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Philip Larkin: Desired Reading

The year 1922 famously saw the birth of High Modernism, mewling and puking as well as shining and sighing in Ulysses and in The Waste Land. 1922 also saw the birth, in Coventry on August 9, of Philip Arthur Larkin. For a poet of his lineage (by Thomas Hardy, out of Christina Rossetti, as it might never have been), most High Modernism would in due course expose itself as mystification and outrage. Nor was this a matter of the written word only, as Larkin made obdurate in the introduction to All What Jazz (1970), Charlie Parker being a key culprit:

I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it. This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound, or Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying and more outrageous: it has no lasting power.

We are to recognize here the lasting power of Dr. Johnson: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” For Larkin, as for Johnson, what might seem to some of us a third possibility was never really a possibility at all: What about enabling the readers to bring about a better way of life, to better life? To the conservatively tragic cast of mind, life is incorrigible. “Human life,” Johnson said, “is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” Life is not something that can be made better other than palliatively (not that this is nothing), and life cannot be bested. Or worsted.

Except by death. “Experience makes literature look insignificant beside life, as indeed life does beside death,” Larkin wrote. We should respect his respect for certain convictions that are not his own, his precise reluctance here to dogmatize. Feel how different that sentence would be without the caveat that is the word look: “Experience makes literature insignificant beside life, as indeed life does beside death.” Larkin is the poet of a humanist realization of Holy Dying. His poem “Church Going” may not be holy in quite the traditional way (“some brass and stuff/Up at the holy end”) but it realizes one form that the holy should take, in being less holier-than-thou. Moreover, unholy glee will be found to flash everywhere in Larkin.

There’s the rueful, too. “Dockery and Son” is a poem about how disconcerting it is to find that someone who was at college with you has now a son there at college when you visit it—and yet how no less disconcerting it would have been for the muser, whose consciousness is by no means limited to Larkin personally, to have had a child at all. Timing is all, or is at least all-important. “Dockery and Son” needs its death sentences, its sententiae, to end with. A birth announcement of a sort: “To Dockery, a son”? Not quite; the proposition asks a different preposition:

For Dockery a son, for me nothing,
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.
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.

This is the only inconceivable end for the poem. Declining away, as we all may if we are spared, Larkin declines to end with the word end. Death is all too unimaginable, whereas age all too isn’t. (“Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines—” in your face in these lines of “The Old Fools.”) The positioning of the final thought of finality in “Dockery and Son” has to be other than that which Larkin accords, in “Aubade,” to another of his dying falls, one that gets lessened whenever we single it out and reduce it to a freestanding aphorism about death: “Most things may never happen: this one will.” Even better, this, even more telling, when we restore it to its setting:

Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Courage may be no good in the longest run, but it is courage’s good impetus that refuses to conclude with this one will. Too much likelihood of smacking one’s lips over that ripe cadence, “Most things may never happen: this one will.” Period. Instead the lines head on, pausing for a comma only, into further realization:

Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation….

Punctuation is great at puncturing heroics. And so is rhyming.

At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend
There’ll be anything else.
—“The Old Fools”

How effortlessly daunting is the merging of for ever and end in the immediate consummation that is endeavour, with the thought of death then kept alive (lest we forget, lest we forget) in you can’t pretend.

Larkin was to take a tart pleasure in being in but not of the 1922 Class, even while he manifested an awareness that graduating from the womb had been the crucial commencement. He never issued his two poems “A Member of the 1922 Class Looks to the Future” and “A Member of the 1922 Class Reads the 1942 Newspapers” (now accurately printed in The Complete Poems and illuminatingly annotated), but then he was not one to limit to the future and the present his looking. The signal year from the past, 1922, was to find itself celebrated for two literary births that would prove to be lifelong endowments. They were quite other than the books by Joyce or Eliot, though like every poet since 1922 Larkin could not but learn from Eliot, even if this were largely Go, and do thou unlikewise. (Joyce remained “a textbook case of declension from talent to absurdity.”)

For Larkin, the masterpiece of the year 1922 would always be Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses, by Thomas Hardy. Here were (here still are, enduringly) 151 poems, Hardy—at the age of eighty-one—ushering them in with an Apology. Larkin was clear in his own mind and heart that Hardy was the one who was owed an apology. “Wanted: Good Hardy Critic” (1966) was to end with a clarion-calling of the condescenders’ bluff: to these gentlemen, “may I trumpet the assurance that one reader at least would not wish Hardy’s Collected Poems a single page shorter, and regards it as many times over the best body of poetic work this century so far has to show?”

The other lifetime-enhancing volume of 1922 would prove to be Last Poems, by A.E. Housman, whose terminal title did not prevent this testamentary poet—he was then sixty-three—from having well over a decade still to go. Like Hardy’s, Housman’s art haunted and fostered Larkin’s, and Larkin repaid the debt to Housman not only in kind (with many a poem that is thanks to him) but with one of the strangest, nicest things ever said about the classical disciplinarian of whom so many were understandably afraid: “Then again, he seems to have been a very nice man.”

What did Larkin say that he had learned from other poets? “Hardy, well…not to be afraid of the obvious,” he told The Paris Review in 1982. This urging is one that should act upon anyone who is now faced with the happy task of assessing not only Larkin’s mastery but that of his masterly editor, Archie Burnett.1 When it comes (as it will later in this review) to describing and commending the editorial achievement, some things will need to be borne in mind with respect to a particular obviousness: that, as the book makes clear on more than one occasion, on the jacket and in the body, the present reviewer is a friend and colleague of the editor. Full disclosure, then, even though Larkin’s art is one that finds itself preferring intimations to disclosures. No confessional poet, he; rather, someone for whom poems are full enclosures. But it is best to leave this on hold for now, since the initial obviousnesses ought to be those of Larkin himself, or rather of Larkin’s art itself.2

  1. 1

    Archie Burnett edited The Poems of A.E. Housman (Oxford University Press, 1997) and The Letters of A.E. Housman (Oxford University Press, 2007) no less authoritatively and wisely than now The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin. 

  2. 2

    It is almost half a century since I reviewed The Whitsun Weddings in these pages ( The New York Review, January 14, 1965). 

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