How Larkin & Jennings Deal With Loss

If poets of The Movement are categorised by their inclusion in the influential New Lines anthology of 1956 and characterised by their Anglophilic simplicity – it is perhaps easy to underestimate the somewhat peculiar emotional complexity of two of its best known ‘members’ – if one can even address them as such – Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Larkin. Rather than a simple reduction to being united by a distrust for the urbane and a nostalgic patriotism – it is perhaps more accurate to unite these two, very popular poets, with their contrast of literary accessibility and psychological profundity. For example, their elegiac poems of loss – Absence and The Explosion – are plainly written but emotionally powerful works that differ just as the personalities of their auteurs differ.

One of these differences can be found in the poems’ tonal dispositions. Whilst both are concerned with loss – Larkin’s The Explosion carries a sense of dread throughout. Early on – before the explosion – this pathos is built up in the foreshadowing line “One chased after rabbits; lost them;”. This line builds up a constrictive tone of dread that continues throughout the poem – foreshadowing a loss that will deliver a far more severe blow after innocence fades away by the end of the poem. Absence, however, whilst definitely melancholic in tone, is far gentler. The pleasant, almost willowy, alliterative opening line of the poem “I visited the place where we last met”. This line presents a pretty sort of sadness that continues throughout this poem. Absence and The Explosion both take quite different approaches to a very similar subject. Both are emotionally rich but Larkin does this in a more outwardly-cold manner than Jennings whose words radiate a certain warmth. Both are emotionally complex – but Absence is more emotionally sensitive (as The Guardian’s obituary of her phrased their description of Jennings’ poetry) than The Explosion.

Perhaps this difference is due to the seemingly autobiographical nature of Jennings’ poem in contrast to the detached third-person nature of Larkin’s poem (a necessity given Larkin’s lack of direct involvement with the mining accident; he bore witness to it only through a documentary he had watched). Jennings perhaps gains an intimacy with her subject unavailable to Larkin due to this new style of her despised Confessionalism that she helps create in poems like Absence. By placing the poetic voice as first-person – talking of birds “Singing an ecstasy I could not share” – Absence carries an emotional heft that is similar to The Explosion but also very different. Larkin’s use of third-person can emotionally describe how “Wives saw men of the explosion” but – it cannot give the same psychological roundness to the women that Jennings can naturally give to the poet’s voice in Absence – by firmly putting herself in the voice’s situation and reacting in the poem – almost as an actor would – rather than simply describing what the poet can see – in the manner of which Larkin is – in a sense – limited by in The Explosion.

And yet The Explosion carries in it a spirit of hope that cannot be found in Absence. Larkin ends his poem with a pungent piece of visual imagery that can perhaps be prescribed metaphorical significance – “One showing the eggs unbroken.”. This sort of end is unusual for Philip “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” Larkin – although not without precedence (the beautiful irony of his disarmingly romantic end to An Arundel Tomb – “What will survive of us is love.” – being his Poets’ Corner epitaph – and most beloved line has shown this peculiarly optimistic side to Larkin before). This line symbolising the continuation of life – how “There is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.” is nowhere to be seen in Jennings’ Absence – despite the gentler tone. Her metaphor of “An earthquake tremor” – as surprisingly figurative as Larkin’s given The Movement’s aversion to figurative language (thereby giving an indication of how important the two lines are in their respective poems) – is what is described near the end of Absence – no glimmer of hope. In some ways Absence conjures to mind images of Celia Johnson’s heartbroken wide eyes in Brief Encounter. Larkin finds hope even in genuine physical tragedy – yet Jennings deals with emotional tragedy – succeeding, in the same fashion as great 1940s melodrama to capture the distinct and almost irreconcilable emotional trauma one goes through following the loss of a loved one – somehow in this place – hope is even harder to come by – but with that gentle tone – Jennings is almost saying: that does not mean one should stop in the search of hope and reconciliation and happiness.

Absence uses more severe diction like “savage” to juxtapose the negativity of these words with the serene atmosphere of the garden location. The “pain” and “discord” Jennings describes undercuts the benign scene her voice is set in. Larkin uses juxtaposition in a very different way in The Explosion. After describing an emotionally intense scene leading up to the eponymous explosion – Larkin breaks up the poem with a stanza of dialogue presumably from a prayer conducted at a memorial – “The dead go on before us… in God’s house in comfort,”. Not only does this make a change from the previous stanzas of this poem but it marks a change from the sceptical ‘Agnostic-Atheist’ of most Larkin poems. Larkin uses juxtaposition to carve out a hopeful image despite the loss the poem describes; Jennings uses juxtaposition to carve out a painful image despite the generously gentle atmosphere of the poem as a whole.

This difference in the poems’ reactions to their respective losses is also seen in their form. After a series of ominously end-stopped stanzas – Larkin eases into a more emotionally open use of enjambment – the image of “men of the explosion / Larger than in life” carrying a greater sense of hope. Absence end-stops each of its stanzas. Jennings uses a strict alternate full-rhyme (with one brief exception of half-rhyme in the third stanza – almost replicating the poem’s voice choking-up with barely held-back tears) – all stanzas uniformly of five lines. Absence does not cease in its gently melancholic atmosphere – in a sense it is static in its own emotional tragedy; The Explosion is dynamic – rising from the ashes to a new sense of optimism and hope in the face of bleak circumstances.

As E.M. Forster noted the importance of having both “dynamic” and “static” characters in novels – so too we need “dynamic” and “static” poetic ruminations on loss. Absence is poem that stresses the human need to wallow when it comes to a great loss. The Explosion is a poem about the human need for some sort of hope and optimism – some form of raison d’être following a loss of catastrophic proportions. The event changes those-involved’s situation irreversibly and profoundly – as does the poem – and so too the reader’s notions of Larkin as an artist.

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