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William Sydney Graham (1918-1986) and Phillip Arthur Larkin (1922-1985) were two post-war British poets who, as they belonged to two different literary movements, had distinct creative influences. Graham is considered to be a neo-romantic poet as he concentrated on the relation between humanity and Nature and the feelings this parallel can help to express, though he also went further to include and discuss such themes as “the voyage of exploration and self-discovery,” (Lopez 2006 : 100). Graham’s poetry is described as shiver inducing by its mysterious nature (Pinter 1999). On the other hand, Larkin is said to follow the symbolist tradition, especially regarding metaphors (Hawkes 1994). The poet also has a reputation of ‘isolation, constriction, and detachment. His fear of death, his dark humor, and his ironic treatment of social and religious institutions are the hallmarks of his collected works,’ (French 1993: 85).

Due to the similarities of the poets’ dark style, six specific poems were chosen, and six metaphorical expressions were extracted with the intention to find out what kind of concepts are used to create metaphors whose goal is to emotionally disturb the reader, i.e. those referring to death, failure or fear, and how they affect the poems at large. The essay will analyze it by applying Lakoff’s metaphor theory. Firstly, the definition has to be established: ‘the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another,’ (Lakoff & Johnsen 2003: 6). In other words, it is a relation based on a perceived similarity between a certain aspect of the concepts. A choice was made to concentrate on structural metaphors, ‘where one concept [source] is metaphorically structured in terms of another [target],’ (Ibid. p. 15).

Firstly, it would be worthwhile to analyze two poems that share the same setting: the sea. Larkin in his poem And the wave sings because it is moving (1946) focuses on failure: “Silver-tongued like a share it ploughs up failure,” (line 17). Ploughing as an activity is heavily associated with growing food and having this element in such a context can be seen as saying how the sea fails to be a provider. Miserable mood is even more accentuated by a metaphor that quite nicely connects the overall image of owning and then losing something: FAILURE IS A SOIL. The poem generally speaks about life and its end: how the poetic persona tries to find meaning in the environment he is in, perfectly understanding that death is right behind the corner. It generalizes the given topic at hand showing how hard and useful work may not be rewarded and that nature does not own anything to humanity. On the other hand, the way negative topics are expressed in Graham’s At Whose Sheltering Shall The Day Sea (1948) is quite different. The passage “Emigrant to grief, furious seafarer swept over,” (line 6) introduces a different kind of relationship between a human and the sea. He portrays this strong emotion with negative nouns (grief), adjectives (furious) and verbs (sweep). The basis for the metaphor GRIEF IS A PLACE is a journey. It tells a lot about the subject matter and how the readers might choose to interpret the poem: the journey mentioned above can be seen as both physical and spiritual. The poetic persona travels in the sea searching for comfort while on a deeper level this poem refers to loss and incapability to live on. The theme of death is a subtle current running beneath though it is not emphasized. It is not the “action” but the feeling in creates and one’s willing yet unfortunate submission to grief that Graham deems important here.

In the same poem grief plays quite a big role and thus the metaphoric expressions that are used to express negative metaphors significantly differ. For example, the line “Grief fills the voice with water,” (line 16) helps to establish a new and unexpected link between death and life as from the first glance the expression may look like an allusion to drowning as water fills the lungs, but the poet specifically talks about voice. Not only it is implied that a person in question has trouble finding his voice due to extensive sadness he is feeling but the concept of the voice itself is changed because of it. It becomes a physical object which can hold water: VOICE IS A CONTAINER. This kind of interpretation seems to allow the poet to expand the notion of mental pain and how people affected by it try to manage. The imagery of not only the body of sea but of water in general brings a sense of danger and the underlying fear of drowning could be seen as a comparison to struggling of dealing with heavy emotions. Because of this, the way a person relates to his own body becomes less intimate: a person is inside of his body the way water filling an object.

Larkin, on the other hand, is interested in how to attach a dreary feeling to everyday occurrences that would normally be depersonalized such as breaking dawn in the morning: “such are the mists the sun attacks at morning” (line 13). Such natural phenomenon as sun beams wiping out traces of mist in an early morning is depicted as predatory and dangerous for everyone involved. Though the heat of the sun tends to be portrayed as scorching and harmful in fiction, here the poet gives an animalistic feeling to the sun, letting the reader to discern such metaphor as SUN IS A LIVING BEING. It must be born in mind that the metaphoric expression explicitly shows danger, projecting distrust all over the text, making the readers doubt their usual experiences with poetry.

What is more, in other poems Larkin concentrates on expanding the theme of death and nature, like in his poem The Trees (1967). Though it is easy to assume that death in question is linked with nature, i.e. trees and other plants shedding their leaves, here is the quote refusing this interpretation and altogether proposing a different kind of imagery for the concept of death: “last year is dead, they seem to say,” (line 11). While season changes and time passing by are important aspects of this poem, this metaphorical expression, when taken quite literally, can be seen as personifying abstractions: A PASSAGE OF TIME IS A LIVING BEING. There are many interpretations of this metaphor: a parallel between human lifespan and nature; the portrayal of life cycle in general; the intentional representation of nature by using the man-invented terms to show the decay of nature as we know it and to refuse to lose even the smallest bit of control over it. Similarly, Graham’s poem’s The Beast in the Space (1967) evokes claustrophobic associations of danger already from its title. The chosen passage further supports this idea: “get off, you terrible inhabiter/ of silence,” (lines 16-17). The beast which might have been seen as real before reading the poem quite clearly becomes a piece of imagination of the poetic persona who, instead of admonishing an actual beast or even an aggressive person, now could be seen being in a fight with himself, actively engaged in a fruitless communication, not being able to find a place for himself. The phenomenon of silence is associated with negative feelings which must be escaped: SILENCE IS A LIVING BEING. All by itself it might not be that aggressive and scary, but the context is there to enforce the negative atmosphere.

What is interesting is that there are more poems of Graham following the course of discussing a strange, someone – or something – unfamiliar in a space that should be inhabited only by the poetic persona and those he allows here. Following that, in a more general sense, the poet connects and juxtaposes bad and good, known and the unknown, giving the readers new ways to experience the expansion of their safe spaces or, on the other hand, making them weary and suspicious. For example, Graham’s poem Clusters Travelling Out (1968) follows closely themes established in the previously discussed poem, creating a subtly unsettling feeling by the poetic persona having trouble to define himself and thus distinguish from other creatures of unknown origins and intentions. The most discernible juxtaposition is between the familiar and comfortable and the unidentified and mysterious: ‘whoever/ speaks to you, will not be me. / I wonder what I will say,’ (segment 1, lines 22-24). The metaphoric expression here slightly differs from others, but it intends to scare the reader just the same. The metaphor that could be extracted is quite clear in its suspense: I AM NOT ME. The poet deliberately creates a narrative that reminds the readers of a horror and suspense stories as the understandable and usually easily defined lines blur. One could also interpret this example as uncanny: a stranger which invasively intrudes into a familiar space, making it hard to tell apart familiar from the distant, or even death from life.

A more concrete example could be found too. As the text is pervaded with a sense of loneliness and uneasiness and the metaphoric expression ‘and even then we know what we are saying / only when it is said and fixed and dead,’ (lines 13-14) explains how the fear is inspired rather well. A reader might notice how similar the quote above is to the previously mentioned Graham’s poem, quite fitting the definition of the uncanny. A metaphor of the expression is LANGUAGE IS A LIVING BEING or, strangely, it could also be LANGUAGE IS AN OBJECT. The adjectives “fixed” and “dead” are obviously different, quite the opposite, as a thing that is fixed cannot be dead or alive and vice versa. The poet mixes vastly different imagery to inspire feelings of fear and eeriness in the readers, treating such concepts of being alive and dead not as the antonyms they are in real life. In fact, Graham could be seen as implicitly telling the readers how he looks at writing and creativity in general: art is able to connect objectively separate images and occurrences. Next, it could be interpreted as if people by using language are able not only to create works (life) but are able to create destruction too.

In the case of the former metaphor, a phenomenon of language exists as a tangible thing that exists in a similar way like animals or humans. Therefore, the implication is quite unnerving: it could die, taking the art with it to the oblivion. The latter example is just as intimidating: language as an object can be broken or torn apart, turned to dust. In either way, the fragility is emphasized, how easily important and seemingly indestructible things can be lost. What is also noteworthy is how often Graham tends to mention the creative process of poetry in his poems. The same previously mentioned poem Clusters Travelling Out is rather long and in the five sections the poetic persona claims that ‘If this place I write from is real then/I must be allegorical,’ (section 5, lines 1-2). It expresses the same fragility and a sense of approaching hopelessness, although not only art could cease existing but a writer or an artist in general are dream-like creatures whose presence is closely linked with the art they produce. The possible concreteness of language does not make them any more real; they, in fact, could be interpreted as themselves products of art which is reality, though at the same time even less real. Though Graham rarely describes in detail any especially violent or miserable events or feelings, almost all poems involves a down-to-earth approach to the impending doom.

Furthermore, language is the main means of communication for the poetic persona of Larkin’s Neurotics (1949) where he speaks with a hypothetical hearer, though it being only the speaker and himself is way more obvious in this case. The poet made a deliberate choice to name his poem after an official medical term referring to a mental illness which manifests in dissociation with reality. Larkin uses unexpected and quite miserable metaphorical expressions. For example, “you drag your feet, clay-thick with misery,” (line 2). The negative feelings are made touchable and “real”. The metaphor could be read as MISERY IS A SUBSTANCE. It may seem that neurosis, instead of a disease of the mind, is made into a physical object from which it is impossible to escape. The rich inner world of people and “real life” are combined into one in order to show how easy it is to give in negative feelings. Graham follows the gloomy mood in his poem Other Guilts as Far (1947) simply by the title as well. Speaking about guilt in the plural and using the adverb far makes the reader expect metaphors which would refer to the poetic persona’s wretched inner life and its blend into the “real life”. In the expression “Me back over into early outworn/ linens of fear,” (lines 3-4), I would like to concentrate on the second part of the quote which directly refers to the negative emotion of fear. The poet, via the perceived metaphor FEAR IS A FABRIC the creation of the metaphor, emphasizes fragility and “overwhelmingness”. What is noteworthy is that the linens are not products that inspire fear but instead they “belong” to fear or they are fear itself. Such an ordinary thing that every home has is associated with a negative emotion that arises due the sense of danger. An interpretation can be suggested that Graham with this poem wants to say that there is no place that is safe enough, that the safety of one’s home in a way is an illusion.

All in all, both Graham and Larkin use metaphors which negatively affects the general mood of the poems. Though even when they have similar settings for the poem (like the sea) or use the same source domain for a metaphor (like A LIVING BEING) they concentrate on different matters and phenomena: Graham more often than not chooses emotions, such as fear and grief while Larkin depicts conditions like failure as well. It could also be seen how they try to break apart the concepts of language and writing: how fragile and yet dangerous words could be in the universe of a poem and how communication breaks down when one cannot find oneself in the language and words to speak with. As for similarities, both of the poets tend to choose the concepts of everyday objects and matters which usually are to be expected to be described in a positive light. However, they subvert the reader’s expectations by concentrating on feelings of failure and misery where success might be anticipated. While the metaphors do not always specifically refer to the negative phenomena, e. g. A PASSAGE OF TIME IS A LIVING BEING or VOCE IS A CONTAINER, the context enforces the dangerous and miserable atmosphere. It might be said that the authors are able to skillfully manipulate the reader by defamiliarizing certain concepts to leave their mark upon them.

Primary Sources

Graham, S. W. At whose sheltering shall the day sea (1948)

     Other Guilts as Far (1947)

     The Beast in the Space (1967)

     Clusters Travelling Out (1968)

Larkin, P. And the wave sings because it is moving (1946)

      Neurotics (1946)

      The Trees (1967)

Secondary Sources

Hawkes, T. 1994. Textual Practice. Cambridge: Routledge.

Lopez, T. 2006. Meaning Performance: Essays on Poetry. Cromer: Salt Publishing.

Lakoff, G. & M. Johnsen. 2003. Metaphors We Live By. London: The University of Chicago Press.

French, P. R. 1993. Living by Bridges: Philip Larkin’s Resisting Subtext, South Atlantic Review 58/ 1: 85-100.

Pinter, H. W. S. Graham. Available at, accessed on 4 January, 2017.

Gibson, A. 1999. Crossing the Present: Narrative, Alterity and Gender in Postmodern Fiction, in Luckhurst, R. & Marks, P. (eds) Literature and the Contemporary: Fictions & Theories of the Present. Harlow: Longman. 179-198.

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Lina Tylaite

Lina Tylaitė is a Master’s student of English studies at Vilnius University. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English Philology with a minor in Ancient Greek Language and Hellenistic Culture. Her current research area is the usage of discourse markers in the contemporary epistolary fiction.

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