Philip Larkin: the man who was always right

The great man’s peerless poetry is not the “soppy stuff” of cheap romanticism, but a harsh, unsparing — and often beautiful — look at the world

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the fondly-remembered Nineties comedy The Fast Show, one of the sketches revolved around the character of the jovial painter Johnny Nice, played by the series’ co-creator Charlie Higson. Johnny likes nothing more than to set-up his easel at a local beauty spot with his wife Katie. Unfortunately, if ever the colour black intrudes on his reverie, then Johnny undergoes a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like transformation, and flies into a rage, shouting bizarrely Gothic things like “Where shall we sleep tonight, Mother? In Father’s grave?” 

Philip Larkin may not have asked his widowed mother Eva for an evening in the graveyard of St Michael’s Church in Lichfield (the final resting place of his father Sydney) but a century after his birth, Larkin is coming to occupy a position in English letters not so very far away from a black-phase Johnny Nice. 

He has become a writer whose glum and mournful view of life and humanity can seem simultaneously bracing and repellent, as Martin Amis’s once-popular image of Larkin as “a reclusive yet twinkly drudge — bald, bespectacled, bicycle-clipped, slumped in a shabby library gaslit against the dusk”, has given way to a view of him as a man whose predilections and obsessions were unwholesome and best off buried with him. 

I will never cease to find it funny that the remainder of his well-thumbed collection of pornography, largely focusing on schoolgirl-themed erotica, is kept in pristine, catalogued condition in the archives at Hull University, along with the rest of his personal affects. By his jazz mags shall ye know him. And the thought persists that, if some of Larkin’s DNA could be harvested in some (no doubt appropriately grubby) way, the poet could be cloned and arrive, blinking and bewildered, in 2022, to see what he makes of modernity. 

Judging by his consistent contempt for his own times, it is likely that Larkin would have arrived in our brave new world of cancel culture, #MeToo, sex-positivity and the rest, and asked to be sent straight back into oblivion. Let us hope that whichever scientific body misguidedly brought him here grants him his wish. But before he disappears forever once again, I would ask that a deputation of artists, writers, even critics — hell, why not a few purveyors of online smut, for old time’s sake — should be granted access to this neo-Larkin and given an audience with him. The topic up for discussion should be, simply, “What was it like to be a prophet without honour in your own time, and can we learn anything from you in ours?” 

Recently describing Larkin as the greatest poet of the twentieth century I was immediately called to task by another literary critic. (We used to be called book reviewers, but our standing has risen as the rates have fallen.) “What about Eliot? What about Auden?” The Waste Land’s standing as the single greatest poem of the twentieth century seems unassailable, especially in this, its anniversary year, and it is hard not to read Auden’s finest work without a humbling sense that a self-described squinting, myopic bugger was touched with a greatness that both stirs and inspires. I defy anyone to read his description, from his sonnet on A.E. Housman, of how “the Latin Scholar of his generation” was driven to “[keep] tears like dirty postcards in a drawer”, and not be affected. 

But I keep coming back to Larkin

But I keep coming back to Larkin, a man who may well have known something of dirty postcards in a drawer as well as knowing a lot about A.E. Housman. For any young man growing up in the Thirties and the Forties, A Shropshire Lad’s evocation of the wastefulness of loss, the certainty of death and the shame of repressed homosexuality (this emerging rather more explicitly in the later work, of course) could only loom large on any nascent poetic imagination. 

There is shared literary DNA between Larkin and Housman; the contrast between both men’s Romantic imagination and the decidedly unromantic circumstances in which they lived their dry, quiet lives is obvious catnip to a biographer, but, along with Larkin’s other great influence, Thomas Hardy, there is a sense of solemn despair to Housman’s poetry. The world could have been a wonderful place, it suggests, if only it hadn’t been for humanity let loose upon it. 

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” Larkin notoriously declared in “This Be The Verse”, from his 1974 High Windows collection. The poem has lost a great deal of its impact through repetition and parody; I wonder if Larkin might have found wry amusement in the pastiche that begins “They tuck you up, your mum and dad/They always mean to, and they do/They give you all the quilts they have/And add some pillows, just for you.” Yet the poet did not view himself as raconteur or bawdy japester, but as prophet. It is hard not to read the final verse and not feel something, whether outrage or fear or guilty agreement:

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 Much Ado About Nothing, the once-confirmed bachelor, Benedick, decides to change his ways and marry because, as he declares, “the earth must be peopled”. This was not Larkin’s view. In one of his greatest poems, the long, mournful “Dockery and Son”, he recounts a “death-suited, visitant” return to his old Oxford college — presumably St John’s, where he met his lifelong friend Kingsley Amis — and remarks first how “To have no son, no wife,/No house or land still seemed quite natural”, before concluding, in some of his most famous lines:

For Dockery a son, for me nothing,

Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage. 

Life is first boredom, then fear.

Whether or not we use it, it goes,

And leaves what something hidden from us chose, 

And age, and then the only end of age.

To read any quantity of Larkin’s poetry in one go is an experience both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s exhilarating because his formal poetic accomplishment exists almost imperceptibly; not for nothing is he known as “the novelist’s favourite poet”, because his work boasts clearly defined narratives, characters, jokes (inevitably, Larkin eats “a vile pie” in “Dockery and Son” while changing platform at Sheffield) and accessible, clear language.

He was not a snob 

He was not a snob. This is, after all, the same man who indignantly wrote as a student that “First I thought Troilus And Criseyde was the most boring poem in English. Then I thought Beowulf was. Then I thought Paradise Lost was. Now I know that The Faerie Queen is the dullest thing out. Blast it.” The same spirit persisted throughout his life (even if he was notably, even heroically wrong about Paradise Lost), and to read Larkin’s poetry is to arrive at a no-bullshit territory, where sacred cows are merrily slaughtered. 

This is also the source of its terror. If one encounters Larkin’s late, great poem “Aubade”, in which he faces up to the clammy idea of his imminent demise, one realises, with a shudder, that the poet is putting the fear of a God — that he decidedly does not believe in — into his reader. It is more frightening than any ghoulish catalogue of horrors because it perfectly captures that sweaty, claustrophobic 4am fear that everyone has felt at some time or another, where “the dread/Of dying, and being dead,/Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.” Larkin summons up Hamlet’s bewilderment in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, but leaves metaphysical speechifying aside for a bleak glimpse at arrogant eternity:

Not to be here, 

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

Yet it is easy to assume that Larkin the poet and Larkin the man were identical, and that the verse doubles up as mournful autobiography. Even as we are presented with the self-perpetuated image of the half-drunk drudge that Martin Amis — who was Larkin’s godson — summoned up, there was also the public figure, a regular (and notably hard-drinking) attendee at receptions and parties and soirees. 

He was a bestselling writer — of poetry, too — at a time when only his friend John Betjeman enjoyed anything like the same commercial (if rarely critical) success. He was a Companion of Honour, the proud holder of a CBE and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In the obituarist’s wry euphemism, Larkin did not so much enjoy his privacy as positively relish it. 

There may have been the evenings in his flat in Pearson Park in Hull, armed with a bottle of spirits, struggling and eventually failing to find his poetic muse. But there were also many more convivial times, not least because Larkin ran a mini-harem of girlfriends that included the academic Monica Jones, the devoutly Catholic Maeve Brennan and, with thudding predictability, his secretary Betty Mackereth. 

By all accounts, he was a strange mixture of the withdrawn and the clubbable, and this dichotomy can be found in his work. But it is his letters and essays that help fill out the man, as opposed to the writer. He was determinedly middlebrow in most of his literary tastes, belying accusations of misogyny — in part — with the unfailing assistance that he gave to the novelist Barbara Pym, whose career he helped to resurrect. 

He admired Dick Francis, wrote perceptively about everyone from Waugh to David Lodge (of whose Small World he despairingly asked “is the campus novel really all there is to be said?”) and generally offered a robust common sense when it came to the creative urge that did not bely a typically black humour; one of his most quoted lines is “deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth”, although it is his misfortune to have had the beginning of the observation garbled as the less effective (although equally accurate) “depravity”. 

Larkin was a man who stood against what Amis and he referred to as “bum” in their letters to one another. He had no time for the emergent study of critical theory in literature, any more than he wished to be regarded as part of a group of writers; he avoided Amis’s booze-sodden “fascist lunches” at Bertorelli’s with the same fastidious disdain that he eschewed any identification with such groups as The Movement or, horror of horrors, the Angry Young Men. 

About the only thing that Larkin had in common with Look Back In Anger’s John Osborne is that both men’s politics were right-of-centre, but Osborne moved showily to a libertarian, country squire outlook after being a firebrand of the left as a youth, whereas Larkin never really deviated from a solid English conservatism. His was less extreme than his father’s admiration for Hitler, but liable to express itself in regrettable bursts of racism, misogyny (and general misanthropy) and flourishes of hateful invective that may have amused (or appalled) the recipients of his letters. Excuses have been made; they probably should not have been. To admire Larkin as both a poet and, in some regards,  a man does not mean that one has to offer him attendant carte blanche for his behaviour. 

Yet his splenetic outbursts have to be viewed in the context of a deep unhappiness with the world. Even his early novels Jill and A Girl In Winter ache with the sense of an outsider looking into a milieu that they will never be part of, and Larkin viewed himself all his life as “a stranger here myself”. 

He alternated between a Chekhovian melancholy as he regarded the more glamorous existences of others, not least the “shit in the shuttered chateau” who he wrote enviously of in “The Life with a Hole in it”, and a sterner prophetic voice, alternately sardonically decrying the “almost-instinct almost true/What will survive of us is love” and suggesting that all humanity is stuck on “the long slide/To happiness”. 

If Larkin had been a character in The Fast Show, I wonder who he would have been closest to. Unlucky Alf, whose quiet misery is usually exacerbated by some terrible yet hilarious predicament? The quiet but priapic man who persistently apologises on the grounds that “I’ve just come?” Or Johnny Nice? 

For my money, the closest analogy is the drunken QC Rowley Birkin. Generally in the show, he is a figure of fun, but in his final appearance, he acquires a deeply poignant gravitas in his account of a long-lost love, where his usual catchphrase “I was very, very drunk” is deployed to tear-jerking, rather than comic, effect.

So it is with Larkin. Not for him the “soppy stuff” of cheap sentiment, or empty romanticism, but a hard, unsparing look at the world, which can nonetheless encompass poetry as beautiful and as affecting as this:

For you would hardly care

That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic.

Larkin was the less deceived. We are all the richer for his unflinching, unsparing truth, however hard it might be.

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