Critical Essays On Philip Larkin

The last big Larkin-fest was held in 1982, and coincided with his 60th birthday. Faber published a collection of friendly essays, the South Bank Show did a profile (in which the only signs of Larkin himself were his hands, pudgily turning the pages of a book), and newspapers ran appreciative features about him. Roy Hattersley struck the single sour note, in a half-hour TV special that raked over the same sort of "faults" that Al Alvarez had found in the poems 20 years earlier: excessive pessimism, predictable gloom, narrow horizons.

Larkin made a decent fist of seeming to find the praise embarrassing, and genuinely disliked the Hattersley programme. "It gave me some idea of what being a writer in Russia must be like," he told his friend Judy Egerton, "arraigned in public for bourgeois formalism, counter-revolutionary determination and anti-working-class deviation. That great bloated unsmiling accuser and his silent audience was the most depressing thing I've had to endure for a long time."

Larkin died in December 1985, and since then Hattersley's line has come to seem less like an anomaly than a prediction. The publication of Anthony Thwaite's edition of Larkin's Selected Letters in 1992, and of my biography the following year, dramatically changed the shape of his reputation. The nation's favourite poet, lonely but loveable, was condemned as a misogynist, a racist and a porn addict. A grumbling teddy-bear was one thing; a grizzly who talked about "niggers", detested children, and coldly played women friends off against one another in order to preserve his solitude was quite another.

The things about Larkin that were dodgy or illiberal or worse are not to be gainsaid, however much allowance one makes for his jokery and his wish to épater le bourgeois. Does it follow, though, that his work inevitably bears their taint? For some people, yes: following the publication of the Letters and the Life, a few librarians removed Larkin's poems from their collections, and some critics conflated their sense of his personality with their account of the poetry to condemn its entire foundation. (It made one wonder what these critics thought they'd been reading in pre-revelation days. Had they expected to find that Larkin was a Labour-voting, foreign-holidaying guy, who found love easy and the wide world congenial?)

For others, the revelations encouraged a different sort of conclusion. On the one hand they led people to condemn the biographical emphasis as wrong (as Alan Plater did in the Guardian last year, saying that Larkin needed to be "reclaimed" from his biographer). Or they argued that one characteristic movement of the poems is to begin in the fuggy, disappointed world of "Larkinland" and to end somewhere far removed - somewhere lit by unexpected symbolist lights, in a world of release and surprising hopefulness and compassion. This, pace Plater, is my own view. Larkin spends a good deal of his time as a poet trying to escape his "ordinary" social self; his lyricism is his salvation, not just his work.

We generally suppose that writers' reputations will sink in the years immediately following their deaths. But as all the above indicates, Larkin's posthumous fate has not been to vanish but to be transformed. There will always be readers who regret this, and feel the change has been damaging or even disgracing: they want to go back to the old pre-letters-and-biography days, when the bear was still a teddy. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who would rather know the truth and develop their reading of the poems accordingly, exploring the links - and the separations - between life and work. And the signs are that these people have carried the day. Larkin's poems are still bought in large numbers, he is still a regular feature of the school syllabus, and curiosity about his self and his writing is evidently far greater than mere repugnance or rejection.

To prove the point, one only has to look at Tom Courtenay's recent play Pretending To Be Me , and two imminent TV programmes about Larkin: the documentary Love and Death in Hull, directed by Ian MacMillan (on Channel 4 tomorrow at 8pm), and Richard Cottan's film for BBC2, Larkin: Love Again, directed by Susanna White, to be shown later this month. They represent an eruption of interest that has nothing to do with the convenience of an anniversary (it's 17 years since Larkin died: what's so special about that?), and probably not much to do with the Zeitgeist. (If, in times of war and its aftermath, we need to contemplate reassuring images of England, we'd do better to think about Betjeman than the Hermit of Hull.) Neither can it be attributed to delayed shock; we've had plenty of time to get used to everything made plain by the Letters and the Life .

The explosion seems to have happened partly as a result of our fascination with the private lives of creator-celebrities ( The Hours, Frida, Pollock, the forthcoming Hughes/Plath film), and partly just to see where we've got to in the evolving Larkin story. In their different ways, all three projects attempt a summary. They are staging-posts on the journey of his writing into a new century.

Courtenay's one-man show was a virtuoso performance, but did everything it could to preserve old Larkin. It neglected the odd grandeur he had, and also the moments of extreme pettiness, preferring instead a middle ground of wry-joking, Eeyore-complaining, nature-loving and death-fearing. The social politics were largely hushed-up - there was precious little about colour or class, and a single swipe at gayness (which is seriously misleading: homophobia is strikingly absent in Larkin's catalogue of prejudices).

Larkin: Love Again is even less appealing in prospect, but much more impressive in fact. As the title implies, it concentrates on Larkin's elaborate and extended courtship-dance with the important women in the 20 years of his Hull life - Monica Jones, Maeve Brennan and his secretary Betty Mackereth - matching his desire for love and sex and company with his need to be alone. Given Larkin's shyness and lack of physical self-esteem, the very thought of seeing him wrapped round a fully-clothed body, let alone a naked one, is pretty grim.

Even grimmer is the notion that his beautiful and delicate-handed love poetry might be trammelled in the mess of a recovered actuality. But thanks to White's tactful direction, and astonishingly sympathetic performances from all the main players, the result is sincerely touching. Hugh Bonneville is more round-faced than Larkin, but otherwise very similar - and sounds so like him it's unnerving; Tara Fitzgerald as Jones and Amanda Root as Brennan are spot on. More importantly, the relationship between work and experience is allowed to seem at once inevitable and managed, just as it was.

The film's emphasis on Larkin's devotion to himself and writing illuminates what was exceptional about his life and also what was familiar and humdrum. His compelling but maddening mother; his need for more human variety than any one woman could provide; his mingled appetite and scorn for "normal" things: all these are extremely well portrayed, and bathed in a light which is at once clear and forgiving. In his Guardian piece Plater approvingly quoted one Larkin society member who asked him how "anyone can be a womaniser and a misogynist?" Easily, indeed invariably, as Love Again reminds us.

Love and Death in Hull does not set out to take sides or spin a line. It wants to tell the story of Larkin's life as simply as possible, and in particular to record the memories of those who knew him best. It comes too late, alas, for Kingsley Amis and Jones, but not for Larkin's first girlfriend, Ruth Bowman, or for Brennan (who died, after filming, last month). The programme is worth watching for these two interviews alone, and especially for the sight of Bowman (who has seldom spoken in public before) denouncing Larkin for his unkindness to her even as she grieves for him.

Inevitably, Bowman's attitude to Larkin, expressed early in the film, affects everything that follows. However objective MacMillan might have wanted to be, and no matter how great his admiration for the poems, the Larkin that appears in his portrait is a partial one. And it's the opposite end of the spectrum from Courtenay's: seriously depressed, caught in "a prevailing mood of finality and death", "incredibly lonely", and - latterly - deeply drunk. Yet strangely the film feels much less distorted than Pretending To Be Me. We miss Larkin's odd outbursts of hilarity, the muffled beat of his tenderness, and his jazz-loving; we don't hear enough about the "hunger in himself" to be free of himself; and we do feel the full weight of his prejudices (especially when we hear the home-made recording of him and Jones singing "kick out the niggers"). At the same time, we feel that nothing has been withheld in the interests of making the poems acceptable. It's a brave line to take, and it pays off.

It also leaves us thinking that the future looks good for Larkin's writing. We know the worst and the best of his personal life, and each of us can make our own estimate of how it does and does not connect with his work. Or to put this another way: we can see the beauty and truth of the poems in spite and because of what lay behind them. Larkin was a person who had profound and unforgettable things to say about common experience. While he was still breathing, most people assumed they arose from an ordinary life; one of his greatest legacies is to make us pretty sure that no such thing exists.

Andrew Motion's biography Larkin: A Writer's Life and Philip Larkin's Collected Poems are published by Faber, price £14.99 and £10.99.

If Rudyard Kipling’s is the poetry of empire, then Philip Larkin’s is the poetry of the aftermath of empire. Having lived through the divestiture of England’s various colonial holdings, the economic impact of empire building having finally come home, together with the ultimate travesty of imperial pretensions and the nightmare of Nazi and Soviet colonization in Europe, Larkin was wary of the expansiveness, the acquisitiveness, and the grandeur implicit in the imperial mentality. Many features of his poetry can be traced to that wariness: from the skepticism and irony, to the colloquial diction, to the formal precision of his poems.

Indeed, of all the writers who shared those ideals and techniques and who came to be known in the 1950’s as the Movement, Larkin most faithfully retained his original attitude and style. Those writers—Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, and Thom Gunn, among others—diverse though they were, shared attitudes that were essentially empirical, antimodernist, skeptical, and ironic. Most of those views can be understood as outgrowths of an elemental alienation from society and its traditional institutions. Amis’s Jim Dixon is the outstanding fictional embodiment of these attitudes; although he desperately wants and needs to be accepted into university society and the traditional power structure it represents, his contempt for the institution and those in it, bred of his alienation, carries him into situations that border on both hilarity and disaster. Lucky Jim (1954) is the Movement novel.

Isolation and alienation figure prominently in both of Larkin’s novels, as well; yet it is in his poems that they receive their fullest development. The speakers of his poems—and in the great majority of cases the speaker is the poet himself—seem alienated from their surroundings, cut off from both people and institutions. While that alienation normally shows itself as distance, as irony and wry humor, it can sometimes appear as smugness, complacence, even sneering judgment. Larkin turns his sense of isolation, of being an outsider or fringe observer, into a position of centrality, in which the world from which he is alienated seems to be moving tangentially to his own sphere. In his best poems, that distance works two ways, allowing the poet to observe the world in perspective, as if viewing it through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, so that weighty matters seem less momentous, while at the same time reminding the poet that he, too, is a figure of little consequence. When his poems fail, the poet risks very little of his own ego as he sits back in safety, judging others across the frosty distance.

Larkin gains his perspective in large measure through his belief that nothing lies beyond this world, that this existence, however muddled it may be, is probably the only one. His skepticism is thoroughgoing and merciless; he rarely softens his tone. In some writers such belief might provoke terror or a compulsion to reform the world. In Larkin, it gives rise to irony. He examines the feeble inhabitants of this tiny planet surrounded by the void and asks if it can all be so important.

The resulting sense of human insignificance, including his own, leads him to several of the characteristic features of his work. He rejects “poetic” devices in favor of simpler, more mundane vehicles. His diction, for example, is nearly always colloquial, often coarse, vulgar, or profane. His distrust of a specialized diction or syntax for poetry reflects his distrust of institutions generally. Similarly, he shies away from the intense poetic moment—image, symbol, metaphor—in favor of a discursive, argumentative verse. Although he will occasionally resolve a poem through use of an image or a metaphor, particularly in High Windows, he more commonly talks his way through the poem, relying on intellect rather than emotion or intuition.

This rejection of the stuff of poetry leads him to a problem: If overtly poetic language and poetic devices are eschewed, what can the poet use to identify his poems as poems? For Larkin the answer lies in the external form of the poems: scansion, rhyme schemes, stanzaic patterns. The tension and the power of a Larkin poem often result from the interplay of common, unexceptional language with rigorously formal precision. “The Building,” from High Windows, is an example of such tension. The poet meditates on the function of the hospital in modern society and the way in which it takes over some of the duties traditionally performed by the Church, all in very ordinary language. The poem, however, is stretched taut over not one but two sophisticated units: a seven-line stanza and an eight-line rhyme scheme (abcbdad). Rhyme pattern and stanzaic pattern come together at the end of the eighth stanza, but the poem does not end there; rather, the poet employs another rhyme unit, a stanza plus a line, as a means of resolving the poem. Even here Larkin’s shrewd distrust of the intellectual viability of poetic forms displays itself: Ending neatly on the fifty-sixth line would be too neat, too pat, and would violate the poem’s ambivalence toward the place. Similarly, although his rhyme schemes are often very regular, the same cannot be said for the rhymes themselves: speech/touch, faint/went, home/welcome. If Larkin recognizes his need for traditional forms in his poems, he recognizes also the necessity of altering those forms into viable elements of his poetry.

Finally, there is in Larkin a sense of an ending, of oblivion. For all his distrust of the “new apocalypse crowd,” many of his poems suggest something similar, although with a characteristic difference. Where the “crowd” may prophesy the end of the world and everything in it, he, working out of his alienation, more commonly seems to be watching the string run out, as if he were a spectator at the edge of oblivion.

The North Ship

Larkin’s first volume of poetry, The North Ship, went virtually unnoticed at the time of its original publication and would be unnoticed still were it made to stand on its own merits. (It has few.) The poems are almost uniformly derivative Yeatsian juvenilia, laden with William Butler Yeats’s imagery but shorn of its power or meaning; this is the verse of a young man who wants to become a poet by sounding like a known poet. No one has been more critical, moreover, of the volume than the poet himself, characterizing it as an anomaly, a mistake that happened when he did not know his own voice and thought, under the tutelage of Vernon Watkins, that he was someone else. That he allowed the republication of the work in 1966, with an introduction that is more than anything else a disclaimer, suggests a desire to distance the “real” poet from the confused adolescent.

Despite his objections, the book can be seen as representative of certain tendencies in his later verse, and it is enlightening to discern how many features of his mature work show themselves even when buried under someone else’s style. A major difference between Larkin’s poems and Yeats’s lies in the use of objects: While the younger poet borrows Yeats’s dancers, horses, candles, and moons, they remain dancers, horses, candles, and moons. They lack transcendent, symbolic value; objects remain mere objects.

There is also in these early poems a vagueness in the description of the phenomenal world. Perhaps that generality, that vagueness, could be explained as the result of the Yeatsian influence, but it is also a tendency of Larkin’s later work. One often has the impression that a scene, particularly a human scene, is typical rather than specific.

One of the things clearly missing from this first work is a suspicion of the Yeatsian symbols, attitudes, and gestures, almost none of which the mature Larkin can abide. His assertion that it was his intense reading of Hardy’s poetry that rescued him from the pernicious influence of Yeats may have validity; more probably, time heals youthful excess, and during the period when he was outgrowing the poetry of The North Ship, he began a salutary reading of Hardy.

The Less Deceived

A striking development in Larkin’s second book of poems, The Less Deceived, is his insistence on the mundane, the unexceptional, the commonplace. In “Born Yesterday,” a poem on the occasion of Sally Amis’s birth, for example, he counters the usual wishes for beauty or brilliance with the attractive (for him) possibility of being utterly unextraordinary, of fitting in wholly by having nothing stand out. This wish he offers, he says, in case the others do not come true, but one almost has the sense that he wishes also that the others will not come true, that being average is much preferable to being exceptional.

Larkin makes a similar case for the ordinary in the wickedly funny “I Remember, I Remember,” which attacks the Romantic notions of the writer’s childhood as exemplified in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). In other places, he has described his childhood as boring, not worthy of comment, and in this poem, he pursues that idea vigorously. In the first two stanzas, he comes to the realization that he does not recognize the Coventry station into which the train has pulled, although he used it often as a child. When his traveling companion asks if Coventry is where he “has his roots,” the poet responds in his mind with a catalog of all the things that never happened to him that supposedly happen to writers in their youth, “the splendid family/ I never ran to,” “The bracken where I never sat trembling.” Through the course of that list, he recognizes that the place looks so foreign now because it never gave him anything distinctive, that there is nothing that he carries with him that he can attribute to it. Then, in a remarkable about-face, he realizes that the location has very little to do with how his childhood was spent or misspent, that life is largely independent of place, that the alienation that he senses is something he carries with him, not a product of Coventry.

The poem at first seems to be an honest appraisal of his youth in contradistinction to all those romanticized accounts in biographies and novels, but the reader is forced finally to conclude that the poet protests too much. There is no childhood in which nothing happens, and in insisting so strongly on the vacuum in which he grew up, Larkin develops something like the inverse of nostalgia. He turns his present disillusionment and alienation back against the past and views it from his ironic perspective. Larkin is...

(The entire section is 4380 words.)

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