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Bare Lives
Part 2 – Dispossessed Bodies

Exposing Bare Lives – Larkin’s Hospital Poems

Les vies nues dans les ‘hospital poems’ de Philip Larkin
Elise Brault-Dreux


This article looks at a selection of Philip Larkin’s poems which deal with the hospital or the notion of care and therefore all stage, more or less extensively, bare lives caught in liminal situations: either waiting to be taken care of by a nurse, wheeled in a corridor to a consultation, lying on a hospital bed, or stowed into an ambulance. This article first tries to show how these anonymous bare lives exposed in public spaces are constantly escaping the reader’s eye, as though such poetic technic were conveying the dispossession experienced by these bare lives, covered by hospital cloths and, quite significantly, sometimes merely passing. A reading of these poems through the angle of biopolitics, as Larkin actually subtly stages the institutional regulation of bare lives in such public places, shows how therapeutic time and space turn out to partake of a wide regimented system in which individual identities are at bay. The end of the article tries to show how Larkin’s somewhat bare style in fact seeks to suggest that biopolitics, extreme regulation, even medicine or religion, will in fact be powerless when it comes to counteract the experience of death. His bare, common, poetic stance then suggests each human being’s unescapable, common bareness.

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1On several occasions throughout his poetic career, Philip Larkin broached the issue of public health and hospitals: ‘Hospital Visits’ (1953), ‘Ambulances’ (1964), ‘Heads in the Women’s Ward’ (1972) and ‘The Building’ (1974) all look, or at least glimpse, at the notion of care. Each of these poems is actually set in a public space where exhibiting bodies has become culturally quite specific. Just before being surveyed and diagnosed by a doctor, or just after having been cared for by a nurse, vulnerable bodies are held in liminal zones, like hospital rooms, waiting rooms, or ambulances, their identities at bay and their bodies about to be uncovered or not yet re-covered. In picturing anonymous bodies which are thus delivered into the hands of the medical institution, Larkin stages the quite banal, physical and social form of dispossession which, in his poems, appears as inevitably (though painfully) part of the linear march towards death—the finite process of dispossession.

2My initial purpose will be to point out how Larkin, as he puts the impaired bodies on public display in the poetic scenes, actually never shows them directly to the reader. These patients’ physical and social bareness, though absolutely latent, is only indirectly perceived by the reader. Then, resorting to elements of biopolitics theories, I will try to explain how Larkin stages a form of massive ritualised management of anonymous bare lives, where light is shed on patient’s unproductivity. I will eventually try to read the meaning behind Larkin’s plain poetic tone. What common, blunt truth is he exposing to the reader as he thus suggests the dispossession of common lives?

3In Vies ordinaires, vies précaires Guillaume Le Blanc draws a distinction between social and physical precariousness, and the latter he defines as ‘vulnerability’ (Le Blanc 52). If both types of precariousness are interdependent, it is vulnerability that seems to stand out in Larkin’s poems.

4In ‘The Building’ Larkin describes the atmosphere, movements, stasis of people in a vast hospital waiting hall. He recurrently summons the reader to ‘see’: ‘but see’ (l.2), ‘see how many floors it needs’ (l.24), ‘see the time’ (l.26), ‘see, as they climb / To their appointed levels’ (ll.28–9)—thus dragging his reader into the heart of this ward scene. And the word ‘ward’, it must be reminded, initially means ‘action of watching or guarding’ (OED), or to be under the control of someone. And yet, this immersion in the immediate physical world is combined with an asymptotic visual approach to vulnerable lives, which are, quite significantly, merely passing:

       . . . . see, as they climb
To their appointed levels, how their eyes
Go to each other, guessing; on the way
Someone’s wheeled past, in washed-to-rags ward clothes:
They see him too (ll.28–32)

5The alliteration ‘wheeled’, ‘washed’ and ‘ward’ draws the reader’s attention to the surface of the text, just as the waiters’ eyes are drawn to the worn surface of the ward clothes. The standardised clothing on this depersonalised body literally points out the nakedness it is supposed to cover, and its ‘washed-to-rags’ aspect gives an inkling of collective economic dispossession. Though neither the other patients nor the reader sees the body, the image is thus richly suggestive of both physical and social bareness. Likewise in ‘Ambulances’, where the scene is set on a pavement, with a focus on the back of an ambulance whose doors are closing after an impaired body has been taken in. People around merely:

       . . . . see
A wild white face that overtops
Red-stretcher blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed (ll.9–12)

6Like the ‘ward clothes’ on the ‘wheeled’ patient, the ‘blankets’ on the ‘stowed’ body are symbolically charged and thus clearly suggest the nakedness of the objectified person that they are supposed to decently cover.

7Though differently, in ‘Heads in the Women’s Ward’, it is the ‘pillow’ which is readable as a social sign or a metonymic symptom of extreme vulnerability:

On pillow after pillow lies
The wild white hair and staring eyes
Jaws stand open; necks are stretched
With every tendon sharply sketched;
A bearded mouth talks silently
To someone no one else can see. (ll.1–6)

8The excessive close-ups on senescent faces as well as the excessive open exhibition inverts visual accessibility into a naturalistic-like fragmented twisted vision of de-individualised ‘jaws’ and ‘necks’ and de-gendered bearded mouth. The reader, in the end, sees no face but only bits whose dryness and disharmony are poetically conveyed by consonances and a sharp, regular rhythm.

9In ‘Hospital Visits’, visual access is diverted by ‘screens’ that hide the bed of the dying old man each day visited by his wife. One reads that she sees (‘watched’ even) her husband’s ‘slowing-down’ body. But the reader has no direct visual access to this body, thus vaguely described as being ‘in decay’. In ‘Ambulances’, once the doors close, vision is likewise blocked as the vehicles ‘giv[e] back / None of the glances they absorb’ (ll.2–3).

10So, revealingly covered, or seen so close that vision is hampered, or hidden behind screens or doors, impaired bodies are ungraspable. And yet, these very diverting devices make their bareness and vulnerability latently present and suggest their ghostlike liminal condition between life and death. The impossible inclusive vision may thus be readable as the poetic translation of the process of dispossession undergone by these vulnerable bodies, and which is furtively defined as ‘the solving emptiness’ (l.13) in ‘Ambulances’. This process of dissolution is in part translated in Larkin’s treatment of faces. If recurrently mentioned, they do not appear clearly. They are anonymous, fragmented, or simply ‘white’ (thus bare or death-like) or, in ‘The Building’, ‘restless and resigned’ (l.13). And besides being almost faceless, patients, as they appear in these poems, are also voiceless, a combination that reads as the culmination of dispossession, according to Guillaume Le Blanc who writes: ‘La dépossession de soi culmine dans la privation de voix et de visage du précaire’ (Le Blanc 19).

11In ‘The Building’, immobilised by their weakened state or forced to be patiently seated in a waiting room, patients are threatened by objectification in a public space which takes the form of a peculiar panopticon. And once again, the word ‘ward’ is here meaningful, for it combines references to the hospital with references to the prison, where inmates are constantly scrutinised by controlling gazes. In Larkin’s poem, if the reader’s vision is blocked or diverted, the protagonists’ vision is quite intensely at work and further disempowers each patient. Larkin summons the reader: ‘see, as they climb to their appointed levels, how their eyes / Go to each other, guessing’ (ll.28–30, my emphasis). In Lost Bodies—Inhabiting the Borders of Life and Death, Laura Tanner argues that the empowerment gained by the exclusive ability to gaze in Jeremy Bentham’s traditional panopticon is, in the medical room, cancelled as each seer is also seen by others. Each seeing subject is likely to become the object of public gaze. ‘Guessing’ imparts that each patient is empirically seeking symptoms and silently diagnosing the others. But its intransitivity reveals the inconclusive nature of the amateur diagnosis, much fed by imagination and, most likely, by fear. For when Foucault argues that the panopticon enforces ‘the constant division between the normal and abnormal’ (quoted by Tanner 77), in the waiting room, this distinction collapses and the feeling of vulnerability is magnified. Laura Tanner, explains: ‘The medical waiting room functions as a space in which the ‘hallucination’ of wholeness that we fight so desperately to construct cannot be maintained’ (Tanner 78). There, each one is in fact neither completely normal, nor essentially abnormal. Each is at once gazing, diagnosing (therefore, normal) and gazed at, as a (abnormal) patient. And thus sitting, exposing no more than their still bodies and faces to other faces, patients experience what Emmanuel Levinas has extensively analysed in his philosophical reflexion on face-to-face situations: the other’s face is exposed and thus exposes its helplessness. Their being merely present in this meaningful public space, their being immobilised in a waiting room, submitting to the protocol, patients expose their helplessness.

12We have seen that Larkin’s poems stage the natural dispossession of impaired bodies, as well as a sort of poetic dispossession as the reader’s eye can grasp only fragments of beings, and a sort of ontological dispossession as, in the public arena of the waiting room, they are disempowered seers objectified by the other patients’ diagnosing gaze. But Larkin also points out a form of social dispossession carried out by the massive medical institution.

  • 1 For further reading about the meaning of the architecture of the building, read André Topia’s artic (...)
  • 2 ‘ la biopolitique est massifiante. La biopolitique s’adresse à l’homme vivant : non plus au corps, (...)

13Entitling his poem ‘The Building’ to refer to a hospital, comparing it with the height of the ‘handsomest hotel’, and never using the word ‘hospital’ in his poem, Larkin wants to insist on its massive architecture, quite echoing another poem, ‘How’, which starts with ‘How high they build hospitals’ (l.1). The building as Larkin represents it here is clearly inspired by the huge Hull Royal Infirmary (Motion 420). A few years after Enoch Powell’s 1962 Hospital Plan, defined as a massive enterprise of hospital constructions, and so at a period of expansion of medical buildings, Hull Royal Infirmary was built in 1967. It daily houses countless patients in its organized maze: ‘For past these doors are rooms, and rooms past those, / and more rooms yet’ (ll.34–35)1. With this building, I would argue, Larkin here proposes a sort of materialisation of biopolitics. Foucault explains this theory of bio-power as the regulation on man as a living being: it is ‘un pouvoir continu, savant, qui est le pouvoir de ‘faire vivre’. La souveraineté faisait mourir et laissait vivre. Et voilà que maintenant apparaît un pouvoir que j’appellerais de régularisation, qui consiste, au contraire, à faire vivre et à laisser mourir’ (Foucault 163). And Frédéric Gros provides a very clear synthetic definition of Foucault’s concept: ‘la biopolitique, c’est un ensemble de sollicitations par lesquelles l’individu, au niveau de ses puissances vitales, est soumis à des directions déterminées, afin d’intensifier et la production de richesses et le pouvoir des classes dominantes’ (Gros 2013, 38). I now want to show how, with this massive architecture (but also with the mechanical ambulances and care routines), Larkin indirectly broaches the issue of a massive regulation of lives2 which, in the process, are reduced to bare lives.

14Larkin sets his poetic scenes in a waiting room, ambulances and hospital bedrooms, all intermediary zones which are protecting and excluding at the same time: there, bare lives are held in transit as they wait for medical survey or cure. Larkin’s patients may thus quickly be perceived as lives reduced to their mere biology (as Giorgio Agamben, in part, defines ‘bare lives’) and submitted to a larger movement of regulation and circulation, which precisely leads us to see ‘the building’ as a material incarnation of biopolitics. Sven-Olov Wallenstein, in Bio-Politics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture argues that modern medicine implies

15forms of architecture [that] have to reflect in the most precise way the new forms of techniques for assessing and determining health (techniques of separation, but also of circulation, surveillance, classification and so forth), all of which demands a typology that breaks away from the academic morphologies and orders (Wallenstein 32).

16The regulation of care is thus in part dependent on the building in which it is performed. In defining Hull Royal Infirmary as a ‘brutalist megahospital […] with its 542 neatly packaged beds in a uniform high-rise block tower’ (Verderber and Fine 52), Verderber and Fine actually point out the colossal organisational potential of what Larkin used as a model for his building. Its ‘uniformity’ also suggests both standardisation and, more importantly, the idea of interchangeability that facilitates circulation: patients can me moved from bed to bed. The notion of circulation surfaces also in Larkin’s ‘Ambulances’, where this massive health management is perceptible in the allusion to the omnipresence of the vehicles in the urban landscape: ‘They come to rest at any kerb: / All streets in time are visited’ (ll.5–6)—at once referring to unavoidable mortality, systematisation (reverberated in the regular iambic tetrameter) and space organisation of lives, or even medicalisation of social space.

17This regimentation of space is quite expectedly coupled with a regimentation of time that Larkin more obviously conveys.

  • 3 ‘Hospital-talk’ partakes of the same de-identifying movement as the ‘ward clothes’. Conversation an (...)

18In Larkin’s liminal healthcare zones one moves into a temporality highly ordered by rituals and protocols to which vulnerable patients are forced to submit. In the ‘Ambulances’, the official vehicles, ‘Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque’ (l.4)—the older British ambulances were grey—, routinely and mechanically drive around the ‘Loud noons of cities’ (l.2). In ‘Heads in the Women’s Ward’, the ‘pillow’ becomes a time unit, somehow reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s coffee spoons in ‘Prufrock’, that marks the repetitive change of sheets by nurses: ‘On pillow after pillow lies / The wild white hair …’ (ll.1–2, my emphasis). In ‘Hospital Visits’, the routine of the wife’s visits, first only to see her husband and then also for her after she breaks her wrist, is regulated by the institution represented by the generic ‘they’: ‘They let his wife come along / And pour out tea, each day’ (ll.6–7). And after he dies, ‘To make sure her wrist mended / They had her in again / To finish a raffia mat’ (ll. 24–26). ‘They’ stands for the homogenous deciding authority that imposes a programmatic curing protocol. Regimentation even pervades the patient’s intimacy, as the I-voice remarks about the elder couple: ‘I don’t know what was said; / Just hospital-talk, / As the bed was a hospital bed’ (ll.8–10). With ‘as’, Larkin draws a cause-and-effect link between the physical constraint of the hospital bed and the regulated (most likely bare), pre-defined (as the hyphen suggests) conversation.3 And the bed actually partakes in the regulatory movement, as each patient is allotted a bed, and a specific number of beds is allocated to a service for a specific amount of time. The hospital bed thus becomes a unit, at once spatial and temporal. It therefore has, according to François Béguin in ‘La Machine à Guérir’, ‘une fonction quasi-machinique’ (Béguin 39), in so far as it is part of the larger, highly organised therapeutic machinery that seeks efficiency (they are the ‘neatly packaged bed’ referred to above by Verderber and Fine). In ‘The Building’, time is marked by the nurse that recurrently summons patients in the waiting rooms:

Every few minutes comes a kind of nurse
To fetch someone away: the rest refit
Cups back to saucers, cough, or glance below
Seats… (ll.14–17)

19The high frequency of nurses’ repetitive tasks gives an insight into the teeming atmosphere. If first, patients feel uncomfortable at not being chosen, they quickly get used to the routine, and so does the reader, as the poetic voice later assumes with a parenthetical comment and a dash:

… when called to these corridors (for now once more
The nurse beckons—). Each gets up and goes
At last (ll.51–53).

20Needless to describe ‘once more’ the nurse’s task, whose automatic gestures contaminate and reduce patients to mere identical automats—‘Each gets up and goes / At last’ (ll.51-52). Objectification is carried further after they have thus been summoned to be surveyed by a medical eye.

21Larkin’s poems then stage docile patients, who never seem to question (even less challenge) the set of time and space norms to which they submit. In ‘The Building’, they ‘tamely sit / On rows of steel chairs’ (ll.9–10), accepting the authority of the care representatives. Frédéric Gros, in his definition of ‘biopolitics’ explains the role of the ‘norm’ in this sort of ‘taming’:

La norme, par quoi le biopouvoir se diffuse dans les vies, définit plutôt un programme d’existence complet auquel chacun suspend une identité mouvante […], se sert d’une pression insistante et continue, permet de majorer d’un seul mouvement la docilité et l’utilité des corps, se présente comme une règle naturelle à suivre, sous peine de devenir dégénéré. Cette importance de la norme se vérifie dans la médicalisation accrue des existences, la santé des populations devenant, au lieu de l’ancien salut éternel des sujets, la pierre de touche du bon gouvernement (Gros 2016).

22In its time and space normative regimentation, the building then, poetic incarnation of a form of biopolitics, suggests the state’s deliberate organisation of public health. ‘The Building’, we may surmise, subtly (and probably not intentionally) measures the extent of the effects of the NHS, launched by the Health Secretary Aneurin Bevan in July 1948, that is more than two decades before it was written: it stages this British mid twentieth-century model of regulated and coordinated medical services. Foucault insists that this very form of regulation, which seeks an optimisation of existence through large mechanisms that guide and constrain behaviours, should be contrasted with the traditional discipline of the bodies. Here lives are regulated like a flow:

Car il ne s’agit pas là, à la différence des disciplines, d’un dressage individuel qui s’opérerait par un travail sur le corps lui-même. Il ne s’agit absolument pas de se brancher sur un corps individuel, comme le fait la discipline. Il ne s’agit, par conséquent, pas du tout de prendre l’individu au niveau du détail, mais, au contraire, par des mécanismes globaux, d’agir de telle manière qu’on obtienne des états globaux d’équilibration, de régularité ; bref, de prendre en compte la vie, les processus biologiques de l’homme-espèce, et d’assurer sur eux non pas une discipline, mais une régularisation. (Foucault 163).

23As we saw, bodies are ‘wheeled’ past, already or still stripped bare, to avoid wasting time unclothing in the consultation room. No shameful nor disgusting glance is pictured by Larkin, for, in this caring / curing context, patients have integrated that nakedness is demanded by the protocol—so they comply and adjust. David Le Breton comments on that point:

La nudité, par exemple, n’y est pas, en principe, vécue comme une violation de l’identité si elle est exigée par un soin ou un examen, alors que dans un contexte différent elle impliquerait un sentiment de honte. Si la logique hospitalière favorise la protection de l’identité du malade malgré le retrait hors de son environnement et de ses repères familiers, elle mise aussi sur ses capacités d’adaptation, sur sa patience, voire son impuissance ou sa peur de représailles plus ou moins imaginaires (Le Breton 3).

24If, as Le Breton argues, identity is actually protected by a form of respectful anonymity, Larkin rather chooses to picture this anonymity as a dissolving process: identities are getting loose when caught in the massive, regulated protocol. In ‘Ambulances’, as the body is ‘carried in and stowed’ (l.12), the poetic voice comments on the dispossession of a whole existence:

For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there
At last begin to loosen (ll.19–25).

Life (‘the unique random blend’) is now dissolving.
It is once more in ‘The Building’ that Larkin best evokes the experience of what comes close to social vacuity. About people sitting in the waiting room, he writes:
These outdoor clothes and half-filled shopping bags
And faces restless and resigned
Humans, caught
On ground curiously neutral, homes and names
Suddenly in abeyance; some are young,
Some old, but most at that vague age that claims
The end of choice, the last of hope (ll.17–21)

25In the waiting room, patients are reduced to their immediate situation: they now are undifferentiated de-identified ‘humans’, somewhat economically dispossessed with merely ‘half-filled shopping bags’ and who are in fact also caught in a process of ontological dissolution. Though clothed (and awkwardly so with ‘outdoor clothes’ inside), they are exposing their vacuity and commonness (in both meanings of ‘common’), dispossessed by the circumstances. So, their identity is suspended in, and indirectly by, this massive caring / curing structure. And relatively soon after, they will be further de-identified when clad in standardised ‘washed-to-rags ward clothes’.

26Frédéric Gros, as quoted above, also insists on the set of demands imposed on individual lives and whose purpose is to intensify productivity. This dimension of the bio-power is actually quite present in ‘The Building’ when Larkin writes:

… and all
Here to confess that something has gone wrong.
It must be error of a serious sort,
For see how many floors it needs, how tall
It’s grown by now, and how much money goes
In trying to correct it. See the time,
Half-past eleven on a working day,
And these picked out of it (ll.21–28)

27Giorgio Agamben’s theory of the entanglement of politics and healthcare is clarifying: ‘l’enchevêtrement de la médecine et de la politique […] constitue l’un des caractères essentiels de la biopolitique moderne’ (Agamben 155) : politics is at stake in the living being, as the living being involves politics (Agamben 202). And in the historical context of an emerging NHS, grounded on both bureaucratic devices and social policies, health is definitely becoming a political issue. This indirectly leads to each individual’s political responsibility which Larkin here evokes, with irony, when it comes to being responsible for one’s health. Privately failing to this responsibility is seen as a social ‘error’. Christopher Breu writes: ‘Under the regime of biomedicalisation […] individuals are increasingly interpellated by a moral discourse of wellness (in which the maintenance of health becomes one’s responsibility)’ (Breu 16). In immediately linking this individual error to the growing size of the building, and the money spent for its management, Larkin points out the social, public cost of individual negligence. When in hospital at ‘half-past eleven on a working day’ patients are socially unproductive (‘how much money goes in trying to correct it’). Each patient’s ‘human capital’ (this neoliberal concept according to which human existence is to produce economic value) is dissolving—or at best frozen. In ‘Hospital Visits’, such dispossession of productive capacities is quickly, yet powerfully, alluded to with the mundane image of the ‘raffia mat’: ‘To make sure her wrist mended / They had her in again / To finish a raffia mat—’ (ll.24–26). The woman’s output is socially useless and is merely meant to fill up time. The ‘human capital’ of this ageing widow with a broken wrist comes close to nothing.

28With their identities ‘in abeyance’ and their productivity at bay, Larkin’s patients appear as vulnerable lives whose human capital is wasted instead of being maximised: they fail to optimise existence.

29What may strike Larkin’s reader is his poetic plain, almost bare, tone as he deals with these issues. This bareness then is somewhat readable as the linguistic, poetic translation of the bare architecture of Hull Royal Infirmary, this ‘brutalist megahospital’ designed by the British architectural firm Yorke Rosenberg Mardall who, significantly, found inspiration in Le Corbusier’s work, and whose façade is impressive precisely because of the its radical rectangularity, its uniform bare modernity. This idea of bareness actually surfaces in Larkin’s poems where one perceives no disgust regarding the impaired bodies, no humiliation expressed by the passive bodies, and there emerges no accusatory tone at the dispossessing medical protocols and routines. Could this be read as a form of resigned acceptance? And if so, what exactly is Larkin accepting?

30In the second half of ‘The Building’, the poetic voice shifts to a less empirical discourse, and infers that these quiet, resigned patients are in fact ‘realis[ing] / This new thing held in common’ (ll.32–33) that is, the finitude of life. From the face-to-face situation in this awkward panopticon, there emerges the common diagnosis of imminent death, common as both ‘shared’ and ‘banal’. In Larkin’s poems, partly or suggestively stripped bare bodies are thus exposed not so much to the public eye as to the common eye. And Larkin’s use of the inclusive ‘all’, Etienne Galle has rightly noted, gathers or concentrates our common experience. In ‘Ambulances’, we ‘sense the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do’ (ll.13–14)—by which Larkin suggests the bareness of existence and, at the very end:

The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are. (ll.28–30)

31In ‘The Building’, he likewise draws attention to the patients’ common vulnerability: they are ‘all / Here to confess that something has gone wrong’ (ll.21–22), and ‘All know they are going to die’ (l.57). In ‘Ambulances’ he stages in the poem, with the seeing protagonists somewhat standing for the reader’s poetic double, the feeling of compassion that occurs when faced with a life reduced to its mere declining biology: ‘The fastened door recede. Poor soul, / They whisper at their own distress’ (ll.17–18).

32In exposing these bare lives in public and common spaces, Larkin thus stages his persona’s awareness—and meanwhile seeks the reader’s awareness—of the commonness of bare lives. The reader is led to empathise, first by being dragged into the scene (‘see’), in other words, by watching the ‘ward’, and then by being encouraged to identify with the patient (‘For the moment, wait, / Look down at the yard’, ll.37-8). For that purpose, Larkin relies on what may be defined as poetic plain style, which Tijana Stojkovic subtly analyses in Unnoticed in the Casual Light of Day: Philip Larkin and Plain Style. Larkin’s plain, or sometimes even bare, style is rooted in ‘common perceptual and cognitive ground’ (Stojkovic 208): he brings poetry close to common life, with empirical details that the readers immediately recognize as part of their own experience. Stojkovic further argues that ‘these elements of Larkin’s poems contributing towards the establishment of a common ground with the reader could also be seen as a ‘plain matrix’ of discourse’ (Stojkovic 209). And yet, in these poems, Larkin’s distant, sometimes even flippant tone, shows none of the empathy he incites in the reader. If sympathy is staged in ‘Ambulances’ for instance (‘Poor soul’ [l.17]), it is not expressed by the poetic voice which shows hardly any compassion. He follows the principles he voiced as early as 1955 in a letter to Robert Conquest: ‘For my part I think we have got the method right—plain language, absence of posturing, sense of proportion, humour, abandonment of the dithyrambic ideal—and are waiting for the matter’ (Motion 265). So, though somewhat bare, sometimes even blunt, in the commonness of what it pictures, Larkin’s tone may, at the same time be more ambiguous, even ironical.

33An amused subtle irony is for instance at best discernible in these poems when Larkin brings religious elements into the mundane material scene. The ambulances, for instance, are ‘Closed like confessionals’ (l.1) and in ‘The Building’, people come to hospital to ‘confess that something has gone wrong’ (l.22). The building has replaced the church (one is visible outside the waiting room window, it is ‘a locked church’ [l.41]), nurses have replaced nuns, and their caring protocols have supplanted the church ritual: in their hospital rooms patients are ‘unseen congregations’ (l.54). Both religion and biopolitics (through its material representation) are at once debunked in this poetic conflation. Submissively complying with the medical protocol policy in a busy hospital is quite as useless as submissively complying with church rituals. For biopolitics, just like religion, and just like flowers, is pointless and wasteful.

. . . . This is what it means,
This clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend
The thought of dying, for unless its powers
Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes

The coming dark, though crowds each evening try
With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers. (ll.59–64)

34The waste potentially caused by unproductive negligent patients that spend a workday waiting in a hospital, is in fact reattributed and magnified at the end of the poem: all is wasted when it comes to ‘contravene the coming dark’—be it religion or biopolitics. Death will happen. This idea actually guides Larkin’s representation of bare lives in these liminal public places: bare lives appear as an unavoidable condition in the natural process of dissolution. One is gradually and unavoidably dispossessed, physically, socially, ontologically: it is a stage, not yet belonging to death, but no longer in life—a liminal common experience here staged in liminal public places before common eyes who, quite ironically, be they the reader’s or the diagnosing patient’s, cannot grasp these bare lives. One may then hear, in Larkin’s voice, a form of cynicism which in some way brings him close to an old medical stance as commented upon by John Berger in A Fortunate Man—The Story of a Country Doctor:

In the eighteenth century and earlier the doctor was often thought of as a cynic: a cynic is by definition a man who assumes a scientific ‘objectivity’ to which he has no claim (Berger 112).

35Larkin likewise deliberately adopts an ‘objective’ stance as he observes that ‘nothing will contravene the coming dark’.

36I would therefore argue that though our reading of his poems from a biopolitics angle does yield meaning, these poems are not intentionally politically engaged. In a script for ‘Younger British Poets of Today’ (BBC Radio, 20 August 1958), Larkin writes: ‘If I avoid abstractions such are found in politics and religion it’s because they have never affected me strongly enough to become part of my personal life’ (quoted in Motion 285). I would argue, then, that the essential message is much more existential than directly political, or if it is political it is actually seeking to show the uselessness of political and religious systems. For though the NHS might seek to meet the needs of everyone, for free, the outcome will remain unchanged.

37Katia Genel explains that according to Giorgio Agamben, ‘la vie nue est le point d’ancrage du pouvoir, elle rend possible l’exercice du pouvoir’ (Genel 6); in Larkin’s poems, bare lives conversely show that all powers (political, religious and even medical) are powerless when it comes to counter the ‘baring’ process. We are all, at some point, bare lives.

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Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer—le pouvoir souverain et la vie nue, Paris : Seuil, 1997.

Béguin, François, ‘La Machine à Guérir’, Les Machines à guérir—Aux origines de l’hôpital moderne, Michel Foucault et coll., Bruxelles : Pierre Mardaga, 1979, 39–43.

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Galle, Étienne, ‘Dualité, limite, totalité, transcendance chez Philip Larkin’, Études britanniques contemporaines numéro spécial agrégation (Janvier 1994) : 71–83.

Génel, Katia, ‘Le Biopouvoir chez Foucault et Agamben’, Methodos 4 (2004), last accessed at May 22, 2017.

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Larkin, Philip, The Complete Poems, ed. Archie Burnett, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

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1 For further reading about the meaning of the architecture of the building, read André Topia’s article. Frames and Rooms : l’espace gigogne de Larkin’, Études Britanniques contemporaines (Janvier 1994).

2 ‘ la biopolitique est massifiante. La biopolitique s’adresse à l’homme vivant : non plus au corps, mais à la multiplicité des hommes comme masse globale affectée de processus d’ensemble qui sont propres à la vie”’ (Genel 4).

3 ‘Hospital-talk’ partakes of the same de-identifying movement as the ‘ward clothes’. Conversation and physical appearance are helplessly regulated.

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Electronic reference

Elise Brault-Dreux, « Exposing Bare Lives – Larkin’s Hospital Poems », Études britanniques contemporaines [Online], 53 | 2017, Online since 01 October 2017, connection on 22 January 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3789

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About the author

Elise Brault-Dreux

Elise Brault-Dreux is a lecturer at the University of Valenciennes. She has been working on the modernist period and is the author of various articles on the work of D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and Katherine Mansfield, and of a book on Lawrence’s poetry, Le ‘Je’ et ses masques dans la poésie de D.H. Lawrence (2014). She also works on the poetry of Philip Larkin.

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Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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