Modernism and Symbolism

  • Stephen Regan
Part of the The Critics Debate book series (TCD)


From the outset of his career as a poet, Larkin made no secret of his hostility to the ideas and techniques of modernism. His most notorious attack on modernist art occurs in the introduction to his collection of jazz criticism, All What Jazz where modernism is equated with mystification and outrage. It is here, too, that Larkin expresses his deep distaste for the work of that modernist trio, Parker, Pound and Picasso. Modernist experiments, whether in music, poetry or painting, are regarded by Larkin as ‘irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it’ (Larkin, 1983, p.297). It may seem surprising, then, that the most striking development in Larkin criticism has been the insistence in the 1980s that the poetry has a profoundly ‘symbolist’ and, by implication, ‘modernist’ dimension. Whereas Donald Davie and others had sought to defend Larkin’s poetry from charges of gentility and parochialism by seeking to explain and justify its seemingly limited horizons, the new Larkin criticism argues more positively that the poetry often reveals a strongly ‘affirmative’ and ‘transcendent’ element. This strain of criticism is not entirely new. Alan Brownjohn, for instance, had identified ‘certain indefinable images of purity and serenity’ which enabled the poet to ‘rise above the soiled terrain of living’ (Brownjohn, 1975, p.3). The emphasis after 1975, though, was very much on Larkin’s persistent and generally unrecognised connections with European modernism, with W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and the French symbolist poets.


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© Stephen Regan 1992

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  • Stephen Regan

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