By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘High Windows’, the title poem of Philip Larkin’s fourth and final major poetry collection, is one of his most famous. The poem examines the new permissive society that flowered during the 1960s. Before proceeding to our analysis of ‘High Windows’, you can remind yourself of this poem (or discover it for the first time – a real treat) here.
Completed in February 1967, ‘High Windows’ was one of several poems which Larkin wrote around this time – during the so-called Summer of Love – which analyse the poet’s own middle-aged attitudes to the younger generation and the changing attitudes to sex. ‘Annus Mirabilis’ was written just a few months later, and ‘Sad Steps’, completed the following April, might also be partnered with ‘High Windows’ in this regard.
‘High Windows’ does what so many of Larkin’s poems do: it starts from a somewhat local but instantly recognisable scene or observation, and then pans out to consider the meaning of this in more abstract terms.
Here, the observation is clearly signposted in the first stanza: whenever the speaker sees a teenage couple he immediately speculates as to the free-and-easy attitude this young couple share towards sex, thanks to recent breakthroughs in contraception (the pill had only just become widely available in the UK). Larkin’s speaker confidently asserts that this is ‘paradise’ which he and everyone of an older generation dreamed of all their lives, but never themselves enjoyed while they were young.
Larkin envisions a new freedom for the younger generation, which he likens to going down a slide. (The poem is also like a number of Larkin’s other late poems, such as ‘Sad Steps’ and ‘This Be the Verse’, which begin with a four-letter expletive and then become more thoughtful and transcendent as the poem progresses.)
The image of old customs being pushed aside like an ‘outdated combine harvester’ is designed to jar and to jolt us; it’s an ugly line, its three long polysyllabic words drawing attention to the distinctive name of the machine – a machine associated with an outmoded agricultural model, one that has largely been superseded by more recent technology.
If young people appear to the middle-aged Larkin more cosmopolitan, more urban and ‘with it’, then such city-based terms only reinforce the obsolescence of the country-centred harvester.
He then wonders whether anyone looked at him when he was young and thought the way he does about these teenagers – in other words, did anyone of an older generation view the young Larkin in a similarly envious way, jealous of the younger generation because they were growing up in a less strictly religious age and were ‘free’ of the shackles of religion and worrying about what the priest will say?
Or is there something specific about the sexual revolution of the 1960s counterculture? In other words, is such generational envy timeless (and therefore inevitable) or was Larkin simply born just a little too early (as he essentially says in ‘Annus Mirabilis’)? The italicised lines imagine what someone of an older generation than Larkin might have said when viewing young Larkin and his generation (or ‘his lot’): they are all free to go down the slide like birds (itself an odd image: birds aren’t known for travelling down slides!).
But then we suddenly come to a change in direction, as Larkin is confronted with the thought of ‘high windows’ and the deep blue air which leads out into nothingness and infinity. And that, in summary, is how ‘High Windows’ ends. What should we make of this final stanza?
The image of high windows pointing out onto the deep blue sky beyond was interpreted by Andrew Motion as representative of the Symbolist strain in Larkin’s poetry. The high windows symbolise transcendence: something that is far above and beyond the ordinary phenomenon of two ‘kids’ in a sexual relationship.
But are they offered as a positive or a negative vision of transcendent experience? The ambiguity is increased by the phrase ‘shows nothing’: the high windows and the air beyond show nothing, but does this mean they reveal a vast but significant nothingness, a sort of blissful emptying of the mind such as is possible in extreme mental states (through meditation, for instance), or should we read ‘shows nothing’ as straightforwardly synonymous with ‘doesn’t show anything’? Does that deep blue air actually reveal anything to Larkin, or not?
And how does that final image of the high windows relate back to the previous sections of the poem?
Are these the stained-glass windows in a church, and Larkin is responding to this imagined (italicised) opinion voiced by a hypothetical member of Larkin’s parents’ generation by saying that any freedom he and his generation may have appeared to possess was illusory (and, by extension, the freedom and ‘paradise’ – itself a very religious word – Larkin detects in the ‘couple of kids’ is largely illusory too; after all, the Summer of Love soon turned to autumn, and in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, we know that free love isn’t all that free).
We can read that concluding image either way, of course, but one clue that Larkin himself perhaps thought he’d strayed too close to positive sublimity may be glimpsed in the three words which he added to the first draft of them: ‘and f*cking p*ss’.
However we analyse that final stanza, ‘High Windows’ remains one of modern English poetry’s defining responses to a key moment – and movement – in twentieth-century society.