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Larkin’s animal poems – 6

November 23, 2013

Laboratory monkeys

Larkin to Monica Jones: “I thought you might like to see this – I don’t know who else will, as it isn’t really publishable […] it was inspired by the photo on The Listener cover a week or so ago of a rhesus monkey & her baby monkey […]. It carried that complete & utter condemnation of the human race monkeys seem to be able to convey. It was accompanied by accounts of fatuous American experiments of taking baby monkeys away from their mothers & noting that they are unhappy.”

Composed between 12 and 24 February 1965, and unpublished in Larkin’s lifetime, this first appeared in Complete Poems (1988), under the title Ape Experiment Room. Archie Burnett argues for the present title.

Presumably risk of libel, rather than quality or subject made it unpublishable. The break between verses, and the diversion about the experimenter’s wife, around which the horror builds, are pure Larkin.

Laboratory monkeys

Buried among white rooms
Whose lights in clusters beam
Like suddenly caused pain,
And where behind rows of mesh
Uneasy shifting resumes
As sterilisers steam
And the routine begins again
Of putting questions to flesh

That no one would think to ask
But a Ph.D. with a beard
And nympho wife who –
wwwwwwwwwwwwwwBut
There, I was saying, are found
The bushy T-shaped mask,
And below, the smaller, eared
Head like a grave nut,
And the arms folded round.

Philip Larkin

Footnote – According to Archie Burnett, The Complete Poems p 634, the experimenter was Dr Harry F Harlow, Director of the Primate Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin.

Harlow was a famous experimental psychologist. He is credited by some with re-emphasising the importance of the mother-infant bond against the theories of the behaviourists at the time. Maybe so, but he also seemed to delight in the awful nature of his experiments. See for example, Harlow HF, and Suomi SJ (1971) Social Recovery by Isolation-Reared Monkeys, Proc Natl Acad Sci; 68: 1534–1538 (click here): “By methods dark, dismal and devious we impregnated several of these reluctant females over a period of years”.

He married three times, albeit only two women. First his student, Clara Mears, by whom he had two children. In 1946 he divorced Clara and married another psychologist, Margaret Kuenne, and had two more children. When Margaret died in 1971 he remarried Clara. He died in 1981.

See also Take One Home for the Kiddies here, At Grass here, Myxomatosis here, First Sight here, and Pigeons here.

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