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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.