Philip Larkin: Realities of Ordinary Life and Lyrical Beauty

The 2014 Leaving Cert English Higher Level Paper asked this question:

“Larkin is a perceptive observer of the realities of ordinary life in poems that are sometimes illuminated by images of lyrical beauty.” 

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the above statement? Support your answer with reference to both the themes and language found in the poetry of Philip Larkin on your course.


philip larkin leaving cert essay

I wholeheartedly agree that Larkin has a way of shinning a lyrical light onto seemingly mundane realities. His intricate analysis of ordinary uncovers many dimensions and perspectives to the recurrent themes in his poetry – death and the transience of time and love - in a thought-provoking manner. Although the ideas within many of Larkin's poems are complex, he masterfully presents them to the reader in a simple style, coupled with dazzling, cinematic images. Through poems such as 'Ambulances', 'MCMXIV', 'At Grass' and 'An Arundel Tomb', he celebrates the familiar details of his ordinary English life, while also providing profound and complex commentary on a range of issues.

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'At Grass' features some of Larkin's simplest techniques, but also some of his most important and intricate ideas about the passage of time and the transience of life. The poem begins by describing a commonplace countryside scene, complete with two unassuming horses that "the eye can hardly pick...out". The two animals "stand anonymous" in the fields – none of us would ever think twice about the common scene Larkin has described. As the poem progresses, we learn that less than twenty years ago, "two dozen distances sufficed to fable" these champion racehorses. They were the main attraction of "faded, classic Junes" when "numbers and parasols" littered the British Ascots, and "squadrons of empty cars" littered the surrounding roads to see these horses run. Larkin creates lively, colourful images, which are in stark contrast the peace and laziness of the horses in the first stanza. The changing imagery creates an almost cinematic flashback, allowing me to easily identify the significant changes that these horses have undergone. The fourth stanza reverts to gentle, relaxed imagery that mirrors the first stanza. Larkin questions if the horses miss the fame and attention that they were subject to just twenty years previous? Do they long to return to the activity and noise? Larkin thinks not:

"Do memories plague their ears like flies? 
They shake their heads."

These horses have had "summer by summer all stole away" from them, where they were trained relentlessly, conditioned to sprint to provide human entertainment and to feed our gluttony associated with betting. Try to split your long sentences in two. Only now, as "dusk brims the shadows" and these horses come to the end of their retirement, can they "stand at ease", and "gallop for what must be joy" instead of the pressure of the "fieldglass" on race day. Larkin's use of soft language in the closing stanza, such as "slip" and "ease", to describe the happiness of the animals now they have been liberated from the fast-pace of their racing days. 'At Grass' delivers a complex but imperative message about time that I feel resonates as clearly today as it did when Larkin first composed it. Larkin reminds his readers to accept the change that time brings; glory days will come and pass quickly. Through his use of common imagery and language, Larkin poses complex questions in an eloquent, intriguing manner.

'MCMXIV' deals with the innocence and naivety of pre-war Britain in a humane, ironic and nostalgic fashion, where Larkin laments the passing of a way of life. The first stanza presents the image of men waiting to recruit at the beginning of the war. They stand “patiently” in “long uneven lines”, which will naturally remind us of the trench lines that they will soon find themselves in. The men casually wait together as if they were queueing to watch a football match in "Villa Park" or a cricket match in "the Oval". Their innocence is captured in their "archaic faces/ Grinning as if it were all/ An August Bank Holiday lark". In the two stanzas that follow, Larkin creates a holiday atmosphere of the world that they are leaving behind, a peaceful image of “children at play”, “adverts for cocoa” and “the pubs / Wide open all day” , while , the “countryside” isn’t “caring”. The war is so far removed from the country that they are barely away of taking place. This was the time of “differently-dressed servants”, who were confined to “tiny rooms in huge houses”. The images created by Larkin here highlight the extent to which this world has vanished. The currency has passed into history, the names of the children, the distinct class structures have been utterly transformed, and, as Larkin points out, transformed at an even greater pace because of WWI. The speaker in the final stanza repeats this message. He reminds us of how much time has changes since the romanticism and ideals the British public had before WWI. "Never such innocence" will exist anywhere again, as we are now aware of the monumental destruction that accompanies war. Larkin effectively uses the Great War, an international travesty, to relate to a large audience. This commentary would've easily manifested into the minds of all British families, as every village, town and family lost at least one person to the war. Larkin uses stunning images to capture the beauty of Britain, and the grave changes that 1914 ultimately brought.

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Larkin's poetry takes on a morose, despondent tone in poems such as 'An Arundel Tomb', and 'Ambulances'. Again, he uses commonplace items and images in both of these works in order to express his message as effectively as possible. In 'An Arundel Tomb' Larkin unravels the conviction that love survives after death, and dispels this idiotic notion, even if it's what we want to hear. The poem is based on one particular Arundel tomb in Chichester cathedral, where two stone figures "lie...side by side" with "faces blurred". This particular grave has been made famous for the "sharp tender shock" it brings, when tourists see the statues holding hands. To "the endless altered people" who visit the tomb, this carving represents eternal love, but it's clear from his use of language that Larkin is skeptical. Larkin's use of the word "lie" creates an ambiguous message in the poem – is the speaker describing how the statues 'lie' together or how the idea of endless love that they have made tangible is a 'lie' in the minds of the tourists? He suggests that they would never have expected to become advocates for the idea that 'Love conquers All'. Larkin uses a wonderful oxymoron to illustrate that nothing can conquer the passage of time. Even "the earl and countess [who] lie in stone" undergo a "stationary voyage" because of the artificial changes tourists have force upon the statue. "Time has transfigured them into/ Untruth". I believe that Larkin longed for people to understand mortality, and accept it as a definitive end. Although a deeply complex theme, Larkin structures his message around a famous touristic landmark, and uses strong language and images to convey his opinions. This makes 'An Arundel Tomb' a straightforward but beautifully crafted poem, which longs to alter our romanticism of unyielding love.

Larkin deals with a similar theme of the transience of life in 'Ambulances'. This poem is a meditation on the closeness of death, its randomness and its inevitability. These three ideas are captured for Larkin in the action of ambulances in the city. The first stanza describes the physical appearance of the ambulance, which is instantly suggested of the theme of death. The speaker creates an ambiguity around the ambulance – it is "closed like confessionals”, and give "back/ None of the glances they absorb." In this way, the ambulance seems very similar to a coffin. Like death, this ambulance can "come to rest at any kerb". In this short sentence, the arrival of the ambulance is conveyed as random and indiscriminate.  The use of colour red in the description of the "stretcher blankets" signifies death and the contrast with "wild white face" may allude to the red and white symbol of the Red Cross. I feel the point Larkin was trying to stress here was that even in a normal place with everyday activities going on around you, death can still strike. In the third stanza, it becomes clear that the poem centres on a depressing insight into our own mortality. The onlookers, confronted by the image of the white, frightened face of the victim, do not really sympathise with this person. Instead, they "retreat into their own distress". There is a realisation that at some stage, they will become the victim. The thought that the ambulance brings the patient "closer what is left to come" is symbolic of the poets view that we are always rushing towards death. The final line leaves me with the idea of how death makes life "dulls to distance" and everything that made the life disappears forever. 'Ambulances' eloquently displays Larkin's talent; to use this ordinary everyday accident, while give the reader and insight into the apparent futility of life; death will come to us all no matter who we are or what we do, it is just a matter of time.

Philip Larkin transformed the mundane into the marvelous. Although the language and imagery that is recurrent in his poetry are relatively simple, his work is far from ordinary. Larkin was able to transform any situation – an explosion, a statue, horses in a field – and wonderfully convey an honest and exquisite lesson about life to his readers. Larkin once said, "I'd like to think...that people in pubs would talk about my poetry." Philip Larkin strived to become the people's poet, and through my examination of his work, I believe that he has created accessible, authentic and timeless poetry, with messages that are still relevant to me and to modern society. 

The marking scheme directed examiners to reward the following:
- Larkin chronicles everyday occurrences through the measured use of appealing language 
- he celebrates the detail of ordinary English life, referencing familiar characters and places 
- evocative exploration of human experiences, e.g. love, marriage, war, death and social class 
- suggestive metaphors, memorable images, poignancy of his authentic poetic voice 
- variety of subtle/lyrical tones (reflective, nostalgic, sympathetic, critical, wistful, ironic) 

Based on a Leaving Cert 2016 student essay and 2014 Higher Level English Paper 2


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