In the fall of 1958, the second book by a young British poet named Philip Larkin made it across the ocean and into the consciousness of American poetry. The Less Deceived, wrote a reviewer for the New York Times, made him feel “as if my glasses had been miraculously wiped clean.” Included in it were some of the poems that would become Larkin’s most emblematic: “Toads,” with its characteristically cranky opening line “Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?”; the lovely, elegiac “Church Going,” which offers one of the most human moments in all of modern poetry, a description of the nonbeliever entering a sacred space in uncertainty: “Hatless, I take off/My cycle-clips in awkward reverence”; and “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” which sums up the muted passions and predilections of the poet who would become beloved in spite of his incessant gloominess.
But o, photography! As no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes
Like washing-lines, and Hall’s Distemper boards,
But shows the cat as disinclined, and shades
A chin as doubled when it is
Larkin transposed his wry pessimism exquisitely into fluid, formal verse that reads like good conversation. If life was a repository for huge, existential disappointment, it was clearly best to just say so and get on with it. Or at least, this was what he announced in poems and public comments, which were often laced with high sardonic moments. (Interviewer: How did you arrive upon the image of a toad for work or labor? Larkin: Sheer genius.) By now, the catalogue of his quips on his disillusionment with everything from the thought of being poet laureate of England (“I dream about that sometimes–and wake up screaming”); to his own appearance (“a balding salmon”); to his general Weltanschauung (“deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth”) is a familiar part of Larkin’s carefully built, curmudgeonly identity. His best-known poem, at least in the minds of those who are not in the habit of reading poetry, begins with the memorable stanza: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.” This, of course, is Larkin lite; it’s missing the lyricism that rescues even his most depressive poems from whiny banality. A line further along in the same poem, however, hints at the true depth of both the poet’s pathology and his gift–“Man hands on misery to man./It deepens like a coastal shelf.”
“This Be the Verse” appeared in Larkin’s extraordinary fourth book, High Windows. That he chose to include it is not insignificant, since he produced only four slender volumes of poetry in his lifetime (he died at 63 of throat cancer, reaching out for his nurse’s hand and croaking “I am going to the inevitable” as he did, grimly resigned even in his last moments on earth). In a Kafkaesque move, he planned to torch all his personal papers, and later, when he became ill, asked that all his journals, letters and uncollected poems be destroyed. Thankfully, his near and dear ones thought the better of this request and failed to carry it through in entirety. As it turned out, Larkin had included a series of contradictory instructions in his will, giving the lie to his dramatic statements about making a bonfire. One of his girlfriends (about which more later) disposed of his diaries in a shredder at the University of Hull, where Larkin had been a librarian for more than twenty-five years. The rest of his papers remained, including correspondence from as far back as his college days, when he attended Oxford with Kingsley Amis, who became a lifelong friend.
When an edition of these letters and a biography based in large part upon them were finally released in the early 1990s, it suddenly became clear that Larkin, though he was unrepentant about his attitudes, might have thought to destroy his things because he knew how his private persona would be received. “Philip Larkin…was an anti-Semite and a racist [with] a vicious streak of misogyny” ran one brief announcement of the books’ appearance. Indeed, all these things were true; the girlfriend who had performed shredding duty was one of a long-suffering pair, both of whom knew about each other and neither of whom Larkin felt compelled to give up. Buried in his letters were nasty little rhymes like “How to Win the Next Election”: “Prison for the strikers/Bring back the cat/Kick out the niggers/How about that?” As for the biography, it revealed that Larkin’s father had been an ardent fascist and fan of Hitler, and that the apple had not fallen all that far from the tree. In 1940 Larkin wrote to a friend: “Germany will win this war like a dose of salts, and if (saying) that gets me into a gaol, a bloody good job, too. Balls to the war. Balls to a good many things, events, people and institutions.” By 1942, he was writing to another friend: “If there is any new life in the world today, it is in Germany.” While he did think the Nazis had gone to extremes, he thought they “may have many valuable new habits.” These unpleasant revelations set off, for the umpteenth time, the debate about whether it was possible to like the work of a person who was, to put it mildly, profoundly unlikable.
Indeed. For after the chatter died down, there was still the poetry itself, as pristine and powerful as it always had been. Undecided as he was about his papers, Larkin was not ambivalent about the work he chose to publish. He picked and discarded his poems ruthlessly and by design; Anthony Thwaite, the editor of both the 1988 and new editions of Larkin’s collected poems, quotes the poet in his introduction: “I treat them like a music-hall bill: you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls.” In truth, Larkin had produced far more work than anyone suspected; among his papers were the drafts of finished and unfinished poems dating back to 1938. And so it was that when the first edition of the collected poems came out, Thwaite included everything beginning in 1946 and arranged it chronologically, giving readers the chance to see Larkin whole as opposed to Larkin by Larkin. The book also included an appendix of juvenilia dating from 1938 to 1945, to which the poems in The North Ship (1945), Larkin’s first book, were relegated.
Now comes Thwaite’s new edition, which presents only the poems Larkin wanted published, in the order in which they appeared (again there is an appendix at the back, this time of poems that appeared in magazines as opposed to books). Among other things, it restores The North Ship to the beginning of the book, allowing us glimpses of the Larkin who would bloom into rich, wistful distemper in his next volume. “The moon is full tonight/And hurts the eyes,” he writes, turning a romantic vision sour with four short syllables. A few pages later, he stumbles toward the beginnings of the sorrowful cadence that would become his perennial tone: “And now again/My thoughts are children/With uneasy faces.” You can literally hear the poet finding his voice throughout the book, though it’s surrounded, and somewhat obscured, by less certain passages. Still, who wouldn’t recognize the mature Larkin–the obsession with women, the desire for resolution, the giving in to an endless cycle of misery–in these lines?
Among the rain and stone places
I find only an ancient sadness falling,
Only hurrying and troubled faces,
The walking of girls’ vulnerable feet,
The heart in its own endless silence kneeling.
But, just as some quibbled when Thwaite diverged from Larkin’s chosen path in his previous collection, there are absences in this new edition that also diminish it–a problem that Thwaite admits freely in his introduction and that really has more to do with Larkin’s assessment of his own work than Thwaite’s stewardship of it. In particular, a pair of poems, one each about his father and his mother, are missing, both of them humming with beauty and trouble like the very best of Larkin’s work, both of them unpublished in his lifetime. Here he is in 1948, once again pondering the human rat race of unhappiness after the death of his father, combining it with fragility and a rather stunning revelation at the end of the poem that is no less devastating for its delicacy:
An April Sunday brings the snow
Making the blossom on the plum trees green,
Not white. An hour or two and it will go.
Strange that I spend that hour moving between
Cupboard and cupboard, shifting the store
Of jam you made of fruit from these same trees:
Five loads–a hundred pounds or more–
More than enough for all next summer’s teas,
Which now you will not sit and eat.
Behind the glass, under cellophane,
Remains your final summer–sweet
And meaningless, and not to come again.
The enjambments alone, which carry the poem along over crests of loss, transform the sentences into a single current of barely restrained anguish. That Larkin manages to use them without crushing the emotion they describe is almost reason enough to read him.
And then, in 1953, there was “Mother, Summer, I,” clearly written with the ghost of Thomas Hardy hovering nearby:
My mother, who hates thunderstorms,
Hold up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost.
And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when leaves are gone;
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can’t confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.
What starts off as a seemingly light-hearted digression on weather, gathers, like the clouds it depicts, into a somber confession with enormous implications.
Larkin was always waiting for elusive perfect conditions, always looking for some place to be settled, and he was always foiled. He noted at one point in a poem that “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere,” echoing it later in another meditation on his discomfort called “The Importance of Elsewhere.” His poems document, more than anything else, the fear of giving in to pure pleasure–those “emblems of perfect happiness”–in the face of the knowledge that it would all evaporate someday. It was an understanding Larkin could not will away, and it colored his daily existence right down to his inability to choose between women. “Truly, though, our element is time,” he wrote in 1955 in a poem called “Reference Back.” “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,/Blindingly undiminished, just as though/By acting differently we could have kept it so.”
This amazement at the relentlessness of his struggle comes across perhaps most startlingly in the title poem of High Windows, Larkin’s last book. He reflects on how carefree the next generation appears to be (“everyone young going down the long slide/To happiness, endlessly” and then realizes that his elders must have thought the same of him (“He/And his lot will all go down the long slide/Like free bloody birds“), and how wrong they are. Then, as if standing back from his conclusion in utterly dazed resignation, he writes:
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
None of which is to say that Larkin had no taste for life. For all his grousing, he was quite capable of falling under the spell of beauty, not least in the key of jazz (though, true to form, he rejected anything post-1945, lavished some of his highest praise on Billie Holiday and despised bebop with a hilarious fervor). He got some good poems out of it, too, in particular “For Sidney Bechet,” which reveals as much about its author as its subject. “On me your voice falls as they say love should,/Like an enormous yes.”
Larkin’s poems, too, descend upon us like a big yes, even now that we know about his demons, and in spite of his insistence on the sad and monstrously unfair side of things. I don’t think he would have been surprised by this; it was his greatest desire. As he told an interviewer in 1979: “I should hate anybody to read my work because he’s been told to and told what to think about it. I really want to hit them, I want readers to feel yes, I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s how it is.” It seems only fair that we should get to see him now not as we wish to, but as he saw himself.