The Reaches of Stringency: On Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin is known and admired for his “poetry of lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations”—these words are Donald Davie’s—but his best work is often both narrower and more troubling than these terms suggest, as it concerns something like the unpronounceable loss of what we were never going to have, or a complicated refusal of what was not quite on offer. The logic of the wonderful “Poetry of Departures,” for example, suggests that any tale of escape from drab reality will be both overblown and alluring, because “We all hate home/And having to be there.” So why not leave: because the tales are phony? They are, but that is not the real obstacle. No, the tales themselves help us to “stay/Sober and industrious”; more subtly, escape itself is all about home and what’s wrong with it, a reverse framing of what we can’t leave. There isn’t anywhere else. “But I’d go today,” the poem ends,
Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
“Reprehensibly perfect” is itself perfect, a miming of criticism that is also a form of self-congratulation. So too are those careful, mock-hesitant line breaks at “if” and “a life.” Behind the poem we intuit a Philip Larkin who has just these feelings, or at least wouldn’t disavow them, and another Larkin who is broaching them, performing them, fully aware of the poem’s crisscrossing insights and illusions, watching the man who is so anxious not to be fooled caught in the business of fooling himself.
This is amazing writing, and comparable to what happens in Larkin’s seemingly open celebrations of failure, like the low-key short poem “As Bad as a Mile”:
Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more
Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.
Archie Burnett, in his notes to the new Complete Poems, reminds us of the proverb “A miss is as good as a mile,” and perhaps less helpfully recalls “the forbidden fruit, long supposed to have been an apple,” that caused such trouble in Eden. The interest of the poem lies in the imitation ineptness of the title—in the proverb “as good as” already means “as bad as”—and the self-pitying thought of the speaker, rewinding the film of his missed throw, finding in it all too easy an emblem. But the poem measures the self-pity even as it embraces it. The poise and ease of the rhymes and line divisions, the recurring “and…and” formulation, the art of the whole thing, suggest a triumphant shot into the basket, no sort of failure at all. Is the poem a joke on the speaker then? Certainly, but its attraction lies in the fact that we can’t know what else it is. What if, in your case or my case, the allegory should express a simple, unironical truth? Missing the basket with the apple core is not important, but it’s also not so different from the rest of your (or my) efforts in life—our marriages, say, or our jobs.
Larkin doesn’t always maintain such poise. Sometimes the elegance is no match for the gloom; sometimes the effect of ordinariness is too thoroughly achieved or just not an effect at all. Larkin is a good critic of his work, in spite of a habit of what looks like excessive deprecation (“very thin”; “a bit muddy in the middle”; “pretty thin, in fact pretty bad”). “There is something about each one I like,” he remarks of an early set of poems, “though few I like in entirety.” Of The North Ship (1946), he says, “Some of the poems don’t displease me: others do.”
But the chief effect of reading this new large Complete Poems is of range rather than hits and misses. “You/Contract my heart by looking out of date” is a long way from “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” the famous first line of “This Be the Verse”; and there are fine sweeping shifts of tone even within a single poem, as in “Sad Steps,” which opens with “Groping back to bed after a piss” and arrives at “High and preposterous and separate,” and “O wolves of memory!”
In the early poems we can see Larkin looking for himself and finding Yeats (the following three samples are from 1940, 1943–44 and 1945, respectively):
There are moments like music, minutes
Untroubled as notes that hang
Motionless, invisible on air:
What have these years brought
But flakes of life?
The cry I would hear
Is not in the wind,
Is not of birds,
Nor the dry sound
Sadness can strike
Off the fruitful air.
But what of this quite different tone, also found in poems from the same period and a little later (these three samples are from 1942, 1943–44 and 1949, respectively):
So we, convicted by the sundial’s ban
Of the connived-at sin of being born,
Must by this order pack to travel light
Without the map that always comes too late.
I lie and wait for morning, and the birds,
The first steps going down the unswept streets,
Voices of girls with scarves around their heads.
No one gives you a thought, as day by day
You drag your feet, clay-thick with misery…
So year by year your tense unfinished faces
Sink further from the light. No one pretends
To want to help you now.
There is a touch of Auden in the clever off-rhyming couplets of the first example—the whole poem is written in this form—but they are from Larkin’s pre-Yeats days, and the second quotation in this set sounds unmistakably like the Larkin (or one of the Larkins) we know. He himself wrote of the “definite quality, precise,” of the lines: “a life is rapped: it rings.” The third instance, taken from a poem called “Neurotics,” looks toward “The Old Fools” and other poems where Larkin shows not so much compassion for others as anger at its near-universal absence.
* * *
Of the six passages just cited, only one, “I lie and wait for morning,” was published by Larkin. Four of the others appeared in A.T. Tolley’s edition of Larkin’s Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005), and one, “No one gives you a thought,” in Anthony Thwaite’s edition of the Collected Poems (1988). The four volumes of verse printed in Larkin’s lifetime—The North Ship, The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974)—occupy ninety-two out of 324 pages devoted to poems in Burnett’s book (the remaining pages are commentary and appendices), proof of Larkin’s selectivity, and what reaches of stringency lay behind what looked like an ultimate diffidence. Most of the remaining work is already to be found either in Tolley’s or in Thwaite’s edition, but Burnett offers a careful and persuasive argument for his own volume: it is accurate in regard to wording and sources and dates of completion, and it carries a detailed set of notes that Burnett describes as a commentary. This isn’t quite the word I would use for what’s on offer—extensive quotation from Larkin, glosses of phrases and allusions, occasional quotation from other scholars—but the result is probably better than commentary as we usually understand it: explanation muddled by opinion. Burnett has also included some previously unpublished poems. None of them are masterpieces, and many of them are alarmingly trivial. But some are very funny: the couplet rhyming “Guinness free” with “Innisfree,” for instance; or a university-based parody of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”; or an inspired semi-spoonerism on a brand of single malt:
After drinking Glenfiddich
I say good rubbance to bad riddich.
Some of the minor entries are rather depressing, if welcome on the level of information. They show us, among other things, how hard the published Larkin worked not to write the terrible poems a lesser craftsman or a simpler bigot might have settled for. Like his friend Kingsley Amis, Larkin saw himself as a lonely, irreverent Tory in a world governed by solemn lefties. This allowed him to produce snickering stanzas like the following from a poem called “How to Win the Next Election,” also published in Selected Letters (1992):
Prison for Strikers
Bring back the cat,
Kick out the niggers,
How about that?
The sadness of this kind of stuff lies not only in the dreadful pose—look how bold and uncorrect I’m being—which is almost worse than real prejudice, but also in the fact that the supposed resister of correctness belonged all the time to an ugly, noisy majority.
Larkin’s dreary rear-guard nationalism belongs in the same register, and among his well-known works it yielded what he called his “one political poem,” the lamentable “Homage to a Government.” He said in a letter that he felt “deeply humiliated at living in a country that spends more on education than on defence.” (Humiliated, it should be noted, not just in disagreement with a policy choice.) But even in these regions Larkin has his surprising moments. His satirical poem “Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses” pictures a jet-setting academic glad to be away from the “solemn-sinister/Wreath-rubbish” of English war-remembrance ceremonies, which Larkin honors as a patriot should. Except that on at least one occasion, he said he didn’t see why the figure in his poem “should be blamed for not sympathizing with the crowds on Armistice Day.” This may have been a moment of perversity—teasing an interviewer—but it tips us back toward the complicated performances we have seen in “Poetry of Departures” and “As Bad as a Mile.” The poet has views, but the poem presents an occasion or a set of attitudes. There is no reason why the poet himself should not look at it, or them, from a different perspective now and then, and a good poem makes the multiplying of perspectives almost obligatory for the reader.
* * *
A fine test of this proposition is the poem “Deceptions,” which evokes the desperate mind of a raped girl, but also invites us to think of the rapist’s desperation. “All the unhurried day,” the poem says to the girl, “Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.” “Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare/Console you if I could.”
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.
Indeed, she wouldn’t care at all, and it’s important not to read the poem as marking the man’s desolation as worth more than the girl’s. But it still cries out for attention, as all forms of despair and failure do or should do. Larkin’s gloss on this poem—called “The Less Deceived” until he used the title for the volume the poem appeared in—is both lucid and moving. He said in a letter that he was not making “any claims to policy or belief,” but thought readers “might grasp my fundamentally passive attitude to poetry (and life too, I suppose) which believes that the agent is always more deceived than the patient.” The girl, he then implies, was not really less deceived but beyond illusion, because “there is positively no deception” about suffering. As Larkin says in the poem, this is not a consolation, but it is for him a melancholy truth about desire, which “comes from wanting something we haven’t got, which may not make us any happier when we have it.” What his poems suggest, as a kind of refinement of this idea, is that we scarcely know how to want anything without being afraid of our own wanting, and that we can nearly always make sure that what we get is not what we desired—not because we are unfortunate, but because we are devoted to our disappointing scenarios. Our “fundamentally passive attitude” conceals quite a bit of psychic scheming.
Burnett’s notes solve a problem that has recurred in Larkin criticism. Is Larkin an allusive, literary poet, or is that suggestion a scholarly fantasy, an academic dream dumped on him? Larkin was inclined to push the latter option, but his poems contradict him roundly. “Deceptions” refers to Hamlet (“I loved you not,” the prince says to Ophelia, who replies, “I was the more deceived”); “Sad Steps” echoes Philip Sidney (“With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies”); and Larkin is delighted to find a memory of The Wind in the Willows in the poem “Days” (he calls this a “discovery in Larkin studies”). He wrote parodies of Keats, Blake, Lewis Carroll and a number of his contemporaries (Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jenkins, John Wain), and, of course, of himself. Burnett relates all this, though there are also moments when he is tempted to save Larkin from our eager acts of association. “There is no reason to think L is referring to the American novelist Theodore Dreiser,” he says when the name Dreiser appears in a short poem. Certainly not; and there’s no reason to tell us what the poet is not thinking either.
Larkin was a deeply literary writer, and to miss this quality is to miss the force of his many impersonations of the plain man. Indeed, this simulation is one of the modes in which he solves a problem that was still plaguing Eliot as late as the Four Quartets: how to put poetry in its modest place without writing doggerel or prose. “The poetry does not matter,” we read in “East Coker,” but the claim is made in a context that simply abandons the medium; “poetry does not exist” would be quite a different proposition. Instead of writing something like “That was a way of putting it,” Larkin gives us:
Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.
You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
If we place these lines against phrases like “the deft heart,” “the tideline of the incoming past” or “any-angled light,” we begin to see how the texture forms. The ordinary becomes poetry but not “poetic.” “I don’t want to transcend the commonplace,” Larkin said, “I love the commonplace.” He loves it enough to get it into his verse, and also enough to allow it its own unruly life.
This is why poems like “The Whitsun Weddings” are so compelling. “That Whitsun, I was late getting away” sounds like pure conversation, until the last word is picked up in the rhyme of “the sunlit Saturday.” A bit later, we get the wedding parties seeing lots of happy couples off on the train:
Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres—
The sheer vulgarity of the wedding parties reeks of satire until we understand that a whole gaudy world is trying for happiness, that the newlyweds on the train constitute a “frail/Travelling coincidence…with all the power/That being changed can give.” The poem doesn’t ask us to believe in happiness or change (or marriage); in fact, it may work better if we have our doubts. But it enacts the reality of a promise—the reality that even failed promises once had. In another poem, “Reference Back,” Larkin says:
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was.
This is true, but Larkin also specializes in the short perspectives, where what we might have has not yet turned into what we’ve got, and these sights will serve, as he reminds us in “An Arundel Tomb,”
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Our capacity for love, that is, whatever messes we may have made in the practice of it.