Nomination: The Mower [12 June 1979 Hull Literary Club magazine, (Autumn 1979)]
In his brilliant 2008 book Larkin, Ideology and Critical Violence, John Osborne notes that ‘Ignorance’ is something of a manifesto for Philip Larkin, laying out a modus operandi that informs his entire poetic sensibility. I would concur, adding ‘If, My Darling’, which reveals a similar level of detail in a different way. But I would also add a third poem, which I consider his most crucial: the late elegiac masterpiece, ‘The Mower’. If the first two are maps for Larkin’s wariness and cognitive dissonance, then the third is at the core of his poetry’s feeling. The elegant rise from a tragically mauled garden-creature to the heartfelt conclusion enshrines, more explicitly and touchingly than any other poem in the corpus, the recurring emotions that make his writing simultaneously everyday and transcendent.
Its form is a continuation of Larkin’s conversation with what F. R. Leavis held as a literary canon. The disjointed, timorous syntax of the lines is very much at odds with his earlier work: instead of the mega-clauses of ‘MCMXIV’ (where the entire poem is one sentence borne along by twelve commas, four semicolons, two colons and one full stop), we have caesuras and plain-spoken grief in lines like ‘Killed. It had been in the long grass’ and ‘Next morning I got up and it did not.’
The shape of the poem is striking, too – a truncated sonnet, with the confidence again diminished in favour of direct address: three clear-minded three-line stanzas, a reflective turn (‘The first day after a death’) and a couplet which concludes the emotion with a snap. This deconstructed style continues with a sense of formal rejection: rhymes have almost completely surrendered, the strongest being the closing half-rhyme of ‘kind’ and ‘time’; there are no similes or metaphors in the mode of ‘the arrow-shower | Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain’ or ‘the toad work’. In all these ways, there is an abandonment of the ‘falsity’, ‘like yeast’, needed for poems to ‘‘rise’’ (letter to Monica Jones – 10 September 1956) in favour of condensed meaning clearly presented. Every literary decision is concrete, free of the symbolist ambiguity that concludes such masterpieces as ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘High Windows’ and ‘The Explosion’.
While I do not wish to stray too far into the man’s life (I disagree with James Booth’s credo that Larkin’s work is fundamentally biographical), it is safe to say that Larkin wrote the poem in conditions which were damaging to his sense of identity, and that this was perhaps the last of his artistic lifeblood trickling away. His creative economy was failing along with his health, and the admittedly warm praise he had received in life still failed to grasp the nuances of his work (only just being unearthed today by a new wave of non-biographical critics). In this sense the poem is a final statement: the unified themes – death (‘killed’), ageing (‘While there is still time’), the religious impulse (‘Burial was no help’) and a thoroughly secular transcendence (‘we should be careful || Of each other, we should be kind’) – losing all their former self-elegiac tension. Larkin’s poetic impulse comes to its end with the conclusion that, however painful and ‘double-yolked with meaning and meaning’s rebuttal’ (‘If, My Darling’), the real world must still be faced, and faced as harmlessly as possible: youth’s apprehension becomes age’s consolation.
So, despite deviating from the grandeur of the earlier poetry, ‘The Mower’ nonetheless unifies sensibilities from The North Ship (self-pity, depression), The Less Deceived (existential twinges, the distant grief of others), The Whitsun Weddings (a heartfelt engagement with humanity) and High Windows (the long-anticipated collapse of the self with age), becoming a key to unlock Larkin’s whole career. But more than this, the poem crowns the others as a final statement, urging kindness not just to one’s fellow man, but to all creatures, all life, in a manner only hinted at elsewhere in his rabbit squibs and nature lyrics. It is the strength that answers the pain of ‘Love Again’.
Above all, ‘The Mower’ crystallises what is best about Larkin, showing that, far from being easily defined (Little Englander, racist, sexist, gloomy; Hardyesque, Yeatsian, Audenesque, Eliotic, Lawrentian; plain-speaking or symbolist, formal or conversational, poetic or everyday), he is a writer whose major themes become sonatas rising and falling within a complex symphony. As ever, he achieves an unlikely permanence; that it is a poem that can bring the reader to tears is a given.