Poetry and Personality: Philip Larkin

British to his suburban core, Philip Larkin graduated from Oxford with a first in English language and literature, and became a professional librarian at various institutions, moving finally to Hull University, where he oversaw important innovations. He wrote two novels, did some book reviewing, contributed jazz criticism to The Daily Telegraph and edited the Oxford English Book of Twentieth Century Verse, which appeared in 1973 and went through many reprintings. His social life was circumspect and desultory: his love life even more so. The North Ship collection (1945) shows the influence of Yeats, but the collections that made his name are The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). All were well received, and indeed remain popular, though the last in particular shows a marked falling off in quality. Larkin declined the position of Poet Laureate, and died of cancer a year later, in 1985. {1}

Larkin's Reputation

Larkin had wide appeal, but his reputation among fellow practitioners was somewhat mixed. Andrew Motion noted 'a very English, glum accuracy', about emotions, places, and relationships. Donald Davie called it the work of 'lowered sights and diminished expectations'. Jean Hartley spoke of a 'piquant mixture of lyricism and discontent'. {1} McClatchy thought Larkin wrote ‘in clipped, lucid stanzas, about the failures and remorse of age, about stunted lives and spoiled desires.’ Alan Brownjohn however noted that Larkin had produced without fanfare 'the most technically brilliant and resonantly beautiful, profoundly disturbing yet appealing and approachable, body of verse of any English poet in the last twenty-five years.' {2}

Philip Larkin’s reputation in fact {2} rests on an extraordinary thin base, on three small collections, in which were many duds.  Setting aside work in the first collection, The North Ship, Larkin’s poetry accurately depicted an England recovering from WWII, with a lugubrious matter-of-factness and a dour, somewhat defeatist, not-to-be-kidded attitude. Unlike much verse of the time and since, however, Larkin’s poems also evoked an exact time and place, the only English rival in this regard being John Betjeman, who was equally popular, probably more so with the general reader who does not much care for poetry, especially of the modern sort.

The Whitsun Weddings

Larkin’s first collection, The Less Deceived of 1955 may have the best poems. Of the 32 poems in the subsequent The Whitsun Weddings collection of 1964, only 10 were really successful: Here, Mr. Bleaney, Love Songs in Age, Home is so Sad, Toads Revisited, The Whitsun Weddings, Days, Ambulances, Dockery and Son, and An Arundel Tomb. The verse in others can be hardly verse at all.

Wild Oats:

Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn,
And easily bored to love.
Well, useful to get that learnt.
In my wallet are still two snaps
Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.
Unlucky charms, perhaps.

At first blush, the poem is depressing and infuriating: stress verse with three or four beats to the line, and lackadaisical rhymes (five/love, withdrawn/on, agreement/learnt, snaps/perhaps). But those spasmodic and unsatisfactory lines also underline the content, which is apparently autobiographical, though unrelieved by the humour of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, which draws on the same material. {1} Much of the famed English sense of humour is self-deprecating, and an individual buoyant in a post-war Britain of rationing and lost dreams of empire would be an odd soul indeed. Larkin was often grouped with The Movement Poets, moreover, who aimed for a popular, down-to-earth style. {3}

Larkin's Money

Money is not among his best work, but does lead us into Larkin's art. The first and last stanzas of the poem are: {4}

Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
'Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.'
I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

We have to admit the obvious: the earlier stanza is doggerel. The aabb rhyme scheme does not give stanza integrity, but handles easily enough. Larkin's lumpiness is easily removed:

Money is sometimes like our looking down
From long French windows on some provincial town,
On slums, canal, the churches, ornate and mad:
Sun bright at evening, but immensely sad.

But for the better? Compare the two renderings.

The 'I listen' and 'It’s like'  of Larkin's poke through the metre, and bring us up short. The amended version is smoother, but has missed something.

Larkin used a hybrid style between verse and prose, sometimes putting commonplace thoughts in commonplace language, and then slipping into an iambic verse for more serious reflections. Here are the first and last stanzas of one of his best-known poems: {5}

From Church Going

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

The opening lines can be read:
Once I am sure | there's nothing going on
I step inside || letting the door thud shut.

But the stresses are not clearly marked, the speech rhythms imposing something more like:

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside | letting the door thud shut.

Making its very ordinariness seem sincerity:

Once I am sure there's nothing going on, I step inside, letting the door thud shut. Another church: matting, seats, and stone and little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut for Sunday, brownish now. Some brass and stuff up at the holy end; the small neat organ; and a tense, musty, unignorable silence, brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off my cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Ordinary prose, or almost so, since awkward reverence is preparing us for the third stanza, which starts:

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,

And by the final stanza the language is much more elevated —
blent, robed in destinies, hunger in himself, gravitating. . . ground, . wise in, dead lie round — and the assiduous student of rhetoric could identify: {6}

Parenthesis: he once heard
Parallelism: In whose blent air all our compulsions meet
Anaphora : A serious house on serious earth
Anadiplosis: to be more serious
Procatalepsis: Are recognized
Litotes: proper to grow wise in
Metabasis: And that much never can be obsolete
Amplification: Since someone will forever . .
Metanoia: If only that so many dead lie round
Metaphor: robed as destinies.
Personification: A hunger in himself to be more serious
Hyperbaton: earth it is
Pleonasm: gravitating with it to this ground
Alliteration: And gravitating with it to this ground
Parataxis: If only that so many dead lie round.
Climax: If only that so many dead lie round

From an everyday beginning — though with some rhetoric {7} — the poem moves to studied exactness, the more striking because of the 'artless' flatlands from which it rises. Only they're not artless, but a conscious strategy.

The concluding stanza of the previous poem mentions money singing, adds some bald observations, and ends with 'It is intensely sad'. Nothing has really prepared us for 'I listen to money singing': it hasn't in the speaker's life, and doesn't in the decaying landscape around, unless heartlessly so on the lack of investment. Where Church Going rose to the memorable, this poem bites the matter off with It is intensely sad, which echoes the singing, and relates back to a repressed life. A climax in reverse, deepened by the banality of the language and metrical expression.

Much of this must seem ancient history. Academia has paid its tributes and moved on. Larkin was writing fifty years ago, about an England now very different, conflicted by issues that were hardly spoken of then — immigration, inequality, loss of national identity, Britain’s relationship to Europe. But Larkin depicted a world that the great mass of people could identify with, an essential ingredient of the tabloid press, but one that arguably still needs addressing if poetry is to recapture its public.

Larkin’s approach may be still illuminating, therefore. He compiled The Oxford English Book of Twentieth Century Verse, partly with the hope of finding poets overlooked by the success of Modernism, but was apparently disappointed. {1} His own work was a mixture of the sophisticated and the faux-naïf, a feature also of The Movement group in which he was often placed.

Church Going was a popular poem, much anthologised and written about. Why didn’t Larkin write more in this manner? The only comparable poem in later collections was The Whitsun Weddings, but the piece, though including acute social observation, and exactly pitched in tone, was much more colloquial and throw-away, ending in the  vaguely regerative ‘A sense of falling, like an arrow –shower / Sent out of sight, becoming rain.’ The serious reflection is not otherwise pursued, each poem generally ending with a rueful shrug of disappointment or bewilderment: ‘I don’t know’ (Mr Bleaney), Nothing to be said (Nothing To Be Said), ‘and could not now’ (Love Songs in Age), ‘and then the only end of age’ (Dockery and Son).

A collection of thirty-odd poems appearing every decade or so, with many of the poems rather slight and unambitious, is hardly the output of an adventurous spirit. What was it ―  intellectual isolation, provincialism, mother-fixation, or Larkin’s noted reserve and misogyny? No doubt all these {8} but more perhaps the unrewarding nature of British poetry, that increasingly (in the schoolmaster’s phrase) ‘gave no trouble and took none.’ Larkin’s carefully nursed sense of defeat, which admirably captured the mood of post-war Britain, became in the end too self-defining, and, in the British context, too self-indulgent. Reviewers and critics should have expected more. Even now, I would suggest, we should not take the greatness of the poetry as a given {9} but look more closely at the work, poem by poem. Even that celebrated line in Deceptions ― ‘All the unhurried day / Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives’ ― may not be answering properly to the situation, to the outrage and shame felt by the traumatised victim.

Larkin the man played its part in these shortcomings, I suggest, and the less attractive aspects of his character became more evident in his later poems. Readers of his biographies should not have been surprised by loutish attitudes: they are present even in these The Whitsun Weddings samples:

My contact and my pal (Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses)
A snivel on the violins (Broadcast)
An uncle shouting smut, and then the perms (The Whitsun Weddings)
Books are a load of crap (A Study of Reading Habits)
A tuberous cock and balls (Sunny Prestatyn)
A bosomly English rose (Wild Oats)
And the boy puking his heart out in the Gents (Essential Beauty)

This wasn’t the poet cocking a snoot at genteel society, but simply being himself, exhibiting the absence of what was once expected of poetry: an elevation in thought, the intimations of a larger world.

The strength of Larkin’s appeal lay therefore in his poetry’s suburban compass. It spoke to the ordinary, no-nonsense, law-abiding citizen who did an honest nine to five job, read the Sunday papers and gave to worthwhile causes, but who was otherwise untouched by the great British traditions and and religious practices. As often happens, decade by decade, when academia comes to justify the reigning literary stars, critics dutifully read a lot of accomplishment into the contrived pieces that make up High Windows, though a proper poem needs more than bewildered stare into the blue beyond with which the title poem ends, the 'And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.’ {10} 

That academia could run to over-cleverness, as in Sympathy in White Major.{11} Yet Larkin was never a Symbolist, not in the proper sense of the word. ‘Closed like confessionals’ is an apt beginning for Ambulances, but the similarity is not developed beyond the obvious. The earlier Deceptions is an excellent poem ― in its exact imagey, sense of lived experience and disturbing undertones ― but the lack of sexual fulfilment that ends the poem rather misses the point. Sexual gratification was hardly what the rapist was seeking but female subjugation, an example of the horrific social and economic abuse that Mayhew documented in his 1861 London Labour and the London Poor, and which Larkin, on the periphery of academic life in Hull, chose to ignore. 

Indeed, having made his reputation with The Less Deceived, and justifiably so, Larkin seems then to have somewhat gloried in that grumpy persona, poking fun at any earnest and high-minded themes as youthful hopes settled into middle-aged disappointments. Anything approaching exuberance is damped down, by flattening the verse and biting the matter off with a banal phrase. From the first, Larkin’s poems exhibited a sense of effort, suggesting that the apt and telling imagery was hard-won, extracted by the intellect, and increasingly felt not to be worth the effort.

All around were larger issues, injustices even, which seem not to have been sensed by Larkin, an omission that grows with the years. It was all very well to point up middle-class pretensions in The Whitsun Weddings, but where is the humanity that takes each adventuring couple and blesses their setting out? The wretched social divisions of British life are not an adequate defence. Classes were much more rigidly defined in nineteenth-century Russia, for example, but anyone who reads their authors will recognise the humanity missing from the British scene, in novels {12-13} and the arts generally.{14} Larkin did not aspire to the elevated, and increasingly seemed unable to resist the opportunity to knock pretence down a peg of two, though without having a substitute.

The last was the essential problem, as it is with Modernism generally: the poets lack a tradition to explore, deepen and clarify, but must make up their material, and respond to it, as they go along. Larkin was an honest reporter in a lack-lustre period of British social history where poetry, unfortunately, needs much richer ground. The early poem Church Going showed what he had in him, but reviewers and critics, perhaps because relieved to find a serious poet who was also popular, were no more conducive of good work than were ordinary readers, whose philistine nature and small hopes Larkin came increasingly to represent.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's modern poets.