Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
—Annus Mirabilis by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
Annus Mirabilis was written in 1967, but published in the volume High Windows in 1974. This is Philip Larkin’s ironic statement about the sexual revolution, as it got underway in England before invading America. The irony starts with the title, taken from John Dryden’s interminable poem of 1667 about the Dutch naval war and the Great fire of London. The new, brief poem may therefore be an account of a misfortune of similar proportions. The similarity, unfortunately, would have to be drawn out in comparably interminable comments, given Larkin’s inclination to understatement and allusion. There is something to be said for his sense of humor, too, introducing embarrassed parentheses concerning himself in the middle of rather strong declarative phrases about the world. The parenthesis is the only statement in the first person, which recommends it as a beginning to interpretation. Its appearing in the middle of the opening sentence, as an interruption, as much as what it says, suggests that the man trying to give an account of the times is not at home in his time.
The structure of the poem is straightforward and nearly pedagogical, which is a quiet, but firm rejection of what may loosely be called modernism in poetry. Four stanzas, the first and last nearly identical, the intervening two describing each a situation: the old society and the social revolution respectively. This turn around the middle is then supposed to explain the small difference when the first stanza is repeated as last. Such a brief poem with such a recognizable shape, one sees at a glance, and then the effect is unmistakable. The structure does not begin to look strange until we consider the way the stanzas relate to time. The extreme stanzas deal with the beginning and ending of 1963. The central stanzas offer images of the old world and the world made anew. The importance of the past only comes across in an indirect manner: Were one to take seriously the promise of making the world anew, there would then be no past. The use of the past tense in the extreme stanzas points out quietly that 1963 is now the past; the question is what it reveals to us and what it conceals or obscures.
The insistence on a form, with its limits and its measurements, its predictability and therefore its own conditions for the unpredictable, is opposed to a time that is described by infinite gambling in the third stanza. The assumption there is that the form the author chose is proper to his concern. This structure also fits the mode the poet chose. The taste for brevity is connected with understatement and irony; the contrived character of the form is opposed to the spontaneous. This has certain implications we can call political, in the sense that they concern the relation between author and audience. This the poet shows as the distinction between an age described by public knowledge of shame and an age described by public harmony. This can also be described as the distinction between a world where there are secrets and world peace. An author who speaks obliquely, therefore, is closer to the former than the latter. His art is implicitly an education in the virtues of that old world.
Each stanza is one sentence across five lines, two in tetrameter, three in trimeter—the longer first and fourth rhyme, as do the shorter other three. One of Larkin’s jokes is that one can read merely the lines that rhyme together. The tetrameter gives the plot; the trimeter gives the details. The former gets to the point; the latter sounds gossipy. The poem is written in iambs, but there are copious exceptions. Larkin is not trying to fit into his perfect form—he seems to like the fact that the phrases he picks modify his rhythm occasionally. The long sentences would sound authoritative otherwise. He wants to introduce some doubt by way of informality and at the same time give his audience a sense of familiarity with the speech. He likes the extravagance of throwing in anapests to mark the more impressive phrases, which attracts attention to them without taking on the character of a fulminating public speech typical of regular anapests. It makes the poem seem unrefined, but it also attracts some attention to the changes he introduces into his pattern. The psychological effect of familiarity is close to boredom–he is hiding his humor. The rhetorical effect is a kind of political education in jokes, because the character of the speech is ambiguous. One cannot tell what is public and what is private simply by the manner of speech.
Larkin insists on distinguishing two social orders, and he is writing in the new one, so he borrows its perspective. His attack on the new social order is almost entirely confined to his presentation of its view of the old order. Aside from the second stanza, he only makes fun of democratic freedom. This, however, says one thing more: In the new order, it is no longer possible to look at the old order as men once did.
1 The miracle or the thing at which Larkin wonders is sexual intercourse. It began in 1963, in some connection to two facts, the one a lawsuit, the other… well, it also should have been a lawsuit. When some British publisher tried to publish dead D.H. Lawrence’s novel, the laws objected, on account of a post-war obscenity law. Obviously, the old order as it emerged from the war and was seen in the 1950s had no idea what was coming if they thought obscenity laws would mean anything when free speech was turned into free expression. Perhaps even more important than the impossibility of taking seriously such a law was the public interest it aroused. Public decency not only went undefended by political authority, but the public gave the appearance of defending indecency on principle. The principle would seem to be individual freedom of some kind. But when the Beatles hit the big time, with their covers of American rock ’n’ roll and their innocent love songs, the laws were comparatively dumb and blind. The old order not only did not realize banning books was out, but it did not know the cause: It did not understand the change in the souls of men. This may show a psychological deficiency in liberalism, connected with the strength we call privacy. The Beatles emerged in reaction to that weakness and made things worse.
This problem shows up as a contradiction: Sex, or private life, is the big deal in the new order, its distinctive creation. That is the new freedom. But while eros is a democrat, in that eroticism is no respecter of class or virtue, it is also true that eros is a master over willing slaves: Men abandon their dignity because of eros. An example of the former is the humorous habit of latter-day politicians in England to confer titles of nobility on aged hippies or rockers, as though anyone needed evidence of who really rules in people’s hearts and minds. An example of the latter is the phenomenon of youths offering themselves up to the same. Sex is a matter of private life, and liberalism is the regime where private life dominates public life. But liberalism lives by taking seriously the distinction between public and private life which the new age of sex-talk continuously undermines.
Now, the events are given not only in chronological, but in political order. The failure of the obscenity laws is the negative preparation for a new situation, the positive statement of which is the experience of the new music—the most popular exponents of which were the Beatles. Their championing of the various habits and opinions of the new social revolution was already implied in their rise being prepared by the failure of decency laws. In the event, the old order at the end seemed dedicated to defense against the onslaught of self-expression, not like an education. One should look for the causes of the event of the new world in the education of what Americans call the Baby Boomers, the generation coeval with the obscenity laws.
2. The old order, before sexual intercourse began—you may be amused to consider that this is an Enlightenment-era phrase—is described by three actions: bargaining, wrangling, and shame. So that soul looked like mind, spirit, & a spirited shame in face of desire. It would be accurate to say that sex was a kind of mystery, despite the rationalistic implications of bargaining—calculation with a view to advantage, not to say buying and selling things held to be good. One wonders what Larkin meant by shame spreading to everything. Was the world itself erotic? At any rate, the power of eros was sensed and the work of taming it was reasonably divided between reasonable bargaining and spirited shame. This would prevent fanaticism as well as mere animal gratification. This leaves the problem of wrangling–the natural differences between men and women make marriage into a fight. Getting women to get men to marry them, one could say, is the minimum condition of the civil peace.
It might seem like the problem of the coming revolution was its promiscuity, because people began to give in to desire. But it was spirit that was the problem. The primacy of private life discounts reputation and obscures the past. Most people look on to the future, which they understand by their desires. The spiritedness that could fend off desire by shame includes wrangling, too: As the old world is made anew and privacy takes over public life, men could refuse the very reasonable opportunity of marriage. Spiritedness is as self-regarding as desire for something is self-forgetful. Once one focuses on oneself, shame might be replaced by defense of one’s own independence.
The age of reason, unlike the age of consent, or drink, or service, or political office, is not obvious. Reason, we are reminded in this way, which should be universal, is in fact as particular as our bodies. Public things, however, seem universal. The pleasures of the body vary with the body, as do the popular opinions, but shame starts at sixteen. If you think of politics not as institutions, but as the psychology which underlies them, the problem is navigating the tumults of those years when eros starts to show its power and make its claims before reason can overpower him. It would seem the old world ended when it could no longer take seriously this psychological problem and deal with it.
3. The description of the new order is surprisingly unserious. Lie is piled on lie, yet the tone seems common, lacking comic exaggerations or the now-common earnestness, without anything else than reasonableness. This you may call deadpan delivery of the most astounding hopes; they are reported as facts—the kind of facts that need no reporting, since they enjoy the uncertain universality of the pronoun “every,” which suggests an aggregation of individuals, but does not deny the possibility of a community; and, too, this stanza is the only one that comes close to breaking out of the form of the poem, whereas the previous had impeccable iambs. The reasonable man does not hasten to believe in miracles, so he will be skeptical of this one, too. The defining quality of the new order is affirmed much more clearly than that of the old order, which required some thinking: The really big quarrel is over, now there is nothing over which to fight. Again, a kind of universality has made differences, the condition or structure of conflict, impossible. The partisans of enlightenment may finally sigh with relief: Perpetual peace is on the horizon.
To grasp the political education requires only to think on what the man says here, as opposed to what readers expect. This man is obviously old enough to remember what shame was like. Something similar to it, restraint or understatement is his preferred mode. He only gives that view of the old order which is typical of the new order. The rest has to be inferred from his implications. This reliance on educated suggestions may be called dishonesty. Everyone is not the same to such an author. He is a man who thinks back on the past. He presents his thoughts here as a history, leaving room neither for doubt nor for disagreement. He is aware of the taste for facts, for example. He uses his facts to obscure the main question: What caused this change? His intention is to look at cause indirectly, through the meaning of the change, and he looks at the change by presenting a slanted view of either side of the divide so as to make the change apparent. The question for him is: Can the whole be put together in poems anymore? This man is not a man of the new order, else he would not really know the old. The new order, he says, is sameness. People feel the same: The social revolution democratized private life. Democratic equality was previously a matter of public life, as to law or representation in elections. It has overcome the liberal distinction between state and civil society. In private life, this means freedom from the old restraints. The old restraints were not of liberal making, so they rather escape the distinction between civil society and state, too. The world in which shame spread was both public, in that public men were subject to stricter scrutiny than private citizens, and private, in that shame did not rely on laws or public discussion in the legislature. In this new order, life replaces shame as the defining concern or instrument of social action. This has the remarkable power of suggesting that shame is the source of individuality. Leave it aside in the march into the future, and what have you got left? People are replaced by lives here–there is really only one life, if you think that everyone felt the same. One story is left to tell–life becomes a game you cannot lose.
This is a brilliant image. Mind here is everyone feeling the same. There is no spiritedness except victory in a game or what is implied in exhilaration. And everyone’s desires were to have been satisfied simultaneously! But the cautious mind of the man talking to us lets us know this is like gambling–I guess Americans would call it hitting the jackpot. Now, the suggestion here is, nature and chance can no longer be distinguished. Eliding the difference is the condition of gambling without risks, a world in which games of chance are sure winners. In some way, this was always the danger: Eros can be thought of as present and as present only by its absence. Desire for something can be satisfied and thereby ceases to be desire, but it is in a certain sense only really satisfied as desire, as a desire for something, as a way to connect man to something beyond his grasp. Bringing everything beyond grasp within grasp would seem to be what is meant by this form of gambling without risk. If it is possible, you can have it—you will have it! The distinction between the actual and the possible is elided, too. Speaking clearly and possibly thinking clearly becomes more difficult the more this new order establishes itself.
Spiritedness, prominent in the second stanza, is nearly absent in the third. It was required in the old order to withstand what we could call the facts of life; this was possible because there was a prospect of success. The marriage ring may tame, but does not aim to destroy desire. One wonders whether there is a similar moderation in the new order: What basis for spiritedness could survive the requirement that all quarrels sink? What use would there be for spiritedness? The question this stanza raises is: Why do people quarrel? What is the status of the differences between human beings? We are not told, because those questions and answers had to be sacrificed for the new order to arise. This points to the arrangement discussed in much greater detail in the second stanza and makes us wonder whether there is any way around something like it. Comparing the reasonable with the silly in the central stanzas suggests a quiet preference for the reasonable, because the poem is obviously the work of a reasonable man.
To get a sense of the combative attitude underlying this depiction, consider that “me” in the eccentric stanzas is set over against “everyone” in the third stanza. There is no talk of any kind of persons in the second stanza, which suggests individualism was not what it has become. Persons are implied as actors of the actions described there, but they are not named. That is a description of the structure of the society, not of the individual human beings. One sees in that manner of speech a protection of private life from too prying eyes. But then that is the world to which the poet who talks to us belonged.
4. Life was never better than in 1963. That suggests it did not last, the promise of the revolution. Our informant had not been one of the revolutionaries, he also confirms. The end of which he speaks was settled in court and made a big impression on people, through the press. The beginning of which he speaks simply took over the society. Rule by fear and shame was out, rule by pleasure was in–and there is a lot to be said for it, if you think of it as this kind of poem rather than John Lennon declaring the power of eros when he noticed the Beatles had become bigger than Jesus.
But there may be something to be said about the difference between the Lady Chatterley novel and the Beatles’ music. They belong to different ages, as refined and popular tastes are different. Erotic equalization is far more a proposition in the former case and a fact, taken for granted, in the latter. The democratic and tyrannic aspects of eros come out in the two cases. But if we tried to see the genesis of the new order in the old, we would have to say, refined poetry failed to improve judgment. It thus became inevitable that popular music, which gives pleasure to many, should take center stage. This is the obvious way to take the examples of old and new in the eccentric stanzas and sketch a causal explanation of the sequence of old and new in the central stanzas. Even this tentative causal reasoning suggests some interesting possibilities: Maybe the problem with the old order is that it did not understand the problem with the Lady Chatterley novel. It was an affront to Victorian or Edwardian manners, to be sure–which suggests that the educated people no longer believed the old verities. And it was a reminder that eros should not ever be considered tamed. It certainly did not prompt an attempt to rethink the psychological underpinning of such institutions as those that deal with poetry, whether to promote or to prohibit it.
*The reader who is concerned overmuch with such things might consider whether the post-war situation was anything like the post-Civil War Restoration period insofar as mores and regime stability are concerned.
Editor’s Note: Philip Larkin can be heard reciting the poem Annus Mirabilis here.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.