Spending pleasurable hours looking for books is not like drilling for oil. Recently, however, while browsing in the excellent Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, the black stuff spewed out like a geyser. A hardback collection of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings was on offer for £40. It wasn’t a first edition from 1964, which would have put another nought on the price. The book belonged to the fourth impression, published four years later, but it came with an inscription from another famous writer, who had presented it to an actress friend.
‘I hope you like these poems,’ he had written. ‘They are what I wanted the play to be — very English and full of affection and dissatisfaction. All my love. A.’ The ‘A’ was Alan Bennett, the actress Nora Nicholson, and the play, Bennett’s first for the stage, Forty Years On. Viewed from this distance, those words may be interpreted as a tribute from a superb writer, who was establishing an identity that is now much loved, to a great one. The Whitsun Weddings is not only Larkin’s finest collection of poems; it may also be the finest collection published in English in the second half of the last century.
Leonard Bernstein, the polymathic American musician and educator, who could recite the collection’s title poem from memory, went further. He considered Larkin to be the greatest poet of the 20th century, bar none, which might be overdoing things. Larkin, an early admirer of Yeats and Auden, eventually acknowledged Hardy as his supreme influence, and it isn’t difficult to see him as Hardy’s long-term successor. Both writers were provincial, in the best sense (and, in Larkin’s case, the worst), and found qualities of unforced lyricism in subjects that were often melancholy. Only England could have produced them.
Like all great poets, Larkin had a unique voice. Yet it is fair to say that, 25 years after his death, that voice continues to divide opinion. There are those, like Professor Lisa Jardine, who will not accept Larkin’s greatness as a writer because they disapprove of his personal views. ‘We don’t tend to teach Larkin in our department,’ Professor Jardine said after the brouhaha that followed the publication of Larkin’s Selected Letters in 1992 and the biography, by Andrew Motion, a year later. According to her, and others like Tom Paulin, Larkin was guilty of racism, sexism and most of the other isms that Larkin’s great pal, Kingsley Amis, had such fun with in his novel, Girl, 20.
It is certainly true that the letters, while uproariously funny, were never likely to impress high-minded metropolitan liberals. That’s one reason they are so bloody good. It is impossible to read Larkin’s correspondence, or many of his essays on jazz and literature, without laughing. Anthony Burgess, he wrote of the prolix novelist, was ‘a Batman of contemporary letters’. John Coltrane, the tenor saxophonist he loathed (good for him) was ‘a club bore who has metamorphosed into a pair of bagpipes’. As for ‘the passionless creep’ of Miles Davis’s trumpet solos, what glorious contempt there is in that wounding phrase. No wonder the cultural relativists, for whom literature is a means of parading their unimpeachable virtue, don’t get him.
The connection between an artist’s work and life has been debated for as long as writers have written, artists painted, or musicians composed. So let’s call in a great novelist to speak, in absentia, on Larkin’s behalf. Thomas Mann, who could hardly have been more different to the Hull librarian, set down in Confessions of Felix Krull that people ‘want talent, which is in itself something out of the ordinary. But when it comes to the other oddities that are always associated with it, and perhaps are essential to it, they will have none of them and refuse them all understanding’.
Yet, despite the worst efforts of his critics, Larkin’s reputation now is even higher than it was 25 years ago. Clive James and John Banville, among others, have written generously about the poet, while being fully aware of the failings of the man. And, if I may quote from a letter I received some years ago from a French friend, the Jardines of this world may feel a little less smug. Larkin’s letters, wrote Philippe Auclair, writer and broadcaster, were ‘very funny, very beautiful, and very sad; the grace of an angel, the precision of a geometer, and the short-sighted, intolerant piss-poor idées fixes of a provincial buffoon’.
Auclair was surely right. There is, in Larkin’s poetry, as well as in his letters, humour, beauty, sadness, grace and precision. As for intolerance, much of it (talk of ‘niggers’, for example) was a private act put on for friends. If you really want to know what Larkin thought of black people, consider the love he felt for the jazz musicians he heard in his youth and who remained his lifelong heroes. A racist would not go on Desert Island Discs and choose records by Louis Armstrong (‘the Chaucer and Shakespeare of jazz’), Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday. Better still, read ‘For Sidney Bechet’, whose joyful clarinet and saxophone (‘Oh play that thing!’) inspired one of his most-quoted poems.
It is the easiest thing in the world to denounce a man who offers such an inviting target. But, if one is fair, and one values poetry, it is wiser to celebrate a writer who, even in his darkest moods, captures something of England that will always survive the fads of the day. It is there in the schoolboy humour, the mockery of things that essentially he likes, the refusal to accept pseuds and, time and time again, the tenderness. His poems reveal a solitary man but the letters testify to the English genius for friendship. Fundamentally Larkin was a kind man, who happened, like most English people, to be conservative in temperament. Even the provincialism suited him. He may not always have enjoyed living in Hull, but a tenured life in Oxford, say, might not have equipped him to write the poems he did.
‘You write a poem,’ he said, ‘because it’s something you’ve got to get done, not because it’s a philosophy of life.’ And, at his best, what poems they are, about the coming of spring (‘like something almost being said’), a photograph album, horses at grass, an abandoned church, the birth of a friend’s daughter, an unexpected return to his Oxford college, a visit to the seaside, a religious quack and, always, a sense of profound regret (‘time torn off unused’) and the awareness of mortality. ‘I didn’t invent old age and death and failure and disillusion,’ he said. No, but he wrote ‘Next, Please’, with its ‘black-sailed unfamiliar’, before he turned 30.
He was a great English poet, whose melody captures an affection and dissatisfaction that Bennett heard (and to which he has added a few notes of his own). There are many writers that immigrants to this country should be encouraged to read, if they wish to understand the English, and Larkin’s collected poems offer an ideal gateway. No writer of the past 50 years speaks so authentically of England, and of that peculiar quality so difficult to categorise, ‘Englishness’. Where to start? With his greatest poem, of course, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, which, in the course of a train journey from Hull to London, moves from diffidence to something luminous, as great poetry can:
…and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.