A reading of Larkin’s classic Hull poem
Philip Larkin (1922-85) completed his poem ‘Here’ in October 1961, and it was included (as the opening poem) in his 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings. The poem describes and, in its distinctively Larkinesque way, celebrates the city of Hull, where Larkin had been working since 1955 (and where he would live until his death in 1985). You can click here to read ‘Here’, before proceeding to our analysis of the poem below.
In summary, ‘Here’ is about the city of Hull – or, to give it its full name, Kingston-upon-Hull (Hull is one of the rivers running through the city; the more famous Humber is actually situated to the south of the city). The poem describes a journey through the city, with the title, ‘Here’, reminding the reader of the marker on maps declaring ‘You Are Here’. Yet we have no helpful map to guide us or locate where we are: precisely where ‘Here’ is remains a mystery when we begin reading Larkin’s poem. We begin – as if on a train approaching the city of Hull – with a description of the landscape, a mixture of the urban (‘traffic’) and rural (‘meadows’ – though barely so). This first stanza is heavily alliterative: ‘all night north’, ‘thin and thistled’, ‘harsh-named halt’, ‘swerving to solitude’, ‘skies and scarecrows’, ‘haystacks, hares’. The effect of this alliteration is to suggest a landscape comprising clusters of things which are related, but are different from the things which surround them.
In the second stanza, the descriptive list that had built up throughout the previous stanza gathers with the new stanza’s opening word, ‘Gathers’, and we find ourselves coming upon ‘the surprise of a large town’. It is as if this place where nothing much is happening and there is little of note to see is the last place one would expect to find a built-up urban settlement. But all of the signs of a city or town are there: domes and spires, cranes, estates – and, towards the end of this stanza, a description of the local supermarket and other stores where the residents of the town can purchase all the things they need.
The third stanza shifts the focus again, this time from the town’s environs to the people themselves, a ‘cut-price crowd’ who are apparently happy enough living in this place on the edge of things (‘only salesmen and relations come’, we are told – which isn’t quite true, given that students also come here, as Larkin the university librarian knew). But it’s true that this town is on the edge of civilisation: ‘terminate’ here is used not as a noun (i.e. ‘terminate’) but as an adjective, like ‘separate’, with an unstressed final syllable (a curiously Larkinesque usage: in ‘A Bridge for the Living’, written to mark the opening of the Humber Bridge, he begins his poem with the adjective ‘Isolate’ – a word he also uses at the end of the third stanza of ‘Here’). It’s ‘fishy-smelling’ because of Hull’s location on the North Sea, and this part of the English coast is (or was, more so in Larkin’s time) important for Britain’s fishing industry, and it’s a city still under construction (hence the cranes and the ‘half-built edges’).
Finally, as we move into the fourth and final stanza, we get a full stop. Yes, the first three stanzas and the first two words of the fourth stanza have all been one long sentence comprising lots of clauses separated by commas, colons, and semi-colons. This building up of clauses mirrors the building up of the city, its various elements and features. But finally we move towards the end of the poem, and the outermost edges of the city, and so the sentences become shorter, as if falling away or breaking off. The poem’s final image is of ‘unfenced existence’ – the North Sea stretching out beyond the city – which is ‘out of reach’.
This journey through Hull towards the North Sea – ‘Swerving east’, as the poem’s opening words have it – might be said to operate on both a literal, geographical level and a more symbolic and almost metaphysical plane. The sparse fields and haystacks which are present in the poem’s opening stanza might be construed as representing a kind of childlike innocence, with the rustic and traditional features of the English countryside shadowed by the industrial, modern, and urban, but not overly dominated by them. This world of pastoral paradise (or near-paradise) develops or ‘Gathers’ into a more complex and materialistic world of everyday and workaday concerns – shopping, shipping, fishing, industrial expansion – in the second and third stanzas. But this prime is then cut off by the clustering of full stops and shorter sentences in the poem’s final stanza, and those ‘removed lives’ among the ‘Isolate villages’ on the outskirts of the city – away from the busy epicentre of the metropolis – suggest retirement and declining years, especially given Larkin’s views about old age and ‘Loneliness’. Yet things are happening here: leaves are thickening, weeds are flowering, waters are quickening, though they are ‘unnoticed’ leaves, ‘hidden’ weeds, and ‘neglected’ waters. Beyond this, there is the end of the land and something that is ‘untalkative’ and ‘out of reach’. As well as literally denoting the vast sea beyond the land, this might also be analysed as a reference to the great unknown, death. Dead men don’t talk (hence ‘untalkative’), and death is literally out of our reach while we are in the land of the living. As with some of Philip Larkin’s other poems – ‘High Windows’ springs to mind – we find ourselves, at the end of the poem, among the ineffable, the transcendent.
Although Philip Larkin does not explicitly mention Hull by name in ‘Here’, the poem is clearly about that city in particular – although, as our analysis has attempted to show, we can take a more universal and less geographically specific meaning from the poem too. ‘Here’, if you will, is everywhere.
Image: Old Fleet, Marfleet, Kingston-upon-Hull, via geograph.org.uk.