I. What else can I answer? “Both conversational and lyrical,” the biographer Claire Tomalin has said. And elsewhere: “he wrote in a tradition that valued formal structure, but his voice is entirely his own.”
She was writing not about Philip Larkin (1922–1985), but Thomas Hardy, whose poetry was the greatest influence on Larkin’s mature work. All these things could be said of Larkin himself, though, despite the differences between the two poets. In fact, it was arguably Hardy who enabled Larkin to write most like himself by allowing him to write directly about his own experiences and to do so in a vernacular key. Consider this from near the end of ‘Toads Revisited’ (a poem about how we need work for the shape, meaning and distraction it provides us in our lives). The tone is honest, rueful, knowing; the symbolism naturalistic, with a dash of quirky surrealism:
“What else can I answer,
When the lights come on at four,
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.
‘Toads Revisited’, The Whitsun Weddings (1964)
Larkin was a complex man often over-simplified – not least by the public persona he helped to encourage. A kind of strategy to retain his privacy and most likely guard the sources of his writing – a fragile, irregular thing. He was a prolific author of letters and diaries, yet his poetic output was slight (four slim volumes in as many decades). Accused of misanthropy and misogyny, but capable of great affection and tenderness; death-obsessed, melancholy, an occasional bon viveur. Very funny, but often unkind in his private comments. A lover of jazz (pre-Charlie Parker). A progressively heavy drinker. Larkin was quietly rebellious, somewhat reclusive; an outsider, a reactionary anti-modernist. A poet shy of publicity but unafraid of controversy.
II. A Writer’s Life: In his superb biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, Andrew Motion charts his development as a sometime novelist, and young poet (influenced by Yeats and Auden) – to the growth of his mature style. The two men were friends towards the end of Larkin’s life.
Motion points out that rather than turn his back on the lyrical, symbolist influence of W. B. Yeats, he instead learned to control this impulse, which breaks out at key moments, creating instances of ‘lift off’, often at the end of poems (Our Life in Poetry). He points to notable examples, such as the end of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, with the newly married couples released, “like an arrow shower […] somewhere becoming rain.” And also to ‘High Windows’, a poem fuelled by sexual jealousy of the young, which ends with “the thought of high windows/… the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” Commentators variously dispute whether these windows represent the Brynmor Jones Library where he worked in Hull, a tower-block, a hospital, or the stained-glass windows of a church (“the sun-comprehending glass”). And further, what the emptiness beyond might signify (something to fear or celebrate?) Since Larkin rarely discussed the meaning of his work or gave public readings, this remains pleasingly unresolved.
Motion also considers what fired Larkin’s writing, arguing that his work is as much about life and relationships as it is about death. Despite several close friendships with men (most notably the writer Kingsley Amis at Oxford in the 1940s), all Larkin’s most important relationships, he points out, were with women: his mother, Eva, and the principal women with whom he conducted simultaneous affairs – Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan. These relationships can be traced through his writing. What is interesting, though, is that despite the vernacular language and clear references to lived experience, the direct origins of these experiences remain deliberately vague.
III. Veiled Autobiography: Larkin wrote a number of poems about the women with whom he was intimately involved. In ‘Wild Oats’, written about his first girlfriend, Ruth Bowman, he describes “a ten guinea ring/ I got back in the end,” and concludes dryly, that he was “too selfish, withdrawn,/ And easily bored to love./ Well, useful to get that learnt.” The final line here suggests a veneer of self-protecting irony. He wrote ‘Broadcast’ for Maeve Brennan (“Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding”). ‘Talking in Bed’ is about Monica Jones, in which he struggles to find words “not untrue and not unkind” – although he also wrote plenty of very kind words to her in their private letters (addressing her as Dear Bun, or Dearest Rabbit).
For Eva Larkin (whom he affectionately called Mops, or his ‘old creature’), he wrote poems such as ‘Love Songs in Age’ (about her sheet music), in which he describes how “she kept her songs, they took so little space.” He employs the same traditional iambic pentameter for the poem ‘Maiden Name’, with the beautifully lyrical, “Its five light sounds no longer mean your face” (written for Winifred Arnott of whom he was especially fond in his 20s). These poems reveal, as Sean O’Brien says, “a remarkable sympathy for women’s lives” (The Firebox, p. 83), which challenges the view of Larkin as simply misogynistic. Nevertheless, he could behave shabbily when it came to his intimate relationships, especially regarding Maeve Brennan, with whom he conducted a seventeen-year affair only to finally leave her for Monica Jones. Motion observes that by sustaining two relationships simultaneously, he kept himself free of commitment to either woman. He suggests, rather brilliantly, that if Larkin was slightly too happy or unhappy, he couldn’t produce poems: “rarely did his life attain the right emotional temperature for writing,” he says (p.278).
There was obviously a reason Larkin kept the origins of his poems obscure (as poets often do), and although this kind of biographical trowel-work is interesting, there must be more to the poems than uncovering personal revelation, or why would we still read them so closely? It was clear that Larkin both wanted and needed a carefully guarded private life in order to write. Poetry that was both a slim and a rich harvest. Tellingly, in ‘Forget What Did’, he writes (of the things recorded in his diary) that when he stopped writing, he:
wanted them over,
Hurried to burial,
And looked back on
Then the poem flashes brilliantly:
Like the wars and winters‘Forget What Did’, High Windows (1974)
Missing behind the windows
Of an opaque childhood
Again, windows signal something unknowable. Interestingly, it was these diaries that Monica Jones destroyed after his death, at Larkin’s request.
Looked back on, what stands out about Larkin’s mature poetry is the versatility of his writing, from the discursive thread of private thought (as in one of my favourite poems, ‘Dockery & Son’), to the near-visionary (like ‘Livings II’ – although these moments seem always transitory in Larkin, fleeting); to a close, if personal documentation of post-war Britain into the 1970s. Despite his preoccupation with death and emotional failure, he can display a surprising range, with “remarkable combinations of scale and detail” (O’Brien, p. 83), spanning his modest oeuvre. As in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, he was the great observer, “on the edge of things” (Monitor). He combined an almost cinematic sweep with extreme close ups of familiar, often difficult feelings which he unfolds to the reader in a nuanced, if irresolute way. Larkin’s view of life may be bleak, but his poetry provides a certain consolation through recognition of our common failures. His voice remains inimitable and instantly recognisable. He was a kind of secular suburban Psalmist of the mid-Twentieth Century. And as T. S. Eliot said of him: “He makes words do what he wants.”
© Benedict Gilbert 2021
References in this post:
Featured image: Philip Larkin by Fay Godwin, 1969. © The British Library Board (Wikipedia: Assumed Fair Use)
Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: the Time-Torn Man (Penguin, 2007); xviii
Poems of Thomas Hardy (Selected and Introduced by Claire Tomalin), (Penguin, 2007), xiv—xv
Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (Faber, 1993; 2018)
Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, (Anthony Thwaite, Ed.), (Faber, 1998)
Our Life in Poetry: Motion on Larkin (Youtube)
Sean O’Brien, The Firebox: Poetry in Britain & Ireland after 1945 (Picador, 1998)
Anthony Thwaite (Ed.) Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica (Faber, 2010)
Of the documentaries about Larkin, the Monitor/BBC, Down Cemetery Road (1964), was made during his lifetime, as was The Southbank Show (1982). Of the more recent documentaries, Love & Death in Hull (2003) is an interesting if slightly generalised look at his life and work, although it does have some very valuable interviews, for example with Maeve Brennan. A. N. Wilson’s Return to Larkinland (2015) is a compassionate look at Larkin’s legacy, by another old friend. The most comprehensive is Philip Larkin: Bookmark (1993). Philip Larkin reading his poems is available in The Sunday Sessions (recorded in 1980; released by Faber in 2012). Martin Amis’s Philip Larkin, Selected Poems (Faber, 2011), is a good place to start with his work.