We’re looking at poetry’s use of metaphor — a huge topic, obviously. Perhaps it’s best examined, therefore, by zooming in on a particular example.
The Big Idea is that Vacuums rule the world, by which I mean emptinesses, incompletenesses, holes, gaps, mysteries unknowns and so forth suck in attention, prompt action and guide motion, from a quantum level all the way up to the behaviour of galaxies, and including the human mind and the sub-created worlds of fiction. The bigger the vacuum, the stronger the pull. If, as a writer of fiction, you can connect vacuums together, you will attract more readers and create more powerful emotional experiences for them. And the thing that connects one vacuum to a larger one is a metaphor.
Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ (1958) is a good place to begin to see how this works in poetry.
Most of Larkin’s poetry was composed in the largely un-poetic Northern city of Hull in England, and features the spiritual desolation of a post-war Britain in which religion has to a major extent failed to provide the meaning that it once did to life. Using local, recognisable images and colloquial language as a starting point, Larkin subtly connects deeper meanings using metaphors.
Larkin asserted that his own life was ‘unspent’ and ‘boring, and rejected the idea prevalent in the literature of his time that meaning should be sought in a poet’s life and background. Growing up in Coventry, the son of a treasurer, Larkin became one of the country’s most popular poets, but turned down the position of Poet Laureate when it was offered to him after the death of John Betjeman. This is typical of Larkin’s ‘low profile’ and only adds to the effect of his work, which is generally cynical and skeptical, witty but melancholy. However, the psychological honesty of the poetry is only where we begin. A deeper and more nuanced emotional response leading to a sense of poignancy is crafted using the power of metaphors.
Larkin saw several wedding parties board a train during an actual train ride in 1955 taking place on Whitsun, or Whit Sunday, which is the seventh Sunday after Easter (Pentecost), popular for weddings and his poem is superficially about this simple journey. As it progresses, though, we begin to see the whole journey as a metaphor about Life’s journey:
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river's level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
Note how the opening is firmly grounded in the specific. Using conversational and rhythmically sound but ordinary language, the poet describes both the train’s interior and its setting. Thinking metaphorically, though, we hook up and into larger vacuums (despite Larkin's objection to interpretations using the poet's own life): Larkin's early childhood was in some respects ‘late getting away’: he was educated at home until the age of eight by his mother and sister. Neither friends nor relatives ever visited the family home; Larkin developed a stammer at this time. Larkin’s life may have seemed to him ‘three-quarters-empty’; after the flurry and pressure of being born, with ‘windows down’, perhaps the surroundings were hot and ‘all sense/Of being in a hurry’ passed away. While the famous line ‘Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet’ is on one level a beautiful description of the exact scenery of that part of the country, in the ‘river’s level drifting breadth,’ Larkin conjures the central image of the poem, a linear movement of water and of the train, which is also an image of Life’s progression through time.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.
Ordinary language passes into rhythm and rhyme that is scarcely noticeable; Larkin evokes the summer season, full of ‘Wide farms’ and ‘short-shadowed cattle’, but contrasted with ‘Canals with floatings of industrial froth’. Similarly, the pleasant sweetness of ‘hedges dipped/And rose: and now and then a smell of grass’ is juxtaposed with ‘the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth’ and the approach of the next town, ‘new and nondescript … with acres of dismantled cars.’ Visual imagery of the specific endears the poet to the reader using an easy familiarity with the urban and the rural, but in effect Larkin is lulling us into a half-trance, as railway journeys are wont to do. One level of vacuum — a sense of contrast and a little mystery — is evident throughout. Larkin starts to pay attention to the wedding parties:
At first, I didn't notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what's happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go
The sunlight ‘destroys/The interest of what's happening in the shade’, Larkin claims, and yet he also says that he is reading, and therefore cannot be that interested in what the sun is revealing to him either. It’s the girls he notices, ‘grinning and pomaded’; he tends to turn any group into a generalised stereotype, in this case ‘All posed irresolutely’. But it’s the continuation of the last line of that stanza into the next one which becomes metaphorical, extrapolating the specific into an unnamed generality. This is metaphor at work, connecting the smaller to the larger, brining to the fore a deeper question: ‘watching us go'
As if out on the end of an event
To something that survived it.
Something leaves, something is waved goodbye to - something ‘survived it’. We are now no longer just talking about a single railway journey — this is of greater interest. One gets the impression that the poet lays the book aside now:
Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochers that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest
Specifics and generalities - the ‘fathers with broad belts under their suits/And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;/An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,/The nylon gloves’ and so on, all Larkin shorthand for the commonplace and common, his way of telegraphing a cynical disapproval of people unable to see through these things — but if we accept that this train journey has now taken on a deeper symbolism, this is Larkin observing humanity symbolically too. The generalities become metaphorical.
The rhythms of the next lines, running over the ends of lines and even of stanzas, conveys the sense of a railway journey, but also the images coalesce to form a kind of tapestry of life’s events:
Yes, from cafes
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known
Success so huge and wholly farcical;
There’s more to this than a charming but cynical set of observations about a particular train journey: this is about the search for a level of meaning previously provided by religion:
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding.
‘Religious wounding’ stands out in the setting of the ordinary language around it — ‘a happy funeral’ connects the joy of the weddings with the broader notion of death. Then the life of humanity, captured by the image of the train moving relentlessly towards a great city, moves out of the realm where marriages take place and into its final stages, approaching the end of mortality. ‘They’, loaded with all of Larkin’s cynicism, becomes ‘we’:
Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Whereas before fields contained ‘short-shadowed cattle’, now they are ‘building-plots’ -perhaps burial plots? The cattle earlier cast short shadows, but now the shadows grow longer. And as Life runs out, there is only just long enough to note the closeness of death:
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
Only the poet, from his unique position of being able to observe all of the parties as they boarded, can sum up the philosophical questions neatly: ‘and none/Thought of the others they would never meet/Or how their lives would all contain this hour.’ Again, Larkin moves from the specific to the general and all these small incidents begin to be symbolic of all incidents, everywhere. Their final destination combines urban, rural and almost Biblical imagery, ‘I thought of London spread out in the sun,/Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat’ as he realises that this apparently random collection of people and wedding parties does actually have an intended goal: ‘There we were aimed.’
As the moment of termination arrives, the pace picks up, the walls close in and the sense of impetus and finality grows stronger:
as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give.
It’s no longer just a train — it’s a ‘frail/Travelling coincidence’ and Larkin permits himself and the reader a suggestion of a switch from a forward-hurtling train motion to a swelling sense of falling, as though something — it’s stated passively and it isn’t certain who or what — has been shot like an arrow beyond death:
We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The final metaphor is almost a complete abstract, quite a contrast to the concrete imagery of most of the poem. It can hardly relate to Cupid’s arrows - he never fires a shower of arrows but shoots one at a time. And here, arrows become rain. The simile of the arrow-shower is magically transformed and softened into the rural image of a rain-shower. That the whole thing occurs out of sight is both Larkin’s irony and a suggestion that from a mortal perspective of course these things cannot be seen. But it is a swelling ‘sense of falling’, not a receding one.
Larkin may have slipped a religious poem by us after all. By using metaphor to connect the specific to the general, the small to the large the trivial to the meaningful, he has demonstrated for us the true power of this vacuum-connecting tool.