Theo Hobson Theo Hobson

What Philip Larkin can teach us about depression

Philip Larkin (Credit: Getty images)

A couple of years ago I taught The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin to some A-level students. In the last class they summed up their feelings about his poetry. ‘It’s bare depressing, innit’, said someone (this wasn’t Eton), and someone else agreed: ‘I guess it’s good poetry but I can’t lie, it’s way too gloomy for me.’ Then one young man piped up: ‘But that’s how life is for a lot of people – you know, really bleak.’

Yes, I quietly thought, and you might discover that acquaintance with bleakness awaits you, too. But hang on, aren’t today’s teenagers meant to be depressed and anxious? One of the girls who had dismissed him as too depressing had been off for a term with mental heath issues. Don’t they therefore connect with the humbug from Hull? It doesn’t quite work like that. Depression has different faces. There are different breeds of black dog.

When I was an undergraduate I was anxious and depressed most of the time, and plain lonely. But I didn’t feel much affinity with Larkin; he seemed a marginal figure, not a Great Poet. I was anxious and depressed in a dramatic, stormy way; the idea of settling in to suburban gloom seemed remote. A humdrum job in a library! Oh dear! I would rather die. Fast forward a few decades and things look rather different. I have done a stint as a librarian in fact.

Larkin can help us question the orthodoxy that depression is a pathology, that we’re meant to be as happy as physically healthy

Larkin’s gloom is not at all straightforward. The glum old sod act was partly a mask, hiding a more dramatic and stormy soul (and also hiding an adventurous love life). As a youth he had an acute sense of vocation, in the manner of a Romantic, but he had to hide the earnest fullness of this from cool Kingsley.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in