The English poet Philip Larkin died thirty-two years ago but was perhaps England’s last truly popular poet.
It is not surprising that he is remembered. His poems are accessible, in style and in theme, compared to his modern successors. They are also very English: romantically meditative and equivocal yet with bouts of scorn, cynicism and black comedy. They inspire both catharsis and consolation.
That Larkin endured such an unattractive life, holed up in the bleakest outposts of the English provinces to wallow in loveless affairs, pornography and alcoholism, has made some commentators disapprove of his poems. I think it makes them more remarkable. He saved his sensitivity, one feels, for his art.
The occasional nature of his poetic instinct is evident in his poems, which often begin with banal, if elegant, observations. In “Church Going” and “An Arundel Tomb” the poet visits churches and takes in their “matting, seats, and stone”. He feels “awkward reverence” yet remains unstirred. In the former he reflects “the place was not worth stopping for” while in the latter he is tempted to dismiss effigies of an earl and countess as exhibiting the “plainness of the pre-baroque”. Yet his tone subty shifts. In “An Arundel Tomb” Larkin observes that the earl and countess are holding hands and suggests that this proves:
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
In “Church Going” Larkin asks himself what will become of such churches when they “fall completely out of use” and reflects that he stands “a serious house on serious earth”, where:
…someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
Some nonbelievers describe themselves as “cultural Christians”. This is often superficial, such as in the case of Richard Dawkins, who defined it as appreciating Christmas carols. Larkin’s reference to a “hunger…to be more serious”, presumably unassauged by material concerns, is infinitely more profound.
As moving as it is, one feels the thought should be pursued. What does it mean to be serious? How can the dead advise? Perhaps this is unfair to ask of Larkin, who, blessed with an extraordinary transcendental sense, made no great claims for his transcendental substance. Drifting around the church – signing the book and donating a sixpence – he admits to often being “at a loss like this/Wondering what to look for”.
Even in his purest moments of sublime insight Larkin suppresses the encroachment of the mystical. The “almost-instinct” is almost true, and it is “someone”, not himself, who seeks wisdom in the church. Well, fair enough. He was a staunch materialist and to indulge his sentiments would have struck him as a cop-out. He had no wish to elide emotional almost truths with empirical actual truths. Yet there is an unreflective cynicism in his dismissal of faith, in “Aubade”, as a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die”. He had too much imagination to be so reductive.
Larkin was a constitutional conservative, not in the sense of admiring Franklin and Hamilton but in the sense of being nostalgic, sceptical and bilious. The latter tendency emerged in his acerbic doggerel about the “so-called working class” (“I want to see them starving”) but the former was sincere and sentimental. He pined for what he never had and never quite believed in: the naive pre-war England of “MCMXIV”; the doomed wildlife of “Going, Going” and potential domestic bliss in “Home is so Sad”, which mourns, “A joyous shot at how things ought to be/Long fallen wide”.
These inclinations often soured into the nihilism of “Days” or “This Be The Verse”. In the latter, the injunction to “get out as early as you can” reveals a certain playfulness, coming from a man with a tremendous fear of death. Yet I think it probable that the sardonicism only ironised the overwhelming loneliness expressed in “High Windows” and “Faith Healing”. There Larkin concludes:
In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures.
There is truth to this. But is it true? For some, of course, it is, and heartbreakingly so, but most? Larkin, whose fear of being entrapped by his commitments locked him into convoluted, often arduous bachelordom, exaggerated both the highs and lows of family life – the “joyous shot” of “Home is so Sad” contrasted with the abjection of “Self’s the Man” – so as to make the former seem completely unattainable and the latter seem entirely inevitable. This dignified his predicament. Why not laze about single rooms as that of “Mr Bleaney”, stubbing out one’s cigarettes and “shaking off the dread”, if no one else is really happy?
One can sympathise, of course. One can even empathise. Yet I think this points towards a deeper limitation of his work: it is not too depressing but too consolatory. One could wallow in beautiful pathos; romanticising failure so much as to preclude success. So lovely is “Church Going” that Christians might accept its implication that the church is doomed to fall into obscurity. So beautiful is “Going, Going” that one might find it easier to imagine “England gone”. So striking is “High Windows” that one might too readily glance up and find, “the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless”. This surrender to decline, and this acceptance of futility, tempts people who enjoy being what Samuel Francis called “beautiful losers” but it feels like an excuse for existential indolence. The world demands more clarity and more resolution. Poeticised hopelessness is no more hopeful for being poetic.
Larkin was no nihilist – not a consistent one – even mourning, in “The Mower”, a hedgehog he had innocently killed. “We should be careful/Of each other,” he laments, “We should be kind/While there is still time.” In his way, deploring the fact that he had “mauled its unobtrusive world”, he was evoking thoughts of industrialised progress, chopping up the small, particular and traditional. Elsewhere, in the “The Trees”, he stood apart from nature and observed:
…still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
It is a beautiful thought. Yet one cannot help remembering that trees do not grow again once they are pulled out of the ground. One cannot be immersed in poignance if one’s hope is to conserve and not just elegise.