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.