The Sixties was a revolutionary decade. In Britain, post-war rationing was over, a younger generation was questioning the accepted wisdom of their elders, the sun was setting on the British Empire, and a new era seemed to be dawning. It was the days of Swinging London. The Rolling Stones were singing about fighting in the streets, and the Beatles released their seminal paean to peace and love, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Everywhere young people were bucking the trends of the social status quo. Britain was cool, James Bond films had debuted in 1963 with From Russia with Love, and Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull sashayed down the Kings Road in Chelsea, surrounded by young women sporting the new trend, the miniskirt.
Philip Larkin was an English poet, librarian and novelist, who graduated from Oxford in 1943, during the Second World War, and thereafter became a librarian at the University of Hull, in eastern England. He filled his poems with the quintessence of British socio-cultural minutiae. He wrote Annus Mirabilis (“a remarkable year”, in Latin) in 1967, at the height of this ‘sixties cultural revolution.
The sexual revolution
Sexual intercourse began
in nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
and the Beatles’ first LP.
Annus Mirabilis is an attempt to pinpoint the moment in time when the sexual revolution began. Larkin states that sex began in 1963, a year that he associates with two precise events. The first was the end of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1927), a book by D.H. Lawrence that contained salacious depictions of sex; the second was the release of Please Please Me, Beatles’ debut LP. In 1961, contraceptive pills arrived in Europe from America, starting a huge change in sexual conduct. Claiming that sex began in a certain year is evidently a hyperbole, an exaggeration, a way of highlighting a new cultural understanding. Larkin describes this shift in the body of the text.
Up to then there’d only been
a sort of bargaining,
a wrangle for the ring,
a shame that started at sixteen
and spread to everything.
Relationships, before this period, largely focused on marriage. Birth control – along with the cultural revolution – freed sexual intercourse from the burden of reproduction. In the past, there had always been an association between sex and duty. The Sixties substituted duty with fun. Sex was no longer connected to shame and hidden behind the label of a marital must: sex was now a game, a brilliant breaking of the bank, as Larkin states in the poem. Ergo, is it not the physical act of sex that changed, but the way society perceived it. With this, Larkin implies that sex can be both a physical and a socio-cultural act.
An expert use of irony
In two different lines, Larkin introduces a parenthetical element with the words which was rather late for me or though just too late for me. At first, it might seem an innocent joke about being too old to take advantage of that social revolution. However, it shows that the man trying to give an account of the times is not at home in those times. This is a typical attitude in Larkin’s poetic production: he often confronts disappointments and dissatisfactions towards life in a detached, unsentimental and ironic way.
Irony lies in the title of the poem as well: Annus Mirabilis is also the title of a long poem by John Dryden that narrates the story of 1666, a very meaningful year for Great Britain because of the naval battle against the Dutch (the Four Days Battle) and the Great Fire of London. Larkin uses an old-fashioned language – Latin – and an old-fashioned reference, to give resonance, to show how big was the revolution that he was witnessing. In doing so, he chooses a colloquial language that he claims to have in common with his mentor and influence, the Anglo-American master of style and technique, Wystan Hugh Auden. Larking adds a precise rhyme scheme (ABBAB, CDDCD…) that makes the poem sound like one of the pop songs it alludes to, using even an opening and a closing chorus.