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Guitar Piece II

November 2002

Nomination: Guitar Piece II [18 September 1946. From Collected Poems (1988)]

The second of Larkin’s ‘Two Guitar Pieces’ was completed on 18 September 1946, the month in which the young poet, just turned 24, moved from Wellington to become Assistant Librarian at Leicester University College. Its unrhymed, loosely scanned lines of four or five stresses aim at a casual ‘modern’ tone. The early Auden is echoed in the ‘European’ flavour of ‘platz’, and in the poem’s portentous post-war landscape (‘a man is walking along / A path between the wreckage’); while T. S. Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Wasteland’ lie behind the final image of the guitar ‘Spreading me over the evening like a cloud, / Drifting, darkening: unable to bring rain.’

Even at this early stage, however, Larkin has his own distinctive voice and images: the faintly lugubrious play on the proverbial ‘poor hand’ we are dealt by Life for instance, and the distinctive imagery of the room. In his later work the poet will frequently depict himself gazing out from a room at an empty and inhospitable, but somehow satisfying landscape (‘Mr Bleaney’, ‘High Windows’, ‘Sad Steps’, ‘Livings II’). He will also repeatedly make room for himself by rejecting the demands of the social world in favour of solitary self-possession (‘Best Society’, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘Vers de Société’.) In this early poem the conflict is posed in the high-romantic terms of Art versus Life. The music of the guitar builds an inner room in his mind, which is ‘nothing but harmony’. This room is ‘untrue’ but, as in ‘Waiting for Breakfast’, its ‘accustomed harnessing of grief’ affords more fulfilment than is offered by his smoking companion (possibly he has Philip Brown or Ruth Bowman in mind). The warmth of human love competes vainly with the contemplation of the wrecked landscape beyond the window, and with the inner harmony created by the music.

The poet is left where Larkin remained throughout his life, caught between the pathetic room of ordinary affections and domesticity (‘If, My Darling’, ‘Love Songs in Age’, ‘Home is So Sad’) and the meaningless but irresistible harmony of art, which is ‘not a room, nor a world, but only / A figure spun on stirring of the air, / And so, untrue’. In the end, of course, even the security of this inner privacy fails him. It is a step of less than three decades from the fastidious young aesthete of this poem to the drooling ‘Old Fools’ on extinction’s alp, still spinning beautifully empty rooms in their senile heads

James Booth

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