Tentative Initiation in the Poetry

  • John H. Augustine


A recent article in Commentary by Joseph Epstein entitled ‘Miss Pym and Mr Larkin’ discusses the importance of isolation to the poetry of Philip Larkin. ‘A stammerer as a boy, increasingly deaf in middle age — Larkin’s life neatly conspired to set him apart and keep him there’, writes Epstein. ‘What is impressive’, he continues, ‘is the way that he was able to generalize his own apartness into persuasive poems about the isolation, the loneliness that is part of the condition of us all.’1 Larkin does not simply make himself into a case study. Epstein’s attention to what he calls, variously, Larkin’s ‘spiritual’ or ‘radical’ isolation echoes other critics’ emphasis on this theme. Bruce Martin also sees it as central to Larkin’s work: ‘loneliness, or at least the sense of being left out, colors almost all of Larkin’s speakers and their personal situations.’2 Correspondingly, this sense of exclusion stresses the importance of social experience in Larkin’s poetry. Thus Larkin separates society and solitude as opposites. But in doing so, he describes a static state of tension with reference to a traditional process of initiation. In moving from solitude to integration into society, Larkin’s protagonists often become stuck in the middle. Larkin describes stasis and paralysis. But he does so with reference to a pattern of movement.


Personal Situation Initiation Experience Electric Fence Initiation Motif Modern Language Association 
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  1. 1.
    Joseph Epstein, ‘Miss Pym and Mr Larkin’, Commentary, vol. LXVI (July 1986) p. 45.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Bruce K. Martin, Philip Larkin, ed. Kinley E. Roby (Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1978) p. 45.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Mordecai Marcus, ‘What is an Initiation Story?’, in Isaac Sequeira’s The Theme of Initiation in Modern American Fiction (Mysore, India: Geetha Book House, 1975) p. 20. Originally published in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. xix (1960) pp. 221–8.Google Scholar

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© Dale Salwak 1989

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  • John H. Augustine

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