The poem was written in the late 1960s and included in Philip Larkin’s High Windows, his fourth and most popular collection of verses. The poem is fairly short at only five quatrains but manages to convey multiple perspectives and leave readers on a beautiful, albeit somewhat confusing, note.
Explore High Windows
‘High Windows’ by Philip Larkin is a thoughtful, well-known poem about sexual freedom and generational shifts.
The poem opens with Larkin’s speaker, someone most readers consider to be the poet himself, considering a young couple who seem to be enjoying an increased level of sexual freedom.
He expresses jealousy over their liberal relationship and considers how, perhaps, his relationships were seen as liberal compared to older generations. The poem concludes with a meditative depiction of a high, stained glass window and the blue nothingness beyond it.
You can read the full poem here.
The main themes of this poem are generational changes and sexual freedom. The poet suggests that what one person might see as freedom is not the same as what that person is experiencing. The speaker looks at and judges youthful relationships while comparing his interpretation of them to his experiences. But, he’s also aware that the older generations may have seen his freedoms as increasingly liberal.
Structure and Form
‘High Windows’ by Philip Larkin is a five-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a strict rhyme scheme, but there are examples of half and full rhyme. For example, “hide” and slide” at the ends of lines one and three of the fourth stanza and “glass” and “endless” at the ends of lines two and four of the final stanza.
Throughout, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines two and three of the second stanza.
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions that should inspire the reader’s senses. For example, “The sun-comprehending glass, / And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “bloody birds” in the last line of stanza four and “having to hide” in line one of the same stanza.
- Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of text. For example, “To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if” and “And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows.”
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
In the first stanza of this well-known poem, Philip Larkin’s speaker begins by describing a scene. He suggests that every time he sees a young couple, a girl and a boy, he assumes that they have a carefree attitude towards sex.
He figures that they are having sex and that she’s “taking pills or wearing a diaphragm.” The reference to contraception was an important contemporary illusion for Larkin’s readers during his lifetime.
This poem was written in February 1967, soon after birth control pills had become widely available in the United Kingdom. The sexual relationship to share something got the speaker, and members of an older generation could only dream about when they were that age.
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
And everyone young going down the long slide
He uses enjambment in the transition between the first and second stanzas to emphasize what a “dream” this kind of carefree sexuality would’ve been during his youth. Today, the old customs of his generation have been pushed aside “like an outdated combine harvester.” This is a wonderful example of a simile as well as imagery.
The poet’s use of this is meant to evoke a distinct separation between the speaker and the young couple he observes. The couple would likely have no idea what a combine harvester is, much less how to use one. He shows his age through this reference.
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
In the third stanza, the speaker suggests, again after using an example of enjambment, that all the young people are on a slide to happiness. It’s one that runs on endlessly and is easily navigated.
Partway through the first line, the poet inserts a pause, known as a caesura. This marks a transition back into the first-person narrative perspective. The speaker wonders if, during his youth 40 years ago, there were older men who looked at his relationships and felt the same jealousy he feels for the youth today.
About hell and that, or having to hide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Larkin knows, or his speaker knows, that he grew up in a generation that was far more liberal than that which came before him. The italicized lines represent what someone else, someone older than the speaker who watched him grow up, might’ve thought.
Larkin lived in a time in which young people had to think less of religion and were free to express themselves. But not as much as those experiencing their first sexual relationships today.
Everyone is free to do as they please, at least compared to the previous generations, and think what they want to think.
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
The final stanza uses the phrase “high windows,” the title of this poem and the title of the collection in which it was published. The poem ends on a very different note, with a change of direction as the speaker considers the high windows in the air that leads to “nothing” outside them. There have been numerous interpretations presented regarding these final lines. But, most readers interpret Larkin’s final stanza as a meditation on transcendence.
For example, stepping away from and above sexual and physical relationships and seeing the world from a higher vantage point. But, it’s unclear whether or not he sees this kind of transcendence as positive or negative. The phrase “shows nothing” only confuses how readers are likely to interpret these lines. Is the nothingness outside the window significant and peaceful, or is it truly nothing, lacking in meaning or purpose.
What is clear is that Larkin was most likely considering the stained-glass windows of a church in these final lines. Perhaps, he was considering the freedom or lack thereof that he experienced during his youth and how, although it appeared “free” to older generations, it was a misinterpretation.
He may have felt far less free than he and others like him appeared. This clearly connects to the speaker’s opinion of the young couple from the first stanza. They, too, may be suffering under the guise of freedom.
The main theme of the poem is sexual freedom and generational changes. The speaker is an older man observing the relationships of youthful men and women around him. He compares his experience at the same age to what those around him appear to be enjoying.
Larkin wrote this poem to speak about generational changes he likely observed in the use of his time, specifically during the late 1960s. How much his personal opinion aligned with that which his persona conveys in the short poem is unclear. But, most readers consider Philip Larkin, the speaker of this text.
The poem was written sometime in the late 1960s. It was published in Larkin’s High Windows a few years later.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Philip Larkin poems. For example:
- ‘Maiden Name’ – suggests certain beliefs about marriage and identity. In part, he suggests that a young woman has lost something when she changed her name.
- ‘Faith Healing’ – a thoughtful poem that depicts a group of women and focuses on their emotional experiences.
- ‘Age’ – explores the universality relatable theme of aging. He presents readers with his speaker’s concerns about his legacy.