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Required Reading

Philip Larkin, poet, critic, novelist, jazz buff, though scarcely “visible” in the past, has become the Cham of the contemporary British literary scene. With the exceptions of his best-known line of verse, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” his scathing essay on Auden, and the unmentionable anthology,1 the ascent was accomplished quietly: “I have never read any poems in public, never lectured on poetry, never taught anyone how to write it.” The “required” in the title of the new book means, first of all, “produced on request,” and Larkin makes a point of never having proposed an article or review to an editor, and of merely developing “someone else’s idea” (“He liked to have his mind made up for him,” Larkin writes of his hero Louis Armstrong). In view of his reputation as the most sought-after reviewer on the current labor market, his output is small, and the miscellaneous articles are neither numerous nor long. But whatever the occasion, they are pieces to be read and reread.

For someone so intensely private (“I don’t like plays. They happen in public”; “I find the idea of other people reading my favorite books rather annoying”; “I find it very sensible not to let people know what you’re like”), Larkin, in interviews and in asides, throughout the writings, is remarkably forthright about his life and background. When told that “not getting married” is one of his themes, he responds that “the idea of always being in company” oppresses him, and he quotes from his poem “Love”:

The difficult part of love
Is being selfish enough
Is having the blind persistence
To upset someone’s existence
Just for your own sake—
What cheek it must take.

Then take the unselfish side—
Who can be satisfied
Putting someone else first,
So that you come off worst?
My life is for me:
As well deny gravity.

Oh lucky the never-to-be-born next generation of Larkins! “Children are very horrible…Selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes,” says the won’t-be-papa, who attributes the early “waning of my Christian sympathies” to the sentiment about small hominids being inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the remark, ” ‘Personal relations’ were not, in the last analysis, as important to him as doing what he wanted and thought was right,” one suspects that Larkin is speaking as much for himself as for Rupert Brooke.

Home is Hull—“the hermit of Hull” a London Times profile (February 16, 1984) calls the new “cult figure”—and Larkin likes living there because it is “so far from everywhere else,” and because he wants to be “on the periphery of things.” He is a stay-at-home, too, and has been outside Britain only two or three times (“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”). He does not believe in enduring happiness (because you grow old and are pushed to the side of your own life, and “because you known that you are going to die and the people you love are going to die”), but in what he calls the right-wing virtues of “thrift, hard work, reverence, desire to preserve,” in contrast with “idleness, greed and treason,” all associated with the left.

His modesty (on being bibliographed: “As long as no one thinks I thought all these things worth exhuming”) is a visor (“One gets more dividends from keeping out of sight”), for he invariably gives the impression that he is in the superior position. But his admiration for simplicity is genuine, and one can believe that he reads no “philosophy,…sociology,…anything to do with technology,” “almost no poetry,” or “anything hard.” He is addicted to novels, from Dickens and Trollope (“about three novels running”), to Ian Fleming, Waugh, Anthony Powell, Peter de Vries, Michael Innes, the late Gladys Mitchell, Barbara Pym. (“I like to read about people who…aren’t beautiful and lucky…who can see, in little autumnal moments of vision, that the so-called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them…. In all her [Pym’s] writing…[there is a] courageous acceptance of things which I think more relevant to life as most of us have to live it, than spies coming in from the cold.”) Since Larkin regards “classical references [as] a liability nowadays,” no one can be surprised to learn that his great unreadables are Spenser, Milton, and Pound. Larkin himself is a nearly impeccable writer (only one wince in the book: “when it came to the crunch”).

As poet and critic, Larkin is most handily defined by his likes and dislikes. “Many times over the best body of poetic work this century so far has to show is Hardy’s.” In each poem “there is a little spinal cord of thought and each has a little tune of its own.” Hardy is “not a transcendental writer, he’s not a Yeats, he’s not an Eliot; his subjects are men, the life of men…” Since writing this, Larkin must have been delighted to have found in E.M. Forster’s letters the conclusion that Hardy is the writer “one trusts,” the writer who does not have that “allround intelligence…a lack that is often a sign of creative power.” But not everyone will agree with Larkin’s claim that Wilfred Owen is “the only twentieth-century poet who can be read after Hardy without a sense of bathos,” or applaud the Yeats-bashing, as when Larkin describes as “fatuous” Yeats’s “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry,” and calls his verbal music as “pervasive as garlic.”2

Hardy’s heir” is John Betjeman, whose Collected Poems “make up the most extraordinary poetic output of our time.” It is not unlikely that “as Eliot dominated the first half of the twentieth century, the second half will derive from Betjeman,” for whom there has been “no symbolism…no reinvestment in myth, of casting of language as gesture, no Seven Types or Some Versions, no works of criticism with titles such as…Implicit and Explicit Image-Obliquity in Sir Lewis Morris.” Deploring “the emergence of English literature as an academic subject,” and denouncing “the culture-mongering activities of the Americans Eliot and Pound,” Larkin suggests that “Betjeman was the writer who knocked over the ‘No Road Through to Real Life’ signs that this new tradition had erected.”

That “Americans” may seem gratuitous, but except for jazz Larkin has always kept things Stateside at a distance. Pretending to know very little about American poetry, Larkin told an interviewer, in an inexplicable lapse, that if he were in America and somebody had asked him about Ashbery, “I’d say, I’d prefer strawberry.” But clearly Larkin does know American poetry, from Dickinson (whose work appears to posterity “as perpetually unfinished and wilfully eccentric”) to Plath (her last poems “are to the highest degree original and scarcely less effective”), and from Cole Porter (“he was Gilbert as well as Sullivan”) to Ogden Nash (who makes you laugh at things “not because they are funny but because laughing at them makes it easier to stand them”). When Lowell was defeated by Edmund Blunden for the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, Larkin compared the proceedings to the election of “a cow to a chair at an institute of dairying.”

The most notorious piece in the book, the one by which Larkin’s name as a critic is still best known, is “What’s Become of Wystan?” (1960). According to Larkin, almost everything of value in Auden’s work belongs to his first decade as a poet, and the loss of “his key subject and emotion,” by going to America in 1939, has been “irreparable”—a final verdict no doubt, since it appears here a decade after Auden’s death. To dramatize the loss, Larkin compares “the disrespectful reference in 1937 to ‘Daunty, Gouty, Shopkeeper, the three Supreme Old Masters,’ ” with “the eulogistic invocation in the New Year Letter of 1941: ‘Great masters who have shown mankind…’ “; “disrespectful,” however, betrays a misunderstanding not of Auden’s, but of Joyce’s, phrase. Can the bard of Humberside have put Finnegans Wake on his Modernist Index before reading the book?

One of the shortcomings of the American Auden is that “literature was replacing experience as material for his verse.” It was, indeed, but isn’t this a common effect of age with writers everywhere? Larkin allows that Auden recovered to a degree in the 1950s with the return to the shorter poem as his proper medium; the long poems of the 1940s are described as a “rambling intellectual stew” (New Year Letter), an “unsuccessful piece of literary inbreeding” (The Sea and the Mirror), and as simply unreadable (The Age of Anxiety: “I never finished it and I never met anyone who has”). Also in the 1950s, Auden “recovered a dialect,” but one that “sets the teeth on edge.”

Larkin gives himself away by admitting that he had wanted a “New Yorker Walt Whitman viewing the American scene through lenses coated with a European irony.” Surely Auden was never a European, always a C. of E. parishioner. And precisely the New Yorker pieces have worn least well. The “Metalogue,” for instance, with its up-to-date references—a weakness in much of Auden’s verse—is hopelessly stale. “Auden was happier when his work had an extraneous social function,” Larkin argues. Unless he means simply that for him the poetic results were happier, this reader, for one, cannot agree. Auden’s rejection of his 1930s social and political attitudes as dishonest made him a happier man, whatever it did for his poetry.

The piece on Marvell is the prize of the collection. On the phrase “vegetable love,” which Eliot had singled out, Larkin quotes a dozen lines of critical jargon (“Vegetable is no vegetable but an abstract and philosophical term…the doctrine of the three souls”), then remarks that “another reader might simply think that ‘vegetable’ was a good adjective for something that grows slowly.” Empson is quoted at even greater length on “To a green thought in a green shade” (“…the seventh Buddhist state of enlightenment”) and is similarly punctured by the comment that “another reader might simply think the lines a good description of the mind of someone half-asleep under the summer trees in a garden.” On the other hand, Larkin points out that Marvell is the poet of enigma and ambiguity, the poet about whom the reader is never “quite sure how serious he is.” This would account for exegeses of the sort at which Larkin likes to poke fun. For Larkin, the “witty, tender elegance” in some of the best-known pieces remains Marvell’s greatest accomplishment. Larkin concludes that “every poet’s reputation fades in so far as his language becomes unfamiliar, his assumptions outmoded, and his subject-matter historical, and despite the iron lung of academic English teaching Marvell is no exception.”

Only once, in the “Introduction to All What Jazz?,” does Larkin lose his cool. The book itself is often hilarious, and it contains some of the best-written music criticism of its time. (On the Beatles: “Like certain sweets, they seem wonderful until you are suddenly sick.”) Nor is the “Introduction” less good about jazz, and its demise, or murder, in about 1947. But the anti-modern philosophy is specious, unworthy of so fastidious a critic. His title derives from Serious Music—And All That Jazz, by Henry Pleasants, author of The Agony of Modern Music, an attack, too feeble to be taken seriously, on Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky, and others. Though Larkin does not comment on this, he is recklessly contemptuous of all “modern art,” and to link, as he does, Picasso and Joyce (the latter declined “from talent to absurdity”), is to expose an imperceptiveness of these very different artists. Nor are “mystification and outrage” the “two principal themes of modernism,” as Larkin contends. The modern artist has indeed “painted portraits with both eyes on the same side of the nose,” written “a play in which the characters sit in dustbins.” But he has also expanded and intensified experience in new and marvelous music, painting, and, as a few of Larkin’s own best poems exemplify, literature.

  1. 1

    The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), which provoked “scandalized disbelief,” in the words of John Gross, who also described Donald Davie as “recoiling aghast from page after page.” See Larkin at Sixty, edited by Anthony Thwaite (Faber and Faber, 1982).

  2. 2

    In his introduction to the second edition of The North Ship, Larkin recalls an occasion when he was reciting Yeats’s “When such as I cast out remorse” and a friend rebuked him: “It’s not his job to cast off remorse, but to earn forgiveness.”

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