“Seems like old times, here with you.”
There is something about the nature of love which seems to prove itself completely irresistible to poets. There is something, too, about the nature of love that makes lovers desire understanding from poetry. In Elizabeth Jennings’ Love Poem and Philip Larkin’s Love Songs in Age – one reads poetry not only of love but self-consciously of love poetry (or songs – which in their way are poems) itself. Both deconstruct the poetry of romantic love – yet deal with the idea of romantic love in its essence differently. Love Poem is in part a polemical poem against grand romanticism and advocating instead for a sort of quiet passion; in part a manifesto for Jennings’ outlook on love, poetry, and life – that one should be passionate with a restrained poise. Love Songs in Age is poem of disillusionment of the poetry of romantic love – and of romantic love in and of itself. It is a poem against these love songs – these poems – that set people up for disappointment by espousing these unattainable utopian ideas of bliss that ultimately can never be filled through human relationships. Love Songs in Age is a poem that finds no sense of true romantic love; Love Poem finds it in a different place.
This distinction can be found within the form of the poems. Love Songs in Age sprawls through its verse with a flow of enjambment. This form is like a huge wave – a gushing of sadness from its subject – only reaching true finality with the final, end-stopped verse. Like the devastating ending to Miranda July’s celebrated story from The New Yorker, Roy Spivey, Larkin leaves his ageing female subject with a sense of finality without closure – a crushing realization of the disappointments her expectations of romantic love have led to. Like that story, too, we have a sense that the subject is leading a pleasant life, that these innocent fantasies of romance promised to her by love songs are the only source of trauma. Larkin, a great champion of the ordinary life, finds sadness only in the deception of romantic love – not in his subject’s actual situation. Love Poem, meanwhile has a clipped form of three end-stopped stanzas of six lines each. The form of the poem symbolises that emblem of refined romanticism – the waltz. Each stanza ends with a refrain of “O love is kind, O love is kind.” – with only a slight variation in its final stanza. Jennings cannot find true love in the way classic love poems celebrate, as Larkin cannot in love songs, yet she instead finds a sense of true fulfilment in love through elegant discretion. This form brings out the main thesis of the poem – that “Love which cries out,/…Is love that holds itself in doubt.” Rather than write a long, sprawling, passionate poem filled with romantic platitudes – Jennings writes a phlegmatic, controlled poem on the subject.
The diction of the poets throughout both poems work to bring these central ideas out. Love Songs in Age paints an image of vulnerability with language. Larkin’s use of words, “submissive”, and “lamely admitting”, is used to convey his central meaning of the poem – that one is always vulnerable to the false hopes of romantic love. One could perhaps link this defeated view on the truth of love to a perceived lack of fulfilment Larkin could find in his relationships with women – with his noted infidelities and his numerous failed romantic endeavours – as discovered with the publication of his letters. Yet although Jennings was notoriously plagued by the emotional trauma brought about by her failed engagement during her final days as an undergraduate at Oxford – she finds more hope in the prospects of love. Yet, like the poem encourages, her diction is positive though not ostentatious – instead utilising simple, pleasant language such as “sweetness” and “kind”. These words have a soft effect – along with “shyness” and “quiet” – that are not provocatively passionate, but instead have a humility in love that the poem yearns for. The diction of both poems are muted: Larkin evoking the melancholia of disappointment as opposed to the desperation – Jennings mutes the grand romanticism her title is immediately loaded with, and uses language instead to convey that true love runs deep.
As with all writers associated with The Movement, rhyme and rhythm are of great importance in the poems of Larkin and Jennings. Love Poem begins each stanza with a rhyming couplet before a set of alternate rhyme. Almost like a small, benign flutter of the heart, before gaining control – the rhyme scheme once again replicates a waltz – helped in turn by its iambic tetrameter rhythm. To evoke the waltz in the mind of the reader is to evoke a traditional facet of romantic love that almost reaches the point of cliché – and instead gives it a new meaning. The waltz as a dance and in music is firmly regimented – however much passion lies within it. There is no great extravagance in the design of the poem. This regularity of rhyme and rhythm is an example of what the poem believes – that real love does not need affected flamboyance as it is strong enough by itself. The “first sweetness” is followed by a composure and the poem settles into its own assurance that “love is quiet and love is kind”. Love Songs in Age, in stark contrast, never settles. The lack of strong regularity in its rhythm and rhyme places the reader on edge through the poem. Through this, Larkin is not offering the sort of assurance the love songs he decries in the poem give. Larkin’s desire through his poetry was to make his readers “less deceived” – in this poem Larkin attempts to dispel the romanticised ideals of love provided by what Larkin sees as the essential lie of the love song – in the aid of preventing heartbreak when these ideals can never be attained.
The major difference of the poems’ ideas on love can be found with their different uses of imagery. Larkin’s use of personification applied to the abstract concept of love displays his disbelief in romantic love and carries with it a belief that investing in romanticised ideals of love will only lead to pain and sorrow. This can be seen in the line “The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,/Broke out,”. This discomforting idea that love is a “glare” sets aside any positive interpretation of his use of the word “brilliance” – instead its meaning as an uncomfortably intense light is all that is left. Jennings’ use of metaphor is on the other hand positive – although it deceives on its surface. The “shaking of the heart” Jennings describes can have two interpretations. One is a negative idea that the heart is upset in the pursuit of love. The other is that love is only strengthened by the “pain” it encounters. With every shaking of the heart – one brings more love into their heart. In Love Songs in Age, Larkin takes issue love songs for promising some love that no-one can ever truly find; in Love Poem, Jennings takes issue with love poems for their brashness and insists, unlike Larkin, that the more reserved love is true love, even under duress – rather than the idea that true love does not exist in reality, and any pain one goes through in search of it – or after when one is disappointed by their expectations – is not worth it, as it is never possible anyway – which is what Larkin seems to put forward in Love Songs in Age.
To finish their two poems, Jennings and Larkin show their background of academia by using a similar rhetorical pattern to make their conclusion – both a summation of their theses. In Love Songs in Age, Larkin laments of the inability of love songs to give the romantic love they promise and uses repetition to fully cement this idea. “It had not done so then, and could not now.” has a complete absence of hope. Larkin offers no respite – leaving only, as he sees it, the inconvenient truth, that to believe in romantic love is to experience crushing disillusionment and sadness. There is no cynical judging of those seduced by the ideals – but there is no glimmer that the ideals could be realized. Love Poem uses its final line to amend its previous refrain to “For love is quiet, and love is kind.” Jennings agrees with Larkin’s idea that the romanticised ideals of love as traditionally glorified in poetry is not true love – but offers true love as an alternative. Jennings uses the final line of her poem to give an instantly quotable manifesto for introverted lovers – and provides hope of a beautiful, attainable love – and in doing so does what the great love poems (songs, stories, films) do – defy conventions of romantic love, and establish new conventions.
Philip Larkin, the pessimistic curmudgeon who “stuck it out in a library in Hull” sees no value in love. He sees it solely as a cause for great unhappiness. Elizabeth Jennings sees beauty in reserved romance, in a shy love. A love that is so powerful it can go unnoticed. There is no truth in grand romanticism – but there is great truth and beauty within the quiet love shared between those who feel no need to qualify it. Love is love is love is love: that has intrinsic beauty.
“And I remember quiet evenings, trembling close to you…”