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Bridge for the Living

June 2014

Nomination: Bridge for the Living [December 1975. Poetry Book Society Supplement, (Christmas 1981)]

In Chapter 7 of his most recent monograph, Radical Larkin: Seven Types of Technical Mastery, John Osborne challenges James Booth’s claim that Larkin: ‘waits for the right time to use a word, will not use it until that time comes, and then, if at all possible, never uses it again.’ Osborne goes on to write of ‘the innumerable small-scale rehearsals of diction, phrasing and cadence scattered throughout the oeuvre‘ that constitute the radical self-citation evident in Larkin’s late masterpiece ‘Aubade’. Such self-citation, specifically in ‘Aubade’, could be viewed as symbolising a life review flashing by in response to the prospect of imminent death and extinction: the near-death experience of the poem itself.

An examination of ‘Bridge for the Living’ (written just two years before ‘Aubade’) reveals a similar density of self-citation the symbolism of which might be interpreted as a life review of the narratological loci of Larkin’s poetry: a projection of his numerous poetic Elsewheres onto his quotidian Here. For example:

Stanza one
Compare: ‘Isolate city’ with ‘Isolate villages’ in ‘Here’;
‘spread alongside water’ with ‘reflected on the water,’ in ‘For Sidney Bechet’ and ‘Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.’ in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’;
‘ she keeps her face / Half turned to Europe’ with: ’tilting a blind face to the sky’ in ‘Under a splendid chestnut tree’;
‘lonely northern daughter’ with ‘Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home’ in ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’;
‘Holding through centuries’ with ‘through lengths and breadths / Of time.’ in ‘An Arundel Tomb’ and ‘through days of thin continuous dreaming’ in ‘The Old Fools’;
‘her separate place’ with ‘their separate ways’ in ‘Nothing To Be Said’ and ‘They must pursue their separate ways’ in ‘Out in the lane I pause’.

Stanza two
Compare: ‘Behind her domes and cranes’ with ‘Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster’ in ‘Here’ and ‘white shelves and domes’ in ‘Arrival’;
‘enormous skies’ with ‘enormous years’ in ‘New Year Poem’.

Stanza three
Compare: ‘white flowered lanes’ with’ ‘wide flowered hats’ in ‘Dublinesque’ and ‘flowered lanes that twist’ in ‘The View’;
‘plain gulls stand’ with ‘plain as hen-birds’ wings’ in ‘Modesties’, ‘plain as a wardrobe’ in ‘Aubade’, ‘Plain as book’ in ‘ Out in the lane, I pause’ and ‘plain as snow’ in ‘The house on the edge of a serious wood’;
‘Sharp fox and brilliant pheasant’ with ‘sharp shoes, iced lollies’ in ‘Here’, ‘sharp vivacity of bone’ in ‘Like the train’s beat’, ‘brilliant freshman with his subtle thought’ in ‘Nothing significant was really said’, ‘brilliant passing liner’ in ‘As a war in years of peace’ and ‘hares and pheasants’ in ‘Here’.

Stanza four
Compare: ‘Wind-muscled wheatfields’ with ‘wind-mastered, wet with light’ in ‘Love we must part now’, ‘air-sharpened blade’ in ‘Vers de Société’, ‘sibilant-muscled trees’ in ‘Night-Music’, ‘like squares of wheat’ in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘Under wheat’s restless silence’ in ‘MCMXIV’ and ‘Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges’ in ‘Here’;
‘churches half-submerged in leaf’ with ‘When churches fall completely out of use’ in ‘Church Going’ and ‘the churches ornate and mad’ in ‘Money’;
‘Drowned in high summer’ with ‘Summer’s impressive lie’ in ‘May Weather’, ‘Vast summer vessel’ in ‘Sinking like sediment through the day’, ‘As if all summer settled there and died’ in ‘Autumn’ and ‘Summer is fading’ in ‘Afternoons’;
‘soft huge haze’ with ‘Start with white haze’ in ‘Long Lion Days’ and ‘Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed’ in ‘The Explosion’.

Stanza five
Compare: ‘snow-thickened winter days’ with ‘Snow-thickened shires’ in ‘Gathering Wood’;
‘their single lamps come on’ with ‘Back now to private addresses, gates and lamps’ in ‘Show Saturday’;
‘yet more still’ with ‘yet more shoreless day’ in ‘Absences’, ‘Yet more and more time passes silently’ in ‘Talking in Bed’, ‘yet more convincing’ in ‘Midsummer Night, 1940′ and ‘more still obtain’ in ‘Scratch on the scratch pad’;
‘Farms fold in fields’ with ‘Waves fold behind villages’ in ‘Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel’, ‘My mind will fold into itself, like fields’ in ‘The Winter Palace’ and ‘There would always be fields and farms’ in ‘Going, Going’.

Stanza six
Compare: ‘A lighted memory’ with ‘Lighted cliffs’ in ‘How’ and ‘Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms’ in ‘The Old Fools’.

Stanza seven
Compare: ‘a swallow-fall and rise’ with ‘close-ribbed streets rise and fall ‘ in ‘The Building’ and ‘salt-white cordage / Rising and falling’ in ‘How Distant’;
‘giant step’ with ‘Giant whispering and coughing’ in ‘Broadcast’.

And so on…

Even those looking at ‘Bridge for the Living’ and ‘Here’ (completed in 1957) for the first time would instantly pick up on their similarities; but it’s fascinating also to see the echoes of so many earlier Larkin poems in ‘Bridge for the Living’, confirming John Osborne’s assertion that ‘self-citation is part of [Larkin’s] vast rehearsive repertoire of recyclings’. As with the self-citation Osborne has identified in ‘Aubade’, I could easily have more than doubled the number of references listed above. An investigation into the wider allusive nature of the poem would surely be equally rewarding.


On 20 June 2013, during a break in proceedings at the ’20th Century Poets in Music’ RMA Study Day in Hull, James Booth told me he was surprised there were no Larkin musical settings by more prominent 20th century composers. James was then in the final stages of correcting the proofs to Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, his Larkin biography scheduled for publication this August. He seemed astonished when I informed him that Larkin had in fact written to Benjamin Britten to suggest a collaboration on the commission to commemorate the opening of the Humber Bridge, which ultimately produced ‘Bridge for the Living’. As far as I’m aware, this connection between Larkin and Britten has not been noted or explored elsewhere.

If we look at the genesis of ‘Bridge for the Living’, we discover that the first hint Philip Larkin received about the plans to commemorate the Humber Bridge was in an addendum to a letter from Sir Brynmor Jones dated 17 September 1973. There was no mention of ‘commission’, or ‘musical setting’; Sir Brynmor simply writes: ‘I should like to discuss with you a proposal which has been put to me. It has nothing to do with the University!’

On 24 October Larkin wrote to Faber and Faber’s Charles Monteith, requesting clarification of the position regarding certain aspects of copyright if he were to ‘write something about the Humber Bridge (due in 1976) that could be set to music and sung by the Hull Choral Union’. Monteith’s reply of 29 October enclosed notes by Faber’s copyright expert Peter du Sautoy covering the three main points raised by Larkin.

By mid-November, Larkin had received a letter from Sidney Hainsworth inviting him (along with Sir Brynmor Jones) to lunch to discuss the proposal. The meeting took place on 10 December; and in a letter dated 13 December, Larkin confirmed to Hainsworth the principal points agreed at the meeting, but added:

I think I safeguarded myself by saying that, in the last analysis, one can never give a firm promise about the production of a poem, but I will certainly try.

At the meeting Sidney Hainsworth had presented Larkin with a list of ten composers, and had also suggested that Larkin seek the advice of Robert Marchant, Director of Music at the University of Hull, and a founder member of the Hull Chamber Music Club (later renamed Hull Chamber Music Society) as to the suitability of those included on the list.

The ten composers suggested were: Richard Rodney Bennett, Gordon Cross, Sebastian Forbes, Anthony Hedges, John Joubert, Kenneth Leighton, William Mathias, Nicholas Maw, John Rutter and Douglas Young; however, Larkin specifically asked Robert Marchant if he could suggest any other composers who could be included for consideration. Marchant thought, ‘as an outside chance’, it might be worth approaching Benjamin Britten to propose a collaboration.

Larkin wrote to Hainsworth on 21 December to up-date him with this information, adding that Britten would ‘of course be a good deal more expensive than either Joubert or Hedges’ (both of whom were under consideration, not least because they were local, and therefore the Humber Bridge would hold some significance for them; but also because they were successful choral composers and, like Britten, were considered to be composers who favoured ‘traditional’ idioms). Hainsworth approved of the idea to approach Britten; in a letter dated 27 December, he asked Larkin to write to Britten, which Larkin did on 15 January 1974.

Larkin received a reply, dated 23 January, from Britten’s personal assistant Rosamund Strode, informing him of the composer’s ill health, and giving this as a reason for him declining the invitation to collaborate on the commission. The way the commission then proceeded is well documented, with Anthony Hedges eventually composing the music to Larkin’s words.

James L. Orwin

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