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Reading Larkin

In response to:

The Master of the Ordinary from the June 1, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

In his review essay on Philip Larkin [NYR, June 1] Derek Walcott makes so many wise and perceptive comments that one hates to take issue with part of his reading of an important Larkin poem, “Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses.”

I suppose that was only a careless slip to say that “down Auster” means “North”; the speaker in the poem uses it correctly to describe his southward course from London to Bombay. It is also not important that the speaker’s first musings about his retreaded lecture occur in his taxi, not in the Comet aircraft to which he is hurrying. But Walcott’s misreading of the lines on the “mawkish” Remembrance Day ceremony and the “colourless and careworn” crowd does require comment, especially since he puts such weight on it in discussing Larkin’s own attitudes toward present-day England.

Walcott says that Larkin loved traditional England, but could also “mock it as he did in ‘Naturally the Foundation…’ and still accept a medal from the Queen.” But clearly the mockery in the poem is not Larkin’s but that of his speaker, a stereotypical left-wing academic whom Larkin loathes—as apparently Walcott does as well. The whole poem is a consistent self-skewering of this smug and repellent character, and one does not need to have drunk deeply of the subtleties of the Yale school to conclude that the poet’s own views are the precise opposite of those he puts in his speaker’s mouth.

One can make a similar point about the “colourless and careworn” Remembrance Day crowds. This may indeed be in part a realistic description of modern England—Mrs. Thatcher’s and Mr. Attlee’s as well. But in the context of the poem the speaker’s disparaging words are meant to betray his lack of sympathy for ordinary men and women, as well as his self-centeredness—for they are mentioned only because they “had made [his] taxi late.”

There are all sorts of complexities and contradictions in Larkin, no doubt; but this poem, despite its difficult references, is wholly clear and consistent in its point of view. What we see in Derek Walcott’s partial misreading is a reminder that irony is a hazardous literary weapon, as Swift learned when he was attacked for favoring the abolition of Christianity.

Thomas W. Perry
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

Derek Walcott replies:

I’m glad to have Mr. Perry’s differing interpretation and would like to make some corrections to my review of Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems suggested by other correspondents: (1) The lines “The glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome” were written by Edgar Allan Poe, not Lord Byron; (2) Browning mocked Wordsworth, not Tennyson, for “leaving us for a handful of silver”; and (3) the quatrain beginning “Man hands misery on to man” is from “This Be the Verse,” not “Aubade.” I am grateful to the readers of The New York Review for calling these errors to my attention.

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