The English language has a curious feature, called the phrasal verb. It consists of a plain verb plus a preposition; to go up, to get over, to find out. They are quite often more vivid than their simple synonyms – to ascend, to recover, to discover. New ones are constantly being thought up; they are also totally irrational – get on with or get off with? Most serious writers spend a lot of time thinking about them.
One day, the story goes, the poet Philip Larkin was challenged by his secretary at work. She had discovered a cache of pornography in his office cupboard. ‘But what’s it for?’ she asked. Larkin considered. ‘To wank’ – he paused – ‘to wank to, or with, or at.’
It’s the centenary of Philip Larkin’s birth. This is often the moment when a poet of large reputation is decisively discarded – you have to think of what the 1790s started to think of Pope, born in 1688, or the Bloomsbury group of Tennyson, born in 1809. Larkin has certainly been assaulted quite strenuously lately. The curious thing is that his popularity doesn’t, in fact, seem to have declined very much. The assaults and the downgrading are coming not from ordinary readers, who don’t mind him a bit, but from the gatekeepers of reputation and the official makers of exam syllabuses.
A great deal of noise was recently made about the decision of an exam board to drop Larkin, along with Keats, Wilfred Owen and other previously established classic poets. Instead, various impeccably diverse poets were to be introduced, some of whom were fairly good. I’m not convinced that presence on a syllabus means anything much – I don’t suppose the Earl of Rochester has been much studied in school, and yet he goes on. All the same, it reflects a determination on the part of official authorities to remove a poet from the official record, as far as they control it.
Let’s state the case against Larkin. There is the enthusiasm for pornography revealed by his biographers. He was undoubtedly fairly horrible to undergraduates of the University of Hull. (‘Don't think you're coming under my umbrella.’) He almost certainly voted for the Conservative party (‘Oh, I adore Mrs Thatcher. At last politics makes sense to me.’). His published poems include one saying how disgraceful it was that the Labour government was withdrawing from an imperial possession (‘Next year we are to bring the soldiers home/For lack of money, and it is all right.’) His unpublished poems include still more appalling statements. (‘I want to see them starving/The so-called working class/Their wages weekly halving/Their women stewing grass.’)
I want to make an apparently controversial proposition here. There is no point, as a reader in the year 2022, in complaining that Larkin was horrible to other people. This is because you aren’t going to meet him. There is a second, still more controversial statement to be made. There is not much point, either, in trying to dismiss a poem because you don’t agree with the statements it makes. This is for one simple reason. It is a poem. Its merits don’t depend on the justice of its demands, but on its arrangements of words. One book of The Faerie Queene is about how marvellous it would be to kill as many Irishmen as possible. One of Keats’s odes is about trying to decide whether to get drunk or not. Several of Swift’s greatest poems are basically about how completely revolting women’s bodies are.
In Larkin’s case, it is no doubt extremely shocking to see his private opinions about the lower classes. But what a stupendous line – to want to see ‘their women stewing grass.’ It is perfectly possible to marvel at the concise wit and ludicrously enchanting image, and not actually to hope that large parts of the population will starve to death. They are two different things.
To come back to Larkin’s dour speculation, whether to say wank ‘at, or to, or with’, it is certainly possible to say that he shouldn’t have said this to a woman under his professional supervision. I blame him less for saying it than for not going on and producing what is surely the correct preposition, ‘over’. But in any case, another part of his writing personality will have thought long and hard about phrasal verbs, and used them to kick off at least two of his greatest poems. ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ begins ‘That Whitsun, I was late getting away’ – a wonderful verb that, to get away, and richly evocative of responsibilities and of an organised life. The phrasal verb at the beginning of ‘Church Going’ sums up the whole argument: ‘Once I am sure there’s nothing going on/I step inside.’ To go on; to take place or to occur; it is utterly dismissive of something of previous importance, and it’s shocking to realise it might be a synonym for the ceremony of the eucharist. But it starts from a grammatical point.
The genius of Larkin is to reconcile the ordinary speaking voice – nothing going on – with the lyric utterance. It’s been remarked how perfect a pentameter the innocent narrator of the first ‘Livings’ poem starts with – ‘I deal with farmers, things like dips and feeds’. Beautiful, too, and ruthlessly anti-poetic, the use of the conversational voice in things like ‘Going, Going’ – ‘It seems, just now/To be happening so very fast’, a line surely recalling the marvellous, textureless end of Auden’s ‘The Fall of Rome’, ‘silently and very fast’. The poem’s last line is someone speaking without preparation, and nothing so powerfully conveys helplessness in the face of approaching catastrophe – ‘I just think it will happen, soon.’
The relaxed conversational voice is only part of it. ‘Church Going’ rises to elevated and grand archaisms like blent and poetic inversions – ‘A serious house on serious earth it is’. The lyric power and freshness ought to be undeniable – the line in ‘Deceptions’ where the raped woman lies and thinks how outside, ‘Bridal London bows the other way’ couldn’t be done by anyone else, and the whole poem is a miracle of directness and originality. When Larkin met Mrs Thatcher, she knew but couldn’t quite get right the line ‘Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives’.
The case against Larkin rests, I think, not just on the attitudes that the lumpenintelligentsia find and call unacceptable, but on two aspects that have rather dropped out of contemporary poetry. The first is the plain fact that he’s extremely funny. You will scour the work of those poets who have replaced him on the GCSE syllabus to find anything as witty as the ‘ruin-bibber, randy for antique’, or Colonel Sloman’s Essex Rifles, or this glorious opening gambit, now about as ‘unacceptable’, in the prig’s word, as can be imagined:
Boys dream of native girls who bring breadfruit,
Whatever they are,
As bribes to teach them how to execute
Sixteen sexual positions on the sand;
This makes them join (the boys) the tennis club…’
Secondly, he is a poet of rare understanding of the way the world works, and his most rapturous lyric outpourings often turn out to be rooted in the most practical facts. It’s not often remarked, for instance, that the reason the narrator of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ sees so many couples embarking on their honeymoons is that British tax laws of the 1950s granted a married man’s tax allowance for the previous year to couples who got married by the Whitsun deadline. He is a deftly accurate observer of quite ordinary facts – the splendid ‘Essential Beauty’, about advertising hoardings on streets, relishes ‘High above the gutter/A silver knife sinks into golden butter/A glass of milk stands in a meadow…’
It’s probably beyond possibility to rescue a poet so intensely and exclusively English. He said once that he wouldn’t mind going to China if he could come back the same day. There is a constant throb of Englishness throughout – the arrows of desire at the end of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ allude to the archers at Agincourt in Olivier’s wartime film of Henry V, Spenser, Milton, as well as the Blake lyric that has, since Larkin’s time, become a de facto English national anthem. Sometimes that Englishness, no doubt, turns into obstinate loathing of foreigners and the cosmopolitan, as in the savage ‘Naturally The Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses’; sometimes to still worse, and ‘Posterity’ seems rather indisputably anti-Semitic.
The Englishness, though, is at the root of it, and its power can’t be dismissed, or regarded as somehow improper because it has some unpleasant (to us) manifestations. It’s at its most moving in his poems about animals, where direct and indirect feeling are at their most verbally compelling; ‘Myxomatosis’, where the dying rabbit appears to be asking ‘What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?’ Or the magnificent ‘At Grass’, about two old retired racehorses who have ‘slipped their names, and stand at ease/Or gallop for what must be joy.’ The last lines have a depth of feeling that can’t really be accounted for, and can’t be forgotten, as the horses’ pastoral solitude is gently interrupted, each day: ‘Only the groom, and the groom’s boy/With bridles in the evening come.’
In short, Larkin is a marvellous poet whose work will go on meaning something for generations, whose work will survive the worst of its conscious significances. It has passed one test, in my view; though much of it is specifically evokes now vanished circumstances, the poetry survives after the briefest of explanations – ‘Where kids chalk games, and girls with hair-dos fetch/Their separates from the cleaners’ would need a bit of explanation in the classroom, but is that not also true about some of the poets in Jamaican patois now included on GCSE syllabuses?
It survives, too, the movement that Larkin’s career saw from only being able to allude to one of his great subjects to being able to write about it in the bluntest terms. We know from his correspondence that what he meant by ‘unpriceable pivot’ in ‘If My Darling’ was, in his word, ‘cunt’; he lived to write, in the marvellously traumatic poem of obsession, ‘Love, Again’, about ‘Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt/Someone else drowned in that lash-wide stare…’ That couplet sums it up; you shrink from the first line’s overheard voice; the second is eight unforgettable words of unspeakable beauty and truth.
Poets come and go. The case against Larkin seems, to me, remarkably feeble. It basically consists of four propositions. The first is that as a human being, he did some rather bad things. The second is that it is quite likely that some individuals living now wouldn’t have liked him personally. The third is that his private writings contain some terrible sentiments, which can’t be excused because they are often extremely funny. The fourth is that the speaker, whoever they may be, doesn’t agree with what the poems have to say.
All those, in the end, fall over without much effort. The case for Larkin is much more straightforward, and much harder in the end to challenge. Not many poets write as well as he does. That’s the only justification for a poet. The huge and birdless silence of posterity is going to find a place for him.