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Edmund Hardy

Peter Larkin’s Scarce Layers


The sonnet 'The Fall of the Aar - Handec' considers lowliness as a beneficent interpolation of

small into great in the face of a vast, unfaceable energy. As poet and companion shrink back

from the brink it is as if a small eye, a ground eye that can see without being dazzled, opens:


Flowers we espy beside the torrent growing;

Flowers that peep forth from many a cleft and chink,

And, from the whirlwind of his anger, drink

Hues ever fresh, in rocky fortress blowing:

They suck--from breath that, threatening to destroy,

Is more benignant than the dewy eve--

Beauty, and life, and motions as of joy:


The repose of the flowers assimilates the motion of the torrent and renders life-giving what is otherwise too violent to be available to age, creating instead a clearly decipherable joy. The small flowers live from the power of the torrent but are neither of it nor in it. This stimulates a closing turn toward a poetry of prevenience, for ‘HE’ (Nature’s God) is mediated by the flowers. It is their repose which can be received rather than a rage of waters. For the late Wordsworth raging waters remain closed in self-involved, perspectiveless energy, against which it is repose, even fixity, which remains stationed in a focally transcendent

responsiveness. The humble adorations of the flowers can be received by a divine power

capable, unlike the purely apocalyptic, of equally respecting the small and non-dynamic

through its own static hierarchism.[1]



Key terms for Larkin’s writing are less than and almost and his poetry is conceptual in that it exists as a creation between these two horizons. What follows is a sequence of commentaries on this ‘scarce layer’ between less than and almost.


Larkin’s commentary on Wordsworth’s late framing of lost immediacy provides an emblematic double mirror on which to scribble a further commentary on the action of Larkin’s thought. We can view some flowers beside a waterfall as adorations which overleap the bounds of Larkin’s philosophy.


“a beneficent interpolation of small into great in the face of a vast, unfaceable energy”


The small is ‘less than’ and in Larkin’s philosophy it is ‘given’ as the scarce conditions for human life. ‘Almost’ is the edge of the scarce layer which reaches the potentially vast creative plenitude (the ‘vast, unfaceable energy’) which has given those scarce conditions; it certainly looks like the divine. Larkin’s poetry writes out and within this scarce layer. This creation then reaches closer to the vast divine force which has given the scarce layer for human life, almost reaching it. The greater the reduction, the closer the almost is, and so there’s not much space in the scarce layer – the less space the better. It is full of failure and contradiction. Its representation in language is brittle and dense, its sentences split, collaged and unclear. There is a weak relation to trees, places and landscapes which remain thematically spectral. Trees are the scarce layer in a parallel sense to the language of the poetry, both being doubled as concept and actualisation. Trees embody the scarce as grounded, non-human, rising, growing and crabbed. The scarce layer is finite. It is a reduction down to the ‘never less than’, the minimal conditions for life.


Larkin’s writing is not otherwise determined by theme and neither is it clearly phenomenological. If it is political then it is only through an ontological turn based on this idea of the scarce layer; an arche-politics of revealed structures. Scarcity suggests connections to ecopoetics, economics, and biopolitics, but in Larkin’s thought it is structural, operating as the minimal field in a complex tangle of negative dialectics which Larkin would hold in repose (perhaps impossibly).


“shrink back from the brink”


Scarcity is a response to and a bending back from the idea of absence or the abyss. In this sense it brings back a relation between the human and a plenitude of creative power. This latter would be more familiarly ‘God’ if there wasn’t also the continual presence of the ‘never less than’ resistance in the remainder of human presence in scarcity. Larkin presents us with a dialectic theology of ‘almost God’.


“This stimulates a closing turn toward a poetry of prevenience”


Larkin’s first interpolation of these flowers renders them “as if” (beside the literal) “a small eye, a ground eye” opens, but unlike the flowers of Wordsworth’s sonnet the scarce layer is not secure and it contains only the brittle remains of structures and ‘static hierarchies’ such as the prevenience of grace might leave. The texts look up above the scarce layer to where a vast sky might lead to an indulgent transcendence. A transcendent movement might at best accompany a transition to the dominant term.


“focally transcendent”


Focally transcendent suggests a plural logic achieved through plural views. A second set of ideas which split apart the dialectic of scarce and its vast opposites are those of being beside the relations within scarcity (Wordsworth’s flowers “as if”) and on ‘behalf of’ their powerful opposites. The ‘gift’ which is the giving of life to its scarce means is an idea of creation, or, to invoke a plural shadowing characteristic of the Larkin style, the ‘originary’. It is a dialectic ontology which comes as close as possible to resolution in the existence of God, but crucially it can’t relinquish the resistance which the continuation of the scarce layer of human life gives back.


“The humble adorations of the flowers”


Larkin’s writing maps out and conceptually creates this scarce, reduced, plural, minimally legible layer, and it does so as a form of adoration or communion – the presence of scarcity makes its opposite, creative plenitude, come as close as possible. If there is movement in this ontology which values repose, it is to the edge of the scarce (scarcity has a horizon), courting paradox at the last but, in the final parallax ‘beside’, fusing communion with gift back to the vast creative giver, or in Larkin’s formulation in an interview, “Less than there could be on behalf of the more than enough.”[2]

[1] ‘Wordsworth’s “After-Sojourn”: Revision and Unself-Rivalry in the later Poetry’ in Peter

Larkin, Wordsworth and Coleridge: Promising Losses (New York: Palgrave Macmillan,

2012), pp. 23-24.


[2] Less than, More At: an Interview with Peter Larkin, Intercapillary Space