A Fight for Freedom in the Light of Poems by Hughes and Larkin
“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains” is a quote by Rousseau from his book The Social Contract. The opening lines were meant to address an individual’s freedom narrowed by the government, however, the quote is perhaps heavily famous due to its applicability to other perspectives as well. For instance, man is chained to the duties to run his family and even before that man is chained to compete with the world for knowledge. Moreover, Rushdie points out in his essay “‘Commonwealth Literature’ Does Not Exist” that society cannot help but categorize what they cannot recognize or explain on its own, hence, man is chained to the boxes that their literature is perhaps categorized into. In addition to exploring the platforms of war and existentialism in literature in the post-world war era, authors also began to explore the platform of sex and subjects related to sex because man is in fact also chained to his sexual urges in order for his race to multiply. However, the idea of sex is not simply constricted to addressing the importance of love and reproduction. The intention of this paper is to focus on how the authors, Hughes and Larkin, attempt in their poems to contrastively portray ‘freedom’ through God’s way of beginning mankind and mankind defying God’s ways in the new world.
“A Childish Prank” is a part of Hughes’s fourth Volume called Crow published in 1970, or as Brandes has noted to be “Hughes’s most bleak and disturbing volume” (513). Hughes had begun to work on this volume briefly after the death of Sylvia Plath, when he had entered a rather devastating place. He explores the darker parts of his mind and re-tells the Biblical stories of the creation of mankind. In another poem from Crow called “Crow’s first lesson”, the character of crow is seen to be loved as a child of one’s own, hence, God tries to teach the crow to say words as mothers would do with their children. God tells the crow, “‘Say, Love’” (line 2), however, the crow opens his mouth to only spit out creatures that may symbolize danger and death in today’s world. First a white shark, then an african tsetse, and finally the creation of man and woman leaving them all under the same category. Similar to how Blake has questioned through Songs of Innocence and of Experience about how the same world and its mankind that is full of innocent happinesses could simultaneously contain death and destruction, Hughes perhaps also questions the creation of humanity by creating his own myth from the crow’s perspective to cope with the loss of his loved one. The creation of the man and woman had only been partial, hence we see in “A Childish Prank” that God is looking upon his nearly-complete creation as a very important piece of the puzzle which is missing is the ‘soul’ (line 1). “The problem was so great, it dragged him asleep” (line 4) and as God slept, the crow began his mischievousness unlike in “Crow’s First lesson” where the crow flew off in guilt because of his creations in the name of love.
In “Paradise Lost”, Milton too paints a picture of Satan’s occasional guilt from retaliating against the son of God, for example, when he witnesses a glimpse of the mesmerizing Garden of Eden, but soon remembers his mission to deviate Adam and Eve from innocence and take them towards punishment with the consumption of the forbidden fruit. If the crow resembles Satan, then the forbidden fruit is perhaps a man and woman’s sexual urges because the crow cuts the worm in half and transfers it inside the man and woman in such a way that they would feel the urge to complete each other. The “crow went on laughing” (line 20) as if it is aware of the mischievous and impure act that had been directed, yet it is such an act that holds the crow responsible for the creation of the rest of humanity. In an article, however, Maity states that “Crow, although the initiator of sex, didn’t bring the sexual instincts within man and woman on its own- it needed the help of God’s only son-the Worm(Serpent). The Serpent which is traditionally the symbol of death, here becomes the phallic symbol of life” (32). The question remains, who is crow and what is its purpose? Earlier in her article, Maity perceives the crow (although a trickster figure) as a symbol of hope because it is a creature with wings and further states that “crow was created by Hughes to express the idea that even a life of great pain and suffering could still contain an irreducible force for survival” (32). Here, the irreducible force is one’s sexual urges, or in fact one’s missing ‘soul’, in order to keep humanity going in the form of birth of a newer generation. Hence comes Hughes perspective of a fight for freedom: on one hand, man and woman are slaves to their sexual urges but in the bigger picture, the act of reproduction frees mankind of being extinct from the surface of the world.
In contrast to being chained to one’s sexual urges, Philip Larkin takes his readers to the visualization of a time when the newer generation had gained more freedom when it came to engaging in physical relationships, compared to Larkin’s own time of youth when the chances had been narrow. His book of poems, High Windows, was published in 1974 and he speaks of that very era in his poem “High Windows” and many others about how it perhaps became easier for the youth to approach sex and avoid pregnancy by “Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm” (line 3). With these new inventions, Larkin portrayed the newer generation to be living in “paradise” (line 4). Although, most readers may be able to relate when Larkin makes such a comparison, we see in Hughes’s poems the actual struggle that takes place through the invention of the human genitals in the paradise which we know as the Garden of Eden. According to the original myth and the story retold in “Paradise Lost”, on consuming the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve were sent to Earth with responsibilities as a form of punishment which included childbirth for the woman and breadwinning for the man. Although, how would these punishment make sense if the forbidden fruit was not in fact the discovery of genitalia or one’s sexual urges that would lead to the birth of a child and the formation of a family? However, the youth that Larkin addresses in “High Windows” are perhaps breaking free from the punishment that was meant to begin mankind, not the sexual urges itself, with the use of contraceptives. God was absent in “Paradise Lost” when the serpent lured Eve towards her fall, God fell asleep in “A Childish Prank” when he saw a problem with man and woman, almost as if God knew that his absence would lead to the beginning of mankind so that God could come back and allow them to proceed with it in the name of a punishment to maintain control over humanity.
In “High Windows” we see, however, Larkin looking back to his time and wondering if anyone wondered the same about the young him, “ That’ll be the life; No God anymore, or sweating in the dark […] And his lot will all go down the long slide Like free bloody birds.” (lines 11-16). In comparison to Hughes’s image of God sleeping, Larkin says that God is in fact not present at all since it seems that procreation has come under the control of humans, hence, the humanity is breaking free from fear of sex before marriage and the punishment has become a reward. And indeed, Larkin may appear rather envious of the new generation as he too hoped in his time to escape from a conservative society where underneath all the religious values, even for a priest, was perhaps the desire for an active sexual lifestyle. In the final stanza of “High Windows”, we see Larkin being unable to express his feelings any further, but thinks to himself of “high windows: The sun-comprehending glass, And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless” (lines 17-20). One probable meaning of ‘high windows’ could be a window of opportunity that is now far away from his reach, hence, the air is also ‘blue’ which is symbolic of melancholy and beyond this point is nothing. This stanza could also be a reflection of the third stanza where Larkin says there is no God anymore. Saladyga expresses in an article, “What Larkin inevitably arrives at is a compromise between belief in the past and belief in the present” (14) , hence, it is difficult to justify whether Larkin merely expresses his jealousy but rather in a congratulatory way, or if he expresses concern for a world that will soon come to an end with no God to maintain an order of things.
Wood points out in an essay, Larkin and Hughes may be poles apart and yet, like opposite poles, come together with a similarity in their writings (313). He says, “What they share, it seems to me, is a dream of freedom: freedom from other people and from ethics. The dream is represented in Hughes in a series of cruel birds and animals, and […] It is evoked in Larkin in a series of privileged moments or perceptions, untenable (and even, except in imagination, unavailable) remissions from a dreary real” (313). From a wider perspective, as Hughes and Larkin both may have brought about a question on religion in the minds of their readers, they have also expressed great freedom through their perspectives and forms of writing and have perhaps invoked their readers as well to perceive the world through darkness in order to appreciate the light.
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