Temperament shapes taste. I’ve never felt an affinity for Larkin’s style of sadness, and his technical gifts don’t tempt me to sympathy. His melancholy—a wistful, rueful, low-grade spirit-fever—isn’t my melancholy or the kind I’m drawn to in poets like James Wright and W. S. Graham—a lusher, broken-edged unsettledness difficult to rationalize and contain, where formal energies work to cobble together boundaries of reason. Not that Larkin’s sagging sense of endurable aggrievedness isn’t genuine, it’s just tame and listless. His great subject is romanticism gone sour—in nature, household, and heart. The poems tell us, with a cranky sigh, that while we’re born dreamers, we must know our limits and curb unreasonable aspiration, even though we’re enticed by its appeal. He disliked art (bop, literary modernism, cubism) that overrides boundaries and makes formal invention an expression of appetite or desire. “High Windows” acknowledges the appeal of imaginative extremity but tells us that, if we admit the truth, what lies behind high windows is “the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” His owlish contrariness is theatrical and controlling. Most good poems have rhetorical energies. Larkin’s suggest we’re fools (or less than adult) to think about existence differently from the vision the poems give. Line by line, his timing is exquisitely cagey and helps him contrive his cool conversational audacity (we all know what mum and dad do to us, now, don’t we?), and though I have no way of demonstrating this, I sense he rather enjoys knowing better than we do, since he’s the tougher (and sadder) realist. I’d save “Here,” “The Whitsun Weddings,” and his best poem, “The Explosion,” about a mining disaster, which figures forth life’s impermanence in a dream phantom carrying an egg. It bleeds through the amorphous boundaries of form and feeling that the rest of his work stands in modest—resolutely modest and bittersweet—disapproval of. Larkin displaced the Yeatsian register of his first book, The North Ship, with a conversational directness and realism he found in his other exemplar, Hardy, and like Hardy he made diminished expectations one of his subjects. But he couldn’t emulate what I admire so much in Hardy, the restless desire to house in the spirit endlessly inflected griefs and hauntings unmitigated by wisdom, rational measure, or good sense.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005