The Whitsun Weddings
by Philip Larkin
Random House, 46 pp., $1.95 (paper)
Philip Larkin is the best poet England now has. And that is not said with the intonation with which R. A. Butler once described Harold Macmillan as “the best Prime Minister we have.” Future examination-papers will endlessly reiterate “Is Larkin a major or a minor poet?” and the obvious answers will spring to their stations. Yes, we ought to be impatient with his having written so little. The Whitsun Weddings is the work of the last nine years, and that means thirty-two poems (which is a few more than in The Less Deceived in 1955). Larkin has recently said that he hardly writes anything that he doesn’t publish, and that he hasn’t written a poem for eighteen months. Yet if we were to insist on calling him a “minor poet,” what words are we left with to describe most of our others? Minimal? Still, a historical perspective is provided by the apt coincidence that The Less Deceived was published by the Marvell Press at Hull, Yorkshire. Andrew Marvell served Hull as its Member of Parliament; Mr. Larkin is the Librarian of its University. Let us call them both minor poets if we wish—so long as we don’t call too many people major. Technical surety, imaginative delicacy, a feeling heart, and unforgettable rightness of cadence—oh, he is minor, is he? I wish he would bite some other of my majors.
His allegiances are with the nineteenth century. His favorite living poet is that twangingly nostalgic relict, John Betjeman, whose Collected Poems Larkin went so far as to review twice. (Betjeman reviewed The Whitsun Weddings only once.) Larkin has named from the past Christina Rossetti and William Barnes, but the poet whom he preeminently admires is Hardy—the poet who above all fulfills Larkin’s inexorable demand that we reconcile truth and imagination. Perhaps one should say truthfulness rather than truth, in order to purge it of the high-flying or high-flown sonority which Larkin is so skeptical of. It was from Hardy that he learned how to write poems which are at one and the same time passionately personal and yet not crampingly autobiographical. In Larkin’s poems a person speaks in his own voice, “the true voice of feeling,” without subterfuge and yet also without hot intrusiveness. The best of his poems have all the warm immediacy of a letter or a conversation, but they inflict on us none of the unease which we feel with some confessional poetry, the feeling that we are snooping or eavesdropping with the author’s connivance. Larkin has spoken more than once of his love of Hardy, and he has the courage to outfront the accusation of pastiche. One of the best of his new poems, “Love Songs in Age,” has the dignity, tenderness, and disillusionment of Hardy. But in general nothing could be more different from the profusion of Hardy’s undiscriminating poetic genius. Larkin’s poetry is a refinement of self-consciousness, usually flawless in execution; Hardy’s conquers by sheer force of unself-consciousness. It may seem hard to think of Tennyson as a poet whom Larkin would much admire, but some of his best effects are of an extraordinary marriage of Hardy’s bluntness with Tennyson’s fineness of phrasing. Nobody seems to have pointed out that Tennyson’s “sweet girl-graduate” turns up as a joke in the first poem of The Less Deceived; Larkin’s spring (“the branch-arrested mist of leaf,”) echoes Tennyson’s “When all the wood stands in a mist of green”); and the magnificent title-poem of The Whitsun Weddings makes from Tennyson’s Lincolnshire something new:
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept…
Hardy’s famous dictum, “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst,” could not simply have been taken over by Larkin. Certainly he insists on a full look at the worst, but not in the hope that there may be a way to the Better—Larkin would not have permitted himself the tremulous deception of giving a capital to “Better” and no capital to “worst.” Not that his poems sup full with horrors. They have a Wordsworthian subject, the ordinary sorrow of man’s life, and they deal with the world of all of us—the place where, in the end, we find our happiness, or not at all. To live alone in one room, to come across love-songs from the past, to see an ambulance draw up, to create for one moment the former love for a parent. All this has been called tame and cosy. If so, it is in good company, along with some of the best of Wordsworth (“The Ruined Cottage”), of Browning (“Two in the Campagna”), of Hardy, and of Edward Thomas (“Old Man”). The wistful, but not attenuated, dignity is something which Betjeman has only rarely caught (“Youth and Age at Beaulieu”). In recent American verse it can perhaps be heard only in some of the fine poems of W. D. Snodgrass, whom Robert Lowell linked with Larkin.
Larkin’s mastery of transitions, his unrivaled ability to call unerringly home the closing lines of a poem—these are not narrowly technical skills, they are the counterpart of a deep and true feeling for human loneliness and longing. In “Faith Healing,” the healer asks each suffering person “what’s wrong?” and then prays.
What’s wrong! Moustached in flow- ered frocks they shake:
By now, all’s wrong. In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache,
As when, thawing, the rigid land- scape weeps,
Spreads slowly through them—that, and the voice above
Saying Dear child, and all time has disproved.
Nothing could more clearly show Larkin’s courageous love than “moustached”—a word which could so easily have become a sneer but which here invokes all that pain (balanced, as it is with such true casualness, against “flowered”). Like all of his poems, it really needs to be quoted in full, because he earns, by his meticulously rueful description, the right to move to so encompassing a generalization. The beautiful rightness of the rhythmical catch in the third line; the fine reticence by which it is the landscape, within the simile, which weeps; the final resting-place in a hope annulled (“disproved”): all this is pure Larkin. Tears, but not idle tears—we know all too well what they mean.
Larkin has always worked with an intense and yet commonplace vocabulary of disillusionment. “Disproved,” “displaced,” “dismantled.” And, of course, “disappointing,” a more cruel word than any of them just because although it is a negative, we don’t any longer even have a positive of it. There is no “appointing” in such a sense. It is the same with his favorite form of epithet, e.g., “unworkable”—a form which insists on the human hope and yet is sadly dubious of any fulfillment. “Unchangeably,” “unreachable,” “unworkable,” “untransferable”: such are the characteristic words of this volume, and the continuity with The Less Deceived is obvious (“unworkable,” “unavoidable,” “unignorable,” “unpriceable,” “unfakable,” and so on). Yet Larkin’s sense of the oppressive negations is not sterile. If we lack the cheerful opposite of “disappointment,” we do curiously lack the harmful opposite of “innocence.” Innocence is one of the very few powerfully affirmative words which is nevertheless a negative. Hence its attraction for Larkin, who uses it as the climax for his ominously idyllic “MCMXIV.” The war itself is an unmentioned as “nocence,” but is a presence not to be put by:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word—the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Larkin has stood against many falsities, not least the over-estimate of what we may ask of literature. Truth is manifested as well as discussed in these poems. “Experience makes literature look insignificant beside life, as indeed life does beside death.” But as he made clear in the London Magazine (February 1962), any poetic successes have some of the unwillable beauty and frailty of a coincidence:
Very little that catches the imagination, in short, can get its clearance from either the intelligence or the moral sense. And equally, properly truthful or dispassionate themes enlist only the wannest support from the imagination. The poet is perpetually in that common human condition of trying to feel a thing because he believes it, or believe a thing because he feels it.
It is this incisive clarity which gives such masculine strength to these poems, a strength quite different from the femininely yielding charm of Betjeman. And Larkin’s development? In an interview in the London Magazine (November, 1964) Larkin summed it up: “I suppose I’m less likely to write a really bad poem now, but possibly equally less likely to write a really good one. If you can call that development, then I’ve developed.” Needlessly modest. The Whitsun Weddings is, consistently, better written than The Less Deceived, and people will be grateful for its best poems for a long time: “Mr. Bleaney,” “Love Songs in Age,” “The Whitsun Weddings,” “Ambulances,” “Essential Beauty,” “An Arundel Tomb”—and the list could be longer. One note is now less frequent, the note of resonance which Larkin himself picked out in his own favorite, “Absences.” “I fancy it sounds like a different, better poet than myself. The last line, for instance [“Such attics cleared of me! Such absences”] sounds like a slightly-unconvincing translation from a French symbolist. I wish I could write like this more often” (Poet’s Choice). Agreed. But he can still sometimes create that resonance, as at the end of “The Whitsun Weddings,” when the train with all its newly-wedded couples nears London:
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 be- coming rain.
It was John Donne who said that “the whole frame of the poem is a beating out of a piece of gold, but the last clause is as the impression of the stamp, and that is it that makes it current.” Larkin’s effortless accuracy of conclusion ought to keep these lovely poems current.
Errata January 28, 1965