Dublinesque

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July 2005

Nomination: Dublinesque [6 June 1970. From High Windows]

Philip Larkin told Maeve Brennan that ‘Dublinesque’ was “a dream – I just woke up and described it”. Of course, Larkin’s comments on his own poems are frequently misleading and need to be treated with caution: he said of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, “It was just the transcription of a very happy afternoon. I didn’t change a thing… It only needed writing down. Anybody could have done it”. In truth, not only could no-one else have done it but even Larkin needed three years from the time of the original train journey to the date of the poem’s completion.

Despite such discrepancies commentators on ‘Dublinesque’ continue to treat it as a beguiling and innocent dreamscape. Much is made of its deft invocation of Dublin in the Victorian or Edwardian period – the women’s “wide flowered hats, / Leg-of-mutton sleeves, / And ankle-length dresses” date it to before the First World War. Distinguished Larkin experts like Professors James Booth, Terry Whalen, Trevor Tolley, Andrew Motion and Stephen Regan remark the evocative details – the “pewter” light, the “stucco” housing, the easy conjunction of gambling and religion in “race-guides and rosaries”, and the mixed sadness and joy of the ‘wake’. This historically distanced setting, with its Celtic Twilight charm, lures John Whitehead into the unsubstantiated speculation that the poem is based on a painting by Jack B. Yeats; even less convincingly, Professor Booth offers as a literary source Down by the Salley Gardens by Jack’s brother, the poet W. B. Yeats.

The Nighttown sequence of James Joyce’s scurrilous novel Ulysses seems more the kind of thing (the novel’s temporal location, 16 June 1904, also accords with the poem’s period details). For not one of these critics observes – perhaps they are too abashed to admit – that as the only mourners are “A troop of streetwalkers”, the likelihood is that the deceased was a prostitute or procuress, possibly the “Kitty, or Katy” of the closing lament. (As the sex of the deceased is not specified, it could be a man – a generous client, perhaps, or protective pimp. However, this makes the last stanza tangential, if not redundant, in a way that is not so if the departed is a woman.) Professor Regan’s attempt to hitch the funeral to a socialist agenda seems particularly ill-judged, his description of the scene as an “enlarging, ennobling” image of “working-class solidarity” ludicrously ignoring the fact that the procession consists entirely of harlots, the rest of society– even Kitty’s former punters – apparently ostracizing the occasion. Clearly, Larkin is doing something more interesting and irreverent than endorsing a platitude about proletarian camaraderie.

But what, precisely? Over-turning the stereotype of the whore, for a start. The descriptive language (“a great friendliness”, “honouring”, “fond of”, great sadness”, “All love, all beauty”) shows the dead harlot to be as capable of inspiring deep feeling as the surviving ones are of experiencing it. There is a daintiness, a delicacy of expression – “Some caper a few steps, / Skirts held skilfully” – quite at odds with the presumed sordidness of their profession. But if the poem celebrates a prostitute’s life in a manner that is non-judgemental, it still makes a point of naming her profession as though it wants that absence of condemnation to be noticed. In a very real sense, though one that is difficult to articulate without appearing to labour the matter, this is a poem in praise of a sexuality that is detached from the normal social concomitants of family, marriage, parenthood, property and capital accumulation. There may even be a correlation between the streetwalkers’ honouring of the deceased and the poem’s honouring of them: the woman is loved, as the poet loves language, because she is common property.

To claim that ‘Dublinesque’ encrypts beneath its dream surface one of Larkin’s most positive poems about sex and about death is to invite the riposte that it sentimentalizes a grubby profession in which women are debased for the delectation of men. There is truth in this. However, it is possible that the core values celebrated in the work – poetry, song, dance, sex, love, beauty and the Irish wake (as opposed to the English funeral) – would survive translation into today’s world of male escorts and toy boys. Larkin knew in 1970 what many of today’s career women proclaim, that of the two types of sex, paid (prostitution) and free (marital), free sex is much the more expensive. Besides, Larkin’s hatred of any form of sexual coercion, let alone rape, runs through his novels and poems: from John Kemp’s fumbled assault in Jill, via Robin Fennel’s bullying of Katherine Lind at the end of A Girl in Winter, to the lesbian and heterosexual violations of ‘Femmes Damnées’ and ‘Deceptions’.

It is also worth remarking that if one catches an ethnological pun in the reference to “race-guides and rosaries” – and the Irish Republic is racially as well as religiously a remarkably monochrome society – then the unruly, promiscuous, transgressive sexuality of the tarts is a welcome liberation from oppressive social uniformity. Here a link might be made with ‘For Sidney Bechet’, an earlier poem which celebrates the birth of jazz in the Storyville quarter of New Orleans. Storyville was the red-light district of the city, the equivalent of Dublin’s Nighttown, and the “Sporting-house girls” of ‘For Sidney Bechet’ are the equivalents of the “streetwalkers’ in ‘Dublinesque’. The African-American pioneers of jazz found congenial employment in Storyville’s bordellos and dives, with the result that the music is saturated with sex. Indeed, the term ‘jazz’ was black slang for sexual intercourse or orgasm. It is also suggestive that the word “caper” which Larkin applies to the quaint dancing of the Dublin prostitutes had earlier found a place in his definition of jazz: “A. E. Housman said he could recognize poetry because it made his throat tighten and his eyes water: I can recognize jazz because it makes me tap my foot, grunt affirmative exhortations, or even get up and caper round the room”. In short, ‘For Sidney Bechet’ explicitly and ‘Dublinesque’ more glancingly celebrate the simultaneous flouting of racial and sexual taboos. Some of the foregoing interpretations are more secure than others; but all of them are lost on the English-speaking professoriate who dominate Larkin criticism and who do not know or cannot bring themselves to address the meaning of the word “streetwalkers”. The prostitute whose passing ‘Dublinesque’ mourns for them never existed.

John Osborne

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