Q. What is a movement poet? Discuss Philip Larkin as a movement poet.
Movement poets refer to a group of English writers in the 1950s who reacted against what they perceived as the excesses of Romanticism and Modernism in poetry. They sought to return to a more straightforward, realistic, and unpretentious style.
Philip Larkin is often associated with the movement, though he maintained a certain distance from any formal group identity. His poetry exemplifies many of the movement’s ideals:
Characteristics of Movement Poetry
- Plain Language
- Themes of Ordinary Life
- Skepticism and Irony
- Focus on the Personal
1- Plain Language
Regarding Philip Larkin’s role as a movement poet, his use of plain language in “Mr. Bleaney” and “Church Going” is a crucial aspect that aligns with the principles of the movement.
The Movement poets, emerging in the 1950s in Britain, were known for their reaction against modernist poetry’s perceived obscurity and elitism.
They aimed for a more accessible and realistic approach, focusing on everyday language and experiences. Larkin’s work in these poems exemplifies this trend:
This poem epitomizes the movement’s preference for simplicity and clarity. Larkin’s description of Mr. Bleaney’s room and life is stark and unembellished:
His bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook
Behind the door, no room for books or bags —
I’ll take it.
The language is conversational and easy to understand, reflecting the ordinary life and limited aspirations of Mr. Bleaney. This plainness highlights the poem’s themes of monotony and the unremarkable nature of many people’s lives, a common focus in movement poetry.
In “Church Going,” Larkin’s language is again straightforward and devoid of the complex symbolism often found in modernist poetry. The opening lines are casual and narratively simple.
It creates a sense of an everyday event.
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
The poem reflects on the changing role of the church in modern society; a theme approached with a typical movement of skepticism towards institutions and traditions.
The plain language makes the subject matter—the questioning of religious relevance—more approachable and relatable to the average reader.
2- Themes of Ordinary Life
Philip Larkin’s poetry, particularly in “Mr. Bleaney” and “Church Going,” exemplifies the Movement’s focus on themes of ordinary life.
This focus is a defining characteristic of the Movement poets, who sought to represent ordinary people’s everyday experiences and emotions, distancing themselves from the more esoteric and abstract themes often found in modernist poetry.
The poem is a detailed portrayal of the life of an ordinary, unremarkable man, Mr. Bleaney. Larkin explores the themes of monotony, the lack of fulfilment, and the realities of lower-middle-class existence.
The setting is mundane—a rented room, sparsely furnished, which is a metaphor for Mr. Bleaney’s life. There is a poignant exploration of the smallness and limitations of an average life, as seen in lines like,
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.
The poem is about the existential despair within the confines of an ordinary life.
This poem focuses on the theme of the declining role of the church in modern society. It is a reflection on religion, belief, and the search for meaning in a secular world, all framed within the context of an everyday experience — a visit to a church.
Larkin captures the ordinariness of the setting and the secular attitude of the narrator, who is both curious and somewhat indifferent.
The poem questions the significance of religious institutions in ordinary life, as seen in lines like,
A serious house on serious earth it is,
It suggests a search for meaning in a place that has lost its traditional role.
3- Skepticism and Irony
Philip Larkin’s poetry often exhibits skepticism and irony, aligning well with the characteristics of the movement poets.
This skepticism is not just simple disbelief or cynicism but a questioning attitude toward conventional beliefs and institutions.
In Larkin’s work, irony often manifests as a contrast between appearance and reality or between society’s expectations and individuals’ actual experiences. In “Mr. Bleaney” and “Church Going,” these elements are particularly evident.
Skepticism: The poem skeptically addresses the idea of the post-war ‘English dream.’ Mr. Bleaney’s life, with its limited scope and lack of fulfilment, questions the notion of success and happiness as traditionally conceived.
Larkin presents a character whose life is far from ideal, challenging the optimistic narrative of progress and prosperity in post-war Britain.
Irony: There is an irony in how Mr. Bleaney’s life is described. The small details of his existence – the “fusty bed,” the “sixty-watt bulb” – contrast sharply with any romanticized view of life.
The poem’s ending, with its suggestion that the narrator might end up like Mr. Bleaney, adds a layer of irony about the inevitability and universality of such an existence.
Skepticism: This poem is a meditation on the diminishing role of the church in modern life. Larkin expresses skepticism about the continued relevance of religious institutions and rituals in an increasingly secular world.
He questions what these buildings and practices mean when the faith that sustained them seems to be fading.
Irony: There is irony in the narrator’s actions – a non-believer who regularly visits churches. He is drawn to these places despite his skepticism.
It suggests a complex relationship between faith, tradition, and modern skepticism. The poem’s closing lines, pondering the future of churches as mere curious artifacts, are steeped in irony, juxtaposing their sacred past with a profane, tourist-driven future.
Philip Larkin’s poetry, particularly in “Mr. Bleaney” and “Church Going,” demonstrates a clear stance of anti-romanticism, aligning with the general disposition of the movement poets.
In this context, anti-romanticism refers to a rejection of the idealized, often exaggerated emotional landscape and themes prevalent in Romantic poetry. Instead, Larkin and his contemporaries focused on a more realistic portrayal of life and human experiences.
Rejection of Idealization: In “Mr. Bleaney,” Larkin strips away any romantic gloss from the life of an ordinary individual. The poem presents a bleak, objective look at Mr. Bleaney’s existence, devoid of any grandeur or heroic quality.
The room’s sparse furnishings and the monotonous routine of Mr. Bleaney’s life underscore a reality far from the Romantic ideals of passion, beauty, and adventure.
Focus on the Mundane: The poem’s focus on the mundane aspects of Mr. Bleaney’s life – the “fusty bed,” “no room for books or bags” – represents a clear departure from the Romantic focus on the extraordinary or sublime.
Larkin’s depiction is grounded in an average person’s everyday life.
Skepticism towards the Sublime: In “Church Going,” Larkin talks about a church in a way that’s different from what we usually expect. Churches often stand for high spiritual and romantic ideals.
However, Larkin looks at the church with questions and a tone that does not show the usual respect. He wonders about the role and importance of churches in modern life.
The narrator acts in a relaxed and somewhat clumsy way in the church, like taking off his cycle clips. This behavior is very different from the traditional romantic view of religious or spiritual moments.
Doubt: The poem is about religious doubt and the waning of faith, which is antithetical to the Romantic era’s emphasis on strong, often mystical beliefs.
Who will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was,
5- Focus on the Personal
Philip Larkin’s poetry demonstrates a strong focus on the personal, a vital aspect of the movement poets’ approach.
This focus involves a shift towards the individual experience, often highlighting personal emotions, thoughts, and reflections on everyday life.
It contrasts with the broader, more abstract themes of earlier poetic movements like Romanticism or Modernism.
Personal Existence: The poem is about the life of Mr. Bleaney, an ordinary individual, examining his personal living space and routine.
It shows a single person’s existence, revealing his habits, choices, and the limitations of his life. Larkin’s detailed description of Mr. Bleaney’s room is not only a physical inventory but a reflection of his life and identity.
Reflection and Identification: In the poem, the speaker thinks deeply about Mr. Bleaney’s life and ends up comparing it to his own. This comparison makes the poem very personal.
Individual Experience: “Church Going” is presented through an individual’s experience visiting an empty church. The narrative is deeply personal, filled with the narrator’s observations, questions, and reflections.
The poem captures the narrator’s mixed feelings — curiosity, irreverence, and a sense of loss. It is regarding the church and its diminishing role in society.
Search for Meaning: The poem can be read as a personal quest for understanding in a changing world. The narrator’s internal dialogue and queries about the future of churches and religion reflect a broader existential quest that is highly personal.
It resonates with the individual’s attempt to find meaning and place in a secular, modern environment.