A reading of one of Larkin’s most famous poems
We’ve analysed a fair few Philip Larkin poems over the last year or so, and had largely said everything we had to say about his work. But we’ve been inspired to write about ‘Going, Going’ because of popular demand, of a kind. Another of our posts, an analysis of another Larkin poem titled simply ‘Going’, has been receiving a great deal of traffic, but people have reached it by searching for an analysis of ‘Going, Going’. Which is a completely different poem. Since ‘Going, Going’ is fine late Larkin, we thought we’d offer some thoughts on this poem, which you can read here.
‘Going, Going’: the title immediately summons the third, unspoken word in the usual auctioneer’s phrase: ‘Going, going, gone.’ Britain is not quite gone altogether, but it is going, and it is being auctioned off, sold to the highest bidder. This, in a sentence, is the ‘gist’ or meaning of Larkin’s poem. But as ever with Larkin, the way he explores and puts across this idea is a masterclass in verse-making.
Before we get to the question of what Larkin’s poem is saying and how he achieves his effects, a brief summary of ‘Going, Going’ might be useful. Larkin’s speaker begins by lamenting the fact that the English countryside – which he always thought would be preserved during his lifetime – is starting to disappear at an alarming rate. He’s encountered newspaper ‘scare stories’ about old streets being built and developed on (to provide ‘split-level shopping’, for instance), but by and large those ‘fields and farms’ remain, for city-dwellers like Larkin himself (he was living in Hull when he wrote ‘Going, Going’) could escape to, and enjoy, by getting in the car and driving out to. After all, the natural world seems to possess a resilience which we as human beings appear to lack. No matter how much we mistreat the earth – by putting waste in the sea, for instance – we can overlook the damage we do to it, and pretend that everything’s fine (as long as the coast is literally clear when we go on holiday, we don’t mind that the oceans beyond are full of our rubbish).
But now the speaker feels doubt about all this – although he has doubts about his doubt. Is he, after all, beginning to change his mind? And is this merely a result of getting older and worrying that the younger generation (the sort of people whom one can encounter in the new motorway service stations off the M1, which was only just over a decade old when Larkin wrote ‘Going, Going’ in 1972) don’t share Larkin’s drive to preserve the English countryside? The more the population grows (exemplified by the ‘kids’ he mentions), the more demand there will be for new housing, more parking space, more jobs. What’s more, as the population and jobs expand, the businesses expand too, moving out of the cities and into those ‘unspoilt dales’ of rural England. (‘Unspoilt’ is a nice touch here: they are only unspoilt at the moment, but the use of the ‘un-’ word – as opposed to, say, ‘verdant dales’ or ‘rural dales’ – threatens them with imminent spoilage.) These businesses are buying up rural land to build their premises, or new housing estates, on. And this is to say nothing of something many Englanders take for granted: going to the seaside for their summer holiday…
For Larkin’s speaker, all of this is happening far too quickly, so he gets the sense that nothing is ‘going to last’ (picking up on that repeated word in the poem’s title), and soon ‘the whole / Boiling’ (an old idiom dating back to the seventeenth century, and meaning ‘the whole lot’) will be covered over – except for ‘the tourist parts’, which will only have been preserved, presumably, because they have financial value. England will become ‘First slum of Europe’, and the English people will become degraded and corrupted because quality of life will suffer.
This, then, will be ‘England gone’ – that unspoken word in the poem’s title (going, going…) is now voiced, if only in an imagined future-tense scenario. And all this will happen out of carelessness as much as ravenous greed. It may already be too late – and the speaker feels as though all this will happen, and ‘soon’.
How should we analyse ‘Going, Going’? It’s a typically Larkinesque poem – not just because of its glum and pessimistic view of human ‘progress’ (compare here many of the other poems from High Windows, only a handful of which are celebratory), but because of the linguistic and rhetorical strategies Larkin employs to make his point. These are worthy of analysis because they are part of his signature style. Consider the way Larkin repeatedly reduces England – not just the less desirable aspects, but the positive ones too – to individual features and symbols. This begins with the countryside being summoned up by the alliterative ‘fields and farms’, and continues throughout the poem, with the civil servants and councillors approving the takeover bid being reduced to ‘spectacled grins’, and with old England being summoned up by ‘shadows’, ‘meadows’, ‘lanes’, ‘guildhalls’, and (alliteratively again) ‘carved choirs’. The new England – the nightmare future England Larkin’s poem imagines – is simply ‘concrete and tyres’. The people who make up this quasi-dystopian England of the future are gendered as ‘crooks and tarts’, suggesting crime but also financial greed and gain (‘tarts’ suggesting prostitutes, and ‘crooks’, in the context of the poem, invoking financial fraudsters more than small-time villains).
The effect of this metonymy and synecdoche is twofold: it vividly conjures up the salient features (of both visions of England) in a way that immediately conjures an image rather than an idea that exists merely in the abstract, but it also gives this polemical poem extra ‘bite’, by overlooking the grey area between the old, nostalgic view of England and the nightmare England of the future. (When he’s waxing lyrical about the English countryside, Larkin mentions the farms but neglects to mention the farming machinery, the pollution generated by agricultural processes, or, for that matter, the manure. It’s a very lyrical and cleaned-up version of rural England. And weren’t those guildhalls he rhapsodises over the meeting-places for councils in the past that enforced land enclosure and other atrocities committed on England’s green and pleasant land?)
Of course, Larkin’s poem is polemical and a more nuanced take on the matter is not the job of a poem such as ‘Going, Going’. And even the rhyme scheme Larkin employs – abcabc – can be seen to bear out the sense of wrongness he perceives in what is happening to the vanishing England whose passing he laments. Instead of the satisfying neatness of couplets of quatrains, we get a rhyme scheme that is very literally odd: two triplets which keep each rhyme three lines apart, so ‘time’ has to wait until ‘climb’ in line four to be completed, for instance, as if Larkin’s lines are enacting the odd feeling (‘What do I feel now?’) the speaker is experiencing in the face of this perceived vandalism to the English countryside.
In the last analysis, ‘Going, Going’ is a great twentieth-century lament for the English countryside, which prompts us to wonder how much things have changed in the last 40-odd years since Larkin completed the poem. Does the poem partake of the same scare-mongering which those ‘false alarms’, mentioned early in the poem, have offered? Or has this old England, which was going, going, now finally gone?
If you’d like to read more of Larkin’s work, we recommend The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin. Discover more about his poetry with our commentary on ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, our thoughts on Larkin’s short masterpiece ‘Days’, our discussion of Larkin’s poignant poem about home, and Larkin’s fine poem about Hull.
Image: English countryside by Scott Robinson, via geograph.org.uk.