“Home is where the heart is.” “There’s no place like home.” “ ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in.’ ” “You can’t go home again.” No doubt even before the Odyssey the strain of homecoming was troubled by unwelcoming. For every Penelope weaving by day and unweaving by night, there are a hundred suitors waiting to kill you. Ovid was sent into exile for a “mistake” more tantalizing for remaining a mystery; had he returned to Rome without leave, Augustus would have put him to death. The longing for home is so universal, rare are the fictions where the prodigal son refuses to return.
No matter how long a maze, twenty yards or twenty years, the Minotaur lurks at the center—eventually you’ll end up there, like it or not. Philip Larkin’s “I Remember, I Remember” opens with a musty scenario: a man on a train. The train stops. The traveler who spent years fleeing his hometown returns by accident. The poem opens before the speaker realizes where he is:
Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number-plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
“Why, Coventry!” I exclaimed. “I was born here.”
I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been “mine”
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed
For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
The moment of recognition may have been for a moment delayed while the passenger took stock. Once he sees the “men with number-plates/ Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,” the penny drops.
English train stations look remarkably alike, many of them, their shopworn, generic architecture so familiar that, finding himself at a station unawares, a traveler might be unable to identify it. The rail platform should have had a station sign at the incoming end; if he wasn’t looking, the passenger might easily have missed it as the train pulled in.
The start and end of the journey go unmentioned—the traveler is abandoned between two worlds. However far he has gone from his beginnings, all the effort to escape has only brought him back. “Squinnied for a sign” might seem of necessity metaphoric—though the traveler leans out of the carriage (opening the compartment door or lowering its drop-glass window), even then he apparently doesn’t see any station-signs. Perhaps the blindness is willful. In his rambling essay on the poem, “Not the Place’s Fault,” Larkin swears he didn’t realize where he was: “Of course the inside of the railway station of one’s home town is never very familiar, and I was certainly not likely to recognize mine.” He can’t mean inside the station building, so he must have in mind the station in the broad sense.
Photographs of the station in April 1953 show, amid the jumble of advertising signs for cigarettes and light bulbs, chocolates and table water-biscuits, other signs for Coventry businesses as well as a handsome old-fashioned sign, suspended above the platform, for the Coventry Evening Telegraph, the local newspaper. Though difficult to read, “Coventry” has been embossed on the top wooden slat of the benches; and the risers of the footbridge steps advertise Triumph Cycles and Motorcycles, a famous local factory. The number and size of lurid signs have been much reduced in a set of photos from November the following year (the riser signs have vanished), but every twenty feet or so a small Coventry sign has been fixed to an openwork girder beneath the platform roof. The signs would have been difficult to miss, had they been installed before the new year. Larkin’s trip took place early in January 1954, between the two sets of photographs.
Number plates are what Americans call license plates. Coventry had more than a hundred motorcar factories over the years—Daimler, Triumph, Rover, Morris. In the days before large car-carriers, Larkin explained in a 1968 letter quoted in the notes to Complete Poems, employees drove each car or lorry to its destination using temporary number-plates, returning by train with the trade plates in hand.
The sprinting remains mysterious. The entrances to the Coventry platforms were apparently never called gates. I thought the gates might be factory gates or the front gates of the men’s houses. Perhaps the drivers were sprinting toward the staff canteen or to a midday meal at home. Perhaps there was some sort of friendly competition. (In his drafts of the poem, Larkin originally had “hurrying past,” then “run down”—“sprint down” is more dramatic.) My chance acquaintance Nick Freeman, however, a sheep and pig farmer (and former British Airways engineer), believes the men were paid piecemeal for delivering the cars and that the first drivers to return to the factory had the best chance of a second car that day. This seems by far the likeliest explanation. Some high-end cars, he added, are still delivered in that fashion.
The traveler’s confusion continues into the next stanza, as he tries to answer the unstated question, “If this is Coventry, why didn’t I recognize it?” The evidence of the eye is not quite satisfying. Platform signs again go unmentioned. Not “even clear/ Which side was which,” he can do no more than wonder if near some cycle crates his family had once gone on holiday. A cycle crate today is a box fixed above a tire, but at the time it was the cycle’s shipping crate. Larkin calls them wooden crates in the 1968 letter. (A photograph of some decades before shows groups of cycles in open-slatted crates.) From their beginning in the late 1860s, Coventry had been home to more than two hundred bicycle-makers. After World War II, only two remained. Many British car factories there, including Triumph, Rover, and Morris, had begun by making bikes.
The crates Larkin saw must lie further along the platform or across the tracks on the down platform. A large consignment would presumably have gone to the goods shed, where it would have been loaded, as the photograph caption has it, on a “rake of open wagons,” i.e., a line of coupled flat-cars. Damien Kimberly, an expert on Coventry bicycles, suggests that Larkin might have seen a small consignment of cycles waiting for a train’s postal van. Passengers going on holiday, however, sometimes shipped their cycles in the van, using Stanley’s large wicker crates made expressly for the purpose.
The return home, perhaps inevitably, allows the poet to indulge in the British colloquial lexicon—“squinnied” for “squinted” (as if myopically), “hols” for “holidays,” i.e., vacations. Most British men worked six-day weeks of forty-eight hours, with sixteen days of holiday a year (ten days of paid holiday plus six bank holidays—Christmas, Boxing Day, and so forth). The paid two-week holiday was usually taken in summer, when children were out of school—the destination was almost always in Britain, often by the seaside. Larkin’s father was the Coventry city treasurer, so his terms of employment may have been more generous.
“A whistle went.” This must be a guard’s whistle outside the train. From the passenger’s point of view, “things moved.” The station trundles backward into the past. The speaker reclines in his seat (“slumps” might be accurate), perhaps with some privacy. In British trains of the period, second- and third-class compartments offered a pair of facing upholstered benches sometimes divided by armrests, each compartment with a door that opened outward onto the platform. The separate compartments and opposing benches had been inherited from the train carriages of a century before, a series of small linked coaches made by a carriage or stagecoach builder, hence the name.
First-class compartments had separate seats similarly arranged, but first class was almost never used by ordinary Brits, especially during the terrible austerity the decade after the war. The thirty-one-year-old Larkin was barely middle- class—his doppelgänger traveler might also have pinched pennies. In long-distance trains, a door opposite led to a communicating corridor that ran the length of the coach. The guard, though equivalent to an American conductor, did not announce the station on arrival, according to railway historian Stephen Parissien. It would seem possible for the traveler not to know where the train was stopping—and a passenger caught in conversation might not have noticed the sign at the end of the platform.
“Was that,” my friend smiled, “where you ‘have your roots’?”
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started.
The smile is telling, though an afterthought in the drafts; but what it tells may be amusement that the brief encounter with home has left the speaker, as he records, staring at his boots. The stare is one of exhaustion, shock, concession—or something approaching the leaden gaze of melancholia. He ignores the question.
The two people may be alone in the small compartment—it’s hard to imagine middle-class Brits of that day talking so personally in earshot of strangers. (The traveler doesn’t reply, so perhaps others are present after all.) Nothing following the question is said aloud until the friend breaks in again at the end. The pun on “started” (to be startled) could be accidental; but the rhyme of boots and roots—both let something stand, and here the boots seem rooted to the floor—shows how deeply rhyme may be calculated, even if it occurs to the poet in an instant.
He had begun the poem, Larkin explains in his essay, “after stopping unexpectedly in a train at Coventry, the town where I was born and lived for the first eighteen years of my life.” He doesn’t identify his friend, who as the ghostly auditor necessary for perspective is almost too convenient. The poet would otherwise be forced to add a self-conscious reflection (“I must have looked . . .” or something), removing the tension implicit in the pocket drama. The silent revelation, which for its effect must be held back, would be spoiled by such knowing introspection. The embarrassment is more painful for being unmentioned, the discomfort more devastating for being observed. The traveler’s silent demurral balances upon comic equivocation. Larkin criticism could be built on what is not said.
“Coming up England” meant traveling north; “different line,” a different route. Larkin was working as a sub-librarian at Queen’s University in Belfast. He’d spent the Christmas holidays visiting his mother in Loughborough, some thirty miles northeast of Birmingham (his father had died two years after the war), then his lover Monica Jones (probably at her home in nearby Leicester), and his friend Kingsley Amis and his wife over in Swansea.
According to Richard Bradford’s biography, the young librarian was coming “on the train from Swansea via Bristol to Liverpool,” where he would catch the boat across the Irish Sea. (His poem about taking the night ferry to Belfast in 1950 was never finished.) How this is possible is unclear, because the rail route from Swansea to Liverpool runs west to Bristol, by another line northeast into Birmingham, then on to the port further north. Coventry lies in the wrong direction—southeast of Birmingham, some stops short along the London line. Bradford suggests that “perhaps the line was being repaired,” but this is not quite satisfactory. Stephen Parissien thinks the route impossible and that Larkin was probably coming from Euston Station in London—on that route, perhaps one Larkin normally didn’t take, Coventry was a regular stop. A rough draft has the line, “Coming that way by chance to please a friend.” Larkin said a decade later that the trip “was the journey up to Liverpool to get the Belfast boat.” Up from where?
The poet could have introduced an earlier experience or perhaps one wholly imaginary, which would make the incident more revealing; but other evidence is contrary. Bradford says, without giving a source, that Larkin was traveling alone, Monica “having, customarily, not accompanied him to Swansea.” (Kingsley Amis loathed her.) Reading The Less Deceived two years later, however, she wrote the poet,
I remember makes yr “friend” sound a perfect horror! it’s quite good in the poem, so long as you never let on it was me in the train with you! I am always proud to see my one contribution, the only one in yr work.
“Always proud”—so she’d seen it more than once, in the magazine Platform or more likely earlier in manuscript. Had she mistakenly expressed such pleasure before, he’d probably have disabused her; but she apparently recalled the incident. We know from Larkin’s January 1954 letter to Patsy Strang, with whom until recently he’d been having an affair, that having spent the holiday with his mother he had gone to London: “saw The confidential clerk (β-), M. Hulot’s holiday (α+), the Flemish Exhibition, pictures at the Tate (α), Carlyle’s house in Chelsea.” Perhaps he had gone with Monica. The loss of Larkin’s diaries, burned after his death, makes it impossible to reconstruct his journey. (The Jones letters now at the Bodleian, as yet unavailable for research, may contain a clue.) Somehow, he ended up in Coventry.
In the closed compass of the poem, the traveler has broken his habits or his habits have been broken for him. This might have been Freudian accident, had Fate a sense of humor. The brief stop now over, the portrait of the traveler staring at his boots tells us all we need know about his boyhood. The body of the poem is devoted, not to what the past was, but to the pathetic fantasy of what it was not. Provoked by his friend’s perhaps innocent question, his reluctance to speak seems to betray a childhood of abject misery. It’s a shock to discover that the childhood was instead just crushingly dull.
The friend’s smile perhaps has a glaze of devilishness. “Have your roots,” she says (let us say she), not “had,” as if anyone would still have ties, though the traveler transparently wishes to be shot of the slowly receding city—that is, of the past. (“Have” suggests such ties are permanent, like it or not.) He’s lost in mute, sore-tempered reflection:
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:
By now I’ve got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
“Really myself.” I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,
Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and “all became a burning mist.”
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,
Who didn’t call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead—
His silence is his answer. The traveler finds in interior musing a dumbstruck way of coping by denial. None of it is true—it does not even try to sound true. This desperate, jealous improvisation mocks the famous victories or fiery achievements of the very young: Alexander the Great; Alexander Graham Bell; Blaise Pascal; even John Stuart Mill, that force-fed goose of a genius who had Greek at three and Latin at eight.
This private survey redraws the darkened landscape of a boyhood where the boy did not, like Erasmus Darwin or his grandson Charles, cobble up “blinding theologies of flowers and fruits.” (Larkin said in an interview a few years before his death, “When I read accounts of other people’s childhoods they always seem more lurid and exciting than mine.”) He was granted no religious awakening or philosophical epiphany by a talking hat and knew no big-hearted family of brawny sons and buxom daughters, a family to whose embrace he could flee for solace, a family where his true character could emerge. The boy must have felt a fraud, standing before his real parents. He invented the childhood promised by Dylan Thomas and D. H. Lawrence, the childhood Coventry denied.
Worse, amid the bracken he never enjoyed an early introduction to sex, or what even then was called shagging. “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (Which was rather late for me),” Larkin wrote in “Annus Mirabilis.” That wasn’t true, either; but in “Not the Place’s Fault” he admitted, “It now seems strange to me that all the time I lived in Coventry I never knew any girls. . . . None of my friends knew any girls either.”
The phrase “all became a burning mist” often confuses readers, but it’s merely an example of the high-caloric prose of popular romances. More specifically, as the notes in Complete Poems relate, it was a catchphrase in the 1950s radio comedy Bedtime with Braden. (One of Bernard Braden’s regular turns was an extravagant parody of Brando’s Stanley Kowalski.) In short, the traveler suffered a childhood stifling and commonplace, lacking those moments broadcast through famous lives. Perhaps it was a childhood without much comfort or warmth, either.
The rough drafts are both more grandiose and more realistic about this phantasm of youth: “where I charted/ Not a single treasure cove, nor sent/ Armies against each other” on the one hand and, on the other, “My pursuits/ Also included ignorance of birds,/ Animals, reptiles, pond-life, trees and flowers./ Here was the window-seat I never curled in.” To have come from such an undistinguished background, with nothing to predict later success, underlies all the reasons not to return. Ordinary, yet not so ordinary, for Larkin was headed to Oxford.
Most difficult childhoods leave a poisoned residue. Time can be spent but not unspent. Here the years passed yet nothing happened—the traveler might as well have wasted two decades in solitary confinement. “Unspent” introduces the looking-glass world of this horror, this vacancy, of all the childhood was not. (It’s nonsense, of course. The most tedious childhood has its days, even if none marked with red letter or white stone.)
Home demands the terror of reminiscence. Larkin wrote decades too early to be affected by the psychology of repressed memories. Any lapse of memory, runs that discredited strain, is manifest sign of forgotten trauma; yet his deflection, sarcastically counterfeiting a past not his to possess, is far bleaker. What does erasure show when you’re conscious of the lie? Something closer to the pathology of comedy.
Larkin seems to stand naked in his poems—that’s the source of the frisson. Yet why is he not considered, like Lowell and Plath, one of the great confessional poets? Not necessarily because he stayed loyal to strict form. So did W. D. Snodgrass, Lowell’s major influence; and Lowell never entirely abandoned form, even in Life Studies. Drily conventional, his modesty a kind of rage, Larkin’s poems never revel in erotic candor, Achillean wrath, suicidal longings, or manic depression—if he was depressed, it was the old-fashioned kind of depressed. (The speaker in “Posterity” is called by his biographer “one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys.”) His confessions are those of a man who, if he had no cardinal virtues, committed few mortal sins. His three long-term lovers knew little or nothing about each other, and he kept a bumper supply of pornography in home and office. That’s old fashioned. His furies were as sealed as a casket. Disappointment and misery were about all he had to confess.
The list of might-have-beens ends with another never-was, the dreamlike accomplishment of the young poet, his verse set in type, his greatness predicted by a “distinguished cousin of the mayor.” How knowing is the detail about small cities, where influence passes through relatives of local grandees—yet how pathetic the wished-for triumphs. (An earlier and weaker thought in draft was, “some great stranger staying with the mayor.”) His homage to his hometown is to rebuild it as a set for a drama of talent recognized and celebrated, except the play was never staged. At the culmination of this wretched catalogue, the friend interrupts:
“You look as if you wished the place in Hell,”
My friend said, “judging from your face.” “Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,” I said.
“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.”
It’s God’s own territory, to condemn a place to damnation—consider Sodom and Gomorrah. Still, how petty, how far beyond petty into self-damnation, to employ theology for private vengeance. (Larkin’s father, an atheist, advised the boy not to believe in God.) Larkin often shared with the confessional poets the reaction of early readers: “Oh, you can’t say that in a poem” or “You shouldn’t.”
Larkin had been more ambitious as a novelist than as a poet. Jill (1946) received a smattering of reviews that he later called “no public comment.” Four months later, A Girl in Winter (1947) sold reasonably well, probably because it came from Faber and Faber, the famous house that eventually published his poetry. The review in the Church Times remarked, “We look forward with eager anticipation to further work from the pen of this remarkable young writer.” Larkin, according to his biographer Andrew Motion, “cut the piece out and kept it all his life.” This seems the genesis of prediction by the mayor’s cousin in “I Remember, I Remember.”
At the time of the train journey, Larkin was regarded as a novelist. His thin book of poems, The North Ship, had been published in 1945 by a small press better known for pornography. It was reviewed only once, in his hometown newspaper:
Mr. Larkin has an inner vision that must be sought for with care. His recondite imagery is couched in phrases that make up in a kind of wistful hinted beauty what they lack in lucidity. Mr. Larkin’s readers must at present be confined to a small circle. Perhaps his work will gain wider appeal as his genius becomes more mature?
That might have been reason enough to hate Coventry. The book was, in fact, fairly terrible— withered juvenilia with dribs and drabs of Auden and Yeats.
By the time of the Coventry trip, Larkin had abandoned more than one third novel. He was also writing the poems, collected the following year in The Less Deceived, that would make his reputation: “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” “Reasons for Attendance,” “Toads,” “Church-Going,” and of course “I Remember, I Remember.” (The year of Larkin’s trip, the manuscript was rejected by the Dolmen Press in Dublin as “too self pitying” and “too sexy.”) The almost childish wish to be recognized was, belatedly, about to come true—but foresight does not have 20/20 vision (neither does hindsight, for that matter). Looking back at that faceless childhood in Coventry, Larkin saw nothing to suggest what lay ahead. In 1954, it might have seemed that distinction, much less genius, was beyond his grasp.
There’s a curious relation between “I Remember, I Remember” and Auden’s sonnet from the thirties, untitled then but later called, not very imaginatively, “Who’s Who.” (Auden’s belated titles for his early poems are often silly.)
A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day:
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea:
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.
The great man has done what great men do; but the sestet reveals that despite the Hemingwayesque achievements he mooned over an unrequited love to whom he wrote long letters she threw away. All the great man’s gains cannot conceal a greater loss—both poems turn on the absence of love. The generic recitation of merits seems the direct ancestor of Larkin’s comic moaning. The gnawing private dissatisfaction of the honored mirrors the seething ressentiment of the unrecognized.
“ ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’ ” The line utters a truth so profound it hardly seems profound at all. The resolution of “I Remember, I Remember” resolves nothing—it’s merely grudging acceptance of what cannot be changed. “I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,” the traveler sighs, with a hint of bitterness. (The importance of that line was made clear when Larkin chose the telling phrase to title his essay.) “I suppose” gives away how much he wishes to suppose otherwise. Better, perhaps, to have had the utterly miserable childhood of Dickens. The cartoon childhood is emptied out, the shallowness of its comforts shrewdly reinforced—fantasy depends on the lies of myth. This unsettled sort of settlement does not suggest the griping is over, merely that the traveler has reached a temporary impasse, fending off the longings conjured up by the past, longings that cannot be erased or rewritten.
We think of writers as bound by place as much as time. Reader-tourists gratify their hunger by traipsing to a dead writer’s home or grave, even when, as with Yeats, someone else’s corpse lies below. Few go to the grove where the poet was guiltily conceived, the hospital where he was untimely hatched, or the church where he was bound to a termagant. “I Remember, I Remember” is anti-biography masquerading as misanthropic growl—it’s the revision writers attempt when they ask heirs to burn their letters. As the traveler lists the events that never happened, the anxiety of presence becomes, in a gratuitous act of effacement, a gratification of absence.
A writer easily becomes a tourist of his own life, teasing from the cheerless boredom of childhood moments crucial only retrospectively, where they suddenly assume meaning, every trivial incident an Epiphany, if not an Annunciation. Is Larkin dismissing the minor events that proved necessary to becoming a poet—say, reading Auden for the first time at seventeen? Is he denying that such nothings happened or just hiding them? The benighted childhood was simply dull, like an enticing palimpsest that proves no more than a set of bureaucratic instructions. The poem—about nothing much, and everything much, in a Hardyesque way—conceals a recognition that most lives are composed of nothings. Childhood’s greatest gift to Larkin was self-loathing.
The poem suppresses a very English joke about being “sent to Coventry,” that is, given the silent treatment—or, in religious terms, shunned. Larkin could hardly be unaware that packing his traveler off to Coventry has reduced him to uncomfortable silence. The origin of the phrase has long been argued, but the OED plumps for the evidence in a passage from Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion (1703)—some prisoners from the king’s men were sent to Coventry,“declaring a more peremptory malice to his Majesty than any other place.”
The source of the poem’s title demonstrates the cunning of allusion. “I Remember, I Remember” is a syrupy lyric by Thomas Hood—the duplication of the phrase at first seems to gush with Victorian bathos toward hearth and home. Such homes made homesickness a sometimes fatal physical longing—the yearning became a call to the grave. Hood begins, excruciatingly,
I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!
Peeping! A wink too soon! On the poet goes about the “vi’lets” and “lily-cups” and “flowers made of light” until all that ebullience becomes a catch in the throat—“My spirit flew in feathers then,/ That is so heavy now.” (Recall the boots.) The poem ends, however, in a little cup of sorrow, “But now ’tis little joy/ To know I’m farther off from heav’n/ Than when I was a boy.” It’s a shortish poem, unbearably twee, yet however heart-tugging not without stirred-up darkness— no longer uplifting, the title becomes a funeral bell. Where Hood scants “childish ignorance,” Larkin’s traveler laments childish experience, buried within a long list of inexperience. We have the two sides of Blake here. Even Larkin’s rhyme scheme is devious—three rhyme sounds in a nine-line pattern (abccbaabc) recast in five-line stanzas, with a last line standing alone. Something is repeated, something squirreled away.
In a letter of 1965 noted in Complete Poems, Larkin admitted that his piece “does of course glance at Thomas Hood’s poem.” Winthrop Mackworth Praed’s similar poem of childhood opens with the same line, “I remember, I remember,” and closes with a betraying touch that reverberates into Larkin’s fallen world. Hood’s and Praed’s charmless innocence, though both poems sink at the end into despond, is precisely what Larkin makes fun of. His world lives not so much after the Fall as after a Lightness that never existed. Hood retained just a few squibs in anthologies, Praed not even those, which doesn’t bode well for a poet entirely undistinguished, as the traveler seems to be.
The brilliance of Larkin’s dry salvage lies in the swerve of tone. Until that bleak ending, Hood fairly bubbles over with gap-toothed joy; Larkin throughout is at worst rueful, at best resigned. The earlier poem was more than glanced at—they are poems intimately entangled. Larkin’s traveler finds himself at home, less at home than ever; Hood’s speaker, done with boyhood, stands “farther off from heav’n.” Even had Larkin’s traveler survived that preposterous scriptwriter’s childhood, he might have been no more happy. It is indeed not the place’s fault. The observer, like Milton’s Satan, finds below every abyss an abyss still lower.
Part of the irony of the title, but not the whole, is that it might have been “The horror! The horror!” (Recall Quentin Compson’s “I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!”) Even when the traveler is certain of the fatal mise en scène, he is not reminded of his lucky escape— the would-be poet must instead face having returned a failure; indeed, having returned at all. His childhood burns so deeply, his acts of memory become means of erasure.
Larkin takes pains in his essay to state, as if under oath before the city council, that the “poem was not of course meant to disparage Coventry, or to suggest that it was, or is, a dull place to live in, or that I now remember it with dislike or indifference, or even can’t remember it at all.” This is so lawyerish, battening down every possibility, the reader may feel the poet protests too much. (The essay was written for a Coventry arts magazine.) Larkin’s mixed feelings about his childhood, that “forgotten boredom” melodramatically announced in “Coming,” tainted the place ever after. Coventry was not the cause, only the metaphor of the condition.
If Larkin suffered that minor revelation at the station, his amnesia may have had a more devastating cause, because the Coventry of his boyhood no longer existed. Two weeks after he left for university, on the night of November 14, 1940, five hundred German bombers dropped explosive and incendiary bombs on the city, destroying the famous cathedral, nearly annihilating the town center, causing massive damage to factories farther out, and erasing part of the rail station. There were further raids over the next two years. Joseph Goebbels afterward talked of other cities being “Coventried” (a usage missing from the OED), and the cathedral was left as a skeletal reminder of the destruction. “This was still the town,” then, retains an ambiguous air—desire, happy or not, that some scrap apart from the running men had remained, or nervous anxiety that not everything had been smashed. There’s a mild irony in the running men being the only immediate sign of old Coventry, since the major reason for the bombing had been to wipe out the factories.
This explains the most curious implication of the traveler’s inability at first to recognize part of his home town. Why leave out the obvious, that the city had been bombed and that, whatever the damage to the station, the unseen surroundings (the “town that had been ‘mine’ ”) no longer survived except in a ghostly past? Even had the station been more or less unchanged (the main building suffered little), once he knew it was Coventry he could not help but recall the almost total obliteration.
Larkin mentions the bombing only once in his essay, almost as an afterthought. He ends by saying, “I never went back there to live again.” No, but two days after the bombs fell he hitchhiked home to search for his parents, only to find their house abandoned. (They’d gone to a nearby village for safety.) He saw the result of the terrible raids firsthand. Buildings may still have been burning. It’s tempting to see the memory as so traumatic, it must be the horrifying specter at the heart of the poem. Still, recalling in the poem that November night of the Blitz would have turned the subject from the lasting pain of childhood to the terrors of war even at home.
There was a better reason for Larkin not to say a word. Given how much he seems to detest the city, whatever his protestations, its ruin might have seemed wish fulfillment. The Luftwaffe had done the job for him.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 8
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