Is Philip Larkin a great poet? Ask most literate readers and the answer is an enormous yes. But detractors still complain that he is a Johnny One-Note, sour about life and unduly obsessed with “the solving emptiness/ That lies just under all we do.” Poets, these critics might further argue, are supposed to “make it new,” while Larkin preferred to make it Georgian. Despite an occasional obscenity or vulgarism, his poems preserve a quiet tone of genteel courtesy, just what you’d expect from a bachelor librarian who dabbled in verse on the side. When young, even Larkin would sometimes wonder if he wasn’t merely a “Peg’s Paper sonneteer, not Auden but Rupert Brooke.” Later in life, he described himself, only half humorously, as “A. E. Housman without the talent or the scholarship.”
Near his writing desk Larkin kept the dozen poets he most loved: Hardy, Wordsworth, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, William Barnes, W. M. Praed, Whitman, Frost, and Owen. These are all wonderful writers, but at least half are truly minor: Who now, outside of academia (and probably not even there), reads Sassoon, Barnes, and Praed? Larkin’s favorite contemporary poets seem to have been John Betjeman, Stevie Smith, Gavin Ewart, and Kingsley Amis—all of whom might be loosely called light versifiers. Influential post-war figures such as Robert Lowell, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney tend to come in for mockery: “Lowell, Lowell, Lowell, Lowell,/ Corn is the thing he does so well. . . ”
Though highly educated, Larkin eschewed almost all literary allusions in his poems and aimed, above all, to make them understandable on a first reading. He rejected modernism in toto as “mystification and outrage,” disdained Pound and Picasso in particular, and denounced Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis for destroying the early jazz he loved. As Larkin said, his guiding critical principle in all the arts was that of the musician Eddie Condon: “As it enters the ear, does it come in like broken glass or does it come in like honey?” Thus, the eccentric Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse aimed, as Larkin said puckishly, to make the century’s poetry “sound nice.” Little wonder that his favorite contemporary novelist was Barbara Pym, author of intensely English, bittersweet comedies of manners, often featuring spinsters and Anglican clergymen.
In life, Larkin played up his image as a sad sack, “one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys.” As Alan Bennett observed, the poet acted sixty all his life and made a profession of it. Larkin certainly had absolutely nothing going for him physically, being tall and stooping, bald, deaf, overweight, with an occasional stammer, multiple chins and inch-thick spectacles. As if this weren’t enough, he generally wore dark, ill-fitting suits or—when on holiday—prissy shorts or a checked tweed sport coat. (A famous picture shows him in such a coat, sitting primly next to a sign that says “England.”) He wasn’t joking when he said, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”
That deprivation, of course, supposedly extended to women. Larkin lived alone and never married. Who could blame him for turning to pornography? Nonetheless, when Larkin’s private life grew public in the Nineties—due to Andrew Motion’s biography and Anthony Thwaite’s selected letters—several of the era’s more politically correct poets and academics sniffily repudiated this wicked pervert who drooled over Swish magazine. But, as the historian Robert Conquest notes, with the benignant air of a true connoisseur, Larkin’s taste in pornography was “really very unchallenging. Perhaps a bit of spanking, that’s all, nothing violent.” Given the online traffic at X-rated sites today, I suspect that many people, when they now hear of Larkin’s furtive hobby, merely shrug and murmur “Mon semblable, mon frère.” At least they do if they’ve studied French.
Yet this is just why Larkin is so attractive: he is smarter than we are and more widely read, and much, much funnier, yet fundamentally no better, no different than any of us. He is our Mr. Polly, our Walter Mitty. Like the narrator of “A Study of Reading Habits,” the boy Larkin might have once imagined himself dealing out right hooks “to dirty dogs twice my size,” but now he finds all too familiar “the dude/ Who lets the girl down before/ The hero arrives, the chap/ Who’s yellow and keeps the store.” His is the poetry of litotes, of the unemphatic, the less deceived, the unextraordinary. So Larkin writes about the grind of work, impossible dreams, the hunger for love, those rare moments of seriousness and wonder that come into every human life, loneliness, the thought of death. His poems possess what he called “the authority of sadness”:
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.
Out of context many of his most famous lines can certainly sound vulgar or sentimental: “Books are a load of crap.” “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” “What will survive of us is love.” “Next morning I got up and it did not.” But in “The Mower” that last flat sentence gains a woodcut’s stark power, a revelation of Death the Leveller:
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
In his later years Larkin was berated for being conservative, though his true political platform was simple human kindness and decency. “I identify,” he said, “the Right with certain virtues and the Left with certain vices. . . . Thrift, hard work, reverence, desire to preserve—those are the virtues . . . and on the other hand, idleness, greed, and treason.” Who, with the possible exception of Michael Bakunin, could argue against such virtues or for such vices?
In “Poetry of Departures” and “Toads” Larkin famously depicts the romantic allure of just chucking it all, of taking to the road: “Lots of folk live up lanes/ With fires in a bucket/ Eat windfalls and tinned sardines.” But he firmly rejects this hobo daydream. In “Toads Revisited” he looks with horror on the reality of such a life, of becoming one of those “characters in long coats,” sorting through litter-baskets for food, sitting in the park:
Turning over their failures
By some bed of lobelias,
Nowhere to go but indoors,
No friends but empty chairs.
Better his own solution: “I work all day, and get half drunk at night.” Poetry was a matter for evenings and breaks from his duties as head of the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones Library. As a result, he seldom produced more than two or three poems a year. And then not even that. His “last ten years, like all last ten years, were sad,” said Larkin in 1985, stensibly writing of Edward FitzGerald, author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. He died that same year, age 63.
Since then, however, his reputation has risen and continues to rise. There may have been a slight blip when Larkin’s private life was first revealed, but posterity is concerned with art, not morals. As Auden observed of Yeats: “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.” Larkin may have been lustful, vulgar in his correspondence with friends, casually racist, stingy, and deceptive with the women he loved and two-timed. But he was a man of his age, and not very different from you or me, except that he could write “The Whitsun Weddings” and we can’t. A recent article in The Times proposed a list of “the 50 Best British Writers since 1945”: Larkin was number one, George Orwell was second.
During his lifetime Larkin’s poems were available as four slender volumes: The North Ship, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows. “Aubade”—arguably the greatest English poem about death to be written in the last century—was uncollected, as well as a few others, but really there wasn’t much else, aside from the essay collections Required Writing and All What Jazz. Since then matters have changed, changed utterly. In 1988 Anthony Thwaite edited the Collected Poems, presenting Larkin’s published and unpublished manuscript poems in chronological order. In 2003 Thwaite brought out, confusingly, another volume called Collected Poems, but this one an omnibus of the four individual volumes, retaining the integrity of their carefully arranged contents and adding a supplementary group of the late poems. Other books began to appear: Larkin’s uncollected prose was gathered together as Further Requirements; after the Selected Letters appeared the Letters to Monica (those sent to his longtime lover Monica Jones); several essay collections featured appreciations and reminiscences, then came a rush of critical and academic studies, with no end in sight. Today one can even join The Philip Larkin Society, which sells picture postcards of the poet and t-shirts emblazoned with his name. When I visited its website, I had a fleeting hope that Jake Balokowsky—the biographer Larkin imagined in “Posterity”—might be its honorary president.
To this deluge we can now add Philip Larkin: Poems, a best-of selection compiled and introduced by Martin Amis, and The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin edited with a commentary by Archie Burnett. To my mind, the Amis selection isn’t at all needed—Larkin’s finished poems aren’t numerous to begin with and everyone is bound to grouse about favorites being left out (Where are “Myxomatosis,” “Days,” and “Sunny Prestatyn”?). Still, it is a handsome volume.1 Amis has lived with Larkin’s poetry his whole life, and he writes with his usual energy, mixing personal memories and shrewd insights. He notes, for example, how often the poems read like “distilled short stories.” Still, I think even a neophyte would do better to spring for the paperback of the 2003 Collected Poems.
Otherwise, one might tentatively consider Burnett’s edition of the Complete Poems, more than 700 pages packed with information (and considerable delight), but aimed at scholars and the most confirmed Larkinites.2 It is, in effect, the outward sign of academic canonization. Burnett brings to bear the kind of painstaking, Talmudic attention that Christopher Ricks once showered on Tennyson and that a younger Archie Burnett previously provided for Housman. The casual reader, however, will find the poems printed in smallish type and somewhat gracelessly crammed onto the page.
Despite the implied honor, the fastidious Larkin would hardly be pleased to see his dirty limericks, half-formed pieces, and satirical squibs sharing space with such achieved and beautiful poems as “An Arundel Tomb” and “At Grass.” Yes, T. S. Eliot had his King Bolo verses, yet even they weren’t as gross and mediocre as this:
I would give all I possess
(money, keys, wallet, personal effects, and articles of dress)
To stick my tool
Up the prettiest girl in Warwick King’s High School.
Much better, and more amusing, is the poet’s self-parody of “Days”:
What is booze for?
Booze is what we drink.
They come, they shake us,
Time and time over.
Beer, whisky, schnapps and gin.
What can we drink but booze?
Ah, solving that question, etc.
Brings the priest and the doctor
(And a few pink rats)
Running over the fields.
The true glory of this edition, though, lies in the 350 pages of textual and explanatory endnotes. Burnett has combed the archives, the published writing, the letters, and the memoirs of Larkin’s friends to record salient information about each poem’s etiology, context, and personal meaning.
Take a look at the material brought to bear on just one of Larkin’s greatest poems, “Church Going.” Under “Date and Text” Burnett tells us there are nineteen pages of drafts in Larkin’s workbook in April and May of 1954, then notes that the poem was first published in The Spectator on November 18, 1955 “with the misprints ‘sprawling’ for ‘sprawlings’ and ‘Gross’ for ‘Grass.’ ” In 1956 the poem was reprinted in New Lines, edited by Robert Conquest, with the misprint “rest” for “meet” in line fifty-six. When it appeared in The Less Deceived “whom” replaced “which” in line fifty-one. Probably a misprint, states Burnett, this last was not corrected until the January 1962 edition and “survived in the paperback edition of 1973 and in anthologies.”
Following these textual clarifications, Burnett appends five pages of fact-based commentary on the poem. The Spectator, according to Larkin, “procrastinated about publishing it and finally lost it. In the end they did publish it, after about a year.” In a section about the title, Burnett quotes an estimate that less than 10 percent of the English population were churchgoers in 1950. He points out that the word “blent,” used in line fifty-six, is a poeticism, then meticulously lists instances of its appearance in Keats, Hardy, Yeats, and Louis MacNeice.
Similar annotation can be found for nearly all the poems published in Larkin’s lifetime. Everyone knows the opening lines of “Annus Mirabilis”:
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.
But Burnett reminds us that the first Beatles’ LP, was Please, Please Me and that it was released on March 22, 1963. Such information enriches our understanding because Larkin’s poetry is so intimately connected with his life. (The poet actually was, according to his lover Maeve Brennan, a Beatles fan.) As a librarian, Larkin devoted his days to preserving the heritage of the past; as a poet, he hoped to preserve certain spots of time from his own life. He felt it his responsibility to re-create experiences of the “beautiful or sad or significant” in a “verbal device that will set off the same experience in other people.”
Larkin’s poems can often be subtly or overtly funny—see “Vers de Société” or “Naturally the Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses”—yet in the end those that will be forever Larkinesque are suffused with his sharp plangency. As he writes in “Aubade”: “Not to be here,/ Not to be anywhere,/ And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” Despairing lines, yes, but in the fear of death Larkin found his immortality.