Why, to repurpose a line from Kingsley Amis’s That Uncertain Feeling, do we like Philip Larkin so much? We’re clear on why we like him, thanks — the beauty, the humour, the Englishness — but why do we like him so much?
In 2003, a poll held by the Poetry Book Society and the Poetry Library named Larkin the nation’s favourite poet of the prior fifty years. He has a memorial in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. I am sure I read his work more than that of other poets.
Leftist gripes about his narrowness, parochialism and colourful range of private -isms and -obias have failed to puncture our affection. As we approach what would have been hundredth birthday, encomiums (this among them) have been rolling out. How the grim and private Larkin would have hated it.
It is worth considering the case against him
But it is worth considering the case against him — not the private Larkin of his personal correspondence, the publication of which whipped up a firestorm of progressive abuse in the 1990s, but Larkin the poet.
After all, the Hermit of Hull has had more defenders than he has had critics. When the backlash commenced, great lions of the British literary establishment went for the throats of the hyenas on his tail.
Martin Amis mocked “the fierce joys of self-righteousness”. Clive James denounced a “range of mediocrities who would like to better themselves by lowering him to their level”. Their keenness to defend Larkin emerged, I think, not just from admiration for his poems but from the sense that he was “one of the boys” (forgivable, at least in Amis’s case, when you recall that he was one of his father’s closest friends) and from his status as an exemplar of good old-fashioned common sense, free of religious weirdness and academic dogma.
It is this idea of Larkin’s fundamental soundness that agitated his most distinguished critic. Geoffrey Hill scorned the “narrow English possessiveness with regards to ‘good sense’” displayed by Larkin and his admirers, and wrote:
The notion of accessibility of his work acknowledged the ease with which readers could overlay it with transparencies of their preference. Mill, who condescended to Wordsworth’s poetry, allowed it the major significance of reflecting Mill’s own love of mountains, thereby rescuing Mill from depression. Mill’s intellectual heirs…found it convenient to suppose that Larkin’s peculiar concern as a poet was exactly conformable to their pursed opinions.
Of course, most people welcome poems that are conformable to their opinions. Aesthetic and political revolutionaries want other people’s minds blown rather than theirs. Still, that does not contradict the charge but merely broadens its applicability.
I see Hill’s point. I’ve loved “Church Going” for years but I wonder how much that is reducible to how comfortably it suits my stagnant agnosticism. The seriousness of the house that Larkin visits makes no demands of him — or us. It evokes transcendence in the vaguest terms before, presumably, Larkin reattached his bicycle clips and pedalled off.
Formally rooted in tradition, and thematically rooted in the commonplace, Larkin stands in proud contrast to obscuranist and dogmatic poets. Still, his finest moments come when clouds of mundane detail part, revealing sudden, striking existential insight. The end of “High Windows” is a good example, though a personal favourite concludes the minor poem “The Mower”. “We should be careful of each other, we should be kind” is perhaps the stuff of well-meaning schoolteachers. “We should be kind while there is still time”, on the other hand, packs a heavy punch. The “never such innocence again” that ends the speech-stifling “MCMXIV”, meanwhile, does not idealise a world with “tiny rooms in huge houses” but alludes to greater, stranger, more chaotic suffering.
Could Larkin have evoked violence itself — violence, that is, as it burns rather than as sparks or smoking ashes? “MCMXIV” is about the build-up to war. “The Explosion” is about the aftermath of an explosion. Even “The Mower” begins after the hedgehog dies. Larkin had no sense for the extreme — or even the especially dramatic — experience. He could not have written a war poem, for example, of the quality of David Jones’s harrowing In Parenthesis – the rich illusions and fractured voice of which conjure up the sense of being amid the carnage of war.
Larkin found meaning in the everyday
One need not refer to such sensational experiences. Even death — a favourite theme — is portrayed indirectly. “Ambulances” situates itself outside the homes where people have been dying. “Aubade” is all about living dread. (Imagine if the man had lived to be a hundred, by the way. He would have faced those morbid early mornings for another forty-five years.) Larkin found meaning in the everyday, and helps to us to do so too. But we all have days that are not everyday. History breaks down and rebuilds our understanding of what the everyday even is.
It seems that we cannot evade the charge of there being some amount of literary and philosophical complacence in the scale of our affection for Larkin’s work. To be sure, that is not for a moment to abandon the crystallised beauty of “An Arundel Tomb”, or the troubled hope of “The Trees”, or the blended scorn and sympathy of “Faith Healing”. These are great poems — defying caricatures that reduce Larkin to cynicism or sentimentality, and dismissable only by the irredeemably pretentious.
Yet to idealise his work is to idealise an elegy — to hold a modest funeral for English letters. Time moves on, and literature must follow, and to dislike different conceptions of artistic and societal progress will not prevent the following day from being different.
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