by David Whippman

In 1984, Philip Larkin was asked to become the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. This position is, in principle, the most prestigious that any British poet can attain: in effect, court writer to the British monarchy.

Larkin refused, because he felt by then that he had no more serious poems left in him. “It’s not that I’ve given up poetry,” he told an interviewer, “it’s more that poetry has given me up.” As it turned out, he would not have held the job for long: he died the following year at the age of 63.

But there was a characteristic honesty and bleakness about his remark. His poetry has been described as “a piquant mixture of lyricism and discontent.” It can seem detached and unsympathetic, as in “The Old Fools,” about the victims of senile dementia.

 

What do they think has happened, the Old Fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown up when your mouth hangs open and drools…

 

As he asks question after question about what these poor souls must be thinking, he might almost be writing about a different species. But then comes the startling finale.

 

Well, we shall find out.

 

He brings the same merciless perceptiveness to bear in “Mr. Bleaney,” about a middle-aged man who lives alone in one small room.

 

But if he…lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.

 

But sometimes there is a wry humour in his observation. Breadfruit is about the vague, hopeless sexual yearning of young males, and where it leads them:

 

Boys dream of native girls who bring breadfruit,
Whatever they are.

 

Of course, in fact the boys marry ordinary English girls and face a lifetime of responsibility. Then

 

… maturity falls, when old men sit and dream
Of naked native girls who bring breadfruit,
Whatever they are.

 

Larkin himself never married, though he had a long-term relationship with the English professor Monica Jones. He was born in 1922, and the Britain in which he grew up was often a joyless place, with the Great Depression and then World War 2. (He was excused military service because of poor eyesight.) In the UK of the 1950s, there was no equivalent of the American Dream. Rationing continued. The Empire was disappearing; Britain’s place in the world was uncertain. So Larkin’s poetry, with its “very English, glum accuracy” was the mood music for the time.

Though never pronounced, Larkin’s religious faith for most of his life was a something he probably drew some strength from. He wrote in “A Stone Church Damaged by a Bomb”:

 

I have looked on that proud front
And the calm locked into walls,
I have worshipped that whispering shell.

 

But, it was a faith always tortured and troubled. The immediately following lines state:

 

Yet the wound, O see the wound
This petrified heart has taken,
Because, created deathless,
Nothing but death remained
To scatter magnificence;

 

Death in fact features in much of his work, and he stresses its finality, describing it in Next Please as a black-sailed ship

 

…towing at her back
A vast and birdless silence. In its wake
No waters breed or break.

 

In the 1960s, he must have seemed an anachronism. This was the age of psychedelia, of the political poet and the protest song; of Ginsberg in the USA and Adrian Mitchell and Christopher Logue in the U.K. Larkin was certainly no wild-haired revolutionary bard. Most photos of him show a tall, rather awkward-looking, conservatively dressed man (except, apparently, that he had a penchant for gaudily colored socks). He looked like the head librarian that he was.

There is nothing in his poetry to resemble Mitchell’s passionate railings against the Vietnam War. His work was too objective for that; he was perhaps too much of an outsider to really get involved. “I rather like being on the edge of things,” he said, referring to his workplace, the unfashionable northern city of Hull, far removed from the London literary scene.

After some of his private letters were posthumously published, his detractors accused him of sexism and racism, and his reputation suffered. It didn’t help that Larkin’s father had been an admirer of Hitler (but so had many people, before the full horrors of Nazism became known.)

Some of Larkin’s correspondence would certainly win no prizes for political correctness. But haven’t we all said or written things privately that we would not want the public to see? And on the other hand, he also expressed sympathy for the civil rights movement; and his admiration for many African-American musicians (he was an avid jazz fan) was unreserved.

To this day, Larkin divides opinion. For me, he was a formidable craftsman, working usually in rhyme and metre, and an accurate observer of things that outlast fashions and political change. There is a gloominess about much of his work, but reading the last line of “An Arundel Tomb,” about the stone effigies of a nobleman and his lady, their hands tenderly clasped, surely we can forgive him.

 

What will survive of us is love.

 

 

David Whippman is a British poet, now retired after a career in healthcare. Over the years he’s had quite a few poems, articles and short stories published in various magazines.

 


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19 Responses

  1. Peter Austin

    David:
    Thank you for writing this and reminding me how much better Larkin was/is than even the best of most generations of poets. As a post-war boomer who lived the first half of his life in England, I find his very British combination of wry humour, elegance of language and fatalistic bitterness to be intoxicating.

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Thanks Peter. Yes, he is somehow quintessentially British. For me, he says more in a couple of stanzas than many poets could say in a volume.

      Reply
  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    There’s nothing in Larkin that needs to be forgiven. Nothing at all.

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      I agree, Joseph. Sadly, in these days when the Thought Police often rule the roost, so many don’t. Still, their loss!

      Reply
  3. Sultana Raza

    Mr Whippman, thanks for this succinct capsule on Larkin, which gives a brief overview to those who don’t know his work. Perhaps the British weather was responsible for some of the gloominess….

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Thanks Sultana. I think it wasn’t so much the weather as his formative times: the Depression, WW2, and the 1950s. (I often think it is hard for Americans to understand how gloomy a place Britain was in the ’50s.)

      Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Mr. Whippman, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I grew up with the poetry of Larkin and have always appreciated his skill, raw honesty, fearlessness and wit. Your illuminating piece encouraged me to go back and have a look at my three favourites: “Church Going”, “Toads” and “If, My Darling”. I’ve gained so much more from them now I have a fair bit of experience in life under my belt. “Church Going” really touched a nerve. I saw the humour, but my heart ached at the astute observations. It could have been written for the present day.

    I would also like to thank you for my rediscovery of “The Whitsun Weddings”. I have just been lifted from the coastal plains of Texas to the very familiar territory of England, Whitsun holidays and train journey to and from London. Marvellous!

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Thank you Susan. It was satisfying to write, and if I’ve encouraged you to revisit his work, so much the better!

      Reply
  5. Mike Bryant

    My introduction to Larkin was, ‘This Be the Verse’, and as a small town Texan I was initially shocked, not because I don’t use such language but because of his use of it in poetry. I’m sure he could not have made his point so emphatically or quickly without it. No extended version of the poem is needed. I agree that no forgiveness is necessary. Besides being a poet, he was a real man. Like Twain he had the words and the music.
    This is a really insightful look at the man and his art.

    Reply
    • Joe Tessitore

      I had read “This Be the Verse” but had forgotten it.
      Thank you, Mike, for reminding me of it.
      Well worth the effort to read it again.
      Your comments are spot-on.

      Reply
    • Joe Tessitore

      I had read “This Be the Verse” but had forgotten it.
      Thank you, Mike, for reminding me of it.
      Well worth the effort to read it again.
      Your comments are spot-on.

      Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Thanks Mike. I agree: in that poem, only the F-word would do. And I speak as someone who doesn’t like gratuitous swearing. It’s heartening to know that Larkin has so many fans in the USA.

      Reply
  6. C.B. Anderson

    I read Larkin at a time when I was despairing of ever finding anything worth reading in the Concord, MA Public Library, where there is a large — but not a good — poetry collection. For a misanthropic cynic such as myself, this was a jolly time. I hope to revisit Larkin soon.

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      CB, I think the poets’ ranks are reinforced by us misanthropic cynics!

      Reply
  7. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    Mr. Whippman’s “Philip Larkin: a Very English Bleakness” has done SCP a valuable service by remembering Larkin’s poetry, an important task of poetry. I have never been terribly fond of Philp Larkin’s poetry, though in my British literature class, in the Postmodernist period, I invariably used the poetry of Philip Larkin, including Minimalist free-verse poems, like “The Mower”:

    “The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
    A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
    Killed. It had been in the long grass.

    I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
    Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
    Unmendably. Burial was no help:

    Next morning I got up and it did not.
    The first day after a death, the new absence
    Is always the same; we should be careful

    Of each other, we should be kind
    While there is still time.”

    My favourite homage to Larkin is that by Clive James (1939-2019), “A Valediction for Philip Larkin”. At over 1200 words, I wouldn’t place it in a comment, but here is its opening stanza:

    You never travelled much but now you have
    Into the land whose brochures you liked least:
    That drear Bulgaria beyond the grave
    Where wonders have definitively ceased
    Ranked as a dead loss even in the East.”

    However, I must admit that I, too, like Mr. Raza, think that “perhaps the British weather was responsible for some of the gloominess.”

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Thanks for your feedback, Mr Acrewe. Here in Britain, Larkin is out of favour with a lot of people, because his views are held to be non-PC. (Kipling is similarly frowned upon on some campuses.) For me, whether or not Larkin was racist and misogynistic (as his detractors claim) his poems are very well-crafted and make effective statements.

      Reply
      • Sultana Raza

        Mr Acrewe, Thanks for sharing “The Mower,” which is still moving today. My comment on the weather in England was not to be taken too seriously, as that’s the polite thing to do… blame it on the weather. Having said that, I daresay it’s a factor to be considered, and most likely affects sensitive people such as artists more than others. Since I live under a heavy cloud belt in Europe (except for this spring) where it’s more or less the same as in Britain, I can see the difference that prolonged periods of grey and gloomy weather can have on people… Of course, David Whippman is right too, that the overall situation was pretty grim back then in England, as it had to deal with a lot of changes all at once, not least of which was the loss of its colonies. Perhaps I should mention that Sultana is a female name, but as Simone de Beauvoir said, ‘on ne naît pas femme : on le devient.’

  8. David Watt

    Mr Whippman, Thank you this review which really highlights Larkin’s directness of language, and skillful technique. His poetry may tend to the bleak side, but the wry humour you describe is, thankfully, never too far away.

    Reply

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