August 9, 2022

If literary reputations can be likened to a stock market, fluctuating on the tides of taste and time, Philip Larkin crashed in 1991. Until then he had been a strong buy, the unofficial post-war laureate, more synonymous with his time and place than any English poet since Tennyson. But, with the publication of his Selected Letters, his critics, as one put it, began to uncover “the sewer under the national monument Larkin became”. His investors, the readers who had deposited so much affection in his verse, could only watch on as his numbers tumbled.

A conservative in everything else (literature, politics, jazz), in this Larkin was a trendsetter. An aggressive reappraisal of the work based upon revelations about the life — this is the pattern that has established itself for every successive male literary titan, and which is in the post for the rest. But today, 100 years from his birth, Larkin’s lines remain widely loved and quoted at a time when poetry in general seems to be in terminal decline. That he survived this cancellation makes its story a parable for our age of intolerance, forcing us to reckon directly with the relationship of the dignified public to the sordid private, of art and beauty to ugly, human truth.

Larkin’s letters, published in 1991, are first and foremost a triumph of life-writing. A chronicle of the pinched English post-war, they record (in hilarious, confiding detail) a time of rationed cigarettes, economical beer-drinking, class resentment and fear of “abroad”. And they are rich in the era’s comedy of coping, recording money troubles (“I am having an ineffectual economy drive. It consists of not buying other people drinks”), dysfunctional dwellings (“central heating in the sense that it never reached the bedrooms or bathroom”) and self-conscious ageing (“There are some nice pictures of me from when I didn’t look like a pregnant salmon”).

But their publication also immediately opened up Larkin to attack. They lifted the veil from a carefully protected personality, rendering a writer who had aimed at the universal suddenly and frightfully particular. Most obviously they drew him into the realm of politics, littered as they were with reflexive prejudices around race, class and women. And the insularity of Larkin’s world and perspective was soon transferred by his attackers onto his poetry, itself downgraded to “minor” and “provincial”. But more troublingly still, they hinted at the underlying source of these prejudices: his distaste for the world as it stood. Morbid humour aside, the letters’ key theme is decline, and a growing resentment at life’s failures and Larkin’s own inability to correct them.

Initially, failure seemed distant. A First from Oxford, two novels and a book of poems published by the age of 25. But first the fiction dried up, and novel three was abandoned. Ambition and hope fell away from Larkin like clumps of hair, his dreams of an independent writer’s life (which he deeply envied Kingsley Amis for enjoying) replaced by the drudgery of his work as a librarian. He was sustained only by his poetry, until that mostly went too in the late Seventies, leaving only the illness and alcoholism of his final years: “I used to believe that I should perfect the work and the life could fuck itself. Now I’m not doing anything, all I’ve got is a fucked up life.”

This was all unhappy enough. But it took Andrew Motion’s biography two years later to fully entangle the personal and political, to smash the glass and set sirens wailing with outrage. Far from the eccentric chronicler of 20th century Englishness, it seemed the real Larkin — a midden of unexamined neuroses — had been unearthed. Of course, it all starts with mum and dad, in this case especially dad, Sydney Larkin, a domestic totalitarian who decorated his office and home with Nazi regalia and took the young Philip on holiday to the Reich in 1936 and 1937 to witness the “new Germany”. Philip then heads up to Oxford where — besides developing his poetic talent — he developed the odd and introverted sexuality that beset him all his life.

Under the auspices of “Brunette Coleman”, Larkin spent an abnormal amount of time at university writing a series of lesbian schoolgirl fictions (“As Pam finally pulled Marie’s tunic down over her black stockinged legs, Miss Holden, pausing only to snatch a cane from the cupboard…”) These stories were harmless smut, mainly produced for the amusement of friends. But bondage and schoolgirls would become erotic constants for Larkin — he made sorties from Hull to Soho to seek out specialist magazines on the subject, a cache of which was kept in his library office (“to wank to, or with, or at”), and also circulated with like-minded comrades (“do pass on any that have ceased to stimulate”). But presumably not shared was the dream journal Larkin kept at university, in which sex dreams featuring Nazis, black dogs, faeces and oppressive but distant parental figures predominate.

This far from cloudless adolescent psychology is not immediately suggestive of an empathetic poetic spirit, and we are now understandably wary of such a congealed male sexuality. It would be easy to write off the young Larkin as a borderline incel. But after this inauspicious start there were several love affairs, and Larkin’s erotic misalignment remains as Martin Amis recently wrote “mysterious and very hard to infiltrate… a maze, or a marshland with a few slippery handholds”. Sex itself more or less dried up in Larkin’s mid-30s — like trying to get “someone else to blow your own nose for you” was how he described the act itself. And terrified of marriage his whole life, he strung along his companion of more than 30 years, Monica Jones, in a relationship in which he was manipulative and unfaithful — not through any philanderer’s prerogative but through a juvenile fear of commitment.

A recent biographer of Jones even judges Larkin’s behaviour to be coercive control, and clearly shows how he stifled and inhibited her life. And there is one instance of now-immortalised cruelty: he colluded with Amis in fictionalising Monica as the clingy, boring, attention-seeking Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim. He even sent her a nervous copy after publication which she read over an agonising three days, and never forgot. “Oh he was a bugger,” Monica later said. “He lied to me, the bugger, but I loved him.”

Whether one’s response to this suburban tragedy is pity or disgust, the effect is the same as his letters: to de-universalise Larkin. To make a man, whose secluded personality meant he was only known through his work, seedily peculiar. It is a blow that has struck many a stale male in recent years, the reputations of (most recently) Philip Roth, V.S. Naipaul, and Saul Bellow collapsing from their 20th century pomp as their work, which pitched itself at broad, sweeping themes, was shown to be the product of a flawed masculinity.

Unlike them Larkin has come through the other side. So, what do readers continue to find in his work? It can’t be his personality or his surroundings — indeed, the post-war so wonderfully enlivened in Larkin’s letters no longer exists. But his poetry has endured because it does capture a universal human instinct, one which can now be read as a subconscious retort to the attacks upon his personality: the desire to record what is humdrum and shameful, and to transform it into something sublime. To, in John Updike’s phrase, give “the mundane its beautiful due”.

Larkin did not live in an age of therapy and self-care — he would barely have known how to recognise his emotional flaws, let alone “work on them”. And he never directly addressed the most squalid parts of his interior world. But, as he famously said, “deprivation for me is what daffodils were for Wordsworth”, a quip often interpreted as cutesy and self-dramatising. But he really meant it; misery stirred his muse. And you can see it happening within the poems as he takes some highly personal, ignoble incident and uses it as a platform to ascend toward some classical profundity.

There is a needy, lustful instinct behind the initial lines of “Sunny Prestatyn” and “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album”, and Larkin often uses his openings as confessional hooks, drawing you into the naked reality of his consciousness before leading you away and above it. But this movement is best seen in “High Windows”, opening with the notoriously obscene lines:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

The poem continues relatively plainly from this ugly statement of generational sexual jealousy, weighing up this feeling and pondering if Larkin’s elders had envied him in his own youth. And then, from nowhere, an extraordinary shift takes places, up and away from that scene:

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.

This is an image of ambiguous oblivion, perhaps implying religious absolution behind what could be stained-glass church windows, or a nihilistic absence of meaning beyond them. But either way, the image is that of a thwarted 20th century Romantic, a poet fully aware of the coarseness of his age and personhood, but able to find in it metaphysical beauty nonetheless. Not all Larkin poems take such an extreme route. But this is the technical accomplishment that recurs across his greatest works, a capacity to transfigure train journeys, music, photographs, and churches into pockets of narrative which illuminate what he saw as the abiding human themes. “Time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love.”

The greatest writers will always be those who have suffered dully all the wrongs of man, and yet remain alive to a greater wisdom and beauty beyond what they could afford themselves. And to read through Larkin’s letters, with all their everyday drollness and tedium, and grapple with his personality while remembering the genius of his poetry is to be confronted with this truth. But what is more, his poetry insists upon it, understanding that to be human is to be familiar with what is low and wrong, and to yearn for what could, possibly, transcend it. This is why Larkin resists what our age of moral purity would prefer: to be able to separate the fuddled bigot and the sedate chronicler of his age. Both men wrote the poems.

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