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Philip Larkin was a filthy genius Sordid ambiguities come with being human

Not in Soho (Larkin)


August 9, 2022   6 mins

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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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Wonderful essay. Unherd seems to have a knack for finding talent.
I won’t touch the issue of tedious revisionism and the cancellation of writers from an earlier generation, especially “stale males”. Larkin probably would, and use it as a springboard to something much more significant.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Because there is nothing here that most of us didn’t know already. And the writer quotes only Larkin’s best-known lines from his best-known poems.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I agree: although it claims to be doing the opposite, I think this article continues to distinguish Larkin “the man” from Larkin “the poet”, using one to excuse the other; whereas there is only one Larkin, and the proper response to his detractors is that all that lasts is the work, and sitting in judgement on the life of a long-deceased man is a particularly futile pasttime.

Larkin’s work will last because he had a poet’s sensibility. Consider the precision of:

“Man hands on misery to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf”

You don’t learn that on a creative writing course.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Yes, it’s a striking line. However Larkin received a letter from a marine geologist some time afterward pointing out that coastal shelves don’t progressively deepen. Larkin sent a perfectly polite response, only noting that there was not much to be done about it, if I remember rightly.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I too was enjoying it until I was stung by this: “the drudgery of his work as a librarian”. How much time did Mr Larkin spend stamping out the books or shelving them when they came back? He held senior positions – the University Librarian had the status & salary of a professor.

Those were much more relaxed times and I guess Larkin had plenty of time for reading, as well as hobnobbing with academics and people in the publishing/bookselling world. University libraries were well funded and he quite likely enjoyed developing a special collection in which he had a particular interest. Enjoying a quiet cup of tea and a biscuit while leafing through the latest issue of ‘Notes & Queries’ hardly sounds like a morning of drudgery.

Last edited 1 year ago by Russell Hamilton
Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
1 year ago

This shows no understanding of Larkin, who did his job of reshaping Hull University library diligently whilst despising himself for having to stoop to such dull, toad-like toil.

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

Like Eric Gill and of course Wilde, Larkin knew that he was in the gutter, but was able to look at the stars. Compare that with the self-righteous prigs who subject their children to ‘drag queen story hour’. I know whose company I’d prefer.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago

Firstly, thank you for an excellent article: honest, considered and understanding, unlike much else I’ve seen written on the subject of Larkin.

The fact that I can’t recall anything of note written by Larkin’s detractors cements the impression that I long ago developed: those who can, do. Those who can’t, get by on poncing a living off those who can (typically by trying to tear down the latters’ reputations).

That sort of behaviour is parasitic and cowardly and those who so indulge should be ashamed, but shame is another thing that’s out of fashion, it seems. Ironically, Larkin himself seems to have carried copious quantities of shame for much of his life. Though it couldn’t be denied that this did not often improve his behaviour, I don’t think he lacked self awareness – again, in contrast to most of his ill-wishers.

In any case, being unable to separate the art from the artist is a mark of unforgivable imbecility and used to be mocked in the Humanities – though I suspect, no longer. So, state sanctioned art – well that’s always worked out to the best advantage of the human spirit hasn’t it? Art criticism by orthodoxy sniffing. Dear God.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Indeed. The current orthodoxy of expecting writers and artists to conform to progressive ideology in order to be published/shown is producing, at best, a limited (self-limiting) and reductive bore-fest. But as we speak, artists in all media will be quietly producing work that transcends this decade. When the world gets to see it is another matter, but the very straightjacket that success in the arts is currently trying to impose itself acts as an incentive to wriggle free, and express those aspects of our humanity that artists have always striven to do, in pretty much all circumstances. That’s what makes it so valuable, and i’m not referring to book deals or prices at auction.
This piece simply exemplifies our current malaise, or at least that which is visible. Larkin, as with the best in any generation, can see beyond it.

Ray Ward
Ray Ward
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Well said. But do learn how to spell “straitjacket”.

RJ Kent
RJ Kent
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Nice realignment of the aphorism, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach!” – which I agree is unfair on many excellent teachers. But I agree with your sentiment.

Paul Hughes
Paul Hughes
1 year ago

Any piece of art once produced takes on it’s own existence, independent of it’s creator. One can – and should – divorce one’s opinion of Tannhauser from one’s opinion of Wagner.
My friend bought a lovely Rolf Harris painting that remains a lovely painting despite being now consigned to the loft: she doesn’t share my view.
Commercialism has shifted the focus way from the artwork and onto the creator. with the business of artistic value almost entirely focused upon who made it. This is because it becomes relatively straightforward to assign value based upon the maker, rather than the merits of the artwork.
Banksy has exploited these idiocies: selling his own art anonymously for peanuts and in adding value – $25m for pity’s sake – by actually destroying a piece.
The opening paragraph says it all, and much of the article evidences the lucrative secondary ‘business’ of art: especially writing about artists, that exists only because of the inextricable link that must be made between the creator and the created to sustain it.
It’s not enough just to separate the artist from the art, how about we ignore the artist completely and just enjoy the art on it’s own merits?
Some bloke wrote a great poem about being on a train to London thinking about weddings. Read it, it’s really good!

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Hughes

Agree totally.

Ken Baker
Ken Baker
1 year ago

Well…arguably the most influential person who ever lived was the son of a carpenter who lived at home for most of his brieft life with his mother and father in a small provincial town. He never married and preferred to consort with his society’s outcasts and oddballs – including brigands and prostitutes. In addition to being a traveling faith healer, he fancied himself something of a moral philosopher though he wrote nothing, and what enigmatic sayings & stories of his that do survive were recorded by second-hand sources. Eventually, he ran afoul of the Roman authorities and was put to death in the exceptionally gruesome manner they set aside in those days for agitators and troublemakers.
And yet…

mark revelle
mark revelle
1 year ago

Not in my book. The author’s assumptions – and the assumption that we all share them – are presumptive and too often beg the question. Bellow a stale male, indeed. And Larkin enjoyed his job, according to his friend AN Wilson, whose opinion must surely count for more than that of the unfortunate Andrew Motion, who was very probably parti pris anyway.
Who cares if Larkin was privately racist, or a misogynist? He is comfortably England’s greatest postwar poet.
The drivel which has replaced him in the new GCSE syllabus tells us all we need to know about the hijacking of Art by the – no doubt well-meaning – left-leaning victimhood. Fourteen of the fifteen replacements, that is some 90% are by people of colour who otherwise make up up some 10% of the population.
This is how our children and their children will learn, through poetry, not what are the foundations of understanding a nation, its culture, history and its art, but through everything that is trivial, feeble and lauded.
We can only hope they are also taught to ask hard questions.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 year ago
Reply to  mark revelle

You sum it up very well. I can never forget the day my child came home from school complaining, “They want us to read about third-world problems, by second-rate authors!” He was expecting Shakespeare. It is important to have a real canon, to counteract the provision of Idols of the Theatre/Marketplace curriculum as provided in most schools. It is the works that are important, not the private lives of their creators. If a pilot flies me there safely, what should I care about his color, sex, private prejudices and peccadilloes? If literature wakens in me some perception of an eternal truth, then the author had done his/her job.

Rob Keeley
Rob Keeley
1 year ago

I for one hope that that overrated, over-promoted nonentity Andrew Motion, the fashionable and once ubiquitous darling of the BBC and the chattering classes who never himself came up with a memorable line, was thoroughly pleased with himself after what he did to the reputation of someone infinitely more gifted than himself.
Larkin’s ‘Required Writing’ is an absolutely indispensable collection of essays – the one on Auden is especially fine.

Last edited 1 year ago by Rob Keeley
Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
1 year ago

Larkin, Heaney and Wilfred Owen have been dropped from the GCSE poetry syllabus. Of the 15 new poems on the list, not a single one is by a white male born in the UK, in a country that is 87% white!

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Do the new poets include the young woman who was so lionized at the Biden inauguration, whose poetry seemed to comprise perfectly ordinary language recited in an odd, sing-song way?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

Seriously, the Humanities are wasted on those who most congregate around them.
Any creative work, be it in the arts or the sciences or mathematics or engineering or business or anything, stands on it’s own merits. We can be full of admiration for the producers or revile them, but that matters not a jot. The producer of something creative may be a product of their time, or they may be completely dissonant with their era, all that is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the only thing that will endure, which is the creation. This is illustrated by the fact that a Roman writer can speak to me across two millennia. Even more salutary is the fact that I can look at the perfection of some two thousand year old Roman statue with all detail of the creator lost in time. So we now have the ridiculous stance, redolent of pretty much all of the modern progressive population who are so keen on the humanities, that admiration can be extended to someone you know nothing about, but withdrawn from someone of whom you have a partial and imperfect picture, like the fact that they might have owned slaves. Or for example in the sciences, you might think William Shockley was a piece of work, but you try and do your Electronics degree after junking all his work, and see how far you get.

I may be wrong about this, but I sometimes get the distinct impression that by and large STEM people who are interested in the creative arts are far more likely to take the world of the arts and humanities on it’s own merits rather than let their prejudices get in the way, because they are not dependent on the arts to earn a living, and so don’t go around creating artificial ecosystems of rage, that they then subsequently feed off.

I feel perhaps the huge numbers of young people who are magnetically attracted to the arts might benefit from an attitude that regards the personality of creators independently of their productions. If they do this I feel there is hope for even the most lowly social science lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University – redemption is possible. The one exception I would make here, is for economists, who as a class are so pernicious and inimical to the interests of humanity as a whole, that the best thing to do would be to periodically round them all up and shoot them at dawn of a misty autumn morning, after a show trial the day before – nothing personal, just something that has to be done to protect the long term future of humanity.

Delia Barkley-Delieu
Delia Barkley-Delieu
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

“….they are not dependent on the arts to earn a living, and so don’t go around creating artificial ecosystems of rage, that they then subsequently feed off.”
Wonderful words. I’ll pinch that phrase.

Ray Rasmussen
Ray Rasmussen
1 year ago

It’s difficult to resist wandering into the morass of most writers’ lives, and I don’t resist it, but I also don’t seek it out. Someone passed this article on to me. But I’ve often not found much of value in it. There’s not much surprising in the content presented here. As for reading and enjoying poetry, I like finding myself in the writers images, albeit poets like Larkin express it (me, my psyche) in such beautiful language. Who can not identify with having envy for the youth of Larkin’s later years enjoying sexual freedom aka “Free Love” (albeit with STDs and the like, it no longer seems so glorious). Who is not led to muse on one’s own life’s trials and tribulations by writing like his. Larkin opens the door repeatedly to what it is to be human. No frolicking through the posies for him. Nor has it been for most of us. My friend who passed the article also gleaned something of Larkin’s wordsmithing skills by writing: “I particularly like this line of his poetry from the comments.” 
Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf.
That passage touched my dark side too. However, I also think that humans have found ways to hand compassion and caring onto others. Alas, and cynicism.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ray Rasmussen
Ray Ward
Ray Ward
1 year ago
Reply to  Ray Rasmussen

Larkin’s best phrase, in my view, is “soppy-stern”, expressing in two words the sometimes desperate way some parents try to balance being indulgent towards and “pals” with their children with proper control and discipline.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ray Ward
polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

Takes me back. I impressed my first girlfriend – I had a copy of A Girl in Winter and had read it (beautiful, for those who want a recommendation). Even filthy genius has its uses.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

A Girl In Winter is indeed one of the most beautiful novels ever written in the English language. I recently read a collection of Larkin’s articles, essays and interviews etc. He suggests that A Girl In Winter is, essentially, a long poem. It seems to me a reasonable suggestion.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

PS: And so was the girlfriend.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 year ago

A well-written article. Not quite sure where the rather click-bait title came from. Intentional ambiguity has always seemed to me to be one of the characteristics of the English cultural genius in general. Perhaps the ambiguity is reflexive, unintentional even, for many. It is still remarkable as an animating spirit of humour/pathos. A lotus is still a lotus, even though it may bloom out of the mud.

Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
1 year ago

One of the best things I have read in Unheard. More, please.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

“and we are now understandably wary of such a congealed male sexuality”

It maybe makes the writer wary but such descriptions of humanity don’t put me off at all.

Good job Jesus and his mates didn’t write many ‘personal’ letters.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
Mashie Niblick
Mashie Niblick
1 year ago

Excellent.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 year ago

It’s sad that snooping biographers who cry out in joy when they find dirt, usually people without the talent to create themselves,scramble to pass judgement on those who do. Well, it’s a living, I suppose, something to talk about in the faculty lounge.

Khalid AlMubarak
Khalid AlMubarak
1 year ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

The debate is not only about Larkin.It is actually about all sorts of creative people. To apply the yardstick of morality or norms ( which are not fixed but evolve ) is bound to mislead. Oscar Wilde was shunned because of homosexuality, now even the word has evolved to gay.what should matter is the excellence and talent because they are durable.

James Kirk
James Kirk
1 year ago

The only thing more pretentious than a working poet is the people who write about them.

James Kirk
James Kirk
1 year ago

The only thing more pretentious than a working poet is the people who write about them.

michael craig
michael craig
1 year ago

studiously avoids his racism and anti-Semitism ,both of which were acute, lifelong and integral to his personality