Features February 1986
Philip Larkin, 1922-1985
On Philip Larkin’s poetry.
Unless there is a cache of poems secreted somewhere in Hull, which we may doubt, the poet Philip Larkin died before the man. As far as I know, his last poem was “Aubade,” published in the Times Literary Supplement almost a decade ago. It begins:
I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
The fear of dying, daily companion of many, found its Homer, Dante, and Milton in Philip Larkin. His post-religious, almost Roman skepticism looks forward only to “total emptiness for ever,/The sure extinction that we travel to.” As in his early “Church Going,” his language acknowledges religious feeling without diluting skepticism, sentimentalizing loss, or asking for pity. Larkin is resolute, forthright, witty, and gloomy. This is the man who famously said that deprivation was for him what daffodils were for Wordsworth. Yet surely the results of this life, in the shape of his poems, are gifts, not deprivations.
The fear of dying, daily companion of many, found its Homer, Dante, and Milton in Philip Larkin.
The Less Deceived announced Philip Larkin in 1955. As a young man he had published The North Ship, poems lyrical and Yeatsian and not yet Larkinesque. The early work resembled other young Englishmen: neo-Romantic, even a bit wet . . . By the time I found him he had acquired Philip Larkin’s voice. I heard him first on John Wain’s BBC program, “New Soundings,” in 1953—where I also first heard Kingsley Amis telling about Lucky Jim.
Larkin’s quality was clear; it was also clear that something new was happening. Although The Less Deceived was a small-press book—published by George Hartley who ran the Marvell Press and edited Listen, the best literary magazine of its time—it was published with, a list of subscribers which included almost all English poets under forty: Amis, Bergonzi, Boyars, Brownjohn, Conquest, Davie, Enright, Hamburger, Hill, Jennings, MacBeth, Murphy, Thwaite, Tomlinson, Wain. (Thorn Gunn was in California; Ted Hughes was not yet Ted Hughes.) And there were dons: Bateson, Dobree, Dodsworth, Fraser, Kermode, Leishmann.
It was not long before Larkin became a popular poet in England, second only to Betjeman in public affection. When a good poet becomes popular there is always some silly reason as well as recognition of excellence. Dylan Thomas became a bestseller in this country—surely the obscurest poet ever to sell ten thousand copies—because tales of drunkenness and irreverence sold copies. With Robert Frost, the carefully cultivated rural manner—gussied up by the Luce publications until he resembled Scattergood Baines—sold copies and had little to do with the real man.
With Larkin and his English readers, the silliness which helped to make him popular was his genuine, uncultivated, sincere philis-tinism. In his prose he wrote disparagingly of painters who put two noses on one face and sculptors who carved holes through bodies; he lectured us on the ugliness of modernism, most especially the three P’s: Pound, Picasso, and (Charlie) Parker. In the United States the terrorists of modernism have frightened the semi-educated middle class into accepting anything that carries the Avant-garde Seal of Approval. In England the middle classes are not so gullible; many remain secure in the conviction that Picasso is a fake, and that good painters can be defined as the ones who make horses that look like horses. When he made an anthology, Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse was a monument to modesty and amateurism: Sir John Squire and yards of doggerel. Doubtless it is the worst anthology of modern poetry, with the possible exception of Yeats’s . . .
There is nothing modest or amateur about “The Whitsun Weddings” or “Au-bade.”
Larkin’s poetry of course is another matter. There is nothing modest or amateur about “The Whitsun Weddings” or “Au-bade.” The Less Deceived was a superb volume, with three or four of Larkin’s best poems and two dozen fine ones. Some are corny but splendidly achieved: “At Grass” is the best horse picture ever painted. Back in the mid-Fifties, the jocular and tough-minded “Toads” stood out. Gradually, the softer and more ruminative “Church Going” seems more to represent Larkin’s best. In his second volume, The Whitsun Weddings, the title poem may be the finest moment in all his work. Characteristic in the place it is spoken from—a little to the side of life, watching, commenting—it is both empathetic and aloof, both superior and wistful. It ends:
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:
There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
Look at the way sentences curl down the page. Who else among us has made such motions?
The answer, I think, is Robert Frost, but I do not suggest direct influence. If there is influence, Frost to Larkin, it comes by way of Edward Thomas, whom Frost instructed. Although Thomas Hardy is Larkin’s master—the only earlier twentieth-century poet clearly superior (and Geoffrey Hill the only contemporary)—the comparison with Frost remains useful. Frost loved to play the English sentence across the English line, usually pausing to rhyme on the way, mimicking what he called “sentence sounds.” These sentence sounds show themselves by phrase-pitch and perform a sophistication of syntax. At the end of “Mr. Bleaney,” from Whitsun Weddings, we can see Larkin using the imitative gesture of syntax as well as Frost did it.
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty
sure He warranted no better, I don’t know.
This awkward, difficult-to-say sentence mimics the reluctance of the mind to reach conclusion about its own worth or lack of worth. The muscular gestures of its hesitation express, by form and mimickry of grammar, the state of mind that the language describes. In this coincidence of manner and matter is a good portion of Larkin’s genius.
But not only here. In an interview Larkin spoke about his reputation as a melancholy man, and protested that he thought he was rather funny, actually. True enough: “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen-sixty-three/ (Which was rather late for me)—/Between the end of the Chatterly ban /And the Beatles’ first LP.” But something besides humor redeems the gloom of Philip Larkin. His poetry is beautiful, which gives us deep and abiding pleasure, however melancholy a paraphrase may be. At the end of “Aubade,” Larkin makes a metaphor, appropriately sinister, in a gorgeous pentameter line:
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
Doubtless the poem is deprived enough . . . but if you don’t walk out of the theater humming the tune, you don’t read poetry.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 6, on page 10
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