, even in a hospital where such questions must often be honestly faced.

As the patients await their own diagnosis, "their eyes / Go to each other, guessing." Though they wear a veneer of normalcy, they know that "past these doors are rooms, and rooms past those, / And more rooms yet, each one further off / And harder to return from." As they fight back their fears, they try to while a way the time reading torn magazines, drinking tea, or looking out the windows of this high-rise hospital. Ironically, from the windows of this hospital they can see "a locked church." However, unlike the locked church, the hospital is open to all; in fact, there is easy access: "All know they are going to die. / Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end, / And somewhere like this."

The poem ends with a subtle shift as the patients become parishioners seeking a visionary moment:

That is what it means
This clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend
The thought of dying, for unless its power
Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes
The coming dark, though crowds each evening try
With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers.

Unfortunately, these lines do not suggest that they find one. Instead, the hospital is a shabby, dreary, unsatisfactory substitute for a church. Words like "transcend", "cathedrals", and "propitiatory" are ironic makers; that is, they indicate that while there is a real need for the sacramental, for a visionary moment when facing death, what the hospital offers is not sufficient. Though perhaps more accessible than a church (after all the nearby church is locked), the hospital cannot "contravene the coming dark" of death, and the final lines intimate a pathetic, almost futile effort to oppose this coming darkness: "though crowds each evening try / With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers." As a church substitute, the hospital is inadequate, and, at the same time, the local church is shut. Yet Everett writes that "for all its realism, the poem grows towards and into something as little of time and place as any symbol is, a noble metaphysical construct built out of the present's concrete-and-glass" (44).

"High Windows" is filled with religious terminology and ideas, and is "about the way successive generations dispense with the taboos of their predecessors" (Timms 105). On the surface this meditation appears to substitute a sexual for a sacramental visionary moment. For example, the speaker is envious of the sexual freedom enjoyed by the younger generation:

When I see a couple of kind
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-

His irony appears bitter as he notes that now eternal bliss no longer is reserved for the faithful as a heavenly reward; instead, the sacramental image of paradise can be found in the here and now, in the heave and ho of sexual intercourse, in the momentary vision of sexual climax. Though for the speaker such a paradise is surely illusory, qualified, and ironic, the young strive to be free from sexual consequence since "she's / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm." He goes on to say that the young can shirk off other responsibilities and duties as well: "Bonds and gestures [are] pushed to one side / Like an outdated combine harvester." For the young, modern life is simply a pursuit of immediate, sensual thrill; they go "down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly." Larkin's use of "the long slide," an allusion to the fall of man, undercuts this apparent paradise. And "endlessly" (reminiscent of "Water") is also intended ironically. It is not that the sexually liberated young find endless or eternal happiness through their sexual freedom; rather, it is that as each new generation of the young marches forward, their pursuit of freedom is an endless process.

The scramble by the young for sexual freedom and the corresponding envy of the old leads into the second part of the poem where the speaker reflects upon his own youth "forty years back." He notes that when he was young, the older generation thought about him as he does now about the younger generation, but with one crucial difference: forty years ago the older generation envied the freedom the young would have regarding religion:

That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to die
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds.

Here the meditation clearly shifts to a deeper level and begins to focus squarely on the sacramental or perhaps one should say a desire to avoid the sacramental. He considers that his elders had been certain that he and the other youth of the day would escape from the burden of religion. God would be gone, an idea whose time had passed; fear of hell would vanish; hypocritical posturing toward the clergy would be unnecessary. The youth of forty years back, so the older generation thought then, would find freedom from religion and would "all go down the long slide" to happiness. Yet here too he us being ironic, for what did they actually slide to? Possibilities include death, ennui, and terminal cultural decadence, but none of these leads to happiness. The connection between the first two parts of the meditation is the ironic idea that happiness will come when various restraints upon human behavior are lifted. Forty years back when God "was alive," people wanted God to be gone so that they would not need to worry about his judgment (hell) nor his messengers (priests). In the speaker's immediate present, however, the young think that if only everyone could enjoy sexual freedom, then everyone would be happy.

The third part of the poem is very reminiscent of the ending of "Water", particularly its emphasis upon the lack of color:

And immediately
Rather than words comes the though of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Words and phrases suggesting sacramental motifs include "high windows," "sun-comprehending glass," and "endless." As we examine the speaker's use of these words, we can see that rather than finding paradise through a throwing off of restraints, he finds his skepticism tempered by a difficult to articulate, metaphysical longing that brings about an affirmation regarding human existence.

The first of these phrases, " high windows," perhaps alludes to stained glass windows in churches where we find scenes of religious life and duty gloriously depicted. George Herbert's "The Windows" compares stained glass windows in a church to a preacher:

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle, crazy glass,
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window through thy grace.

In Herbert's poem the stained glass windows preach, while in Larkin's poem these high windows, perhaps those in a modern skyscraper, do not; they are not stained by religious art. They are transparent, silent, and crystal clear, functioning as "sun-comprehending glass." These windows see only the bright reality of the sun (not the Son) and beyond it to the vastness of space. Accordingly, these windows see through the artificiality of traditional religion and its sacramental images, suggesting a "new" secular truth: that human life is without transcendent purpose and is "nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless." The return to the word "endless" is ironic. Religious and sexual freedom are sought "endless[ly]" as ways to achieve purpose. The truth, Larkin suggests, it that neither is able to do so. There is no church, no priest, no message, no link between man and God. The "endless" truth is that human purpose and religious belief are impossible. What we are left with in the poem, however, is not despair, since the final tone of the poem is affirmative. One critic has noted about the ending of "High Windows" that though human life is ultimately a void, it is "not altogether an unfriendly void; indeed, it sounds attractive, though dizzying" (Lindop 50). The image of the high windows ironically affirms the speaker's longing for the sacramental; they are symbols that "manage to transcend the flow of contingent time altogether" (Motion 59).

It is not the purpose of this essay to construct a religious rehabilitation of either Larkin or his poetry. Indeed, the strong undercurrent of skepticism running through his poetry precludes that possibility. Still, Larkin's poems that employ sacramental motifs are instructive in several ways. First, although Larkin's audience is primarily secular, it shares with him a familiarity, tenuous and distant though it may be, with many of the sacramental motifs he evokes. Consequently, to paraphrase Parkinson, Larkin uses sacramental motifs to show his audience that while for them the ceremonies, rituals, terms, and forms of traditional Christianity have lost their transcendent meaning, they retain an affirmative, secular reality (224). That is, they are touchstones for an investigation of meaning and purpose. Although "he clearly has no faith in inherit and reliable absolutes," the fact "that individuals must discover and develop their own internal resources" gives these meditations "a powerful sense of affirmation" (Motion 60).

Second, in spite of his own rejection of religious faith on a personal level, Larkin understands the human need for affirmation, placing him with other modern spiritual nay-sayers like Nietzsche, Kafka, Conrad, and Camus. As he examines various sacramental motifs, he muses on how they once provided humanity with ideas and objects invoking the reality of transcendent meaning. In a poem like "Church Going" Larkin values the nostalgia of days when belief in traditional Christianity was easier; indeed, "it is the imortal [sic] longings revealed by the supposed atheism of Larkin's awareness of mortality, which continues to keep his metaphysics warm in his best known poem" (Parkinson 233).

Third, Larkin's attitude toward traditional Christian belief is rarely bitter or satirical; instead, as with both Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy, his characteristic tone regarding the difficulty or impossibility of religious faith for modern, secular man is sadness. In a poem such as "Days" from The Whitsun Weddings Larkin captures this sadness poignantly:

What are days for?
Days are where we life.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

While we all struggle with the question of meaning, Larkin suggests that neither traditional Christian belief nor modern psychiatry can supply the answer, even though each is eager to make the attempt. Gardner notes that Larkin's own inability to accept traditional Christian belief may have at the back of it nothing more than Arnold's in "Dover Beach": "the feeling, simply, that religion may have been possible once but is now outmoded" (94). Thus, as with the persona in Arnold's poem, Larkin hears "the eternal note of sadness" and offers echoes of the same sadness in his poetry.

At the same time, Larkin's use of sacramental motifs indicates that whether we believe in God or not, we tend to think and conceptualize about something or someone outside of ourselves. This is too dark, too bleak, too empty a world otherwise. Thus, in his use of sacramental motifs, Larkin tempers his characteristic skepticism found in a poem such as "Wants" from The Less Deceived:

Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff-
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from the death-
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

Through the visionary moments his sacramental motifs produce, he communicates the innate human tendency to seek affirmation and to look outward at a meaning larger than one's self. Andrew Motion notes that Larkin's views link him with the line of native English poets like Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hardy, Edward Thomas, A. E. Housman, and Auden. All use "a moderate tone of voice and accessible language'; all are "centrally concerned with the relationship between themselves and their towns or landscapes"; and all "habitually express a sense of communion with their surrounding in exalted or even semi-mystical terms" (Motion 19). For Larkin this sense of communion is often linked to sacramental motifs and the semi-mystical is often approached by way of a visionary moment. In the poems or mediations where this occurs, his typically skeptical view of human existence is partially tempered, and he "opens stops that he usually cares to keep muted" (Heaney 134). Although these gestures toward the eternal land of the spirit are infrequent, their presence at all argues against a reading of Larkin that is limited to skepticism. At the very least there is often a tension in his poetry between his desire for a quasi-religious experience and his sense that life is a mess. This tension is essentially that of many modern and explains why Larkin speaks so powerfully to them. His is a secular voice crying in the wilderness, suspicious yet longing for the mysterious, the mystical, the sacramental.

Works Cited Bedient, Calvin. Eight Contemporary Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Cox, C. B. "Philip Larkin." Critical Quarterly 1 (Spring 1959): 14-17.

Everett, Barbara. "Larkin's Eden." English 31 (Spring 1982): 41-53.

Gardner, Philip. "The Wintry Drum: The Poetry of Philip Larkin." The Dalhousie Review 48 (Spring 1968): 88-89.

Hamilton, Ian. "Four Conversations: Philip Larkin." London Magazine 4 (November 1964): 71-77.

Heaney, Seamus. "The Main of Light." In Larkin at Sixty. Ed. Anthony Thwaite. London: Faber and Faber, 1982.

Homberger, Eric. The Art of the Real. London: Dent, 1977.

Lacy, Benjamin, Jr. Revivals in the Midst of the Years. Hopewell, Virginia: Royal Publishers, 1968 (1943).

Larkin, Philip. "Big Victims: Emily Dickinson and Walter de la Mare." New Statesman 79 (March 13, 1970): 367-68.

----------------. High Windows. London: Faber and Faber, 1974.

----------------. The Less Deceived. London: Marvell Press, 1955.

----------------. The North Ship. London: Faber and Faber, 1945.

----------------. The Whitsun Weddings. London: Faber and Faber, 1964.