Philip Larkin’s death at the age of sixty-three not only means a sad day for English poetry but echoes the deaths of poets in a more romantic era—Shelley drowned, Keats dying of consumption. Larkin was not a young poet cut short in the fullness of his creative life—far from it—and yet something of their legend hangs about him. Like Housman he was a Romantic born out of his age; and it is ironic that his poetry was nonetheless identified, not long since, as wholly in keeping with the drab, diminished, unillusioned spirit of postwar Britain, a poetry of low-keyed vernacular honesty, whose every line seemed to be saying: “Come off it.”
It must have given Larkin some wry amusement to have been hailed at that time as “the laureate of the housing estates.” He was an expert showman, and he knew it, and like all showmen he knew how to seem wholly in touch with his public. He was also a connoisseur of classical jazz, and this gives a clue to the sense in which he lived in the past. In England many people do, and of Larkin’s poetry it could be said—as he himself wrote in an introduction to the American edition of John Betjeman’s poems—“it could only happen in England.” For the greater irony is that in England his poetry had the popularity associated with other kinds of late Romanticism—Housman’s Shropshire Lad and Barrie’s Peter Pan and Betjeman’s Joan Hunter Dunn. Like theirs, Larkin’s poetic image sold in thousands, achieved a kind of plangentcomic national status.
Yet he was a very private man, and his private world was quite another one. If he touched the national nerve and appealed to the common reader, it was because he could be felt to be leading a double life—again as most people do. Behind the unsentimental directness and the refusal to play the part of poet or intellectual there was a quietly erudite and intensive inner life, a reticent romanticism. Larkin makes the “one life one writing” formula of a Lowell or a Berryman seem all surface exposure, a too coherent and explicable unity. Though he seemed so direct Larkin hated to explain. And he had nothing in common with the poets who write for academics and for other poets, the university-funded tribes of Ben with their handouts from government culture and their eagerness to explain on the radio and television what their poetry is trying to do.
A possible key to Larkin’s inner world is that he did not want to be a poet so much as a novelist. While still at Oxford in wartime he wrote a novel called Jill, which is about a young man at Oxford. For comfort and protection against the dauntingly upper-class life around him he invents a fantasy girl called Jill, whose style and attraction he describes to his friends. Then he sees the actual Jill of his imagination …