7

In the 1955 Philip Larkin poem "The Importance of Elsewhere", it reads:

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

Here's a link to the whole twelve-line poem (due to misprinting on the website, the period that should be at the end of the fourth line is missing, but apart from that it is correct).


Some answers and comments to this question have suggested that the poem does not actually imply that in 1955 the streets in Ireland were "end-on to hills" more often than those in England, and refers only to the street he lived on for a few years in Belfast and some other streets in the vicinity, in what could be loosely referred as a sort approximate grid of streets in that part of Belfast, which are oriented end-on to two specific hills in the distance.

I think "my customs and establishments" refers to the customs and establishments of England, which implies that the "streets end-on to hills" are, in this poem, the customs and establishments of the Irish. So these streets are not just the ones in the neighborhood, but of Ireland. If only the neighborhood had been meant, I think Larkin would have written something along the lines of (no pun intended), "My draughty street, end-on to those distant hills,...". Or perhaps, "Those draughty streets, end on to those hills...".

"Their draughty streets" surely means "The draughty streets of Ireland generally".

2
  • The poem says "Their draughty streets, end-on to hills [...] went to prove me separate, not unworkable." How could the draughtiness and being end-on to hills of a handful of streets of a single neighborhood go to prove Larkin separate? No, only if it is customary for the streets of at least the entire city to be like that, in contrast to those of England, although perhaps also in contrast some other parts of Ireland, in which case someone from Derry, or Dublin might also be proved separate by the way the streets are. Larkin says "Lonely in Ireland" but may have meant Northern Ireland, I guess. Apr 29 at 17:23
  • Regarding the idea that the poem is autobiographical, it seems Larkin never went abroad in his life. "As Lerner remarks he never went abroad, never married, preferred not to appear in public, and led a private life." says dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/325084 and yet in "Naturally the Foundation will Bear your Expenses" the poet seemingly boards a Comet (airliner) to India. So maybe "The Importance of Elsewhere" is about some imaginary or real other person traveling to and/or living in some part of Ireland. Apr 29 at 19:12

1 Answer 1

17

I don’t believe the poem is making any such claim.

Larkin lived in Belfast, specifically on Elmwood Avenue. enter image description hereThis street lies between Lisburn Road and Malone Road. All of the streets between these two roads, and many to the west of them, can be described as running end-on to the hills of Divis and the Black Mountain, a hilly area of upland heath that lies hard by the edge of the city.

While any view to the hills from that street is now blocked by a University building, that site was probably still occupied by the Deaf and Blind Institution during Larkin's tenure, a two storey building beyond which it is very likely that Larkin could see the hills from his attic rooms.Belfast Deaf and Blind Institution-monochrome etching

My reading of the poem is that Larkin is talking about his personal experience of living in another specific place, rather than the generality of living in Ireland, or Northern Ireland. He is making reference to his experience living on a street that is one of many that lie perpendicular to the nearby hills, close enough to the harbours and shipyards for the dock land smells and sounds that go with them. Living there he could tell himself that it was the foreign-ness that made him separate from other people, not some unworkable quality in himself, but he has no such excuse in his home country.

22
  • 2
    Quite. He's a poet, not a statistician or geographer. A poet talks of personal feelings, not objective facts; and the text of the poem in my view makes that very clear. Having said that, one could quite possibly discover objective aspects of Irish physical and social geography (in general, or in the places he was familiar with) that might account for such feelings. Dec 3, 2021 at 15:25
  • Indeed. Just as "smell of dockland" is not intended to apply to the whole of Ireland.
    – PatrickT
    Dec 4, 2021 at 5:38
  • I'd forgotten about his time living in Belfast, and yes, the smell of dockland he refers to could have been based on or inspired by the smell of dockland in all or part of Belfast. Having said that, I'd like to know how we can rule out that he was talking about another part of Ireland, perhaps (a part of) the Republic of Ireland. My take is still that he is probably referring to a holiday to one or more parts of the Republic. He seems to me to be referring to a foreign country, not a part of (rightly or wrongly) the UK. Surely he would have not have said "streets" if he meant one street. Dec 4, 2021 at 14:38
  • @PatrickT The smell of dockland could refer to dockland all over Ireland, or just in the Republic of Ireland. How do we know Larkin did not think that Ireland tended to smell of dockland, or that the smell of dockland in Ireland, however common or rare, had an unusual quality to it ("like a stable")? Dec 4, 2021 at 14:45
  • @MichaelKay I don't agree that a poet never speaks of objective facts. And I don't agree that Larkin never speaks of objective facts. Larking speaks of all sorts of things, including ideas, feelings, and objective facts. Are you claiming that it is not an objective fact that there were herring-hawkers in Ireland, or that Larkin is not referring to this fact? He might not have been a statistician or a geographer, but that doesn't mean he can't mention a statistic or something about geography in a poem. Dec 4, 2021 at 14:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.