The Magazine

Philip the Great

A distinguished poet gets the full treatment.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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In a talk given to university librarians, Philip Larkin, the poet and onetime librarian at the University of Hull, said about the preservation of literary manuscripts, “Unpublished work, unfinished work, even notes towards unwritten work all contribute to our knowledge of a writer’s intentions.” 

Philip Larkin and his ‘muse and mistress,’ Monica Jones

Philip Larkin and his ‘muse and mistress,’ Monica Jones, at the memorial service for Sir John Betjeman, Westminster Abbey, 1984

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Since Larkin’s death in 1985, there has appeared more than one edition of his poems: In the first, editor Anthony Thwaite chose to print published and unpublished poems in chronological order rather than by published volumes. Then, after receiving some criticism for his procedure, Thwaite produced a second edition of the poems, this time in the order they appeared in Larkin’s four published books: The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974). 

Now, Archie Burnett, editor most recently of A. E. Housman’s poems and letters, has given us the four volumes, plus all the poems that were published in Larkin’s lifetime but uncollected by him, as well as ones not published in his lifetime. Clearly, Burnett believes that, in pursuit of what Larkin termed “knowledge of a writer’s intentions,” nothing of possible relevance should be omitted. The result is 700 and some pages of poems and editorial commentary. More than one reviewer has warned us that the casual reader will have trouble gaining an appreciation of Larkin’s work from the volume. But they need not worry, as no casual reader is likely to be caught within a mile of Larkin’s poems, since they demand something a good deal more focused and serious than casual reading.

Larkin came into his own as a poet in his late twenties, after he had served  an apprenticeship to Auden and Yeats. Their presiding over the many poems he wrote during his years at Oxford, and the ones that appeared in The North Ship, was not completely satisfying. Larkin was aware of the dangers; as he annotated next to a poem from 1940, clearly indebted to Auden, “Lay off Auden, my son!” Yeats was an even more oppressive presence, especially in the North Ship poems, where the diction is reminiscent of “heroic.” Larkin uses words such as “stone,” “grave,” “flame,” “wave,” “dust,” “grief,” “rock,” and so forth, with almost none of the colloquial charm he would command in his mature voice. 

When The North Ship was republished in 1965, Larkin tells us in the introduction that he had discovered Thomas Hardy in 1946, and that the poet would, throughout the rest of Larkin’s life, command his total respect and chasten his style. In the prefatory final sentence Larkin mentions the last poem of the volume, written somewhat later than the others, which “though not noticeably better than the rest, shows the Celtic fever abated and the patient sleeping soundly.”

But though the Celtic fever had abated, there is no way one could have expected the beauty and strength of an untitled poem he wrote two years later but never published:

An April Sunday brings the snow,
Making the blossom on the plum tree
     green,
Not white. An hour or two, and it will
     go.
Strange that I spend that hour moving
     between
Cupboard and cupboard, shifting the
     store
Of jam you made of fruit from these
     same trees:
Five loads—a hundred pounds or
     more—
More than enough for all next summer’s
     teas,
Which now you will not sit and eat.
Behind the glass, under the cellophane,
Remains your final summer—sweet
And meaningless, and not to come
     again.

In my male-gendered way I had assumed the reference was to Larkin’s mother, who had died, but the specialist who has kept up with his published letters and the proceedings of the Philip Larkin Society will know (or be reminded by Burnett’s commentary) that there were plum trees in the back garden of the Larkin parental home, and that the poem is about the death of his father, Sydney.  

He writes to his lover, Monica Jones, that he and his mother have been “rather helplessly looking at the stock in the house—this morning I shifted 100 lbs of jam. .  .  . I don’t know what will happen to it all—I don’t like sweet things, you remember.” The editor also adduces a line from A. E. Housman—The plum broke forth in green—as an instance of Housman’s “botanical precision” that may have gotten passed on to Larkin. Good to know these things, but of course they don’t determine the fine rhythmic and syntactical movement of the stanzas, each ending with an incomplete sentence to be resolved in the following stanza. Rather than declamation, as in earlier Larkin poems, we hear a voice speaking in a rueful, almost disbelieving tone, as it treats of things mutable and the final thing—sweet / And meaningless, and not to come again

Although biographical facts won’t help us to register more clearly the poem’s technique and tone, they do aid us in “our knowledge of the writer’s intentions” as Larkin carried them out.

The commentary Burnett provides on the longer and more ambitious poems Larkin wrote over the next decades is, naturally, more substantial and multidirected. For what this reader judges to be his finest poems—“Church Going,” “The Whitsun Weddings,” “Dockery and Son,” “The Old Fools,” and “Aubade”—the notes run to as much as five or six pages.  Time and again we are pointed toward one of Larkin’s utterances in letters or conversation that we were unaware of or had forgotten. 

For example, “The Old Fools,” his coruscating but eventually sympathetic portrayal of old age, begins shockingly:

What do they think has happened,
     the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they
     somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth
     hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and
     can’t remember
Who called this morning?

In a letter, Larkin spoke about the brutality of the poem, especially its opening:  

We are angry at the humiliation of age, but we are also angry at old people—angry with them for making us feel guilty and responsible, and of course .  .  . for reminding us of our own mortality. This is the anger in the poem that others than you have found distasteful. .  .  . But there it is.

Since the letter containing this is to be found in the Hull History Centre, few readers would be in the know, and the comment enriches the poem, however slightly.

There is also much pleasure to be had, especially for the Larkin fan, in his own, often slighting, remarks about the line or poem under consideration. Of an early poem, he notes, “I have just read the three ships in print and think it should be called the three shits. Don’t pay much attention to it, it’s bloody terrible.” When someone quoted to him the pronouncement near the end of “Dockery and Son”—Life is first boredom, then fear—he responded with, “Oh no no no, there’s no boredom left for me I’m afraid, it’s fear all the way.” (Here, an editorial slipup dates the response 2003, which is of course impossible, since that would have been after his death.)

About “Mr Bleaney,” a bleak look at life in a bed-sitter, he was positive, referring to its closing lines “every word a bullseye. .  .  . O a splendid poem!” Towards the yearly memorial service at the Cenotaph for the war dead—which the despicable speaker of “Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses” calls a solemn-sinister / Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall—Larkin had very different feelings, saying that watching the ceremony on television, as the band played something from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, “harrows me to my foundations. These things seem to grow in power as one gets older.” Such and many more instances of Larkin on his own poems show the range and variety of his critical eye and ear.

Reviewing this collection in the New York Times Book Review, the poet Paul Muldoon was severe about its section of “Poems Not Published During the Poet’s Lifetime,” which consists of ones Muldoon claimed were “hardly worth even a first look.” But along with a few genuinely moving poems, such as “An April Sunday…” mentioned above, the section includes parodies, squibs, and half-formed utterances this reader is pleased to have, and for the first time, to hand. There is a short tribute, by way of echoing Browning on Shelley, to the great jazz clarinetist Pee Wee Russell: And did you once see Russell plain? There is a parody of Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” that begins O what ails thee, bloody sod, / Alone and palely loitering (the “sod” is an Oxford undergraduate who may just be the young Larkin).  

But better than the poem itself is Larkin’s description of it: “This is the latest work of the brilliant new Post-Masturbationist poet, Shaggerybox McPhallus. His new book of verse, ‘The Escaped Cock,’ deals almost exclusively with problems of intense spiritual value.” And although Walt Whitman / Was certainly no titman provoked Muldoon’s special disapproval, no one has previously saluted the Good Grey Poet in such original terms.  

The fact that, along with being the great poet of things lost and never to be recovered—of transience, mutability, the evanescence of life—Larkin was an irrepressible, sometimes savage, joker about others, as well as himself, is more than demonstrated by this superb edition of his work.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst.