The Magazine

Poet as Pessimist

From a desolate life comes transcendent work.

Oct 22, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 06 • By JOHN SIMON
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His truly lasting relationship, for a while overlapping with Ruth, was with Monica Jones, a strong-minded university lecturer in English. They became lovers in 1950, but didn't live together until, sick, she moved into his house for his last two years. Concurrently, he carried on with Maeve Brennan, a fellow librarian at Hull, in a naive and escapist relationship. She represented Larkin's need for parallel involvements to prevent full commitment to either lover.

Brennan's theory was that the "dichotomous" Larkin distinguished between love, an illusion, and sex, a reality; when an affair turned into reality, it came to eventual grief.

The last, very easygoing affair (no talk of dreaded marriage) was with Philip's secretary, Betty Mackereth, begun the very year when the affair with Brennan was finally consummated.

As Clive James reminds us in an essay cleverly entitled "Don Juan in Hull," Larkin published only one collection of poems per decade. This betokens neither indolence nor infertility, only painstaking revisions, often stretching, with interruptions, across the years. This is well documented in Anthony Thwaite's presumably definitive edition of the Collected Poems, which includes some worthwhile unfinished efforts as well as less interesting juvenilia, written in the shadow of Yeats, Hardy, and Auden.

The four collections are The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974). Some poems did not make it into these collections, and a small handful was written after them. Still, when you consider how much Auden, Hardy, and Yeats produced, this was a rather modest output. (But then, think of Eliot, Housman, and Ransom.) Yet, as Marsh demonstrates, what mastery was here in rhyme and off-rhyme, meter and stanza, enjambment and imagery--forms a consistency that made up for in frequency.

Though not among the good many critics quoted by Marsh, Clive James has come up with some poignant and pertinent formulations. For him, Larkin is the poet of despair made beautiful, with "not a trace of posturing." Like Leopardi, Larkin is "disconsolate yet doomed to being beautiful." This results in "purity--a hopeless affirmation of the only kind we want to hear when we feel, as sooner or later everybody must, that life is a trap." To this I would add another dichotomy in Larkin, one well defined by the great Spanish Jesuit writer Baltasar Gracián 370 years ago: O life, you should never have begun,/ But since you did, you should never end!

Time now to look at a typical Larkin poem, "High Windows."

When I see a couple of kids

And guess he's f--g her and she's

Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,

I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives--

Bonds and gestures pushed to one side

Like an outdated combine harvester

And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if

Anyone looked at me, forty years back,

And thought, That'll be the life;

No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide

What you think of the priest. He

And his lot will all go down the long slide

Like free bloody birds. And immediately,

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:

The sun-comprehending glass,

And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows

Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Four stanzas of the accessible, conversational Larkin, turning in the fifth into the highly imaged, elliptic, elitist, ambiguous Larkin--obscure, as James would have it, "out of over-refinement."

Are these the high windows of a church or of a high-rise? Either way, they capture the sun of ostensible clarity and hopefulness, but beyond it is the infinite empty sky: nothingness, beautifully conveyed through the fatalistic triple thump of the closing line.

To go from metaphysical fiasco to the more personal one, consider "Annus Mirabilis," starting with:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather late for me)--

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles' first LP.

The family is no help, and neither is history, as we learn from "This Be the Verse":

They f--k you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were f--d up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another's throats.