THE BEAUTY OF PESSIMISM IN BRITISH POETRY

FROM LARKIN TO BETJEMAN, THE PORTRAYAL OF LOCATION HAS BEEN A POETIC THEME FOR DECADES


From sound, to visual, to written word there’s no denying that emotion is becoming more and more synonymous with the arts. It’s perfectly understandable; sometimes the best, and only, way a human can express themselves may only be through these means.

Sadness particularly has always been a consistent subject of artistic release, and it is creating a niche corner in the market. A 2017 report by online magazine Popbitch concluded that songs composed in a minor key were far likelier to top charts compared to other years. However, this isn’t just a ‘21st-century phenomenon’, the emotion of sadness has been portrayed through the arts for centuries.

With all these concepts of what can make humans emotional, whether it be positively or negatively, a strong contender for what could drive and influence these pieces of artistic emotion is place; or more specifically, the ‘mystic power’ a location can have over us. A lot of our foundational years emotionally growing and maturing as humans are influenced by our environment – but even so, this itself can extend past formative years and into regular life as well. We are products of our environment, just as our environments are products of us. It’s textbook Freudian. Due to this significant stage in the human life, the idea of a piece of art primarily centred around a location has become the subject of all types of creative expression over the past few decades.

For example, in 2016’s “Manchester-by-the-Sea” Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, is forced to return to his estranged New England town to look after his nephew in the wake of Lee’s brother’s death. However, years prior, Lee left in a depressing state of exile when he accidentally burnt down his house when drunk, killing his kids, so is made to essentially face his past and guilt – represented by the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea.

The Smiths’ 1984 song “Back to the Old House” is another instance, detailing Morrissey’s youth in Manchester. He whines how he would “rather not go, back to the old house” as “there’s too many bad memories” and also contemplating his failed expressions of love: “And you never knew, how much I really liked you, because I never even told you. Oh and I meant to” among other things.

Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel “On The Road” differs from the latter two, being more energetic and exciting, detailing all adventures of traversing the United States in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, befriending strangers and exploring states such as New York, California and Colorado. However, the general point is that places and locations can affect humans so fundamentally, for better or worse, that in some instances they can perhaps define us or large portions of our lives.

Poetry in particular has been a strong driving force for expressing sadness, especially considering the renown tragic association that many acclaimed poets die young, this being somewhat evident throughout history, with the likes of Keats, Plath, Shelley, Byron and Brontë as well as many others. Throughout poetic history, just as they have written about so many other things, poets have also detailed pieces about places in their lives:

Philip Larkin’s 1954 “I Remember, I Remember” is perhaps one of the more beautifully cynical showcases of place within poetry. It mirrors The Smiths “Back to the Old House”; both are autobiographical, mellow and deeply personal. Larkin’s inspiration stemmed back to a visit he had to his hometown of Coventry (where he sets this poem) after having moved around the country various times, from Oxford, to Leicester and most famously; Hull.

Perchance, whilst on the train with a friend he passes through Coventry. Upon discovering where he’s at, he lets out a near sense of disbelief, exclaiming “Why Coventry!, I was born here”, being fulfilled with a sense of sentimentality – which, unfortunately for Larkin, doesn’t last long. As although he was born here, he unsuccessfully attempts to find any indication that this is indeed home, showing his true emotional disconnect from Coventry. It eventually becomes nostalgia with a Larkinesque sense of rose-tinted glasses –

“i leant far out, and squinnied for a sign, that this was still the town that had been ‘mine’, so long, but found i wasn’t even clear, which side was which”

Larkin even emphasises this with ‘mine’ being placed in brackets, highlighting the irony that it was never truly ‘his’. The friend asks him with a gleeful smile is that “‘where you ‘have your roots?”’, but Larkin merely thinks – but never actually says – “No, only where my childhood was unspent”. In his mind, he proceeds to lament over what never was:


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MACKAYAN: PESSIMISM IN POETRY


By Ben Kourakis: Literature Columnist


His days in the garden where he had no freedom of imagination nor innovation – “Our garden, first: where I did not invent blinding theologies of flowers and fruits”.

A distant family he never could confide in – “And here we have that splendid family I never ran to when I got depressed”.

A lack of fulfilment; his works never appreciated by anybody of status – “My doggerel was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read by a distinguishing cousin of the mayor”.

His friend admits to Larkin that judging from his face he “wished the place in Hell”. However, Larkin is quick to assert “I suppose it’s not the place’s fault” as the truth of the matter is

“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere” – meaning, ultimately, he would’ve been unhappy wherever he grew up”.


John Betjeman’s 1937 “Slough” differs from I Remember I Remember in that it is not autobiographical nor sombre, but it does have a unique attitude with its own seemingly genuine bitterness and also partially comedic moments. Founded on Betjeman’s assumed, but unofficial, hatred of Slough, he doesn’t hold back on his feelings of distaste towards it. The poem was famously mentioned in a scene on the early 2000s hit-TV show “The Office” – which itself was set in Slough – where David Brent (played brilliantly by Ricky Gervais) disgruntledly reads out sections of the poem, aimlessly trying to counteract the opinions Betjeman makes of the town. In fact, the slander was so severe that on Betjeman’s 100th birthday in 2006, his daughter Candida Lycett-Green, even ended up apologising for the poem stating that he never meant to have it published.

Contextually, around the time it was written, Slough was going through a process of industrialisation. Furthermore, its housing situation was growing worse with living spaces getting increasingly more cramped, and adjacent to this was also a decrease in ‘naturally green’ areas, a consequence of urbanisation – overall making Slough appear to be a relatively undesirable place to live.

Betjeman opens with a candid statement right off the bat, encouraging the idea of possibly bombing Slough in the first stanza. He contrasts the deathly connotations within the word ‘bomb’ alongside the ironic oxymoron of ‘friendly’, all under a pretence that not only is the town is now uninhabitable, but is also inhospitable for any other species and so therefore needs to be gone:

“Come, friendly bombs, and fall on slough! It isn’t fit for humans now, There isn’t grass to graze a Cow. Swarm over death!”

Betjeman proceeds to list off the foods available in Slough, using alliteration to point out the grey, factory-produced mundaneness of what’s on offer. He ends this listing by even alluding to the people themselves having become ‘tinned’ as a result of living in this industrial town for so long. Just like the food on show, they themselves are now artificial products of Slough:

“Tinned Fruit, Tinned Fruit, Tinned Milk, tinned beans, tinned minds, tinned breath”

This leads onwards to another concept of the poem, people. It ends up becoming Slough’s most polarising section. Betjeman, previously seeming adamant in his ideas about the town and what should happen to it, switches from offensively generalising the town’s people as:

“and get that man with the double chin, who’ll always cheat and always win”

Violent, crass –

“and smash his desk of polished oak, and smash his hands so used to stroke, and stop his dirty boring joke, and make him yell”

and being vainly artificial –

“in labour-saving homes, with care. Their wives frizz out peroxide hair, and dry it with synthetic air, and paint their nails”

To a state of empathy, claiming how some should be spared from the inevitable bombing as they were born into “hell” and not gradually, “corrupted” like the others –

“but spare the bald young clerks who add, the profits of the stinking cad; its nto their fault they are mad, they’ve tasted hell”

Betjeman ends his hate-filled memento to Slough with a complete switch up, focusing entirely on environmentalism – which he previously alluded to in stanza one with the cows. He repeats his initial request, again calling for “friendly bombs” to “fall on Slough”, but so this time it can “get it ready for plough, the cabbages are coming now” (in an angered state, Brent calls Betjeman a ‘cabbage’ right before the episode cuts to black) so it can return to its natural state. He even finalises and ends his poem by stating “the Earth exhales” – meaning simply put, bombing Slough will do the planet a favour. It’s evident to see why various mayors of Slough have objected to the poem ever since its publication.

Of course whilst these are only a few out of a myriad of other representations, it shows the influence these places can have moulding us as individuals, and for that, how important a topic like a location can be for artistic release and emotion. In an art form like poetry which can generally be perceived as poignant and melancholic they are bewitching showcases, whether it’s with Larkin’s pessimism or Betjeman’s cynical humour.