When Larkin wrote “An Arundel Tomb,” in 1956, he was one of a group of young poets in England known as the Movement. The term was first used in an article in the literary magazine The Spectator in 1954. Larkin’s name was not mentioned, since The Less Deceived, the volume that made him widely known, was not published until the following year. But in 1956, poet Robert Conquest produced New Lines, an anthology that represented all the Movement poets. Nine poems by Larkin were included. The other poets usually associated with the Movement included Kingsley Amis, John Wain, D. J. Enright, Donald Davie, and Thom Gunn.
The label of the Movement was applied mostly by critics rather than the poets themselves, many of whom, Larkin in particular, were not conscious of belonging to any particular school of poetry. The Movement poets did not all know each other, and Larkin himself was well acquainted only with Amis, his close friend from their Oxford days. There were also differences of style in the work of the Movement poets. However, the label stuck, and although the Movement lasted only a few years, most critics now agree that it did represent certain identifiable trends in English poetry of the mid- and late 1950s.
The Movement was in part a reaction against the obscurity associated with modernism in the arts. The poems of Ezra Pound and the art of Pablo Picasso were favorite targets of Larkin. Simon Petch, in The Art of Philip Larkin, quotes Larkin’s declaration that modernism amounted to
“irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it. That is my essential criticism of modernism … it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying and more outrageous: it has no lasting power.”
In contrast, Movement poets avoided the experimental techniques characteristic of modernism, and returned to more traditional poetic forms. Larkin’s formal verse in “An Arundel Tomb,” which employs rhyme and meter, is an example typical of this development.
Movement poets also wrote for what they called the Common Reader. The idea was that poetry should be intelligible to everyone, not reserved only for those who could recognize literary allusions or puzzle out complex or obscure symbolism. This principle remained part of Larkin’s approach to poetry all his life, and it enabled him to gain a wide following amongst ordinary readers who did not normally read poetry.
A consequence of writing for ordinary people rather than an intellectual elite was that Movement poets prided themselves on being unpretentious and honest. They tried to use diction that was plain and not self-consciously poetic. Their idea was that poetic diction could also include colloquial language, and this type of language is frequent in Larkin’s poetry.
For Movement poets, poetry should express a realistic rather than a romantic attitude to life. In this they were reacting against the neo-romantic poetry written in the 1940s, associated mostly with the names of David Gascoyne, Kathleen Raine, and most importantly, Dylan Thomas. These and other poets of that period made much use of surrealistic imagery, as well as myth and symbol, and they often had a mystical conception of the sacredness of poetry. In contrast, Movement poets wanted to express a truth about life in a clear, down-to-earth way. They valued caution and irony.
England after World War II
This attitude of caution, coupled with emotional reserve, may in part be attributable to the times in which the Movement appeared. PostWorld War II England was a time of austerity, and English people were deeply conscious of the diminished wealth of their nation and its loss of influence in world affairs. England seemed smaller, more insular, after the war than it had been before it, and the ambitions of poetry were correspondingly scaled down too. Large, heroic subjects were avoided. The drabness of the period is captured by Larkin in his poem “Mr. Bleaney,” written in 1955 and published in The Whitsun Weddings in 1964.
On the other hand, the security offered by the post-war welfare state, and the development of what was called at the time “consensus politics,” in which the differences between the two major political parties were sharply muted, ensured that the poets of the Movement were not much concerned with politics or questions of social justice, unlike their predecessors in the 1930s.
In the decade from the mid-1950s to the mid1960s, when “An Arundel Tomb” was published in The Whitsun Weddings, England began to become more prosperous. With its references to household gadgets, supermarkets, and billboard advertising, Larkin’s poetry of the period reflected the growing consumerism of English society.
By this time, the Movement poets had all developed in different ways. However, Larkin is often regarded as the one who stayed closest to Movement principles throughout his poetic career.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Philip Larkin, Published by Gale Group, 2001.