The Oxford English dictionary’s definition for the word ‘memorialisation’ is the preservation of the memory or commemoration of someone or something. In regards to twentieth century poetry, memorialisation held a great importance in the compositions of several poets, of whom all owed their inspiration to preceding artists and/ or aspects of life and culture that were transforming as time progressed. The twentieth century itself was an epoch marked by a consistently changing pace of life as the horrors of war provoked the advancement in factors such as technology, social and cultural reform and the denunciation of an archaic existence. During the outbreak of conflict, Victorian stoicism, formally regarded as a British virtue was being replaced with socially aware criticisms of war paving the way for the Modernist movement. During and after the Second World War poets such as Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) and Philip Larkin (1922-1985) used the premise of ‘memorialisation’ to highlight these changing facets in society and to illuminate the increasing esteem of consumerism and the changing British landscape. The artists that began to surface during the 1930s, however, had all been born subsequent to the conflicts and therefore knew little of the pre-World War world. They had been raised in an age of economic, social and political instability. As a corollary with these realities, foundations of kinship, social injustice and war seem to overshadow the poetry of the decade.
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Louis MacNeice was a prominent figure in 1930s British literature and was part of a cohort of thirties poets christened the ‘Auden Group’ that were educated at Oxford and Cambridge, were approximately the same age and had relatively left-wing views. MacNeice’s critical response was heavily eclipsed and often compared with W.H Auden’s. Whilst sharing a number of similar characteristics with Auden, together with an incisive political consciousness, MacNeice’s work has been re-examined in recent years by a new generation of Northern Irish critics and poets such as Paul Mundoon and Derek Mahon. His poetry was suffused with an emotionally and socially conscious style. His abundant corpus of work demonstrates a benevolent rejection of despotism in addition to an intense recognition of his Irish roots.
Philip Larkin rose to fame during the 1950’s, during the time poetry was being overshadowed by three groups of poets; The Group, The Movement and a number of poets that assembled under the label, Extremist Art. Larkin was a core affiliate of The Movement, a post-war band of poets, associated with an enmity towards modernism and romanticism that sought to depict everyday British life in unadorned, clear-cut language. Modernism encompassed the inclination to be somewhat elitist in regards to its use of obscure allusions and convoluted lexis. As a pioneer of the movement, T.S Eliot often expressed his disdain for the common masses. Larkin, however liked to “think… that people in pubs would talk about [his] poetry.”  The poet’s very name invokes an identifiable character doused in pessimism, black humour, a fixation with death – a spectator of human foibles and flaws.
MacNeice like Larkin dedicated his poetry to chronicling and mourning the contemporaneous, urban atmosphere that surrounded him and the decaying of erstwhile ideals. Having published gradually from 1929, in his later works, the poet grows increasingly more engrossed with the past, his mislaid youth, and in some respects his impression of having lost his creativity as an artist. The poet thrived in weaving the ordinary and almost insignificant along with a satirically poignant insight to generate a lasting depiction of the contemporary, industrialised society that he was a part of. He used traces of sympathy, disconnection and occasionally contempt to record noticeably despondent and reflective endeavours of modern man to attain some form of contentment. The rhyming in his poetry is consciously predictable and the rhythm often prosaic and akin to speech to facilitate an acerbically droll effect. Blank verse is often implemented by MacNeice to convey the exhausted, depreciated aspects of a shattered culture. In Sunday Morning (1936), the poet uses ‘memorialisation’ of the past to reveal a characteristic form of idiom, in which he contrasts the once treasured expanding “Man’s heart” (3) and the contemporary lifeless and garish pursuit of toiling with cars. This lays bare the poet’s impression of how the idealistic aspirations of preceding, pre-war generations have developed into devalued and vacant of anything but fleeting and superficial recreation. The poet remains disconnected and maintains a reconciled stance despite the poem being engulfed in disenchantment. The car is prepared and the travellers race to “Hindhead”(6) in effort to evoke a bit of the past and grasp it securely in order to “Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.”(14)
MacNeice is frequently lucrative in articulating the melancholy and regret of modern society amid two treacherous wars and uses memorialisation as a mechanism for this. He is mourning the past. The verse itself becomes steadily wearier, almost lacklustre as the rhythmic pace becomes hackneyed and mundane. The continuous use of comical or poetic rhyme and the undifferentiated milieu of vaguely condescending cynicism, always on the brink of nostalgia becomes almost tedious. The poet demonstrates the bleakness and feeble impropriety and bareness of contemporary life through indications of deliberate overproduction and the growing consumerism, which become unsurprising and ceases to astonish when incessantly contrasted with long forgotten and elevated thoughts. The calculated employment of the commonplace concludes in reducing the verse below its individual encumbrance. In MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (1939), the parallel of W.H Auden’s September 1, 1939, one can observe the aim of his thought process in his moving censure of the contemporary world.
In Bagpipe Music, the poet’s aptitude in using dance like rhythms and truisms for ironic intent is notorious in the poem. The ingenuity of derision and clichés, resembling idiomatic vernacular, belongs to a moment in time which the poet has successfully encapsulated. He memorialises former beliefs and practices and contrasts them with a present-day condition of the world. He illustrates the cessation of time-honoured ideals by using rustic impressions in his poem Nuts in May.
Resembling MacNeice, Philip Larkin began to scrutinise shifting societal configuration in the ever changing movement of the world. He, like the former believed the world was stripped of morality and expression and devoted his work to the exposure of the real and typical man. In one of his earlier works Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album, the poet introduces a genuine girl in a genuine place and sets an idiomatic, self derisive ambience similar to Thomas Hardy’s ballads. In addition, the configuration of the poem is complex and inhibited with a flowing iambic stanza of five lines with a steady rhyme scheme, yet somehow also modern in its employment of assonances. In the poem, Larkin is not content with simply chronicling the photograph but rather plummets right into explanation as he studies the scene over again, peeling away aspect after aspect to uncover his frustration. The poem is symbolic of Larkin’s reflective, sardonic disposition, his realistic tolerance of a substandard world and his anguish which by no means develops into melancholy.
In perhaps his most celebrated collection, The Whitsun Weddings (1964), the poet is prepared to associate himself more intimately with different men, different houses, different streets and neighbourhoods. Poems in this collection are not as withdrawn, entailing more detached imagery and not as much individual observation, which embodys his more mature style. Larkin like the other artists of The Movement established an impression of deficiency in his work. The very first poem in the collection, Here, begins with the poet depicting a typical northern city (presumably his home town, Hull), in regards to its existing filth and wretchedness. In the poem he draws a distinction between metropolitan disfigurement, initially with remote, rural communities where the standard of living is not as tarnished and lastly with the “bluish neutral distance” (28) of the deep sea, where life is an “unfenced existence” (35). This vast image of the perpetual ocean distinguishes itself with the marginal and claustrophobic attributes of urban existence and the ceaseless indications for the want of horizon. In spite of this the vastness is “out of reach.”(36) The aura foresees the boundless void of the poem High Windows (1974), Larkin’s final collection, in signifying the hopelessness of obtaining liberty and infinite horizons in life. The impression of modern squalor and woe persists right the way through the collection, particularly in Sunny Prestatyn, whose oxymoronic title is exceedingly Larkin-esque. The poem portrays a travel poster of a beautiful girl “Kneeling up on the sand /In tautened white satin”(3-4) that has been vandalised by vulgar and crude graffiti such as ones that reveal her to be straddling a “tuberous cock and balls” (16), prior to being torn down and incongruously substituted with a “Fight Cancer” advertisement.
The poets use conversational tone he uses makes the poetry exceedingly topical. The title poem The Whitsun Weddings is a lengthy and bold poem giving an account of a train journey on Whitsun Sunday, on which he is accompanied by numerous newlywed couples. His stance remains subsidiary to their self-absorbed and almost laughable occasion. The structure and rhyme scheme seems as unaffected as common speech. At the outset of his journey, the poet wistfully observes only the rural landscape, equally with its unspoiled and pristine features, comprising of villages, farms, hedges, landfill sites, and “Canals with floatings of industrial froth” (15). Right the way through, Larkin fashions a feeling of acquiescence and dislodgment that one experiences on train journeys, of being seated in a static enclosed space and witnessing the world fly past as if through a photo frame.
The poet’s position as disconnected spectator guides him to examine the wedding festivities, which initially did not hold his attention but shortly develop into a recurring part of the scenery. It is the commonplace and “wholly farcical” (60) virtues of the encounter rather that its distinctiveness that engrosses him. Unavoidably, the ambience recalls a forthright, disconnected onlooker of raucous wedding celebrations, with the vociferous mothers, bridesmaids in their “parodies of fashion” (29), uncles bellowing lewdness, formal dress and “jewellery-substitutes” (39). Like MacNeice’s Sunday Morning, the poem articulates a frantic impression of time squandered. As Larkin himself never married, he can only envisage the spectacle from afar. The poet acknowledges something while the couples are enveloped in their personal merriment which is the universal inevitability of matrimony. In an unforeseen instant, he visualises the “postal districts” (69) of London like fields of wheat, and the abrupt halt of the train inducing a plummeting sensation, “like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain” (79-80). While the outcome of what he observes of the train platforms is not reassuring for him, these couples will produce newborn life, like the rain on fields of wheat providing aspirations for the future and the assurance of fertility. In this poem we see Larkin’s regard for old rural traditions that are entwined with the British landscape. Here he is mourning the demise of such deep-rooted customs and The Whitsun Weddings serves as a memorialisation for this.
If Rudyard Kipling’s work is regarded as the poetry of the days of empire, then one can deem MacNeice’s and Larkin’s as the poetry of the repercussions of the empire. Both lived during the dissolving of England’s numerous imperial assets, the financial effect of territorial development ceasing altogether, the farce of entrenched colonial airs and graces together with the looming concern of Soviet and Nazi incursion in Europe. As a result both poets were visibly mistrustful of the magnitude, the covetousness, and the pomp inherent in colonial attitudes. Several facets of their poetry can reveal remnants of such caginess, from the cynicism and satire, the idiomatic lexis to the starched meticulousness of their poetry’s composition.
This stark examination of the human condition and its consequence in the twentieth century is further revealed in MacNeice’s House on a Cliff. The era in which the poem was written was marked by many revolutionary changes in philosophy what with the emergence of such theorists as Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin. The poet appreciated the sheer magnitude of their concepts for the period. In Autumn Journal (1939), MacNeice referred to Freud and Marx as “The figure-heads of our transition.” By the point in time the poem was composed, the deep-rooted concepts of the universe were becoming outdated and new scientific research proved it to be much older and greater than previously assumed. Darwin’s Origin of Species had negated the biblical explanation of the creation and despite its initial disapproving reception, by the time MacNeice had written the poem, belief in God’s role in the design of man became increasingly less plausible. The poem’s title establishes the setting and to some degree, the tone as it generates a portrait of an existence spent in a perilous location, open to the elements. The ostensibly, omniscient narrator fluctuates swiftly and recurrently from depictions of the inside of the dwelling and its occupier, to images of the night outside and back again. The portrayal of the house and “the tiny tang of a tiny oil lamp” (1) give the illusion of a cramped and oppressive environment contrasting with the panorama of the “waste of sea” (2) outside. This openness and escapism of the sea bares resemblances with Larkin’s “unfenced existence” (31) in Here. This oscillation between the outside and within is an allusion to modern man’s growing apathy to nature and the increasing appeal of urban spaces and provokes the reader to find correspondences between the two milieus. The ageing and weary inhabitant of the house is a “strong man pained to find his red blood cools” (6) , and his quandary of seeking refuge “Indoors ancestral curse-cum-blessing” (9) indicates that he is both cursed and blessed by this necessity to rely on shelter from the elements. He is at odds with himself as he “talks at cross/ Purposes, to himself, in a broken sleep” (12), revealing him to be troubled by his need to seek sanctum in the uninviting indoors to escape the inhospitable conditions outdoors. Remaining indoors may offer the man refuge and safety; it also causes him to be melancholic and isolated. This manifests the poet’s view of the solitude and disenchantment growing urbanisation and consumerism in the modern age can propound and memorialises the once great love and esteem of nature despite its treachery.
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Solitude and disenchantment are the trademarks of the twentieth century for Philip Larkin, who reveals the initial year to be MCMXIV (1914). World War I, Larkin argues was a horrendous wound to the English nervous system, wherein an idyllic summer was converted into several years of bloodshed. MCMXIV, like many of Larkin’s works, is essentially a meditation. The poem’s greatest triumph lies in the exposure of the horrors of conflict being present without ever being explicitly declared. The poet illuminates to the reader how the Great War ruptured the country’s spirit by musing solely on the idealistic and naive delusions. Here the poet is presumably ruminating over a photograph of British volunteers lining up in front of an army recruitment office. He describes the long queues and the men in their old-fashioned apparel, the antiquated currency, the populace still rapt in the preceding century, naively oblivious of the modern warfare that will befall them.
Larkin describes the men lingering patiently in line, as they may well wait to see a cricket match at the Oval or an “August Bank Holiday lark” (8). The atmosphere surrounding them does not portend to any lurking peril but rather conveys a holiday-like ambience where children are playing and the men in line are smiling. The men linger patiently to quash what they mockingly described as the the ‘Hun’ (German army) and expect returning home in time for Christmas, as though simply venturing for a weekend excursion. Larkin describes two subtle images in which he encapsulates the unwariness and absence of insight that steered them to depart so casually. The initial impression the poet conveys is of the way the soon-to-be soldiers leave their prim and proper gardens as though they expect to revisit them before long. This evokes the image of the corpse lodged in the garden in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The subsequent image Larkin depicts is of the “thousands of marriages/Lasting a little while longer” (30-31). The lovers in these marriages are unconscious of the fact that many of these unions will not, in all probability, outlast the war in such gullibility that will shortly become crushed. “Never such innocence” (25) is Larkin’s reiterated and memorialising supposition, evoking all the terror of which those men and women of the Great War were so unashamedly ill-equipped.
Louis MacNeice’s later work is bathed in the fashion of ‘parable poetry’, in that the compositions appear effortless whilst in addition display embryonic, otherworldly and moral essences. ‘Parable poems’ use metaphorical imagery to form stories that appear to be topical but are actually multifaceted. Both MacNeice and Larkin display poetical philosophies that are akin to William Wordsworth’s intent in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads (1800) – A poet ought to be the voice for and to the common man. This is especially true given the uncertain times in which they wrote. Following the end of the war, MacNeice’s work at the outset develops into more philosophical speculative verses, revealing a re-assessment of the function of art and a yearning for some kind of faith. The poet triumphs in meticulous precision and profound thought in his ultimate three collections, Visitations (1957), Solstices (1961) and the posthumous The Burning Perch (1963). Each collection articulates an existential appreciation of nothingness and an antipathy with the deterioration of England following the war.
The Wiper (1961) is an accurate paradigm of MacNeice’s ‘parable poem’. On the exterior it appears to be a tangible depiction of the perceptions of the street from within a vehicle on a dark and damp evening from the viewpoint of the commuters. The poet’s employment of double-entendres, however, indicates a figurative quality to the poem. This is demonstrated in the final stanza when it glimpses tentatively to the “black future”, which also literally refers to the darkness of the night. The nuances within the poem signify life as a voyage and potentially a pursuit for something greater. This pursuit may soon be constrained by darkness. The passengers in the car can distinguish merely fleeting specks of a dark street, an enigmatic road with unfamiliar elements. The hollow abyss of reality and the obscurity of night are shattered occasionally by the illumination of others equally isolated and half blinded inside their individual “moving boxes.” Notably, whilst each person driving the vehicles are unable to distinguish a lot in the dark and damp, their vehicle illuminates the path for other drivers, despite being only momentarily. The ultimate line in the poem is emblematic of the poet, in its consummate, cynically assured affirmation. Regardless of unawareness and clouded observation, existing in a world or darkness and rainfall, the driver’s continue their journey on the road. The poet laments the growing monotony of contemporary life and the increasing homogeny that such modernisation creates. Here he is memorialising the glorious past devoid of the growing necessity for technology. He is expressing contempt for the humdrum facets of life and secularism that are becoming ingrained in the English consciousness.
At the outset, drawing a resemblance between Philip Larkin and Louis MacNeice seems reasonably dubious. A great deal sets them apart, both in their disposition and their dogma, that parallels may appear hard to stumble upon. Larkin is exceedingly English, solitary, bigoted, intransigent and self- allegedly apathetic to biblical and classical mythology. MacNeice on the other hand is diffidently Irish, extroverted, cultured, left-wing, broad-minded, instilled in Christian rearing and Classical studies. Despite this sheer disparity, there lies a tinge of analogous poetic vision. Their poetry is equally illustrative when interpreted as a profoundly scrutinised reaction to the human quandaries propounded by modern Western materialism. Both are poets who are fundamentally anxious to discover a method of which to endure in a world seemingly purged of intrinsic value and significance. They guide the reader on a journey of discovery through the materialistic maze, persistently signifying and experimenting with mixtures of answers to the concern of moral apathy, memorialising a past world. As MacNeice writes in his Collected Poems; “And when we clear away/All this debris of day-to-day experience, What comes out to light, what is there of value/ Lasting from day to day?” As the poets sieve through this “debris”, they uncover a distinctively harmonious scope of reactions to the possible futility of this “unarmorial age.”
Unlike other poets of their time, MacNeice and Larkin were incapable of formulating an enduring belief system from which they could extract meaning from existence. Confronted with this lack of finality, they both remain metaphysically stripped and cautiously study ways of handling the concern of subjectivism, devoid of any illustrious theoretical or spiritual basis. Many of their poems substantiate an exceptionally comparable range of reactions to decaying society and existence. This varies from nihilistic anguish at life’s seeming emptiness, to compassionate esteem of the probable significance of community to the spiritual avowal to the inherent worth of life.
MacNeice and Larkin, were victim to overpowering suspicions and apprehensions which would often guide them to maintain a relegated view on the human condition. Throughout the course of his career, Louis MacNeice’s patent impression of forlorn seclusion in an apathetic world is intensified by the subdued presentiments and glaring memorialisation’s that haunt the poet incessantly, from the early Perseus to the later Greyness is All. “All human faces” appear to him on occasion, to assume “that compelling stare” that expose “the cosmic purposelessness” of being. In truth, his sceptical waning is often so uncontrollable that he regularly pines away in utter despair as he laments the deterioration of society: “The days grow worse, the dice are loaded/Against the living man who pays in tears for breath, call no man happy/ This side of death.”
Philip Larkin’s poetry is also saturated with this artistic tension linking tones of misery and stoicism. Despite his flagrant despondency, he cultivates a strong conviction in the fundamental significance and nobility of humanity. As once stipulated to a friend, “The ultimate joy is to be alive in the flesh.” His reverent esteem for humanity’s courage in the opposition of “time’s rolling smithy-smoke” rouses some of his most avowed and poignant work. In Show Saturday, much like The Whitsun Weddings, he observes a yearly countryside fête as a humble but necessary homage to the erstwhile impulse towards the idea of community. His work often renders an identifiable wistfulness for prevailing attitudes and traditional customs. His poetry entices the reader’s concern to the urbanisation of the British landscape, the rise of a secular orientated society and lapsing of traditions. Numerous of his poems are situated in the milieu of a voyage which chronicles these altering environments both factually and figuratively. Larkin’s penchant towards precise cadenced structures and verse can be regarded as a deference to more time-honoured poetic voices and a defiance against changing social attitudes and his contemporaries’ untamed verses.
In conclusion it can be ascertained that there lies empathy in emotional response concerning Philip Larkin and Louis MacNeice. This is largely based on the characteristics of their artistic reaction to the living through existence in a superficial and reliant civilisation. They embody elements of restless romanticism in their philosophies that verify an array of responses to the menace of existential hollowness. This varies from self-destructive scepticism, to a carefully considered cynical humanism, to a transcendent, altruistic spirituality. Notwithstanding their mutual impression of hopelessness of the condition of the contemporary world, both believe in encouragement on a human and spiritual level and imply that whilst it is impossible to decipher the meaning of life, its ambiguity and splendour are ephemeral and potent cures for gloom. They memorialise a former way of life, devoid of materialism and consumerism and possess a doting air of reverence for the British landscape. When their poetry is read together, one discovers two distrustful, pursuing twentieth century voices whose sincere consideration to the intricacies of the prevailing human condition intensifies our understanding of what Larkin referred to as “the million-petalled flower/ Of being here” and leaves us, in MacNeice’s turn of phrase, “More live, less dead.”
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