Mr. Larkin Gets a Life
“Get a life!”
“Really, one should burn everything.”
—Philip Larkin, March 15, 1980
In a letter written in 1953, when he was thirty-one years old, Philip Larkin remarked that the three poets who had “altered the face” of English poetry in the 20th century were T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas. He could not have known it then, but he was himself to be the fourth.
In a small number of perfect poems, Larkin (who died in 1985 at the age of sixty-three) has left a permanent impress, creating a distinctive mood—the “Larkinesque”—and a compact world. That world is dark—gray, if a color be wanted. It is a middle-class world, bland and provincial, drab, and (in his own bachelor case) lonely. It is a world in which childhood is likely to have been “a forgotten boredom,” life is a game of cards (where we “hold poor hands/ when we face each other honestly”), time passes too quickly, and death, far and away the major datum, casts a pall over everything.
If this sounds pretty grim, it is, except that, set out in Larkin’s poetry with wit, precision, and an exceptionally high quotient of truthfulness, it leaves one, surprisingly, elated. In an unbardic age, Philip Larkin’s poems, lucid, accessible, eliminating all false notes, dedicated to snuffing out arty pomposity, seem more genuine than those of any other poet writing in the past 50 years.
Even the best of poets, when young, tend to be adept ventriloquists, using themselves as their own dummies to force through the sounds of other, older poetic voices. Larkin was no exception. For a good while, he wrote in imitation of W.H. Auden; then he went through his Yeats period. A friend at Oxford characterized another phase of his writing as reminiscent of Dylan Thomas, “but you’ve a sentimentality that’s all your own.” Before he was twenty-five Larkin had published three books: a derivative—from Yeats—volume of poems entitled North Ship (1945) and two novels, Jill (1946) and Girl in Winter (1947), both of which showed more in the way of dogged determination than talent.
Yet Larkin was very smart very young, and about literature never less than serious. Developing his own precise laconic style took a while—the discovery of the poetry of Thomas Hardy was decisive—but not all that long. When it happened it came very quickly: suddenly, in his own bare-bones explanation, “thoughts, feelings, language cohered and jumped.” By the time he published the poems in the volume entitled The Less Deceived, in 1955, when he was thirty-three, he had come into his maturity.
It was around that same time that Larkin wrote to his friend Robert Conquest about those poets (himself, Conquest, John Wain, and Kingsley Amis, among others) then known collectively as the Movement:
For my part I feel we have got the method right—plain language, absence of posturings, sense of proportion, humor, abandonment of the dithyrambic ideal—and are waiting for the matter: a fuller and more sensitive response to life as it appears from day to day, and not only on Mediterranean holidays financed by the British Council.
If such was the method of the poets in the Movement, the true matter would really come only to Larkin. His work is in many ways the poetic equivalent of the novels of his friend Barbara Pym, whose cause he championed in the 1960’s and 70’s when she was unable to find a publisher. As Larkin wrote to his own publisher, Charles Monteith, attempting to get him interested in Miss Pym:
I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in little autumnal moments of vision, that the so-called “big” experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humor.
Some might dispute whether Larkin’s own poems are free of “self-pity or despair”; an easy enough case could be made that many are not, beginning with his remark that “deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.” Still, he was entirely and sincerely of the view (as he put it in a brief essay) that poetry, like all art, “is inextricably bound up with giving pleasure, and if a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience he has lost the only audience worth having, for which the dutiful mob that signs on every September [that is, students] is no substitute.” And he meant pleasure in the most fundamental sense; if a poem did not please, he felt, one ought to chuck it. His own recipe for poetry was to “make readers laugh, make them cry, and bring on the dancing girls.”
Through self-mockery, comic derision, a fine firm control of language, a nicely subdued lyricism, and an impressive talent for facing awkward and unpleasant facts, Larkin took poetry away from the academics and brought it back within the grasp of the intelligent ordinary reader who looks to poetry for insight, delight, and even consolation. Consider “Love,” a poem that is neither one of Larkin’s best nor among his most famous, but is a characteristic performance:
The difficult part of love
Is being selfish enough,
Is having the blind persistence
To upset an existence
Just for your own sake.
What cheek it must take.
And then the unselfish side—
How can you be satisfied,
Putting someone else first
So that you come off worst?
My life is for me.
As well ignore gravity.
Still, vicious or virtuous,
Love suits most of us.
Only the bleeder found
Selfish this wrong way round
Is ever wholly rebuffed,
And he can get stuffed.
Of all modern writers, poets tend to be the most careful promoters of their careers. Perhaps they have to be, working in a form where supply hugely exceeds demand, if one can speak of demand at all. Even the magisterial T. S. Eliot, as the first published volume of his letters shows, was something of a main-chance man. In 1919, Eliot wrote to J. H. Woods, his teacher at Harvard, that “there are only two ways in which a writer can become important—to write a great deal, and have his writings appear everywhere, or to write very little.” Eliot goes on to report that he has taken the latter course, having published only one volume of verse and printing only two or three poems each year. “The only thing that matters,” he adds, “is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.”
To publish infrequently but always to dazzle—this was the way Eliot chose and so did Philip Larkin, though, in Larkin’s case, it is perhaps more precise to say that this was the way that chose him. A steady but very slow worker till the last decade or so of his life, when he fell into a nearly complete writer’s block, Larkin was painfully perfectionist. After The Less Deceived he published only two further slender volumes of verse—The Whitsun Wedding (1964) and High Windows (1974)—at roughly ten-year intervals. All What Jazz, a collection of the record reviews he wrote for the Daily Telegraph, appeared in 1970, and Required Writing, his collected journalism and interviews, in 1982, three years before his death.
Larkin could not have hoped to live off such limited literary production, and in fact his principal income came from his job as the head librarian at the University of Hull. He had drifted into librarianship after failing, not long after graduating with a First from Oxford, to find a position in either the civil service or the Foreign Office. “At interviews,” he wrote to a friend, “I must obviously show that I don’t give a zebra’s turd for any kind of job.”
Larkin became a librarian largely because he felt himself unfit to do much else. A poet, the Russian proverb has it, always cheats his boss: usually by thinking about, if not actually writing, poems on the job. Not so Larkin, who was a highly competent librarian, managing a staff of more than 100 employees at Hull, where he oversaw a vast rebuilding of the university’s library and, from all accounts, kept things generally humming along smoothly.
Small though Larkin’s literary production was, he was handsomely rewarded for it. He won every major poetry prize offered in England, including the Queen’s Gold Medal. By his early fifties, universities began awarding him honorary degrees. He was asked to serve on literary panels and prize committees, and became a rather effective literary bureaucrat. He was the subject of a BBC television program, and a reading of his work by others was staged in London under the title “An Evening Without Philip Larkin.” He was made a Companion of Honor by Prime Minister Thatcher. Earlier, W. H. Auden and John Betjeman offered to nominate him for the poetry professorship at Oxford, which he would easily have won but which he turned down. He also refused the poet laureateship. In a birthday volume entitled Larkin at Sixty, the playwright Alan Bennett, commenting on Larkin’s famous distaste for public celebration, wrote that “a birthday party for Philip Larkin is like treating Simone Weil to a candlelight dinner for two at a restaurant of her choice.” Although he was never taken in by this kind of success, Larkin realized that, at the table of public recognition, he had been served exceedingly well.
Larkin was especially artful at that greatest of all modern tools of self-promotion, the interview. In those he gave, Larkin drew a picture of himself as a winning curmudgeon, dedicated to attacking obscurity and deflating pretension, and asserting an appetite for simple philistine pleasures. Famously insular, he answered a question about visiting China by saying that he would not mind it if he could return home the same day. When asked, “Do you feel you could have had a much happier life?,” he replied, “Not without being someone else.”
In these interviews and in his occasional journalism, Larkin presented himself as a man who had the clarity and courage to be against his time—artistically and in almost every other way. He was, he wished it to be known, not in the poetry racket: “I have never read my poems in public, never lectured on poetry, never taught anyone how to write it.” In explanation of his refusal to give readings, he said, “I don’t want to go around pretending to be me.” He also cut himself loose from the academy, which he thought encouraged poetry to be more difficult than it ought to be; this imposed difficulty was part of the legacy of modernism, a road which, in his view, should never have been taken. And, finally, in his political views, he dissociated himself from the liberal leftism that was and remains dominant in literary and academic culture.
In his introduction to All What Jazz, Larkin explained his strong dislike of modernism (as represented by such diverse artists as Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, and Charlie Parker) in these words:
. . . 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 to 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.
Do Larkin’s own poems have this power? People in a position to say always seemed to think they did. His American contemporary Robert Lowell much admired Larkin’s poetry. (Larkin, on the other hand, thought Lowell “simply barmy.”) Another American, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, although he never wrote about Larkin publicly, similarly championed his work in his letters. (“I’m crazy about him,” Jarrell wrote to Lowell.) Auden and Betjeman greatly valued Larkin’s poems. But, quite as important, many readers who had long before given up on poetry as too abstruse, specialized, private—to borrow Marianne Moore’s words, an imaginary garden inhabited by altogether too many too real toads—found themselves reading Larkin with amusement and appreciation.
A funny game, poetry: as Jarrell once pointed out, a poet has only a half-dozen or so times to strike lightning—that is, to write the perfect poem—and he is assured immortality. Yet how few have done it! Jarrell himself did not. It is unclear whether Robert Lowell can be said to have done it more than once or twice. Among modern poets of an earlier generation, T. S. Eliot did; so, too, did Wallace Stevens; by no means is it plain that William Carlos Williams or Marianne Moore did. Auden did, as did Robert Frost, perhaps more convincingly and in greater profusion than any other modern poet.
By this measure—the composition of a handful of resounding and flawless poems—Philip Larkin appears to have succeeded, too. In “At Grass,” “Church Going,” “Mr. Bleaney,” “Dockery and Son,” “Old Fools,” “Aubade,” poems where the tiles slide perfectly into place and the finished work closes with a satisfying click, he produced major poems, perfect of their kind. In “Annus Mirabilis,” “Verse de Société,” “Naturally the Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses,” “This Be the Verse,” and a great many more he wrote strong comic poems, usually with a sharp bitter twist. Larkin is a poet who is not only readable but rereadable and—the third and ultimate test—memorable. His genius was to have taken the imperfections of his life, perhaps his chief subject matter, and turned them into perfection in his work.
When Philip Larkin died of cancer of the esophagus in 1985, his fame was great and his claims on immortality considerable. But a funny thing happened on the way up Parnassus. Among Larkin’s literary executors are Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion. Thwaite is a literary journalist and a former editor of the (now-defunct) monthly Encounter, while Motion is an academic and critic of poetry; both are also poets. Between them they divided the literary spoils. Thwaite brought out a Collected Poems (1988) and last year the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985,1 while Motion wrote what is intended to be the definitive biography, Philip Larkin, A Writer’s Life.2
Taken together, these three books have come near to sinking Philip Larkin’s reputation. All his life Larkin feared death, and he turns out to have been correct, but in a way he could not have known—for what has happened to him after death is much worse than anything in his life. “A couple of years ago Larkin was still our best-loved postwar poet,” Martin Amis has written in dismay; “now, for the time being, he is the most reviled.”
The Collected Poems did the least damage. The complaint about it was that everything good in the book was not new and much that was new was not good, and so should have been excluded. As editor, Anthony Thwaite chose to print several of Larkin’s youthful poems—those written between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three—many of which Larkin himself referred to as “pseudo-Keats babble.” Thwaite also included a small number of poems that Larkin considered unfinished. A perfectionist with the patience to go with his proclivity, the mature Larkin, as Thwaite notes, “could not bring himself to publish anything about which he felt any doubt.” Yet since Larkin felt doubt about almost everything having to do with himself, Thwaite overruled him in death and printed a number of poems which in his view “deserve to stand with [Larkin’s] best already known work.” Some, in my view, do; some, regrettably, do not.
But such controversy as the Collected Poems brought was confined to poets and critics of contemporary poetry, and was an intramural affair at best. The same cannot be said for the publication of the Selected Letters and Andrew Motion’s biography. In England the Letters came out before the Life; here the Life preceded the Letters. In some ways it is best to read the Letters first—as it happens, I did not—because they tend, if not to refute the Life, at least to complicate and hence to soften it.
Behind Andrew Motion’s biography of Philip Larkin lurks what feels like one of those Henry James stories about betrayal among artists. Although Motion contends that he had nothing of the sort in mind, and claims too that his biography is sympathetic to its subject, his life of Larkin is, in fact, oddly prosecutorial. (In the Selected Letters, it is worth remarking, Larkin’s own comments about Motion tend to be mildly derisive.) The Philip Larkin who emerges from Motion’s book is ungenerous, neurotic, bigoted, utterly self-regarding, and damned unpleasant generally. Think how he might have emerged in a biography not written by a friend.
Forgiveness is at the heart of biography. The biographer either will or will not find it in himself to pardon his subject the transgressions he is almost certain to discover once he begins digging around in the life. Especially is this the case in biographies of modern artists. The modern artist, after all, has long had a warrant, a sanction of a sort, to be a miserable son of a bitch. Driven to distraction by the difficulties of his work—so the warrant reads—the artist, if he is not a little mad to begin with, must be allowed a wider berth than the rest of us to leave more human rubble in his wake. It is an old story: the wound and the bow, and all that.
The roll of artists in the modern age is filled with alcoholics, misanthropes, megalomaniacs, major-league neurotics, creeps, drips, and simple bad hats. The list of those noted for kindness and acts of unmotivated goodness is shorter than the list of four-star restaurants in Duluth. When yet another artist with a difficult personality presents himself to be written about, the biographer must choose either to sympathize, understand, and explain away the unpleasantness, or nail the fellow to the wall.
Philip Larkin had what I should call a troubled rather than a difficult personality, and Andrew Motion is at some pains to explain the origins of his troubles. A shy and stammering boy with poor eyesight, homely, awkwardly tall, not notably gifted in the skills appreciated by the young, brought up in a loveless marriage, Larkin had rich ground in his early life for psychological complication. “I never left the house,” he later wrote, “without the sense of walking into a cooler, cleaner, saner, and pleasanter atmosphere, and, if I had not made friends outside, life would have been scarcely tolerable.” As Motion shows, Larkin was one of those boys whose keenest pleasures tended to be lonely ones: reading, going to the movies, listening to jazz records. Sex, he would later aver, was really too good to share with anyone else.
Larkin thought his mother a passive, tidy-minded, dreary woman who felt her life always slipping out of control. His father, Sidney Larkin, rose to be the city treasurer in Coventry and was a much more complex case. “Everything Larkin disliked or feared in his father,” Motion writes, “was matched by something he found impressive or enviable.” Among those impressive or enviable items were self-reliance, immense competence, respect for education, knowing one’s own mind, wide reading. Sidney Larkin shaped his son’s literary tastes, guiding him to G. B. Shaw, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Arnold Bennett, and Samuel Butler as well as D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and Katherine Mansfield. Sidney Larkin was also pro-German—he was, as Philip later described him, “the sort of person that democracy didn’t suit”—and possibly even pro-Hitler. This last fact would be used, if not by Motion then by others among Larkin’s recent contemners, to count against the son’s own politics.
Although in his introduction Motion speaks to the contradictory qualities that comprised Larkin’s personality—his selfishness and his kindness, his shyness and his skill at self-promotion, his reactionary attitudes and his personal tolerance—the more generous and admirable aspects of the man somehow fall away over the long haul of this biography. They do so because Motion cannot finally forgive Larkin for two things: his relations with women and his political opinions.
Larkin was one of nature’s bachelors. His own family life probably put paid forever to the idea of his marrying. As he once noted in his diary: “Let me remember that the only married state I intimately know (i.e., that of my parents) is bloody hell. Never must it be forgotten.” And in an autobiographical fragment, he wrote: “Certainly the marriage [of his parents] left me with two convictions: that human beings should not live together, and that children should be taken from their parents at an early age.” Or, as he put it more concisely in the last quatrain of “This Be the Verse”:
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
In life, it was not quite so simple. While Larkin never spoke of a longing for children—he wrote that he lost his interest in religion when he learned that in heaven one would return to the state of childhood—he did long for women. In letters to unmarried male friends, he spoke of women, as bachelors will, in the standard degrading way, with his own twist of Larkinesque humor: “I don’t want to take a girl out and spend circa £5 when I can toss off in five minutes, free, and have the rest of the evening to myself.” To his friend Jim Sutton he wrote that “my relations with women are governed by a shrinking sensitivity, a morbid sense of sin, a furtive lechery.” Women liked scenes, wanted children, wore their emotions like clothes, were possessive. “Above all they like feeling they ‘own’ you—or that you ‘own’ them—a thing I hate.”
All this makes Larkin sound like a man who would be quite ruthless with any woman who came his way; or perhaps like a man who would do better to steer clear of women altogether. In fact, against the advice of the metaphysical poet, he could neither wholly abstain nor wed. His adult life was an almost perpetual entanglement with women whom he could neither marry nor easily break away from. He yearned for female companionship, then he wanted to be free of it; he was unhappy without a woman in his life but always uncomfortable when enmeshed in a love affair. As he jotted in one of his notebooks:
Not love you? Dear, I’d pay ten quid for you: Five down, and five when I got rid of you.
He never sorted it out. In his twenties, he was engaged to a woman who lived in Wellington, the site of his first library job. He had a long relationship with an attractive woman, an English-literature academic named Monica Jones, who lived in Northumberland, a freedom-giving distance away from Hull. He had an unconsummated relationship with a recent graduate of Queen’s College in Belfast, with whom he worked at that school’s library. Off and on, he saw a woman who worked at the library in Hull and whose earnest Catholicism brought sexual complications. He had an affair that sounds more like a fling with the divorced wife of a former friend. Much later in life, Motion informs us, he slept with his secretary. The clever title of a review of Larkin’s High Windows, “ Don Juan in Hull,” drips with sad irony.
Apart from his quite true attachment to Monica Jones, Larkin seems to have been the sexual equivalent of a human type known as the permanent transient: wherever he was, he thought of elsewhere. In Larkin’s case, whomever he was with, he longed for the company of another. On holiday with one of his lady friends, he was certain to correspond with another. “You see,” he wrote to Jim Sutton, “my trouble is that I never like what I’ve got.”
To justify this refusal of final commitment, Larkin invoked his work. “How will I be able to write,” he asked the woman he was engaged to in his twenties, “when I have to be thinking of you?” The composer Maurice Ravel took the line, which Larkin would have approved, that it is probably best for an artist not to marry: “He lives like an awakened dreamer,” Ravel said, “and that’s not amusing for a woman who lives with him.” Larkin, in his middle forties, wrote to Monica Jones in his characteristically abashed tone to apologize for holding things at bay between them in order to get his writing done. “Anyone would think I was Tolstoy, the value I put on it,” he said, adding: “It hasn’t amounted to much.”
Andrew Motion has a theory that Larkin’s conflict with women was at the center of his power to write poems. “When he approached the middle of his life he stopped seeing the conflict as something that must be resolved, and regarded it instead as the means of self-definition.” True enough, this conflict gave Larkin the subject matter for some of his sadder poems—“Self’s the Man,” “Talking in Bed”—about loneliness and the impossibility of striking any enduring human connection. “I believe that human beings can do nothing for one another except provide amusement, which is pleasant but does not last,” he wrote when still a young man. Yet there was no pleasure in any of this for Larkin himself, who felt that when he was old he would regret having wasted his life and “therefore, in addition to being afraid of death, I shall feel cheated and angry.”
If Philip Larkin never quite sorted out his relations with women, neither, quite, does his biographer. When all the many details Motion provides have worked their way into the reader’s mind, they lead to the conclusion, in the crude thinking of our day, that Philip Larkin was a misogynist, his selfishness amounting to cruelty. It does not help matters to learn that Larkin also had a taste for soft pornography. Yet the tenderest of his letters are those written to women, and by no means all of them to women in whom he had a sexual interest. He was able consistently to strike the note of intimacy with women in a way he could not do with men. With women he is often at his best.
The point that one has to consider is that what Larkin sometimes said, he did not necessarily always mean; and even in those instances where he might have meant the unpleasant personal views he uttered, he never acted upon them. In middle life, in an autobiographical fragment, Larkin might refer to his mother, with her compulsiveness and irritating passivity, as a “sniveling pest,” but in fact throughout her old age (she lived to be ninety-one) he stood by her, writing to her almost daily, traveling to visit her on a regular (and frequent) basis, and seeing her through to the end as the dutiful son he was. He may have been grudging in his dutifulness, but such duty is hard, and in the end the chief thing is that he performed it.
The separation of word from deed is not always simple, but it is one that becomes crucial in a culture like ours where opinions are allowed to eclipse or even negate accomplishments. Which brings us to the second of Andrew Motion’s problems, and almost everyone else’s who has written about his book and Anthony Thwaite’s edition of the Selected Letters: Philip Larkin’s politics and the social opinions behind them. In one view, Larkin’s politics were right-wing; in another, my own, they were thoroughly anti-Left. It is not quite the same thing.
Larkin thought the left-wing politics of the Labor party, of the British trade unions, and of university students in the 60’s and the teachers who chose to go along with or abet them, were destroying England. As he wrote to a friend:
You can’t be more depressed than I about the state of the country. To my mind it is only a question of time before we are a sort of sub-Ireland or Italy, with the population scratching a living by sucking up to tourists and the Queen doing two performances a day of Trooping the Colour for coach loads of Middle-Westerners and Russian Moujiks. God, what an end to a great country.
In the Selected Letters, such sentiments, often expressed less politely, have landed Larkin in deep posthumous trouble. In British reviews of the Letters and of Andrew Motion’s Life, Larkin has been accused of “racism, misogyny, and quasi-fascist views.” He has been referred to as a “foul-mouthed bigot”; had his masculinity questioned; and declared “really a nutcase.” The publication of the Life and the Letters, opening Larkin’s political views to the public, has also led to a reassessment of him as a poet. A man holding the views he did, it has been suggested, cannot be other than a minor artist with an inflated reputation, which it is now time to deflate.
On the charitable side, critics have written that, though Larkin’s views may have been hideous and he a terrible fellow, nonetheless the poems remain and it is for the poems alone that he should be remembered and for which we should be grateful. This general line rather echoes Larkin himself on the World War I poet Wilfred Owen, of whom, in a letter to Robert Conquest, he wrote: “W. O. seems rather a prick, really, yet the poems stay good.”
Meanwhile, the self-appointed members of the thought police in our universities have before them the happy task of raking Larkin’s poems for evidence of unacceptable opinions. Odd, is it not, that an on-the-make character in one poem, “Posterity,” should be named Jake Balokowsky, a Jew? Misogny is easily enough sniffed out. Racism may present a tougher job; but maybe not, for is not any admiration for the British empire, as in “Homage to a Government,” evidence of racism? And what about homophobia? Stay on the case: it must be there somewhere. Academics exist who will find all this not in the least tiresome work.
But how bad are the opinions expressed in Larkin’s letters? Some are pretty bad, others are bad but funny, a few are of a kind that admirers of Larkin will wish were never voiced. Ironic derision is a note often struck in these letters. Larkin loved to spot a phony, to call a spade a freakin’ shovel. Thus, he refers to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as “the American hymn to cowardice,” and to the IRA as “these mad murdering Irish swine.” He notes that the universities are “educating the children of the striking classes.” Of a poetry competition he is judging, he writes: “About half the entrants are Yanks, all worrying about Vietnam and being Jewish.” He calls the British critic A. Alvarez “El Al” and Salman Rushdie “Salmagundi.” Italy is “wopland” and Morocco “coonland.” Mocking the movement, so popular in the early 80’s, to rid university portfolios of any investments in South Africa, he derides the “years-long wrangle over South African shares, or shares in companies that have South African interests, or shares in firms that employ chaps who once ate a South African orange, or something.”
Humor has always taken its seasoning from the forbidden, from deliberate indiscretion, and if one cannot be indiscreet in correspondence with dear friends, then we are all in sad shape. (“Letters,” the young T. S. Eliot wrote to his college friend Conrad Aiken, “should be indiscretions—otherwise they are simply official bulletins.”) Yet, such is the touchiness of the time in which we live, a famous literary man now has to be warier of what he writes than a millionaire playboy wooing a trial lawyer’s daughter.
There is worse. “Keep up the cracks about wogs and niggers,” Larkin wrote to his friend Kingsley Amis. (One hopes Sir Kingsley is even now at the document shredder.) To certain correspondents—Amis, Conquest, a man named Colin Gunner—Larkin reciprocated in kind. The “cracks” range in meanness from a reference to the “bloody Paki next door” to “And as for those black scum kicking up a din on the boundary [of the cricket field at Lord’s]—a squad of South African police would have sorted them out to my satisfaction.”
I wish Larkin had never said such things because they can only be used against him by people who, along with being impressed with their own virtue, cannot stand too much complication in human character. The truth about the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin is that their author was a good-hearted man who could write with exquisite tact to a woman who had sent him a novel about the death of her son in a tragic accident; who could bemoan killing a hedgehog and later write a poem, “The Mower,” about it (“. . . we should be careful/ Of each other, we should be kind/ While there is still time”); who could soothe friends in their grief, stick by them in their suffering (see the letters to Barbara Pym), entertain them in their boredom, delight them with his faithful attention. The occasional politically-incorrect opinions have obscured the fact that there is scarcely a letter in the Selected Letters that does not contain something charming, touching, funny, or generous.
This is all the more impressive because Larkin seems to have been a genuinely unhappy man. In a review of The Oxford Book of Death he wrote that “man’s most remarkable talent is for ignoring death.” Certainly, he could never for long get it out of his own mind. Time was a perpetual slow leak, and the years were precious air always escaping him. His twenties, his thirties, his forties, his fifties, all seemed to him to have been wasted, to have gotten away in an “uneventful progress toward the grave.”
Larkin’s last years were a vast wet blanket of sadness. He was a fully blocked writer, who told a journalist that he “would sooner write no poems than bad poems.” He had put on weight, and could not forbear remarking on his “sagging face, an egg sculptured in lard, with goggles on—depressing, depressing, depressing.” “So we face 1982,” he wrote to Kingsley Amis, “sixteen stone six, gargantuantly paunched, helplessly addicted to alcohol, tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’, world-famous-unable-to-write poet, well you know the rest.” When in January 1985 he acquired a new Parker 61 fountain pen, he noted to an old friend that parts would be available for it for the next ten years, adding: “That’ll see me out.” He died before the year was done.
At the close of a brief paragraph of complaint in a letter to the writer John Wain, Larkin said sardonically about himself: “What I like about Phil, he always cheers you up.” Yet the strange fact is that reading Philip Larkin always does cheer one up—such, at least, is his effect on me. Sad though the subjects of his poems indubitably are, empty though his letters struggle to convince one that his life was, he himself remains an oddly stirring figure. There is something splendidly impressive about a man unable to lie about his experience and who, no matter how dark or even pathetic that experience, finds reason to laugh about it. Larkin’s poetry and life show that to be “less deceived,” though it may not be enough, is at least a start. They also show that just because life seems almost unrelievedly depressing—dour, laden with disappointment, with death waiting at the end—that is no reason to let it get you down.
1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 791 pp., $40.00.
2 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 570 pp., $35.00.