Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985
T.S. Eliot observed toward the end of his life that he could not be called a great poet because he had not written an epic. This was a sly piece of false modesty on the part of Old Possum, implying as it did that had he turned his pen to the epic form he would of course have been up there with Homer, Virgil, and Dante. His stricture also served, backhandedly, to withhold greatness from other poets of what he thought of as his culturally debased time, such as Yeats and Wallace Stevens. In the Age of Prose, Eliot was saying, even the finest poet can be expected to manage no more than the small thing. To all this Philip Larkin would likely have answered with his accustomed epistolary expletive: bum.1
Larkin had the reputation of being the most costive of artists. In his writing lifetime—from the late 1930s until the middle of the 1970s, when the muse left him, returning only for brief and infrequent trysts—he published five short volumes of verse, with long intervals of silence between each appearance. Of these volumes he considered The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974) to contain the totality of his mature work. In those three and a half decades, however, he also produced two novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, as well as a large body of essays, reviews, and occasional pieces which were collected as All What Jazz (1970), Required Writing (1983), and the posthumous Further Requirements (2001).
He also edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), which he labored on happily for some seven years—he really did love libraries, and was probably most at ease within their tranquil confines—which was a great success with the reading public, and which brought its editor considerable royalties. Then, in 1988, three years after the poet’s death, his friend and literary coexecutor, Anthony Thwaite, brought out the Collected Poems. Although Thwaite was widely criticized for printing the poems in chronological order, which some regarded as no order at all, the volume was a revelation. Who would have thought the man had so much poetry in him?
And it was not merely that Thwaite had uncovered a cache of inspired juvenilia, although there was a lot of that—the editor put a “substantial selection” of this work, including the contents of Larkin’s first published collection, The North Ship, in a separate section, “Early Poems 1938–45,” at the back of the volume2—but that there were so many poems Larkin had left unpublished—sixty-one in the section of mature poems and twenty-two in that of early work. From this material Larkin might have assembled a further, fat, volume, one which a poet who was less a perfectionist than he would have been proud of. Indeed, in the case of a handful of these poems it is hard to know the…
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