Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was born in the year that many regard as the high-water mark of modernism. 1922 saw the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Waste Land and Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and the creation of several avant-garde non-literary works of art. The scale of modernism’s prestige makes Larkin’s success as a poet all the more remarkable; he was far from alone among his own generation in registering an intense aversion to aspects of the modernist sensibility, but he was unique in not letting it stop him from becoming one of the great poets of his generation.
The centenary of his birth offers as good an excuse as any to consider the nature and significance of Larkin’s achievement. What is it about Larkin that continues to attract and haunt us? So few poets in the history of English literature combine beauty of expression with profundity of thought as convincingly and memorably as he does. And fewer still have achieved such a feat with the degree of emotional intimacy that defines a Larkin poem. Why is it that we regard most poets as merely worthy, even several of the canonical ones, yet consider “the John Clare of the building estates” (John Betjeman’s phrase) as indispensable? What is it about the following lines that confirm that Larkin ‑ to quote Auden on Freud – “is no more a person now than a whole climate of opinion”:
Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.
(interview with Miriam Gross in The Observer, 1979)
Let us consider some extracts:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
(“This Be The Verse”)
When I drop four cubes of ice
Chimingly in a glass, and add
Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
And let a ten-ounce tonic void
In foaming gulps until it smothers
Everything else up to the edge,
I lift the lot in private pledge:
He devoted his life to others.
(“Sympathy in White Major”)
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) ‑
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse
Up the warm yellow sand, and further off
A white steamer stuck in the afternoon –
(“To the Sea”)
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
[…] May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull —
If that is what a skilled,
Catching of happiness is called.
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
(“Talking in Bed”)
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
Raising these general-type questions is of course easier than trying to answer them. That may explain why the best way of discovering what makes a great poet great is to read their work. But assuming the validity of such an obvious, and obviously correct, response doesn’t invalidate the value of the enterprise of considering in more critically discursive form what makes a poet special, there are a number of reasons for thinking that what explains Larkin’s singularity is special too.
One centres on the idea that he is not a poet for all seasons, that he is more encased in his own age and place than more timeless and universal bardic voices. It seems inconceivable to imagine Larkin’s poetry independently of Britain’s decline. This view is often coupled with the suspicion that his appeal is both horizontally and historically local, and necessarily so. In this respect, he may be thought to be more comparable to the likes of Edward Thomas or AE Housman than, say, William Shakespeare or John Milton.
Another revolves around whether it is legitimate or even feasible to identify him as a poet with a message. For Larkin, we’re commonly told, is not only not a “wisdom poet” but any attempt to regard him as such is perverse. He is above all the great debunker, the unyielding burster of our transcendent and consoling illusions. And yet, reading Larkin in a purely deflationary light isn’t unproblematic either. One of the consequences of letting ourselves be taken in by his all-too-explicit ordinariness is that we become blind to the elusive depth that belies his “come-off-it!”, anti-intellectual persona. Defying modernist strictures of making it new and creating distance between the author and reader, he produced poetry that has a compassion and seriousness without the hollowness that can (and often does) accompany those ideals. A Larkin poem exhibits none of the effortful deliberateness of being a work of art while possessing the unmistakable hallmark of being just that.
A third and related element concerns the relationship between Larkin the person and Larkin the poet. Much has been written on this topic, especially in the aftermath of the publication of his Selected Letters (1992) and Andrew Motion’s biography Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (1993). For a while it seemed that Larkin’s reputation as a poet was destined to be entirely overshadowed by the revelations concerning his personal life. The misogyny and xenophobia on show in his published correspondence were judged sufficiently repulsive to prompt Tom Paulin to regard them as “a distressing and in many ways revolting compilation that imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became”. For more than a brief period Larkinesque ceased to represent the virtues of honesty, diffidence and truthfulness and stood for something decidedly nasty and fetid. The passage of time has seen a certain rehabilitation take place, one that has tended to qualify rather than deny the ugly side of Larkin’s personality. The most welcome part of this development is that his poetry has reasserted itself as the principal object worthy of our attention; it’s nearly always a good thing when we resist the spurious reasoning which claims that when someone says both A and B and A is unsavoury, then B and everything else he says must also be unsavoury.
Dwelling on the relationship between the first two of these factors can help us make sense of Larkin’s perspective as well as offering some explanation of why so many have found his poetry so arresting. A focus on the third has had the effect of hindering rather than helping us grasp the unique and enduring interest of the poetry. The notion that Larkin is a poet of and for his time is intimately related to the view that he is not a poet with a Promethean message and this centres on a recognition that all-encompassing, transcendent meanings are no longer available to us. The loss of meaning or, more specifically, the loss of our capacity to believe in such a thing has been articulated in various ways from Nietzschean-type pronouncements regarding the death of God and the absence of a perspectiveless point of view to the more recent postmodern declarations about the impossibility of meta-narratives, with their naive reliance on Truth, Knowledge and Beauty.
At first glance, Larkin’s poetry appears perfectly attuned to and expressive of the prevailing zeitgeist. What self-respecting postmodern bourgeois ironist could fail to identify with the following passage:
All know they are going to die.
Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end,
And somewhere like this. That is what it means,
This clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend
The thought of dying, for unless its powers
Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes
The coming dark, though crowds each evening try
With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers.
Larkin captures the sensation of our disenchanted age in a form that doesn’t sound self-consciously poetic. He writes poems as one imagines novelists dream of endowing their prose, with the pregnant richness and concision that are unique to poetry. With Larkin we feel that we are getting the best of both literary forms; the plainness and accessibility of the novel and the density, rhythm and quotability of poetry.
Larkin wasn’t the first writer to sound like a prose poet. His great imaginative inspiration, Thomas Hardy, achieved much the same effect – though, unlike Hardy, Larkin became a poet after being a novelist. What is more distinctive about Larkin is that his poems encapsulate aspects of our predicament that strike us as inescapably disquieting. And it’s this feature that provides a key to grasping his ambivalence and achievement.
One of the more annoying traits of postmodernism is its callow knowingness. Nowhere is this more on show than in the claim that we live in a post-truth world. One can’t help suspecting that underneath its chic avowal that knowledge, objectivity and humanity are mere fictions is the genuine fiction that postmodernism is somehow exempt from its own wholesale version of nihilism. Larkin doesn’t engage in such phoney games. His sense of ambivalence and irony is derived from a grown-up acknowledgment that we don’t or can’t have what we anxiously, and unavoidably, crave.
Some of our cravings arise from the choices we have made or, alternatively, the choices we believe we could have made; siding with solitude over sociability, remaining single rather than getting married, staying at home rather than seeing the world, being a spectator rather than a player, or vice versa. All such decisions are prone to end up leaving us with a sense of loss, failure or regret, with a feeling that we have compromised or wasted our lives, made the wrong choices or, more drastically, allowed life rather than ourselves define who we are or have become. In any case, as Larkin states in the closing stanza of “Dockery and Son”:
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.
As these lines intimate, we are also susceptible to yearnings which are absolutely and entirely unsatisfiable but no less intense or agonised for that. These tend to be of a cosmic or biological kind. In short, they revolve around the impossibility of meaning and immortality. Nowhere did Larkin convey the futility of these cravings more searingly than in his late masterpiece “Aubade”:
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear —no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
“Aubad”’ has struck some readers as excessively gloomy and its author as unrelievedly glum. Even Seamus Heaney, a not unsympathetic critic of Larkin, perceived a one-sided, uncalled-for desolation in the poem, remarking:
For all its truth-breaking truths and beauties, ‘Aubade’ reneges on what Yeats called the ‘spiritual intellect’s great work’.
(The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, 1995)
Larkin would most likely reply that he didn’t invent life’s sadness and unassuageable aches, adding no doubt that “the spiritual intellect’s great work” lets no one off the hook. In fact, he gave a typically witty answer to a similar-type complaint in an interview with Ian Hamilton in 1964:
One thing I do feel a certain restiveness about is being typed as someone who has carved out for himself a uniquely dreary life, growing older, having to work, and not getting things he wants and so on – is this so different from everyone else? I’d like to know how all these romantic reviewers spend their time – do they kill a lot of dragons, for instance?
To others it may seem immature, even unhealthy, to treat the matter of our mortality with the ceaseless, melodramatic attention it receives in “Aubade” and indeed in many other of Larkin’s poems. Surely we should have sloughed off such pathological fears by now and begun to accept the fate of our own finitude. Perhaps. But how many of us can honestly be and, more relevantly, truly feel unperplexed about the matter of the meaning(lessness) of our lives or the quickening march of our own and others’ inevitable death? And should we feel obliged to admire the stoic? Like saints, stoics have a tendency to purchase their identity at the cost of their humanity or at least that part of it that permits and cherishes how we feel.
Larkin is more interested in how life can be lived for those of us who can’t help being haunted by the certainty that it will end and forever. His poetry speaks to our felt experience of life, something he shares or rather learned from reading Hardy:
When I came to Hardy it was with a sense of relief that I didn’t have to try and jack myself up to a concept of poetry that lay outside my own life – this is perhaps what I felt Yeats was trying to make me do. One could simply relapse back into one’s own life and write from it. Hardy taught one to feel rather than to write ‑ of course one has to use one’s own language and one’s own jargon and one’s own situations ‑ and he taught one to have confidence in what one felt.
Larkin succeeds in doing justice to our feelings without losing sight of the cold and indifferent world we find ourselves inhabiting. By confronting both perspectives on their own terms – the view from here and now and the view from nowhere – we gain a richer appreciation of the preciousness and hopelessness of life. In the same vein, Larkin pinpoints the tensions and conflicts that exist between the personal and impersonal standpoints which no reflective person can ignore:
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
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.
The sense of friction is also evident in the strained balance Larkin strikes between our desire to achieve a certain solemnity and the competing, sceptical pressure to call a halt to such inflated urges. This is partly what the critic John Bayley was getting at when he referred to Larkin’s “reticent romanticism”, a refusal to deny the integrity of an earnest, romantic sensibility while giving vent to the sober realism that doubts its authority. The contrast between the tone of the final stanza of “Church Going”, where we are reminded of our hunger to be more serious, and that of the closing section of “Continuing to Live” is a particularly vivid example of this tension.
Where, we might ask, does this leave the problem of life’s meaning? Is such a thing salvageable in a Godless world? Does it matter? No and Yes seems to be the answer. The pursuit of life’s meaning no longer seems a real option for us. And secular versions of transcendence have proved as incredible (and frequently repulsive) as their religious counterparts. The fact that many of us continue to believe in them is, in a way, no more peculiar than the persistence of any superstition. But is there any residual meaning for the less deceived? No doubt Larkin would say that living an unillusioned life entails an acceptance of
the solving emptiness
that lies under all we do
But I think it’s still possible even in a relatively comfortless Larkinian universe to identify some semblance of meaning. Part of it may be thought to rest on achieving a certain self-knowledge, the kind that is conveyed quietly and equivocally in virtually every Larkin line; another part in seeing our predicament as one of pursuing meaning in life rather than seeking “The Meaning of Life”. What Larkin’s poetry tacitly affirms is that being truthful, keeping one’s sanity, having a sense of humour, and showing kindness (not just toward human beings) “while there is still time” already contains a lot of meaning for any “catching at happiness” individual. Besides, he left us poems that have an undimmable life and charm of their own, floating free of our recalcitrant demands for Meaning and Eternity:
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Johnny Lyons is managing editor of the academic journal Society and author of The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin (Bloomsbury, 2020) and Isaiah Berlin and his Philosophical Contemporaries (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).