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Larkin, the poet and onetime librarian at the University of Hull, said about the preservation of literary manuscripts, “Unpublished work, unfinished work, even notes towards unwritten work all contribute to our knowledge of a writer’s intentions.”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has appeared more than one edition of his poems: In the first, editor Anthony Thwaite chose to print published and unpublished poems in chronological order rather than by published volumes.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.