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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

The obvious arc of his art, then. “The Life with a Hole in it” is a poem that Larkin published but didn’t collect, leaving a hole that Burnett—like Larkin’s vigorously initiatory editor Anthony Thwaite in 1988—has respectfully plugged. (One might plug the poem for accommodating one of Larkin’s high moments of low comedy, the musically dextrous line “So the shit in the shuttered château.”) Larkin’s literary life had more than one hole in it. There was the one from his twenties, the hole—as he soon came to realize—that was his first book, The North Ship (1945), hollow and misguided, guided too much by fealty (not fidelity, really) to Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Yeats. Though his subjects were the enduring ones—lovelessness, being alone, “desire for self-effacement,” “the static past”—the past was not yet static as having electric limits.

But what ensued a decade later, delightingly, was an economical volume embodying the strength that Dr. Johnson had praised in the Augustan poet Sir John Denham, lines “which convey much meaning in few words, and exhibit the sentiment with more weight than bulk.” There were three short volumes, again a decade apart: The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974), their compactness such that a unit of measurement was affectionately proposed, a larkin, a firkin being (of course) a quarter of a kilderkin. It was The Less Deceived that left pastiche in the past, and that established Larkin as uneccentrically inimitable. Soon we were to read “Self’s the Man,” but in 1955 and ever since, Larkin’s the Man. And his own man.

The final volume, High Windows, let in new light through chinks that time had made. It didn’t imitate Housman by announcing itself as Last Poems, but Larkin increasingly had his suspicions about his decreasing fertility. As early as 1958 he was writing to a friend that “the literary life goes on, apart from producing no literature. I’d kinder like to write about a poem a week, but it doesn’t happen that way.” By 1983 he was reduced to answering an invitation with the reduction that “poetry gave me up about six years ago,” or again to restore his wit to the full justice that is his way of putting the whole matter in due sequence:

Indeed I should be delighted to write a poem for The Author, or for almost any other publication for that matter, but in fact poetry gave me up about six years ago, and I have no expectation of being revisited.

Wordsworth had Yarrow Revisited. Hardy, “St. Launce’s Revisited.” Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited. For Larkin, it was “Toads Revisited,” the “toad work,” of which he had complained in the earlier poem “Toads,” having turned out to be a support after all, given what worklessness was like. But then there was not often, now, the poet’s work of writing poems. There were some lovely, and a few large lovely, late poems still, to be found here among the twenty pages of “Other Poems Published in the Poet’s Lifetime” (“Continuing to Live,” “The Life with a Hole in it,” and “Aubade,” for three), as well as a few, too, among the two hundred pages of “Poems Not Published in the Poet’s Lifetime.” Yet it is worth remembering that Eliot, who lived till 1965, created almost no poems after 1942. It was in 1983, again a decade since his last book of poems, that Larkin harvested his lugubriously delectable miscellaneous prose as Required Writing. He was well aware that his poems had established themselves as something better than “required reading”: desired reading.

The obvious nature of his art, next, as being in its way modern though not Modernist. “It is as obvious as it is strenuously denied that in this century English poetry went off on a loop-line that took it away from the general reader.” John Betjeman had proved, “like Kipling and Housman before him, that a direct relation with the reading public could be established by anyone prepared to be moving and memorable.”

Those of us who have often invoked the great phrase of Keats—“the true voice of feeling”—have no less often been told that we are naive, since social and political contingencies mean that there is no such thing. Nevertheless, the true voice of feeling was what Larkin sought and found, or rather the true voices. Nothing since The Whitsun Weddings has made me change my mind about the essence of his poems. They have a Wordsworthian core, an ordinary sorrow of man’s life, here in the world of all of us—the place where, in the end, we find our happiness or not at all. (More: Wordsworth with, on due occasions, a sense of humor.) To live alone in one room; to come across the sheet music of love songs from the past; to see an ambulance draw up; to create for one moment the former love for a parent: such poems are—and are in—good company, there with Wordsworth (“The Ruined Cottage”), Browning (“Two in the Campagna”), and Edward Thomas (“Old Man”). And Hardy (“Wives in the Sere”), to Larkin the greatest of these, Hardy the poet of charity so purged of sentimentality as scarcely to seem to be charity at all.

T.S. Eliot wrote in The Criterion in July 1935:

Of the absolute greatness of any writer, men living in the same period can make only a crude guess. But it should be apparent at least that Mr. Yeats has been and is the greatest poet of his time. Thomas Hardy, who for a few years had all the cry, appears now, what he always was, a minor poet.

Likewise needing the word guess albeit for very different reasons, Larkin wrote of Yeats and of Hardy in the reissue of The North Ship in 1966, describing his escape from the Yeatsian fringes a year after he published the book in 1945:

When reaction came, it was undramatic, complete and permanent. In early 1946 I had some new digs in which the bedroom faced east, so that the sun woke me inconveniently early. I used to read. One book I had at my bedside was the little blue Chosen Poems of Thomas Hardy: Hardy I knew as a novelist, but as regards his verse I shared Lytton Strachey’s verdict that “the gloom is not even relieved by a little elegance of diction.” This opinion did not last long; if I were asked to date its disappearance, I should guess it was the morning I first read “Thoughts of Phena at News of Her Death.”

The further demonstration that it would please me to sketch here is of the intersection in some of Larkin’s best poems of two very different things, markedly different simply in the register of two nouns. The first is anecdote; the second, infrastructure.

Take the opening poem in Larkin’s first true book, The Less Deceived: “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album.” The book opens with an anecdote that tells of the opening of an album. The anecdote is more than a personal happening within an incipiently loving relationship, while never being less than such a happening, happenstance even. Much of Larkin’s work is a living demonstration that anecdotal evidence (so often jeered at by those who would actually be at a loss to demonstrate why it is not that valuable thing, experience) is in certain respects not only the best evidence that we have but the only evidence that we should hope to have with respect to many of the most important things in life. One definition of anecdote from the OED: “The narrative of a detached incident, or of a single event, told as being in itself interesting or striking. (At first, An item of gossip.)”

But what Larkin knows, like Hardy and Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, is that what raises the anecdote to art is its not finding itself “told as being in itself interesting or striking.” Or not solely in itself, for an aspect of the interesting and the striking is then, as with all wisdom literature, widened into a commonalty that is at once complementary to the detached incident or single event, and complimentary to it as not exploiting it, respectful of it, not making it merely an occasion for a poem.

From The Less Deceived, two of Larkin’s finest feats of amatory solicitude: “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” and “Maiden Name,” along with “Church Going” and “I Remember, I Remember,” a factual anecdote that then teems with those counterfactual anecdotes that are the stuff of literary fantasy. From The Whitsun Weddings: “Mr Bleaney,” “Love Songs in Age,” “The Whitsun Weddings,” and “Dockery and Son,” this last to be set against Wordsworth’s “Anecdote for Fathers,” Larkin’s being an anecdote for and by a Non-Father. And from High Windows: “To the Sea,” anecdotally mixing memory and desirabilities, “Livings,” “The Card-Players” (through smoked glass, darkly), and—with a different darkness and light—“The Explosion.”

Anecdote as evidence, then, and I’ve often found myself gratefully retorting upon Larkin the anecdote with which he honored the Dorset predecessor of Hardy, William Barnes:

Nor was his appeal limited to men of letters: “an old Domestic Servant” wrote to him in 1869, having found his poems among some books she was dusting: “Sir, I shook hands with you in my heart, and I laughed and cried by turns.”

But Larkin braces something very different against these anecdotes that begin in a detached incident and that never repudiate it even while they widen from the personal to the impersonal. “To the Sea” ends:

If the worst
Of flawless weather is our falling short,
It may be that through habit these do best,
Coming to water clumsily undressed
Yearly; teaching their children by a sort
Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.

Not threatening, those last three words, but adjuring all right, so that the reader with a conscience may hear “as they ought.”

Infrastructure is what is then braced by Larkin against anecdote, so that the large and impersonal come into contact with the largely personal. The word “infrastructure” is not a Larkin word. For that, you would need a very different kind of poetry, say Geoffrey Hill’s High Modernism in ancient sapphics, the first poem in his new volume Odi Barbare (2012):

Anarchs’ paradiso the infrastructure,
Luck permitting love and its grave verdictives.
Some have gone purblind and athwart our sensors,
Broken not brain dead.

Not the word “infrastructure” in Larkin (though he values construct, and “A momentary perfect structure”), but the things that constitute infrastructure, yes. The train that so often is the vehicle for Larkin: “The Whitsun Weddings” and “Here.” The docks: “Arrivals, Departures.” The bridges: “The Dead City: A Vision” and “Bridge for the Living,” forty lines that are the words for a cantata to celebrate the opening of the Humber Bridge in 1981. A church: “Church Going.” An aerodrome: “July Miniatures.” A college: “Dockery and Son.” A university and its library:

By day, a lifted study-storehouse; night
Converts it to a flattened cube of light.
Whichever’s shown, the symbol is the same:
Knowledge; a University; a name.

Medical facilities, though this is too facile a term: “Ambulances” and “The Building”—the hospital as commanding the most definite of definite articles. Always there is a sense of the decay of those beautiful indispensabilities for which we have the ugly word “infrastructure.” “Going, Going”:

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.

But then the foundation of the anecdote poems is, upon reflection, some deep infrastructure that is more benign than is the word. Such an intimate underlying foundation as a Maiden Name or a Photograph Album or even Work.

As to Archie Burnett’s work in support of Larkin’s works and their infrastructure: since he is a friend and colleague, I shall do little more than rejoice to concur with the many critics who have praised his work.

First, every stage of Larkin’s creations, whether as collections planned and effected, or as single poems, is documented here with imaginative precision and unflagging patience. Second, although editing asks critical acumen, the editor’s job is rightly understood as not the issuing of critical pronouncements or appreciations, but the provision of such information, textual and contextual, as makes possible the common pursuit of true judgment. Third, the contexts superlatively include the whole social and cultural world that was varyingly the poet’s—the notes here are exemplary in their pertinent information about a society that has long been going, going. Fourth, the variant readings for such a Larkin accomplishment as “Love Songs in Age” are a thrillingly revelatory resource.

Finally, the worth of the fugitive poems? For John Banville, the edition superbly shows that Larkin “left scores of wonderful poems undisclosed to public view.” “As one goes through the uncollected and unpublished poems, one is confronted on every other page with first-rate work.” “Only a major poet could have afforded to leave such a masterpiece unpublished.” This is a supremely informative edition, entirely in the service of the art that it celebrates so keenly.

  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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