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Monday, January 30, 2012

Analysis of Philip Larkin's "High Windows"

"Swinging London" was a term coined by Time magazine, in their April 15, 1966 issue, in order to define the culture and fashion scene in 1960s London. Philip Larkin's poem High Windows was written in 1967 amidst the "Summer of Love," in London. The "summer of love" introduced drug use and "free" sex. During this summer, the Beatles released what a lot of people consider to be their greatest album: "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Religion's hold on youth began to wan with this new generation of "free thinkers." Sex was both talked about and done indiscriminately, which challenged the Church's authority because until now sex before marriage was seen as whorish. The young took charge of their bodies and minds and revolutionized society's tendency to be conservative. Larkin appears to be envious of this generation, because it was everything that he had hoped for when he was their age. Larkin was a life-long bachelor; he had several sexual relationships, but was never married. This new generation brought sex into the forefront; no longer did people whisper about it in locked up rooms with the curtains drawn, participating in and enjoying sex was no longer shameful.
The title of the poem High Windows has both a literal and metaphorical meaning. Literally, the high windows can be referring to a window that is on a second-floor of a building or higher, or the stained glass windows that are found in churches. "In symbology, [windows are] openings that admit supernatural light…Light from outside or from above corresponds to God's spirit, and the window itself to the Virgin Mary" (Biedermann 382). If you define each word individually you get: "high" is an elevated place, or exalted in character; "windows" are openings in walls where you can look out, or an interval of time during which certain conditions or opportunity exists. I believe that Larkin meant for the title to have a two-fold meaning: on the one hand, "high windows" is an image of religion and God; on the other hand, "high windows" described a period of time that superior to the times that came before it (e.g. summer of love).
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise (lines 1-4)
The speaker of this poem, who is most likely Larkin, sees some kids who he believes are sexually active, and he is happy. It is unclear whether the speaker is looking down on the kids from a high window or whether he just happened to pass them on the street. He calls them "kids" not because they are kids, but because they are a lot younger than him. Even if it is the "summer of love" I doubt that underage kids would be so open about their sexuality. Using birth control is a big slap in the face of the previous conservative generations, because the kids are rejecting the previous generation's morals. Conservatives were against birth control because it called into question: family obligation versus personal freedom, state intervening in private lives, religion in politics, sexual morality, social welfare, and the male role in society and relationships. This period of time in history is like a paradise to the speaker, because it meant that he didn't have to be guilty about his own sex life. Larkin has always seemed anti-convention, which is probably one of the reasons why he never chose not to marry.
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives-
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide (5-8)
The older generations had always secretly dreamed of a time when having sex and talking about sex wouldn't be so taboo; keeping in mind that the speaker is assuming that everyone thinks like him. "Bonds" refers to marriage or engagement, and "gestures" refers to the things men do when they are courting a woman (e.g. flowers, candy, opening doors, etc.). The speaker uses a simile to compare outdated "bonds and gestures" to an outdated "combine harvester." A combine is a machine that harvests and threshes grain while moving over a field; if it is outdated then it must be from the previous generation, and the premise of "swinging London" and the "summer of love" is out with the old and in with the new. A "slide" is something that you would find on a playground. Larkin uses the slide to show how young this new generation is, and how they are losing their innocence when they go "own the long slide." The slide represents a journey of self-discovery. The slide also represents a sort of baptism; when you slide down it you are reborn into someone who embraces their sexuality and doesn't apologize for having sex or using drugs.
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark (9-12)
The slide leads the kids to lifelong happiness. "Happiness" could be a metaphor for having sex and experiencing an orgasm; sexual gratification. The speaker wonders if anyone ever looked at him forty years ago and thought to themselves that these kids had the right idea, opposing long standing traditions for newer ideals. Since the idea of God doesn't exist in this new generation then no one has to sweat in the dark, feeling guilty about not living up to God's plan.
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately (13-16)
No longer do you have to worry about going to hell if you have sex premarital sex, nor do you have to hide your improper thoughts about priests. Since God doesn't exist then priests no longer hold their significance; priests become regular people again, and can engage is normal sexual behavior. Priests will all go down the long slide and be reborn. "Like free bloody birds" is a simile, and it can have few meanings: first, "bloody" is British slang used as intensifier and is also a less offensive way of saying fuck; "birds" is also British slang for attractive women or promiscuous women. Using these definitions, the priests are free to be as fucking promiscuous as they want. Second, "the Holy Spirit is almost always portrayed in the form of a dove…doves also stand for the newly baptized" (Biedermann 101). Using the divine definitions, blood would refer to Christ's blood. God is dead and the priests are free to live as sinfully as they want in their new religion. Third, the priests are free like bloody (British slang: fucking) birds, who fly wherever they want, and copulate with whomever they want.
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless. (17-20)
The speaker's mind shifts to thoughts of high windows. I believe that the high windows that the speaker is referring to here are those are the stained glass windows that you find in churches, but it is also possible that he is reminiscing about when he was a kid looking up at windows high off of the ground. Stained glass windows often depict biblical stories, and when the sun shines on them the images become illuminated. The sun understands their significance. These windows are from past generations; beyond these church windows there is a great big world waiting to be discovered and experienced.
Works Cited:
Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian, 1989.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After.8thed. New York: Norton, 2006.

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