About 50 years ago, Clive James tells us, he received “one of the great compliments I’d been paid in my life” when Philip Larkin attended a performance of songs which Pete Atkin and he gave in the University of Hull. Larkin admired James’s writing. In a letter reproduced in this volume he tells James he is “delighted” by his appreciation of the jazz reviews in Larkin at Sixty (1982), and in 1983 James’s Brilliant Creatures gave him “a week’s cackling”.
James responded by becoming Larkin’s champion in the literary press, cutting off at the knees “accredited arts experts” who insisted “the old fool had never been worth bothering with” and those in “the lifestyle press” who patronised him as a “perverted misogynist utterly unlike themselves”.
In this volume Tom Paulin, Bryan Appeyard and Bonnie Greer are all left sprawling on the pin of James’s wit. James’s argument is always the same: “All the evidence — and most of it is in his poetry — suggests that he could hear the fizz when light hit the window.” For all his magisterial gravitas, James’s concern is always to share his pleasure in the poetry.
James’s exact ear bypasses accepted opinion, even when it is promoted by Larkin himself.
Larkin’s account of his early development “conjures up a young mind in which Hardy drives out Yeats”. But it is obvious to James that “the large, argued Yeatsian strophe” is as influential on later Larkin as Hardy’s “tricky stanzas”. However, James never quite sees through Larkin’s most carefully-laid false trail: his supposed insular anti-modernism. In his review of Collected Poems James tells us that Larkin’s “resolutely prosaic organisation of a poem is its passport to the poetic”. Though true to a limited extent of “The Whitsun Weddings”, this is not true of “Absences”, which as Larkin said himself “sounds like a slightly unconvincing translation from a French symbolist”.
In his review of Required Writing (1983) James glimpses that more is going on here than Larkin admits: “While forever warning us of the impossibility of mastering foreign languages, he has the right Latin and French tags ready when he needs them.” But he still believes that Larkin holds to a Betjemanian “bolt-hole version of England” and “attaches little meaning to the idea of internationalism in the arts”. He goes on: “Betjeman was the young Larkin’s idea of a modern poet because Betjeman, while thinking nothing of modern art, actually got in all the facts of modern life.”
Some of the pieces in this volume have the status of historical documents. In his 1989 review of Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite, James shares the disappointment of most reviewers at seeing the “hard fought-for poise” of the sequences in the three mature volumes dispelled by Thwaite’s groundbreaking chronological reordering and his insertion of “new” poems from the workbooks. “Larkin”, James regrets, “now speaks a good deal less for us all and a good deal more for himself, than was his plain wish.” But James declines to lambast Thwaite, as others did. “On the other hand, to be given, in whatever order, all these marvellous poems that were for so long unseen is a bonus for which only a dolt would be ungrateful.”
In contrast his review of Andrew Motion’s biography, A Writer’s Life (1993), tastes sour. Its title, “Getting Larkin’s Number”, suggests a hostile demystification. Larkin seems as much the victim as the beneficiary of this “unsparing” biography: “How much more the poor tormented genius had to hide than we ever thought.” Thwaite’s volume enlarged the oeuvre; the biography seemed set to diminish the poet. James ends with an oblique rebuke: “Those who revere Larkin’s achievement should be less keen to put him in range of mediocrities who would like to better themselves by lowering him to their level, matching his feet of clay with their ears of cloth.”
One remarkable feature of these essays is their developing narrative. James is constantly revising his judgments. In 1974 he concluded that “Show Saturday” offers “an extended, sumptuous evocation of country life”. Forty years later he conceded that the poem is “listless”. A footnote in his review of Motion’s biography indicates he radically changed his estimation of Eva Larkin on reading her correspondence with her son in Letters Home (2018).
In this respect he differs from Motion, who has maintained no ongoing engagement with Larkin’s writing. The second edition of his biography (2018) has a new introduction describing Motion and Larkin’s “friendship with holes in it”. But its text is a word for word reprint of the 1993 volume, without correction or revision. He still, for instance, detects “titillation” and “sado-masochism” in Larkin’s early schoolgirl novel Trouble at Willow Gables (under the nom-de-plume Brunette Coleman) which “staggered” James by “the way it wasn’t pornographic”.
Agree with him or not, James’s criticism is a constant delight, since it arises always from unprescriptive reading and rereading. He constantly hits important nails, unnoticed by others, on the head. He praises Larkin’s “childishness … The paddling at the seaside, the steamer in the afternoon, the ponies at Show Saturday — they are all done with crayons and coloured pencils. He did not put away childish things and it made him more of a man.”
T.S. Eliot, he writes, enjoyed the plebeian pleasure of the music hall, but his essay on Marie Lloyd remains a “one-off” because of his “hierarchical aesthetic”. In contrast, Larkin’s “For Sidney Bechet” “saluted the great saxophonist not just as a master, but as his master”. In his 1986 Valediction for Philip Larkin James writes: “Profound glee charged your sentences with wit.”
Your saddest lyric is a social act.
Just so. Insights of this quality are rare, and we get more than our fair share of them in this volume.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe