Philip Larkin is the best poet England now has. And that is not said with the intonation with which R. A. Butler once described Harold Macmillan as “the best Prime Minister we have.” Future examination-papers will endlessly reiterate “Is Larkin a major or a minor poet?” and the obvious answers will spring to their stations. Yes, we ought to be impatient with his having written so little. The Whitsun Weddings is the work of the last nine years, and that means thirty-two poems (which is a few more than in The Less Deceived in 1955). Larkin has recently said that he hardly writes anything that he doesn’t publish, and that he hasn’t written a poem for eighteen months. Yet if we were to insist on calling him a “minor poet,” what words are we left with to describe most of our others? Minimal? Still, a historical perspective is provided by the apt coincidence that The Less Deceived was published by the Marvell Press at Hull, Yorkshire. Andrew Marvell served Hull as its Member of Parliament; Mr. Larkin is the Librarian of its University. Let us call them both minor poets if we wish—so long as we don’t call too many people major. Technical surety, imaginative delicacy, a feeling heart, and unforgettable rightness of cadence—oh, he is minor, is he? I wish he would bite some other of my majors.
His allegiances are with the nineteenth century. His favorite living poet is that twangingly nostalgic relict, John Betjeman, whose Collected Poems Larkin went so far as to review twice. (Betjeman reviewed The Whitsun Weddings only once.) Larkin has named from the past Christina Rossetti and William Barnes, but the poet whom he preeminently admires is Hardy—the poet who above all fulfills Larkin’s inexorable demand that we reconcile truth and imagination. Perhaps one should say truthfulness rather than truth, in order to purge it of the high-flying or high-flown sonority which Larkin is so skeptical of. It was from Hardy that he learned how to write poems which are at one and the same time passionately personal and yet not crampingly autobiographical. In Larkin’s poems a person speaks in his own voice, “the true voice of feeling,” without subterfuge and yet also without hot intrusiveness. The best of his poems have all the warm immediacy of a letter or a conversation, but they inflict on us none of the unease which we feel with some confessional poetry, the feeling that we are snooping or eavesdropping with the author’s connivance. Larkin has spoken more than once of his love of Hardy, and he has the courage to outfront the accusation of pastiche. One of the best of his new poems, “Love Songs in Age,” has the dignity, tenderness, and disillusionment of Hardy. But in general nothing could be more different from the profusion of Hardy’s undiscriminating poetic genius. Larkin’s poetry is a refinement of self-consciousness, usually flawless in execution; Hardy’s conquers by sheer force of unself-consciousness. It may seem hard to think of…
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