The Complete Poems, by Philip Larkin, ed. by Archie Burnett.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $40.00.
Poems, by Philip Larkin, selected by Martin Amis.
Faber and Faber. £14.99.
One summer half a century ago, Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell spent an afternoon on a bench in Kensington Gardens, talking about contemporary poets. “Cal was for Plath that day, and Gunn—and Larkin,” Jarrell’s wife later wrote. “Randall was for Larkin, Larkin, and Larkin.” Philip Larkin has often had that effect on readers—of immediate sympathy and half-crazed delight. I admit to my own mixed feelings—when I read him I want to run out and press his poems upon strangers, and I want to keep them entirely to myself.
The Complete Poems, with its four-hundred-page armament of apparatus, offers as thorough an edition of Larkin’s poetry as any reader will require. Those sated with the poems still have the poet’s extranea—the two novels, the jazz reviews, the stray prose, and most winningly (and losingly) the letters. There is even, for those who have not lost the taste, some smutty schoolgirl fiction, a lumpish biography, and a shelf of academic criticism. Yet Larkin for most readers will always be the three mature books of poetry: The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974). Whatever his peculiar world was, it is contained there.
Larkin was a late bloomer. Perhaps his early ambitions as a poet were derailed for a time by his desire to be a novelist. Critics have said what can be said for Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947); but nothing will save them from the rainy, dreary, slightly prim things they are—they make Henry Green look like Tolstoy. Larkin was a far more conventional poet before he quit writing fiction—and his moroseness, his paralytic sense of failure, his gloomy appraisal of man (or of the man called Larkin) might in part be the good fortune of sour grapes.
The early poems scarcely hint at the poet he would become. The North Ship (1945) is a young man’s book (I’m tempted to say a young Oxford grad’s—Larkin was twenty-two), full of moony disquietude, with a long run of lovelorn poems and only the thin shiver of sensibility. Some of the verse could have been written by a provincial duffer of 1915. Still, there are lines that don’t quite fit, lines that suggest something stirring beneath the dead leaves of Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse. The poet who confesses to the “instantaneous grief of being alone” or describes himself as “Part invalid, part baby, and part saint” sounds like a man wearing a suit two sizes too small. You begin to hear the voice of that university librarian who kept a stash of porn in his cupboard.
It might have been better for the poet had he waited. Few poets since the Romantics have published good books in their twenties, and even the Modernists were generally at least at the cusp of thirty (Frost forty, Stevens over). Poetry, like mathematics, is a young man’s game, critics used to say—but Shakespeare wrote his sonnets in his later twenties or thirties, Browning was thirty when Dramatic Lyrics appeared, Whitman thirty-six at the publication of Leaves of Grass. There will always be outliers like Rimbaud and Auden; but poetry has become more like fiction, needing the world to lend the shape that form no longer can.
By the time he wrote The Less Deceived, Larkin had learned the value of images redolent of the British hinterland—weedy pavements, railway platforms, the trilby hat, the cheap ring made in Birmingham, “docks where channel boats come sidling,” Hall’s Distemper billboards. His debts to Auden and Hardy began to be paid, instead of merely being acknowledged. The sense of place became important to a man everywhere ill at ease, one who could declare, “No, I have never found/The place where I could say/This is my proper ground.”
Women confused Larkin, and sex more than women. (“I had grown up to regard sexual recreation as a socially remote thing, like baccarat or clog dancing,” he once admitted—sexual recreation is a telling phrase.) His longing fought against his dread of dissolution or panic over property rights (to be married was to be “confused/By law with someone else,” an “instant claim/On everything I own/Down to my name”). Was this wariness self-preservation, or mere selfishness? In “Reasons for Attendance,” the speaker watches the flushed faces of young couples at a dance—high in their high spirits, reveling in the promise of sex. Even so,
Therefore I stay outside,
Believing this; and they maul to and fro,
Believing that; and both are satisfied,
If no one has misjudged himself. Or lied.
Many of the poet’s unkind and even savage remarks about women (the defaced poster of the girl in the bathing suit in “Sunny Prestatyn” is symptomatic) seem more self-hatred than misogyny. Yet it was not Larkin the misogynist who composed “Wedding-Wind.” Few male poets have written so tenderly in the voice of a woman (Frost was another). Though the imagery tends toward irritation and disillusion, at the end it’s plain that the farmer’s bride has been borne off by a preposterous happiness:
Shall I be let to sleep
Now this perpetual morning shares my bed?
Can even death dry up
These new delighted lakes, conclude
Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters?
Larkin is one of poetry’s great loners—consider Coleridge, who seemed to hate being alone; or that broad-minded socialite Byron; or Keats, so good at being a friend; or Auden, who couldn’t shut up. (“Loneliness clarifies,” Larkin wrote.) Yet a surprising number of Larkin’s poems are about happiness—he’s a poet of gloom sometimes struck into joy. Elizabeth Bishop had a terrible need to be loved, and one loves her in spite of it; Larkin, a terrible desire not to be loved, and one loves him because of it.
Hope always rides the razor of pessimism in Larkin’s poems, and pessimism rarely denies itself the glint of hope—when he gives in entirely to misery, as in “Going, Going,” he seems merely a crank. His outright nastiness is usually directed at male louts, mostly businessmen or academics; but he suffered the prejudices of his day and when that day was past liked to shock people with them. His anti-Semitism is no worse than Eliot’s, or Pound’s, or Sylvia Plath’s; but it is no better. He loved to provoke (perhaps his most quoted line was “Books are a load of crap”) yet was bewildered when people didn’t understand that he had been ironic, or writing in persona.
Readers were appalled by the poet’s Selected Letters (1992), where the vile mess that was Larkin was on display; but that was the private Larkin, full of bitter, nauseating remarks about blacks, Jews, women, made often to his Colonel Blimpish schoolmates. The poetry made something less petty out of pettiness. The absence of such malice there, unless due to cowardice (if there’s a courage to conviction, there can be cowardice, too), shows how little these things mattered to the poems. Poetry, if it’s any good, transcends the life’s sorry particulars.
The last books, The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows, secure the insecurities and perfect the imperfections that formed his style. The Larkin that Larkin became doesn’t change—he just becomes more fully himself. If that man is in part a fiction, the character bodied forth would have been at home in Dickens—the poems seem at times the work of Mr. Crummles, at others that of Tulkinghorn. Yet twentieth-century poetry would have been a lesser thing, a meaner thing, without “Church Going,” “I Remember, I Remember,” “Mr Bleaney,” “Toads Revisited,” “The Whitsun Weddings,” “Talking in Bed,” “An Arundel Tomb,” “The Trees,” “Homage to a Government,” “This Be The Verse,” and “Aubade”—and beyond these the quiet, sometimes overlooked poems like “Faith Healing,” “At Grass,” “Sad Steps,” and a score of others that say something right-angled about the world, right-angled but true.
The main attraction of this scholarly edition is the massive gathering of Larkin’s unpublished work. Though most was assembled piecemeal in the editions of Collected Poems (1988, 2003) and in Early Poems and Juvenilia, edited by A.T. Tolley (2005), more than fifty poems appear here for the first time. If there are scraps yet to be discovered, they have eluded the exhaustive searches of the editor, Archie Burnett.
Alas, Larkin wrote reams and reams of dull poems when young, most no more interesting than a thousand miles of scrubland—all are included here, with notes. The juvenilia make clear how stymied Larkin was by Auden. Larkin was a less attractive and less promising poet before the influence, but he couldn’t become a good poet until he had shed Auden’s skin. He spent three or four years writing lines like “these are twin headlights of a capitalist’s car:/this, the gaslight of a trodden worker who would tread” or “The bank clerk reflects that his pay isn’t large:/The professor’s had up on a serious charge.” (Auden struck a lot of poets dumb. Many never recovered.) Probably the older poet’s only lasting gift to his admirer was the blues song, which Larkin turned to hilarious account in “Fuel Form Blues.”
You hear the later Larkin before he existed, hear him in “the cold night/Drops veil on veil across the windy skies” or “Your name breathed round the tealeaves and last bun.” Larkin possessed a steely modesty, an imperious shyness (until middle age, he was afflicted with a stammer). He survived Auden’s robust bullying by lowering his voice, a voice without a sense of destiny, only a terror of fate. Apart from stray lines and some smirking ribaldry (“After a particularly good game of rugger/A man called me a bugger/Merely because in a loose scrum/I had my cock up his bum”), there’s little to like in the unpublished work and less to love. Among that little, however, is a brief elegy for his father:
Because there is no housing from the wind,
No health in winter, and no permanence
Except in the inclement grave,
Among the littering alien snow I crave
The gift of your courage and indifference.
—From To S.L.
The chill of indifference is enough to make the reader think (perhaps the poet means only the indifference of the dead), then think again.
Death was Larkin’s overwhelming subject (if not sex, or selfishness, or just plain misery)—he was tormented by it when young, and when old wrote his last major poem about it, “Aubade.” In the rag-and-bone shop of the unpublished work, there are scraps you wish the poet had rescued:
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 the cellophane,
Remains your final summer—sweet
And meaningless, and not to come again.
—An April Sunday brings the snow
Meaningless. There’s the final twist of the knife. The previous twist is the quiet pun on “remains”—and the one before that the terrifying volta of “Which now you will not sit and eat.” The ending is one small mortal wound after another. The poem was also for his father.
The tender side of Larkin, the side sometimes seen only when displaced, is often revealed as slyly as in the last stanzas of an unpublished love poem:
The decades of a different life
That opened past your inch-close eyes
Belonged to others, lavished, lost;
Nor could I hold you hard enough
To call my years of hunger-strife
Back for your mouth to colonise.
Admitted: and the pain is real.
But when did love not try to change
The world back to itself—no cost,
No past, no people else at all—
Only what meeting made us feel,
So new, and gentle-sharp, and strange?
—From When first we faced, and touching showed
How extraordinary that colonise seems (it’s not completely softened by the tender-painful “gentle-sharp”). There was something brutish in Larkin, even Larkin in love. The plain monosyllables, unadorned with much resembling an image (compared to Larkin, Frost was a spendthrift with metaphor), create the emotional waste in which love arrives so cautiously. Yet love after drought is often scouring and harsh. Larkin understood love’s annihilation—he’s one of the few modern poets (Eliot is another) I can imagine as a Metaphysical.
Archie Burnett deserves a full measure of gratitude for the labors necessary for this extraordinary edition. If such drudgery has a bit of Larkin tedium to it, every good editor must be part Mr. Bleaney. No other poet of Larkin’s generation has received such meticulous and exhaustive treatment—and none of the Moderns even now, apart from Eliot in Christopher Ricks’s edition of the notebook poems. Burnett has provided virtually all a finicky reader could desire—all, and then more than all, for the notes and references and dates pile up like Mr. Boffin’s mounds of dust in Our Mutual Friend. If a critic has set down an idea about Larkin in an obscure article, Burnett seems to know about it; and if Larkin happens to mention Frinton or rood lofts or number plates in a poem, you can be sure that Burnett will discover in which letter, or interview, or on what street corner Larkin also referred to them. The notes are not merely judicious; they are pertinent.
If I have minor quarrels with the edition, which gives us the most accurate text we are likely to have, some are problems of design, beginning with the lack of a proper table of contents. The poems have been cast in a smallish font and crowded onto the page. Among the unpublished poems, so many lack titles that you can slip from one poem to the next without noticing a break—a marginal device might have stopped the eye. No running heads provide relevant page numbers in the notes, so you must hunt up the index, then thumb back through the notes; and if while absorbed there you forget to hold your place among the poems, you’re packed off to the index again like an errant schoolboy. Running heads require no expense, merely forethought.
Burnett has traced the drafts in fierce detail, recording variants from late drafts or early published versions, correcting the text where correction is required (Tolley’s edition of the juvenilia comes in for devastating criticism), and boiling down the commentary. His notes are a gallimaufry of delightful oddities. I knew that the “Bodies,” where Mr. Bleaney worked, was a car manufacturing plant, but not that the name was Larkin’s coinage, or that it mimicked a local convention in Coventry, his hometown, of calling a factory by the name of whatever gizmo it happened to make. I knew that the “four aways” were a bet on away games in the football pools, but not that the young Larkin played the pools himself. I’m delighted to learn that “Wild Oats”—about courting, or failing to court, a gorgeous English rose and her plain girlfriend—was based on experience, and that the poet really did keep two photographs of the beautiful one in his wallet. If you want to make a pilgrimage to the lodgings where Larkin lived and on which he based “Mr Bleaney,” Burnett will give you the address.
Still, perhaps a few things have been missed. Time tells the speaker in “Send No Money” to wait for the things that happen in life (rather than doing something about them); as he ages, he sees the “bestial visor”—probably his own face in the mirror. How is it possible not to think of James’s The Beast in the Jungle? Larkin christens a butler Starveling in “Livings,” but the note fails to mention the rude mechanical of that name in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s misleading to call 1929 the “first year of the great economic slump”—the American stock market recovered after the crash of late October (the terrible long slide did not start until 1931). Britain’s economy remained unaffected until 1930. Though the north of England was badly affected, the south suffered only mildly and by the mid-thirties became prosperous. Larkin’s poem “Livings (1)” is at best meant to be premonitory.
Americans do not uniformly pronounce the noun “research” on the first syllable, as the note to “Posterity” suggests—usage is mixed, as in Britain. The title to “Sad Steps” comes from the opening of a sonnet by Sidney, but the notes might have observed that Wordsworth long ago made off with the whole line—Larkin’s borrowing secures him in a tradition. (Burnett sees that the nonce-word “immensements” in that poem is parodic, but he might have said that the whole passage is a devastating send-up of Romantic overwriting, like Shelley on laughing gas.) American readers might be grateful to be told that “French windows,” which appear in a number of Larkin’s early poems, are what we call French doors. Richard Wilbur’s “The Death of a Toad” would be a more relevant precursor for “The Mower” than those proposed. The title of “Party Politics” is a pun, not on “political party,” but on the common phrase for, well, a party’s politics. The missing word in “Address to Life” is undoubtedly “balls”—why not say so in the notes? There are false indentations in “Further Afterdinner Remarks” and a typo (“noone” for “no one”), probably by Larkin, left uncorrected in “You’ve only one life.”
The weakest aspect of the commentary is the sometimes farfetched attempt to detect echoes of other poets in Larkin. Does “the fields are sullen and muddy” (“The Ships at Mylae”) in any way derive from Milton’s “Now that the fields are dank, the ways are mire” (followed, two lines later, by “a sullen day”)? Besides, shouldn’t that be “and ways are mire”? What of Vernon Lee’s The Sentimental Traveller instead: “it winds slowly through the Roman lowlands, sullen and muddy under its willows, going to join the sullen, muddy Tiber”? And does Larkin’s “Untiringly to change their hearts to stone” (“Many famous feet have trod”) owe a thing to Yeats’s “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart”? The metaphor is a cliche. Besides, Arthur Mainwaring’s “cold Courage turns your Hearts to Stone” and John Clare’s “cold neglects have froze my heart to stone” lie a lot closer to Larkin. The editor wastes a fair amount of space on similarly trivial eavesdropping, but makes little effort to provide parallels in Auden during Larkin’s Auden infatuation—that would at least have been useful. (He remarks that Larkin was good at creating Auden’s atmosphere without being indebted to specific lines, yet the reader might like to know, when the Auden fog descends, where Auden used “O let” or “pistol cocked” or the sort of list so suggestive in “The cycles hiss on the road.” And might the editor not have heard, in the sorrow and emptiness of “Among the littering alien snow I crave/The gift of your courage and indifference” the faint hint of Keats’s “the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,/She stood in tears amid the alien corn”?
No reader new to Larkin should start here. Poems, selected by Martin Amis, is friendlier and far shorter, with a highly personal, hair-raising introduction. I disagree that Larkin is a “novelist’s poet”—the descriptions Amis marshals would be contrived in a novel, at least any novel not by Martin Amis. The selection of Larkin’s poems is somewhat tightfisted, The Less Deceived in particular being shortchanged: among the missing are “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” “Wedding-Wind,” “Reasons for Attendance,” “Absences,” “Arrivals, Departures,” and most pointedly “Born Yesterday,” a nativity poem for Amis’s younger sister. I might drop a few poems Amis includes, adding from other books “Home Is So Sad,” “Water,” “Sunny Prestatyn,” “Sympathy in White Major,” and, from the uncollected poems, “Femmes Damnées” and “Party Politics.”
Larkin’s range was not great; he rarely varied his tone; his metier was the portrait, the meditative lyric, the grumble. Yet how many poets could have written touching poems, as Larkin did, about renting (“Mr Bleaney”), or retired racehorses (“At Grass”), or a vandalized holiday poster (“Sunny Prestatyn”), or salesmen (“Arrivals, Departures”)? Or a poem in the voice of a ruined Victorian girl (“Deceptions”), one very different from Hardy’s? Larkin was a misanthrope, but not in the way most people are—he merely found life tedious with others in it. His poems are rarely uplifting, or uplifting only after a lot of hemming and hawing and hedging his bets. For all that, for all that he is vinegar’s version of Hardy, there are few poets more a guilty pleasure, few who see life with the chill of the born cynic, yet the nervous hope that love may, somewhere, just be possible—if not, perhaps, for him. One of the curiosities of Larkin’s poems is how cheerful they leave you—and it’s not the kind of cheer to be mistaken for schadenfreude.
There’s something nasty in Larkin—yet appealingly, gratifyingly nasty. Lowell and Plath made the private drama a full-blown five-act barnstormer, with scenery chewing and piles of corpses. Larkin, however, was perhaps the poet almost crushed by Freud. He’s just some miserable pub-going off-in-a-corner sod who knows things won’t get better and rather thinks he doesn’t deserve better—life’s Osric, perhaps, or Cinna the poet, for what death is deserved except the one most undeserved? It’s not Larkin’s misery in which one takes pleasure, but the relief his misery offers vicariously. That brings his poems, narrow and squeezed though they are (Larkin and sublimity are as much antonyms as Stoke-on-Trent and Paris), into relation with Greek tragedy, because they offer the ghosts of pity and terror.
Larkin’s novels are hard going for such light things; the jazz reviews seem finicky and small, as if he were an HO hobbyist or a collector of moths; the other prose pieces are often lightly hostile, those of a man who wishes he could be anywhere else. Yet Larkin’s poems seem exactly right, expressing all that needs to be said, and in a manner wholly his own, and neither swaggering, nor vain, nor full of whizbangs and Roman candles. It’s the late triumph of the middle voice—and in his mildness, his love of back lanes, his dependence on character and characters, he’s a lot closer to Frost than is generally admitted (both were rather unpleasant beneath the surface—and in Larkin’s case on the surface). You don’t wish him a different sort of poet because he was exactly the poet he could be; and in his flaws his talents were perfected.
When we have shrugged off our prejudices about Larkin, as he was never able to shrug them off about himself (who disliked Larkin more than Larkin?), it may become apparent how central he was to mid-century poetry, a man who saw himself as a ramshackle collection of defects, a man with a prefabricated sense of loss. Such poetry can come after a devastating sea change like the Modernists, when it seems that there’s nothing left for a poet to do.