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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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.