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 riding past him on a bicycle. He gets to know her, with sad and comical results. Slight as it is the novel is saturated in the Larkinian style of poetry, although at the time that poetry hardly existed and he had found no voice of his own. Later poems were to evoke a Jill-like figure, wearing a bathing suit in “Sunny Prestatyn,” an image defaced on a billboard (“She was too good for this life”), or the model girl of a cigarette brand—“that unfocused she / No match lit up nor drag ever brought near”—who visits the dying smoker
Smiling, and recognizing, and going dark.
An ironic image, in view of the lung and throat cancer that killed Larkin.
Jill was followed by A Girl in Winter, which is a real masterpiece, a quietly gripping novel, dense with the humor that is Larkin’s trademark, and also an extended prose poem. The author was still only twenty-one. Neither novel made any stir at the time and Larkin wrote no more novels, though he began and abandoned several. Like Keats he had written his Lamia and his Eve of St. Agnes (which the two stories curiously resemble: Larkin read the English course at Oxford), and creative impulse in that direction seems to have dried up. The novelist Kingsley Amis, who was at the same Oxford college and had been a close friend since their undergraduate days, suggested that Larkin was too diffident and conscious of possible failure to thrive in the cut and thrust of the novelists’ world. His marvelous sense of things and people (“Mr. Bleaney,” “Dockery and Son”) became the luminous mirror for a poem rather than being pursued in a more extrovert way through the events of an extended history. However that may be, a poet was born to succeed the aborted novelist.
Gestation was still slow, although a first collection, The North Ship, contained some hints of what was to come. Over the years Larkin was working as a librarian, successively at the universities of Leicester, Belfast, and Hull, and short books appeared at ten-year intervals—The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), High Windows (1974). Though he unforgettably imaged regular work as a toad (“Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?”) he performed it faithfully and with his own kind of drive, needing it as Wallace Stevens needed his insurance office, and ruefully admitting as much in “Toads Revisited.”
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.
The toad could turn into Larkin’s muse, was perhaps the same creature in disguise, and the idea of such visitation—like the moon goddess visiting Endymion—was unexpectedly appropriate for his poetry. In spite of its memorableness and popularity there is always something mysterious about it, and when in the last years of his life Larkin virtually ceased to write poetry he remarked: “I didn’t abandon poetry. Poetry abandoned me.”
With a sensibility as individual and as original as Betjeman’s, he and his poems nonetheless hugged a persona of depression, sterility, absence. “Deprivation is for me,” he once observed, “what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” A sardonic enemy of the Good Life, he never took holidays abroad, never visited America, spoke of “foreign poetry” as something quite outside his taste and experience. Yet his book of essays and reviews, Required Writing, reveals wide sympathies, deep and trenchant perceptions, a subterraneous grasp of the whole of European culture. And indeed the cult of “deprivation” in his verse has as much animation and relish in it as has Baudelaire’s cult of spleen: the authentic and in both cases wholly personal note of Romanticism finding the fattest reward for poetry in its own sense of the unfitness of things.
One of Larkin’s last, uncollected, poems begins, “I work all day and get half drunk at night,” and goes on to descant with an almost joyful eloquence on the fear of death and the terror of extinction. The fear is all too genuine but the fact of the poetry overcomes it—a very traditional feat—as it overcomes the emptiness it evokes so majestically at the end of “Dockery and Son.”
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
Such unforced majesty and scope of emotion in poems like “The Building” and “The Old Fools” have hardly been heard in English poetry since the great requiem of another Romantic—Wilfred Owen’s war poem “Strange Meeting”—and about Owen Larkin wrote a moving tribute.
But his personality has no hint of Owen’s priggishness. His sanity and pleasure are in very ordinary life and doings, about which he throws off phrases of devastating memorableness (“Glaring at jellies”; “an awful pie”). No modern poet has been more free of cant—political, social, or literary—than Larkin. His humor and common sense are very like Barbara Pym’s, whose novels he deeply admired, helping to rescue her in the Sixties (that ill-omened epoch) from the neglect of publishers convinced that her books were not at all the thing for the modern world. In neither artist is there any question of the “major” or the “minor,” although neither would be likely to have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Both are completely though unpretentiously themselves, and, as the poet said of the novelist, in its art such an achievement “will not diminish.”