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Poet and novelist Philip Larkin, born in Coventry, England, graduated from St. John’s College, Oxford and worked as a librarian. After his first publication in his boyhood school magazine, Larkin wrote and published poetry, novels, essays, newspaper book and jazz reviews, literary criticism, as well as editing The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. His acceptance of the librarian’s position at the University of Hull, which he held from 1955 to 1985, coincided with the publication his poetry volume The Less Deceived, the first of his works to receive critical acclaim. His next significant book of poetry The Whitsun Weddings was not published until 1964; however, it secured his position as one of the most significant of later 20th-century British poets.
In 1984, Larkin was offered the position of poet laureate but declined, reportedly due to his dislike of publicity and, according to Anthony Thwaite, one of Larkin’s literary executors and editors, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, because he felt his “gift as a poet had come to an end.”
Although Larkin’s poetry displays a pessimistic, sorrowful tone common in modern poetry, his work evinces more traditional meter and rhyme. The British magazine The Spectator, in 1954, used the name The MovementA group of poets who used more traditional forms in opposition to the experimental structures of modernist poets. to describe a group of poets who used more traditional forms in opposition to the experimental structures of modernist poets. The Movement, including Larkin and his friend from Oxford student days and fellow writer Kingsley Amis, was criticized for its reaction against modernism in literature. Larkin’s selections for The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse garnered criticism for his perceived bias in choosing poetry in a traditional vein rather than works with modernist characteristics. Thomas Hardy, for example, whose work Larkin admired, is heavily represented in the volume.
Published in his highly successful volume The Whitsun Weddings, Larkin’s short poem “Days” addresses a theme prevalent in modernist poetry: time. Indeed, the theme of time and the brevity of life commonly appears in poetry of all centuries. With a hint of the modernist trait of twisting time out of its usual linear construct, the speaker of “Days” at once questions both the actuality of the concept of a day and the purpose of a day.
“Days” is a question and answer poem, proposing two questions and answering both.
The language of “Days” is simple and colloquial, typical of Larkin’s diction but without the crude edge of some of his poetry, perhaps most famously “This Be the Verse.” The first question seems a simple, almost childlike one: “What are days for?” The answer, however, broaches the most profound, and at the same time the most hackneyed, of philosophical topics: “Days are where we live.” Days are where all the meaning and the only meaning of our lives can exist. Both natural and manmade, the concept of a day enfolds all the thought and action that comprise human life.
The second question appears at the end of the first stanza, emphasizing the answer through its placement in a separate stanza.
The second stanza may be a second speaker, answering the first speaker’s questions. Or the second stanza may more likely be the same speaker answering the rhetorical question, perhaps using the common conversational convention of repeating a question before giving the answer. “Where can we live but days?”
The answer includes no sentimentality about how one’s days are spent, about accomplishments or relationships; there is only the brutal fact of a limited number of days allotted to each individual and then inevitable death.
An example of Larkin’s interest in regular meter and rhyme, “The Whitsun Weddings” consists of 8 stanzas of 10 lines rhyming ababcdecde. In each stanza, lines 1 and 3 through 10 are iambic pentameter, while line 2 consists of 4 syllables with 2 stressed syllables (iambic dimeter).
In Britain, Whitsun is the name for Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter. At the time this poem was written, the Monday after Whitsun was a holiday. The combination of the long weekend, the religious significance, and the springtime date made the weekend a popular one for weddings.
The speaker describes the beginning of an ordinary train journey to London on a hot spring Whitsun Saturday afternoon. Gradually he begins to notice that at each station a celebratory group crowds the platform and realizes that these are wedding parties, seeing off a newly married couple on their honeymoon journey.
With the speaker’s description of the surroundings, beauty is juxtaposed against the ugliness of the background even as the reader is led to question whether the beauty exists at all. The obvious, anticipated joy of a wedding clashes with the common and mundane. A wedding, a beginning of new life, love, and joy, is placed in the midst of everyday’s common, routine continuity.
An aubadeA song or poem greeting the dawn. is a song or poem greeting the dawn. Traditionally, an aubade portrays lovers who must part at dawn, so the song laments the anticipated separation. In Larkin’s “Aubade,” there are no lovers, only one individual, the speaker, but the poem still anticipates a separation: the speaker’s separation from existence through death. Each morning the speaker realizes that he is one day closer to death.
The poem’s five stanzas rhyme ababccdeed. In each stanza, the abab lines are regular iambic pentameter, but when the rhyme scheme deviates from the abab pattern, the meter becomes irregular. In stanza one, the disintegration of the regular rhyme and meter reflect the speaker’s descent into fear and turmoil as he contemplates the non-existence death will inevitably bring.
In the first stanza, the speaker describes the sunlight beginning to come into the room around the edges of the curtains until “then I see what’s really always there.” And then the speaker tells us it is “unresting death,” always present but intruding into his thoughts in the quiet aloneness of dawn.
As the light strengthens, the fear of death “stays just on the edge of vision,” replaced by the mundane realities of life. The fear, however, never goes away. Reiterating the idea of the first lines of the poem, the speaker admits that the presence of other people or drinking may temporarily push the fear to the sidelines of his thought, making the lonely dawn the time most susceptible to the encroaching fear.
“The Whitsun Weddings”
Till then I see what’s really always thereTill then I see what’s really always there