The Master of the Ordinary

Philip Larkin: Collected Poems

edited with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite
Farrar, Straus and Giroux/ The Marvell Press, 330 pp., $22.50


The average face, the average voice, the average life—that is, the life most of us lead, apart from film stars and dictators—had never been defined so precisely in English poetry until Philip Larkin. He invented a muse: her name was Mediocrity. She was the muse of the diurnal, of habit, of repetition. She lived in life itself, not as a figure beyond it, a phantom of yearning, but as the plain, transparent companion of a confirmed benedict.

Benedict” seems better than “bachelor” when we think of Larkin because of the word’s monkish associations, suggesting his medieval patience in waiting for the right phrase to come, as well as what seemed to his readers to be a willful self-immolation as a librarian in Hull—since nothing sounds more ordinary, more mediocre than that. Increasingly silent as his last years passed, he seemed pleased to encourage this image of himself—Larkin the librarian, a bookworm smothering itself in a silken silence. Obviously, if Hull was all there was to life, if work was a cold toad that squatted on his heart, and if excitement and enthusiasm were dismissed as suspicious spasms, we were not to expect anything more radiant than this poem, as brief and frighteningly funny in its Keystone Cop ending as its topic:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in.

They are to be happy in.” God as a nanny, God as a schoolmaster, a parson, a constable:

Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

And this:

For nations vague as weed,
For nomads among stones,
Small-statured cross-faced tribes
And cobble-close families
In mill-towns on dark mornings
Life is slow dying.
(“Nothing To Be Said”)

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.
(“Dockery and Son”)

A shudder and a nod from the reader. Is this catharsis? Spiritual redemption? You mean that’s it?

If so, then what is it in Larkin that has made his collected poems a best seller in Great Britain? Thirty-five thousand copies two months after publication last autumn. As the shade of a popular hermit, Larkin might say, bemused by the irony that nothing sells writing better than the writer’s death, that there is a small fortune to be made in conspicuous isolation, that books may be “a load of crap,” but they keep being read, borrowed, stolen, indexed, and bought. The fate he seemed to prefer, that of being remaindered and neglected because for him there was “nothing to be said,” has been resoundingly contradicted by the size of his following, which numerically must be the equivalent of an audience at a rock concert. Even The Whitsun Weddings and the last short book, High Windows, had a large audience.

But has that fate been contradicted or confirmed? If his large readership consists mostly of average persons leading average lives, this is not because Larkin pitched his tone to accommodate them, the way that other popular poets, like Kipling, Frost, Betjeman, or Stevie Smith, did. His life, on the surface, was not exemplary. There was nothing to be envied in it. Partly it is patriotism that makes Larkin popular. Not a jingoistic bitterness lamenting the loss of England’s power, not even his mockery of that power, but something gentle and piercingly sweet that tells the sad truths of ordinariness, as the poems of one of his models, Edward Thomas, do. An unread predecessor often opens the way to popularity for his apprentice. So Larkin’s popularity is not only his, but owes much to Thomas. This is Thomas’s “Aspens”:

All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.

And here is early Larkin:

On shallow slates the pigeons shift together,
Backing against a thin rain from the west
Blown across each sunk head and settled feather,
Huddling round the warm stack suits them best.

There is in Larkin, in poems like “The Whitsun Weddings,” a Georgian decency that is aware of England’s smallness, and keeps the poem no wider than the rail-lines of the meter in his many poems of departure. But departure for what? Never abroad, always England, an England that is quietly loved, just as it is in Thomas, and in a way beyond the architectural nostalgia of Betjeman:

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number-plates
Spring down the platform to famil- iar gates,
“Why, Coventry!” I exclaimed. “I was born here.”

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been “mine”
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed…?
(“I Remember, I Remember”)

This empty street, this sky to bland- ness scoured,
This air, a little indistinct with autumn
Like a reflection, constitute the present—
A time traditionally soured,
A time unrecommended by event.
(“Triple Time”)

Or, without abashment, the hymnal meter of:

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
(“Going, Going”)

Larkin is like a retractable Kipling, whose empire is reduced to the diurnal familiarity of “canals with floatings of industrial froth,” of

The large cool store selling cheap clothes
Set out in simple sizes plainly,
(Knitwear, Summer Casuals, Hose,
In browns and greys, maroon and navy)


…a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to sol- itude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river’s slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud.

I have no idea how many times I have read the poems in The Whitsun Weddings, High Windows, and, although not as often, The Less Deceived. On my small bookshelf my fingers scuttle past Frost, Eliot, Pound, Yeats to pluck the thin Larkin volumes almost hidden among them. One has to prepare one’s intellect for the great moderns. Often reading Yeats first thing in the morning is like being awakened to the boom of a reverberating gong. Reading Stevens is like having chocolate for breakfast. With Larkin, the tone is matutinal or crepuscular as with most poems, but it is also the tone of ordinary day. His first lines are immediate, and intimate, as if they were resuming an interrupted conversation:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off.
(“Poetry of Departures”)

Why should I let the toad work
   Squat on my life?

No, I have never found
The place where I could say
This is my proper ground,
Here I shall stay.
(“Places, Loved Ones”)

This was Mr. Bleaney’s room…
(“Mr. Bleaney”)

About twenty years ago
Two girls came in where I worked—
A bosomy English rose
And her friend in specs I could talk to.
(“Wild Oats”)

When I see a couple of kids
And I guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a dia- phragm…
(“High Windows”)

Groping back to bed after a piss.
(“Sad Steps”)

This is not only poetry, it is exchange. No other poet I know of makes the reader an intimate listener as well as Larkin does. The poems are not confessional, they are shared with the reader, with the joke always turning on Larkin. He would never write:

I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.

The Eliot line is too heraldically plangent. Larkin would describe the spoon. When he eats “an awful pie” at a railway station, the pie is not a symbol—a tacky epiphany. He will continue to eat more pies. “I have measured out my life in awful pies” would be closer to his experience. The railway platforms go on; the awful pies are eaten. The poet does not separate himself from the others in the cheap restaurant. Often the poet, for Larkin, is

the shit in the shuttered château
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and
(“The Life With a Hole in It”)

And yet he can startle with this, from “Aubade,” the way Marvell suddenly darkens:

Man hands on misery to man,
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can
And don’t have any kids yourself.

And, of death:

Most things may never happen: this one will.

In verse, tone is one thing, but in pitch lies the seismographic accuracy of the individual voice, the shadings as personal as a thumb-print. Larkin’s voice, in the late books The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows, was accurately set not only in its middle-class timbre, but, even more finely, by the use of cliché and aside, and a vocabulary frayed by repetition, perfectly in its milieu, the chat of a librarian or a don, of someone who “also writes verse.” The muted pitch is that of a man in a suit, after work, having an ale and a sandwich in a better-than-average pub, as well as that of a guest at an upper-middle-class party, holding a bell-glass of tolerable sherry, nearly dazed with boredom but making small talk. The references in “Naturally The Foundation will Bear Your Expenses” are as swift and compact as shoptalk, and must be difficult not only for some American readers, but even for those English readers who may not get the cynical, slightly self-lacerating business of cashing in on the lecture and highbrow radio racket:

Hurrying to catch my Comet One dark November day,
Which soon would snatch me from it To the sunshine of Bombay,
I pondered pages Berkeley Not three weeks since had heard,
Perceiving Chatto darkly Through the mirror of the Third.

Crowds, colourless and careworn, Had made my taxi late,
Yet not till I was airborne Did I recall the date—
That day when Queen and Minister And Band of Guards and all
Still act their solemn-sinister Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall.

It used to make me throw up, These mawkish nursery games:
O when will England grow up?—But I outsoar the Thames,
And dwindle off down Auster To greet Professor Lal
(He once met Morgan Forster), My contact and my pal.

The poem’s humor lies in its being written, tonally, in dialect, that is in the argot of chaps who write things, brilliantly mediocre chaps of course, with the conceited casualness of talking only to their peers or compatriots, regardless of whether those outside the circle get the references or not. The poem is set in self-parodic stanzas, again like something from Kipling or a hymn book, making a personal anthem with literature as its subject. And how shockingly accurate it is, precisely because of its pitch! Even a deliberately forced and desperate rhyme like Auster/Forster (simultaneously mocking itself and saying to those outside the circle: “Christ, you know who Auster is, it’s the North Wind for God’s sake”) pins and immolates the character, an academic ponce.

On the Comet, Britain’s pride of the air, he revises a lecture he’s given at Berkeley in California (good American bucks for an English accent), then lifts his head from the lecture to look through the jet’s window, and sees (as through a glass darkly) the publication of the talk by Chatto and Windus over the Third Programme, the English channel devoted to almost nauseating expertise. Then, in the middle stanza, ceremony is mocked. The speaker escapes the gray, self-pumping parade of Remembrance Day, toward the sunshine of India. The smugness of the character is so perfectly adaptable that even the sunshine of Bombay will be exploited, for there he will meet Professor Lal, “my contact and my pal,” who once met the author of A Passage to India.

But I outsoar the Thames

He’s bigger than all that, he’s left behind the Thames of Spenser, even of Eliot, the lecture in the briefcase.

And dwindle off down Auster

—the jet is getting smaller, and, with it, his sense of responsibility, lost for the career. There is not a more acid portrait of English academic hypocrisy.

Even oral composition is mental writing. Poetry is speech, but it is also writing. Words have shapes. It is composition in verse before it is anything else. Meter precedes breath, shape foreshadows content. Melody indicates meaning. The rest comes afterward. But in most free verse speech is supposed to shape form.

Development, for Larkin, lay not in metrical experiment, or in varieties of stanzaic design, not in Pound’s frenzied and very American injunction to “make it new,” since Larkin despised the avantgarde, but in concentration on the shifts and pauses possible within the pentameter. Pound had written: “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave,” but for Larkin the great achievement was not to betray the pulse or the breath of the pentameter by abandoning it or condemning its melody as archaic, but in exploring the possibility of its defiant consistency, until technical mastery became freshness. The patience and subtlety with which he succeeded in writing “the Larkin line” were not achieved by tricks. There are tricks in modulation as well as tricks of bombast.

Larkin continued to rely on the given beat of the pentametrical line throughout his career. He shadowed it with hesitations, coarsened it with casual expletives, and compacted it with hyphens—when the hyphenated image had always been considered a mark of desperate inertia—to the point where a hyphenated image, with its aural-visual fusion, was powerful enough to contain a minipoem in itself:

Some lonely rain-ceased summer’s evening…
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade… time’s rolling smithy-smoke… dark, shining-leaved cabbages… sun-comprehending glass…
Beside grain-scattered streets, barge- crowded water.

The tension of the right-hand margin, the cliff or frontier that the casual, ambulatory breath approached as it neared the edge of the pentameter, pushed description to fall back on the hyphen; but the two paces backward from the threat of collapse, from the banal enjambment of running the description into an extra half-line and an epigrammatic caesura, was resisted with patient honesty. The compression that ensued out of an absolute devotion to the rhythm produced, in its microcosmic clarity, like a lens or a dew-bead, a world that is whole.

The hyphenated image is not colloquial, but Larkin’s achievement is to make it sound as if it were, as if such phrasing could slip into talk, into apparently diffident but actually heraldic observation, as casually as “in a pig’s arse, friend.” And accepting this, we hear a unified conversational drone, which at the crest of its shared rhythm flashes with illuminating asides, and which flatters us, as Auden often does, into believing that we too are capable of such compressions. After years of sticking to the beat, a devotion that Larkin praised in classic jazz and made him reject Charlie Parker as sneeringly as in painting and in theater he sneered at Picasso and Beckett, he achieved a clear tone in the instrument, as with the clarinet of Sydney Bechet, while the wire brushes supply the background. The heartbeat is the bass, the wire brushes whirr and lift the rhythm, and the improvisations, the stops and riffles of the clear clarinet, may appear to leave the meter, but they return to it, and it is the return that supplies the delight.


One of the most flattering experiences I have had was when Larkin included me in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse of 1973. I mention this not only from the pride of being recognized by a poet for whose work I had great affection and whose severity of judgment I feared, but also because it contradicts, self-contradicts, the image of a beleaguered provinciality that Larkin offered his readers. This image, continually repeated, was of a weary, sneering recluse who “never read foreign poetry,” for whom China was a good place to travel to, if one could get back on the same day, who despised “the myth-kitty” into which poets rummage to pluck classical fragments from the sawdust of the Greco-Roman bran tub, and for whom books were “a load of crap.”

Larkin’s Oxford anthology, even more eccentric than Yeats’s, excluded Commonwealth poets (apart from my own work and that of a couple of others), and to many critics seemed perverse, a papal bull from Hull whose imprimatur sanctified the neglected and minor, giving, for instance, several interminable pages to a poem composed by George Orwell and Alex Comfort. At the expense of Oxford, Larkin seemed to be again taking the mickey out of the literary establishment, to play the conservative when they must have expected daring. By then, however, the Angry Young Men and the redbrick rebels had continued their mugging, like Lucky Jim making faces, until the mugging had reached the rictus of a conservative mask. But we were always that, Kingsley Amis, one of Larkin’s close friends, argued, as did John Osborne. What we mocked were the false postures, the old farts’ pomposities, the dead mind of Oxbridge. We loved England behind all the face making and the satire, and the England we loved was one of traditional simplicities. This was the general tone of Larkin’s Oxford Book of English Verse, which found merit in decently industrious verse, as if its editor were the J.C. Squire of our time. If he found only those values in my own work, that was okay by me.

Because behind Larkin’s cultivated philistinism, one of the penalties of playing the recluse, there was also that perception which, in his own phrase, “loneliness clarifies.” But he maintained the mask, physically that of a bespectacled egghead who was a librarian and hated literature, a waxworks dummy who loved jazz and wrote a column about it for The Daily Telegraph, an antipatriot who loved rural England, and who could mock it as he did in “Naturally the Foundation…” and still accept a medal from the Queen:

That day when Queen and Minister And Band of Guards and all
Still act their solemn-sinister Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall.

It used to make me throw up, These mawkish nursery games:
O when will England grow up?—But I outsoar the Thames.

But he also wrote the lines that follow, not with the prosaic concern of a conservationist, but with a love as old as Spenser’s, and more deeply frightened by highways and “MI cafés” than any lines of Betjeman’s:

I thought it would last my time—
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down;
I knew there’d be false alarms…

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
(“Going, Going”)

And that will be England gone.” Who is this? The Rupert Brooke of the Thatcher government celebrating boating, tea, and Granchester? Kipling in the day of the dole? Which Larkin is honest? The one accepting a medal from the very hand it has tried to bite, since there is no real difference between being handed a medal and being draped with a wreath (in fact, some might see both gestures as the handshake of death, as Browning mocked Tennyson for “leaving us for a handful of silver”)? Or the other Larkin, the tender elegist pierced by the last light of calendar country? And without irony or ambiguity, the answer is both. Light, with Larkin, is a religious experience. Whether one believes in it or not, as he writes, it goes out, or goes on.

There is an evening coming in
Across the fields, one never seen before,
That lights no lamps.

On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water….

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly
…And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
(“High Windows”)

The tenderness, the prayerlike, sacred translucence of those lines are in the same spirit as a poem by Edward Thomas, a spirit that appears fragile because of its precision, but that really increases our love for the poet, and not only for his poetry but for the personality behind the poetry.

Eliot avoids us, like a man who can’t bear being touched, except by the finger of God. He wrote, with his customary humble vanity, that poetry was a turning away from personality, and that only those who had personality would understand this. That it was not a turning loose of emotion, but a turning away from it. By paradox, no poet, if to judge only by features, looks more apersonal than Larkin, and yet few other contemporary poets, even those classified as “confessional,” are as intimate and open as that average, antiromantic, bespectacled visage whose personality is stamped on every line, either as observer or sufferer. We love Larkin, and that is it, simply. And we must be careful to make a distinction between love and popularity. There are minor poets whom we love clearly and cleanly, mainly because they are not posing for their busts. We can discern the edges of hardening marble, the immortalized lineaments when poets turn into bards, can see the seamed toga casually tossed over one shoulder, and eventually we are at a distance from them. As their lines become marmoreal, poets hear their own echo as oracles.

This happened to Eliot with The Four Quartets, to Stevens in the plummy vacancies of his later work, to Pound as he began to screech, even to Williams once he felt the laurel tightening on his forehead. Poetry is a narrow spring, the mountain cold brook of Helicon, and it is not its narrowness that matters but the crystalline, tongue-numbing cold of its freshness, which, in the largest works, still glitters like an unpolluted spring. Larkin is of that stream, and he makes a lot of “great” modern poetry sound like noise. This modesty is saintly, even more than it is hermetic or, amid the roar and grayness of our cities, reclusive. A great poet like Joyce never lost the narrow, clear, refreshing temperature of that mountain spring, huge as his ambition was, and if there is one great poet who would recognize his kinship with Mr. Bleaney, it would be the one who created Leopold Bloom.

I have tried to distinguish love of a poet from his popularity. I would dislike it, for selfish reasons, if Edward Thomas were popular. But I feel happy that Larkin is being so widely read. One of the reasons for his popularity is its accurate placing of the temper of a shrinking Britain. There may even be a general, and even genial, self-mockery in the acceptance of England as tacky and motheaten, a place as narrow as its lanes and alleys, jammed with “colourless and careworn” crowds. Larkin’s verse is as narrow as this, but it too is packed with gray-faced people whose predecessors managed an immense empire.

And, in a sense, Larkin’s popularity may be of the same sort as Kipling’s, if instead of Victoria we now have Margaret Thatcher. Here he is on the old business of sending troops abroad and having to bring them back:

Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.
(“Homage to a Government”)

—all right, when compared with Kipling’s

Far called our navies melt away
On dune and headland sinks the fire.
And all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre…

Behind Kipling’s prophetic posture there is a boast, one that is contained in Byron’s “the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome.” Kipling’s High Church lament continues to ascribe glory, even if it will be past, to an empire “once” as great as Nineveh’s and Tyre’s, the tapestry unfading and hanging in the museum even if the empire has declined. Popular poetry can be excited by sadness, and this is the feeling one gets from hymns, the sweet pain of “sic transit gloria,” because when we as a colonial congregation sang “Recessional,” we were sharing the empire’s pride in the glory of its passing, like a funeral Viking ship setting out for the horizon, or Arthur’s barge in another popular poet of empire, Tennyson.

The opposite is so in Larkin’s abrupt, epigrammatic sanity And yet this has appealed to the very thousands who would have recited Kipling and Tennyson at the peak of the empire’s glory and grandeur. If there is one great thing that Larkin’s poetry, however temporarily, may have done, it is to make stained glass plain, to clarify, by its transparency, the true ordinariness of postempire Britain, by supplying his readers with what he calls “a furious, devout drench,” without the twilight trumpets and the doom.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a dif- ferent country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.
(“Homage to a Government”)

Larkin’s is a poetry of clichés. But the clichés inspire him to pursue them carefully toward some cryptic or sometimes illuminating resolution. Bleaney alone in his room; an admirer turning the pages of a photograph album; spring in the park with its prams and nurses; sticking to one’s job while daydreaming of adventure; parking a bicycle outside a church and removing cycle clips; trains, windows, streets. It is like LaForgue, in its urban geography, its elegiac domesticity, the sadness of the professional traveler encountering the glitter of set cutlery in provincial hotels, and clichés need a language of cliché.

Herein lies Larkin’s astounding courage. Poets with similar themes, like MacNeice, or the early Eliot and the early Auden, wrote of cities and isolation, but never that relentlessly, never with the varied repetitiveness that Larkin takes to be the meter of life.

To reinforce his craft he chose models whose subjects were first of all ordinary, banal: Betjeman, the novelist Barbara Pym, Stevie Smith. The process of the spirit was through the rubbed, worn-out familiarity of the common to something that would shine from that friction, as it does at the end of “The Whitsun Weddings”:

…and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. 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 becom- ing rain.

and in the blazing epiphany at the end of his celebration of some imaginary minor master, with its wonderful, leaping assonances of crusted logs aflame and the hiss of spit into the flames in “The Card-Players”:

Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial peace!

Once, the delight was underlined by the fact that there was so little of Larkin’s poetry, that its scale refreshed its rarity, and that what little there was was perfect, so useful and private that the poems felt as familiar as a bunch of keys. One picked them up as casually; they were small, shining, and slipped easily into the pocket of memory. Now, of course, another Larkin joke has been played on us. The Collected Poems is not an immense block of a book, but it is large, containing several dozen previously unpublished poems, and its very prolixity is a contradiction of the parsimonious writer we believed Larkin to be. He said late in his life that he had not abandoned poetry, but that it had abandoned him. We waited for years for the next Larkin poem, patient, because we anticipated its metrical perfection. In the meantime, we could always go back to those volumes we were beginning to know by heart from rereading. Now this proof of Larkin as a fecund, if not voluminous, poet is both startling and amusing. It means that he once wrote as hard and as often as any other poet of his time, and how does the ample Larkin compare with the almost anorexic slenderness of his last book, High Windows?

There isn’t any juvenilia in Anthony Thwaite’s collection. The book is not stuffed with negligible, purely biographical poems that might show us Larkin’s development. Instead the verse is, in Larkin’s own phrase, “nutritious,” the skill unfaltering even in apprenticeship. The thin Larkin managed to get out of the fat one mainly because of the severity of his judgment, even if all the poems in the collected volume were publishable, and it makes us admire him even more that he could have found so many excellent poems unsatisfactory enough to have kept them from print. The choices had nothing to do with career, or with being a perfectionist. What it had to do with was his belief in breathing, in the poem’s life. Thus the lovely poems that he remarkably excluded from his narrow books fail only in the sense that they best belong not to his reputation but to poetry. Larkin is a moral poet, an honest one, who hated grandeur and the posing that encourages experiment. This is not conservatism, it is, purely, devotion. And this is why poets will continue to cherish him beyond his current popularity—for that crisp dismissal of “what’s not good enough,” or what “has nothing to say,” that if applied to so many of his contemporaries would reduce them to a few lines of poetry, enough, in his view, for any lifetime.

The text has its chronological delights. An early poem (1943–1944), “Dawn,” printed in full below:

To wake, and hear a cock
Out of the distance crying,
To pull the curtains back
And see the clouds flying—
How strange it is
For the heart to be loveless, and as cold as these.

will be rewritten twenty-four years later as:

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanli- ness.

Four o’clock, wedge-shadowed gar- dens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

which develops a voracity for accurate passion:

High and preposterous and separate—
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
(“Sad Steps,” 1968)

and the Chekovian, plucked string of:

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
(“Money,” 1973)

True. Except that his sadness is now our delight.


Reading Larkin September 28, 1989