Poet as Pessimist
From a desolate life comes transcendent work.
Oct 22, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 06 • By JOHN SIMON
In his valuable collection of essays and reviews, Required Writing, Philip Larkin wondered--in a piece about Sir John Betjeman--"Can it be that, as Eliot dominated the first half of the twentieth century, the second half will derive from Betjeman?" Larkin and Betjeman were friends, and I see the remark as a friendly tribute. To me, the characteristic poet of that period was Philip Larkin. And this new, extremely useful book, Philip Larkin: The Poems, by Nicholas Marsh, should make this abundantly clear without making the claim in so many words.
Larkin was the homme moyen sensuel (an oft-quoted phrase, by the way, whose origin remains obscure) par excellence. Average he was in his, in many ways, very English provincialism; sensual, in his seemingly unrequited libido, despite some sexual relationships. But special, too, with his two fine novels and his major poetry.
In the same piece about Betjeman, Larkin wrote, "It was Eliot who gave the modernist poetic movement its charter in the sentence 'Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult,'" which Larkin felt Betjeman disproved. But that nimble versifier was hardly the poet of our complex age, who had to confront his own unimportance in an industrial-capitalist society. The glibly bourgeois Betjeman did not feel himself an outsider, as the true poet of the age cannot help being.
What makes Larkin's poems especially interesting is that they can be read as autobiography, which most other poets' cannot. Martin Amis, son of Kingsley, who knew Larkin well, writes: "Life was happening to Larkin, but he had no talent for that, remaining to the end, single, childless and site-tenacious. .??.??. He hugged melancholy to him in the poems--for the poems, it might even have been. .??.??. Unhappiness is ordinary and everyday and in abundant supply." So the poems serve as therapy, as Amis sees it, alleviating life. Alleviating also, I would add, a reader's unhappiness, finding a companion in misery.
Grossly oversimplified, Larkin was the poet of social and sexual fumbling, of maladjustment and insecurity, atheism and the fear of death, who consoled himself as best he could with satire of the world and mockery of himself. What follows owes a good deal to Marsh's book which, though primarily intended as a textbook for a Larkin seminar, makes equally good reading for the non-seminarian.
Larkin was born in 1922 in Coventry, where his father was borough treasurer. Sydney Larkin was an autocrat and Hitler admirer who treated his wife, Eva, as a house servant. Not a happy family situation, even though Sydney, though strict, was often helpful to his son.
On a scholarship to Oxford, Philip--an awkward, gangly youth with thick glasses and a stammer--was not popular, though he made a few lasting friendships, notably with Kingsley Amis. Failing in other directions, Philip settled on librarianship as a career, and slowly worked his way up as assistant librarian in Wellington, Leicester, and Belfast, becoming full librarian at the University of Hull until his death in 1985. Wherever he was, he greatly improved the library and, on the whole, enjoyed his work until the 1970s and '80s, when funds diminished and computers, which he disliked, came in.
It can be argued that the lion's--or at least lioness's--share of his troubles stemmed from misfortune with women. He tells it variously in several poems; for example, in "Letter to a Friend about Girls," the friend being Kingsley Amis. It reads in part:
I see how I've been losing: all the while
There were only five documented sexual relationships in Larkin's life. Widowed, Eva became dependent on her son, often living with him and cramping his style. On the other hand, as he was mortally afraid of marriage and fatherhood, caring for her became, for many years, a handy excuse for not committing to any woman.
The first girlfriend was the novelist Patsy Avis, later Strang, who, though married, had a miscarriage by Larkin and incorporated him in a novel. To Ruth Bowman, whom he met when she was 16, he became briefly engaged, but the spotty affair (rarely consummated because of her Catholicism) dragged on for seven years.