Book Review

Fulfilment’s Desolate Attic: Philip Larkin’s Complete Poems

The vainglorious and self-congratulatory cynicism of Philip Larkin’s poetry can quickly come to seem de trop. Life, it proposes, is equally divided between fear (childhood) and boredom (adulthood), and once grown up one is likely to be surrounded by loathsome or pitiful characters in the psychic mode of T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney and Edward Arlington Robinson’s Richard Cory. The landscape of most of the poems is the England of the postwar period. Rationing and shortages are the order of the day (“butterless days”), and the country is littered with bad architecture, bad food, and bad lovers with imperfect teeth and National Health glasses who fumble the sexual embrace out of ignorance and embarrassment. (“In our family / Love was disgusting as lavatory. / And not as necessary.”) The war had hardened the carapace of the typical Little Englander, and his characteristic xenophobia, racism, and misogyny, all of which Larkin shared, was very much abroad in the land. For Larkin, the prospect of death reigned over all. At only thirty-two, he was already telling a friend in a letter that “the approach and the arrival of death [. . .] seems [sic] to me the most unforgettable thing about our existence,” and at fifty, a short poem entitled “Heads in the Women’s Ward” would conclude this way:

Sixty years ago they smiled
At lover, husband, first-born child.

Smiles are for youth. For old age come
Death’s terror and delirium.

In other words, when he was not being cynical and rather grim, Larkin was usually being pessimistic and rather grim. Grimness pervades his poetry from beginning to end. His dominant theme, he once said in a letter, was “that people will never be unhappy again as we are unhappy —we were born in the very tip of the shadow—Everything I write now seems to come back to this.”

Of course if that were the whole story, Larkin would have relatively few readers and could not have attracted the friends and admirers, including scholars, whose devotions have produced the steady stream of studies, editions, collections, and Larkiniana that have appeared since his death in 1985 from esophageal cancer. There are moments in his poems, then, of heart-rending consolation and emotion. Most famous is the concluding line of “An Arundel Tomb” (“What will survive of us is love”), but an uncollected poem entitled “The Mower” ends with advice, unusual for Larkin in being a little maudlin, to be nice:

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.

Most people, when they think of Larkin’s poetry, tend to think of the infamous opening lines of pieces such as “This Be the Verse” (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”) or “Annus Mirabilis” (“Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three”). Yet these deliberately provocative poems, often employing a vocabulary that had only recently been made available to English poets by the lifting of the publication ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, while they may represent a life-long strain in Larkin’s thinking and talking, again do not tell the whole story. He can be tender in his poems too. He can write prospectively of “the million-petalled flower / Of being here,” and realistically if a bit glumly that “Death is no different whined at than withstood.” He could also be funny (“‘My wife and I—we’re pals. Marriage is fun.’ / Yes: two can live as stupidly as one”), although too much of the humor in his lesser poems, admittedly not meant by him for publication, is based on racial and gender stereotypes. Some of his grumpiness and misanthropy arose from what he memorably called in an early poem “the instantaneous grief of being alone,” a state he clearly associated with death.

Philip Larkin was born in 1922 in Coventry, a medium-sized city in the middle of England. Despite later objecting to a critic’s description of his family life as “joyless,” he seems to have remembered his childhood with little pleasure. A poem from his second collection, The Less Deceived, in which he finds himself unexpectedly driving through the city of his birth, ends dismissively with the line “‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’” His father, who was the city treasurer of Coventry, was a supporter of Nazism in Germany (he took the young Larkin there twice for visits in the 1930s), and apparently a small statue of Hitler stood on the Larkin family mantle during the poet’s childhood. But the elder Larkin was also an avid reader of Modernist poets such as Lawrence, Eliot, and Pound. After reading English at Oxford, Larkin fell into a job as the town librarian in Wellington in Shropshire (A. E. Housman country, happily enough for him), and subsequently into a lifelong career in librarianship, for which no particular training was then required, that eventually led him to the University of Hull where he was the Head Librarian from 1955 until his death. In all of his jobs (he also held posts at the University College of Leicester and at Queen’s University in Belfast before landing in Hull), he seems, somewhat surprisingly, to have been an effective administrator and a pleasant colleague, despite his frequent characterization of work as “the toad” in his poems. (A job, one poem typically suggests, helped him “down Cemetery Road.”) Larkin never married or fathered any children, but he had a series of lovers (often at the same time) and clearly was dependent on women for emotional support, however crudely he may have dismissed them in letters and minor poems. In an uncranky mood he could write rather movingly of “How separate and unearthly love is, / Or women are, or what they do,” but one’s main impression from his letters, which Anthony Thwaite edited and published in 1992, is that, while Larkin indisputably inspired devotion in women, they largely inspired his contempt.

Larkin published just four slim volumes of poetry during his lifetime, five if one counts a privately issued pamphlet. Although he died at only sixty-two, he wrote very little after his last book, High Windows, appeared in 1974, when he was fifty-two. His debut collection, The North Ship (1945), is highly accomplished prentice work. The influence of Yeats, Hardy, and Edward Thomas is everywhere, Housman too, and the atmosphere is one of largely unrelieved gloom and grimness. He confronts his own deeply pessimistic acceptance of human limitations (“knowing that I can / Never in seventy years be more a man / Than now—a sack of meal upon two sticks”) and characterizes love as little more than regret. With a residual adolescent relish he will describe the waning of summer as a broken boil (“Summer broke and drained”) and the individual’s life as a wholeness that is gradually chipped away and eroded to nothing (“Time is the echo of an axe / Within a wood”). The poems reflect little of the enormous change in formal metrics effected by Eliot, Pound, and even the late Yeats, and are composed in a very conservative music. The Less Deceived (1955) shows some progress in acquiring the vernacular poetic language that would come to be closely identified with Larkin’s mature work, but it still descends too often to conventional tricks like inverted word order (“With your depreciating luggage laden”) and an almost sclerotic jumbling of sounds into a line (“That we insensately forbore to fleece”). The poem “Deceptions,” in which the title phrase appears, contains one of Larkin’s earliest memorable images, when he says of a young woman in the aftermath of her being raped, that “All the unhurried day / Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives,” lines that Margaret Thatcher much later quoted to him when they met and he challenged her to cite something from his work. Larkin was a big admirer of Mrs. Thatcher.

With The Whitsun Weddings (1964), Larkin published his most accomplished book. His now familiar themes of loss, failure, and how the world is going to hell in a handcart are prevalent, and a pervading sarcasm does little to persuade the reader that such poems as “Naturally the Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses” should have got beyond the poet’s notebook (“It used to make me throw up, / These mawkish nursery games: / O when will England grow up? / —But I outsoar the Thames”). More serious satire like “A Study of Reading Habits,” while effective and somehow typically Larkinian (its speaker, while clearly not Larkin himself, counsels us to “Get stewed: / Books are a load of crap”), seems mistakenly placed in a book that also contains such accomplished and moving pieces as the title poem and “An Arundel Tomb.” Ten years later, High Windows embodies a falling-off, although it follows its predecessor’s mix of high seriousness and low satire. “This Be the Verse” and “Annus Mirabilis” are collected in this book, and both are among Larkin’s most famous poems. (He once said, referring to the former piece and to a well-known poem of Yeats, that “‘They fuck you up’ will clearly be my ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ I fully expect to hear it recited by a thousand Girl Guides before I die.”) But the poems whose length and gravity suggest that they were meant to be major accomplishments, such as “The Building” and “Show Saturday,” if not failures are somehow unimpressive. An attempt to compose a political poem (“Homage to a Government”) is rather embarrassing, and an ubi sunt entitled “Going, Going,” about the supposedly inevitable deterioration of the England Larkin admired, is tiresome:

For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last,

That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts—
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be so hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.

(“The whole boiling” is slang for “the whole thing.”) After the publication of High Windows, Larkin wrote relatively little and published poems only sporadically. A poem called “Aubade,” printed in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977, might have anchored a fifth collection had he lived to complete one. It is about death, Larkin’s lifelong subject (“The anaesthetic from which none come round”), and it is frankly terrifying until its final stanza. “Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere, / And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true,” he acknowledges, before stating that only “people” and “drink” can accommodate us to the thought of dying. Yet in the concluding stanza, the world, though it may only be “rented,” does go on in some consolatory way. “Work has to be done. / Postmen like doctors go from house to house.”

Anthony Thwaite, one of Larkin’s three literary executors, edited and published the Collected Poems in 1988, and a corrected edition appeared in 2003. Thwaite added substantially to the corpus that had previously appeared in book form by collecting poems that had only been published in periodicals and by digging out poems from Larkin’s letters and papers. Now The Complete Poems1 have been published, edited and with a commentary by Archie Burnett, an English professor at Boston University. This book is almost exactly three times as long as the earlier collection (730 pages of text plus 30 pages of introduction, compared to 240 pages), not because Burnett has discovered a trove of uncollected or unpublished Larkin, but because he has written an extensive commentary that discusses every poem, some at great length. He does have a few minor squibs and fragments to add as well, and he does make some corrections to Thwaite’s text, again mostly of a minor nature. But the commentary (over 300 pages) is what justifies this new version of Larkin’s oeuvre. It is well done and shows the results of extensive research, and its bibliographical underpinning is precise and useful to any reader who wants the minute details of Larkin’s largely straightforward writing and publication history. Sometimes Burnett supplies too much of a good thing as, for example, when he quotes numerous similar passages from the poet’s letters to justify the identification of the speaker in a poem called “Self’s the Man,” or when the use of a double exclamation point in “The Card-Players” is said to be analogous to poems by Rimbaud and Whitman. Citing a critic who discusses the importance of the word “void” in Symbolist aesthetics when Larkin has merely if cleverly employed the verb to mean “empty” (specifically to empty a can of tonic water into a gin glass) is more exasperating than helpful. Burnett evidently had some difficult decisions to make in choosing whether to define certain words which conceivably would be unfamiliar to either a British or an American audience, but usually not both, and while one sympathizes with the difficulty, I wonder whether anyone on either side of the ocean really needs to be told what a “Freshman” or a “quim” is (the latter, incidentally, being not just “British vulgar slang” given that Henry Miller used the word many times in the “Tropic” novels), much less a “titman” (as Larkin humorously improvises in a short couplet about Whitman). Burnett, who has also edited A. E. Housman’s poetry, is learned and rarely to be caught out in a mistake, but I think he gets it backwards when he annotates the word “scored” in a poem entitled “For Sidney Bechet.” Larkin’s phrase is “scored pity,” and Burnett notes that “Bechet was a celebrated improviser.” But surely the poet’s point is that it is in classical music that pity is scored, not in jazz improvisation.

On the whole, Burnett’s commentary is admirable, although in one sense it has to be admitted that Larkin may be one of the twentieth century’s poets least in need of scholarly demystification. “Discursive he is and sometimes vagrant,” then, as Housman said of Joseph Scaliger, his predecessor as editor of the Latin poet Manilius. And yet Burnett could counter by quoting Larkin himself, who once wrote: “There’s nothing like writing poems for realizing how low the level of critical understanding is.” Burnett is clear that his goal was to provide documentation about the poems and not critical interpretation or evaluation, much in the way that Housman himself prepared his edition of Manilius largely without revealing his own views as to whether the poet was any good. (He was not, despite the single personal opinion that Housman allowed himself in his introduction, that Manilius was “the one Latin poet who excels even Ovid in verbal point and smartness.”) “The editor’s duty,” Burnett intelligently proposes in his introduction, “ends with providing the reader with information that has some bearing on the poems, and it is for the reader to assess the pressure of that bearing.” I suspect that most readers will consult Burnett’s commentary only sporadically as they read the poetry, but when help is demanded, Burnett is there at one’s beck.

Richard Bradford, an English scholar and critic, claimed in the last sentence of his biography of Larkin that his poetry constituted “the twentieth century’s most outstanding body of English verse.”2 This is surely a monstrous case of special pleading for one’s subject, and not to be deemed plausible. Even if “English” here means not the language but the country, a picayune and misleading distinction if Bradford intended it, and thus excludes Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Williams et al. from the competition, it still remains an indefensible contention. More outstanding than, say, Auden, or D. H. Lawrence, or Ted Hughes, one wants to ask? Certainly at his best and least cantankerous, Larkin was a very accomplished poet. The difficulty, I think, is that he was rarely both at his best and not cantankerous, with the result that famous poems like “This Be the Verse” made and even continue to make an impact, but it is a slightly specious one. Crankiness and satire are often difficult to sort out in Larkin’s poems, and his deft cleverness at traditional rhyme and meter, while equally suited to expressing both, sometimes created such a guarded emotion that the center of a poem is too uncertain to be true. For example, in “Vers de Société” from High Windows, Larkin begins unpromisingly by imagining a written invitation to a cocktail party from a certain Warlock-Williams (the name itself makes one start to smirk):

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You’d care to join us? In a pig’s arse, friend.

This satirical opening, however, soon modulates to a much more serious meditation on the value of aloneness. But then the image of solitude and its utility for reflection and work (writing poetry, presumably) shifts to one of “other things,” especially failure and remorse, and the poem ends with the opening words of the poet’s assumed reply to the invitation (“Dear Warlock-Williams: Why, of course—”). The tidiness and the reversion to satire only succeed in blurring or even canceling the felt seriousness of the poem’s center. The adolescent high jinks function best perhaps when unalloyed, as in a sonnet entitled “The Card-Players,” which manages to be a kind of live-action seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting in which the figures at cards have names like Old Prijck and Dick Dogstoerd. The scene it limns and its unabashedly obscene vocabulary force one to sit up and take notice, and its sprezzatura makes one laugh. Yet it does not stay in the mind as a memorable poem. This is sadly true not only of Larkin’s amusing poems but often of his serious ones too, at least in his earlier work. The great exceptions such as “The Whitsun Weddings,” “An Arundel Tomb,” and perhaps “Aubade” are just that: exceptions. They are wonderful pieces, but not enough to constitute the center of the supposedly most “outstanding body of English verse” of the twentieth century.

At the Booker Prize ceremony in 1975, a year when he was the Chair, Larkin said in his speech that the poem, “or the kind of poem we write nowadays” at any rate, “is a single emotional spear-point, a concentrated effect that is achieved by leaving everything out but the emotion itself.” This is a wise and workable definition of poetry, or of one kind of poetry, and it makes one regret that Larkin himself did not follow his own conviction more often and more convincingly.


1 The Complete Poems, by Philip Larkin, ed. by Archie Burnett. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $40.00.

2 Richard Bradford, First Boredom, Then Fear: The Life of Philip Larkin (London, 2005), p. 263.