Why is Larkin so different from other poets of today? The naive question is not easy to answer, although every appreciative critic and lover of poetry has his own solution, and his own diagnosis of Larkin’s virtues. Long ago, the Poet Laureate referred to him as ‘the John Clare of the building estates’, a decidedly quaint though no doubt a heartfelt compliment, in line with Eric Homberger’s later summing-up of Larkin as ‘the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket’, or the more magisterial pronouncement that his poetry is ‘representative of the modern English condition: a poetry of lowered sights and diminishing expectations’. These judgments suggest his glum accuracy about places and emotions – particularly his own – an unillusioned accuracy beautifully, and in a very English way, satisfying both the poet and ourselves with what another critic has called ‘a central dread of satisfaction’. As Larkin has himself wryly remarked: ‘Deprivation for me is what daffodils were for Wordsworth.’ What is perfect as a poem is what is imperfect in life.
More recently the Larkin effect has been defined in terms of his own peculiar use of symbolism, the symbolism that Yeats got from the French poets, especially Mallarmé. In her essay ‘Philip Larkin: After Symbolism’ Barbara Everett has pointed out these French, echoes: the fact that, for example, ‘Sympathy in White Major’ is a kind of symbolist parody of Gautier’s ‘Symphonie en Blanc Majeur’, and ‘Arrivals, Departures’ echoes Baudelaire’s ‘Le Port’. It is quite true that Larkin’s brand of rhetoric, as it suddenly flowers at the end of poems like ‘Absences’ (‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’), ‘Next Please’ and ‘High Windows’, has the sound of French eloquence, or rather a uniquely effective English adaptation of it. Larkin is also adept at the Baudelairean device of dislocating the pulse and rhythm of lines from the actual things they are speaking of – Baudelaire’s decaying corpses or affreuses juives, Larkin’s trains and hospitals and bed-sitters and death-fears – so that a different and disembodied image is created, something that is nowhere and endless, for ever ‘out of reach’, like the landscape of ‘Here’.
A more direct borrowing can be found at the end of ‘An Arundel Tomb’. Of the stone effigies of the earl and countess we are told in the last stanza that ‘Time has transfigured them into/Untruth.’ The reference must be to Mallarmé’s lines on the tomb of Poe: ‘Tel qu’en Lui-même enfin l’éternité le change.’ The reversal is not ironic. Untruth is the home of poetry, the only place of transfiguration. Time, for Mallarmé, takes away what is irrelevant in Poe’s life: for Larkin, it removes actuality from the history of the stone figures and their touching hand-in-hand pose (including the detail that the pose itself was added by a Victorian restorer – a fact presumably not known to Larkin, though it would have given him pleasure). Transfiguration is into a kind of poetic absence which includes only the idea of love, not its quotidian betrayals or fulfilments. ‘What remains of us is love’ in the sense that love equates with self-extinction. I think Larkin here gives his own entombed precision to the symbol, which for the Symbolists gave out nothing but its own powers of suggestion. To Larkin it suggests the comfort of disappearance, selflessness, awayness, and in the universe this is no doubt the true comfort of love.
The symbol can deepen and reverse the familiarity of a poem, changing its nature like a symphony. For Hardy the nature of a poem on a tomb would be its fidelity, in a homely historical way. Larkin in a radio talk said he wanted to write different sorts of poems. ‘Someone once said that the great thing is not to be different from other people but different from yourself.’ He wished he could write more often like the last line of ‘Absences’ (‘Such attics cleared of me ...’). A highly personal poet, he uses symbolism as a mode of the impersonal, to liberate the poem from its own world.
In this short book produced for the ‘Contemporary Writers’ series Andrew Motion has written the best biographical and critical study of Larkin so far. He understands his subject as a poet, as an admirer and to some extent a follower, who has also taken part in studies of the Movement group of poets – Wain, Amis, Conquest, Elizabeth Jennings and others – with which Larkin was originally associated. He has made skilful use of background material and unpublished material. Barbara Everett in her essay saw Larkin from a new angle. Andrew Motion emphasises still further, and with some highly telling examples, the Symbolist element in the poems and its part in their ‘long perspectiveness’, their impression of space and variety. Has he, however, established why Larkin turned out so unlike the other Movement poets, and what is the key to the unlikeness? Inspired by his book, I shall attempt to give my own explanation.
Larkin seems present in his poetry historically, even histrionically; as a 19th-century poet might seem to us present in his poetry. He is both shameless and reticent, confidential and yet invulnerably refined, unavailable to us and yet totally forthcoming, present and absent. The interior of his poetry, like a Vermeer interior, is both wholly accessible and completely mysterious. Motion rightly implies that Yeats – Larkin’s first great, and then rejected, love – still lurks in this Larkin scene, his eloquence about the creator being ‘forced to choose/Perfection of the life or of the work’ still eloquent, now guilefully modified into a drab domestic choice. Shall I be pushed to the side of my life by marriage and a family, or remain ‘an indigestible sterility’? Of course it is no choice but a situation, as resonant for Larkin as his mythology was for Yeats.
But, for Larkin, his situation is his own style of ‘elsewhere’, as appears in that deceptively simple short poem, ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’. Elsewhere is a fairy place, though not insubstantial.
You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
It is also sex. Sex can only be its real self in another world, in the imagination, in the head. Where have we come across this before? Not in any place as recondite as Symbolist poetry, but in one of the most famous of romantic poems.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
For Keats, as for many other 19th-century imaginations, sex was a fairy world that vanished in consummation. Larkin in his own way inherits the tradition, inherits, too, its legacy of disillusion. The erotic is elsewhere. ‘Dry Point’, in The Less Deceived, is a more explicit and more metaphysical poem than ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, but it makes the same point with the same kind of intensity.
‘Elsewhere’ is an avoidance of what in the poem ‘Deceptions’, a central poem in The Less Deceived, is ‘fulfilment’s desolate attic’. Fulfilment is the ultimate deceit. This is the plot of Larkin’s first novel, Jill, whose hero, a young undergraduate, has his own private romance of elsewhere, based on the invention of a girl called Jill. Keats found himself losing in company any sense of identity, and John Kemp has the same experience with fellow students and their girlfriends; his real being is invested in Jill, and all the details of her life, details set up in the manner of one of Larkin’s own poems. When Kemp first sees and then actually meets the double of Jill, a real girl called Gillian, who turns out to be the cousin of his room-mate’s girl, his personality, already meagre, seems to take leave of the reader, and after a symbolic consummation he is thrown into a fountain by her friends, catches a severe chill, and collapses in the college sickbay into delirium and disillusionment.
As gripping in its way as a Larkin poem, the novel tells a tale very similar to Keats’s ‘Lamia’. The hero of that poem invents, as it were, a wonderful woman, with whom he becomes so enamoured that he insists on marrying her at a public festival, though she warns him of the dire consequences. She changes back into a serpent and he swoons into death (‘in its marriage robe, the heavy body wound’). The idea of ‘painful change’ from the world of elsewhere to the real world is central to this romanticism. In both poem and novel the man who creates and contemplates romance is extinguished by its realisation. ‘To me it was dilution,’ as the narrating ‘I’ says of propagation, in ‘Dockery and son’.
Andrew Motion discusses both Larkin’s novels in detail, and points out that a third, begun as soon as Larkin had finished the second, was never completed. Surprisingly, he considers the first, Jill, the more successful. For me, its successor, A Girl in Winter, is far more subtle in its handling of the same theme, and the girl, Katherine, far more effective than Kemp, both as a character in her own right and as a focus of conscious. It is ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ to Jill’s ‘Lamia’, though I doubt that the author was conscious of any affinity with either of Keats’s poems. Yet the plot resemblance is as striking with the one as is the magic atmosphere – the kingdom of cold, the kingdom of warmth – in the case of the other: in fact, it was first called The Kingdom of Winter, and Larkin changed the title at the publisher’s request. (A girl is always a good thing in a title: Kingsley Amis claims to have found Jill in a Soho bookstore, next to High-Heeled Yvonne. That would have delighted Keats.)
Wallace Stevens said that ‘a poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman.’ Stevens and Larkin are romantics of a very different colour – in any case what about those poets who are women? – but as regards both Keats and Larkin the remark is certainly suggestive, almost literal. As the sight of almost any woman may be a fantasy for a man, so their world of looking and language is to these poets. In revising ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ Keats was very conscious of the contrast between poetic daydream and the physical reality of a seduction. He wouldn’t think much of his hero, he said, if he left the heroine in the virgin state in which he found her. The ribald comment is not a part of the poem, as Keats knew very well, and yet the poem makes its own solution between romantic fantasy and undeceived awareness – a solution that seems to leave the poet out. Larkin it leaves very much in: there is no gap for him between romantic vision, ‘ever eager-eyed’, and boring bleak reality. Disillusion is a working part of the dream, with its own kind of beauty, as the last words of the novel tell us, and ‘not saddening’. As it ends, his couple have no further interest in or desire for each other; nothing to look forward to but sleep. Like icefloes, ‘in slow orderly procession’, their ‘unsatisfied dreams’ move ‘from darkness further into darkness’; and the girl’s watch ticks persistently in the man’s ears, counting the time till death.
For Larkin, disillusionment actually intensifies the enchanted comforts of elsewhere and becomes a part of them. So, even, at least from the point of view of art, does social vapidity and commonplace. In a poem from High Windows, ‘Vers de Société’, Larkin converts social chit-chat into elsewhere. Would he shun an invitation, preferring the solitude of dreams, as Madeline leaves the baronial party on St Agnes’ Eve? Or would he hasten to accept and attend?
In a pig’s arse, friend.
Day comes to an end.
The gas fire breaths, the trees are darkly swayed.
But he goes to the party, for the world of elsewhere is also the acceptance world. Who but Larkin would juxtapose the exotic obscenity and the romantic line in such a way that instead of their making a brisk, glib contrast between real ‘undeceived’ life and deceptive dream, as they would do in the work of most moderns, they come quietly together in their own secret, consolatory meaning? Change of key in Larkin is never for contrast but for obscurely rich enhancement, as in the consoling grandeur that rises out of the witty levity of ‘Next Please’.
Symbolist technique marries in Larkin with the no-nonsense manner of the Movement, represented in sex terms by Kingsley Amis’s Dai Evans and his earthy, perky view of appetites and needs. Romance there is a silly cow with someone’s hand up her skirt. In Larkin, so to speak, the hand is there but is part of the inviolable dream of ‘Sunny Prestatyn’.
Come to sunny Prestatyn
Laughed the girl on the poster,
Kneeling up on the sand ...
Whatever disfigurement is inflicted on her image by the travelling public – culminating when ‘a great transverse tear / Left only a hand and some blue. / Now Fight Cancer is there’ – the girl in the poem remains inviolable, a Virgin with ballpoint moustaches offering herself to the odium which does not alter her transcendent nature. ‘She was too good for this life.’ As seen in Larkin’s poems, living always is.
The critics who have seen the importance there of latterday Symbolist technique would seize on the phrase ‘some blue’ – Mallarmean Azur – as highly significant. The poems are indeed full of such cunning pointers. In the last stanza of ‘Next Please’ that memorable adjective ‘birdless’ is no doubt carrying two senses – in colloquial and especially Northern English ‘bird’ can mean girl. But in Larkin’s, as opposed to some subsequent poetry, such things don’t want to be noticed, any more than does the deft adaptation of ‘Movement’ style, or the beautiful rhyme and stanza patterns, often modified from Spenser or Yeats or Donne. Such influences give his poetry no trace of anxiety; it has no obligations to them, disappearing into its own elsewhere, the romantic premise of simultaneous expectancy and disillusion, and Larkin’s own proclaimed if unemphasised version of romantic solitude, the corsair’s freedom:
Drafting a world where no such road will run
From you to me;
To watch that world come up like a cold sun,
Rewarding others, is my liberty.
The romantic has no possessions or commitments, and a secret sorrow. In a world of sexual and material acquisitiveness his elsewhere can never be possessed, least of all by the poet himself. Larkin’s main difference is in this build-up of absence. It makes him pleasurably unpredictable, each poem unfamiliar. There is no place today where his poetry obviously lives, as there is, say, a Ted Hughes county and a Seamus Heaney land, a place domesticated by poets. Keats said that Hampstead had been ‘damned’ by Leigh Hunt, and the Lakes by Wordsworth. For Larkin elsewhere can only be completely authentic (‘a real girl in a real place’) if
I have never found
The place where I could say
This Is my proper ground,
Here I shall stay ...
The absolute reality of elsewhere only ‘underwrites my existence’ – the end of ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ is, as one might expect, both downright and mysterious – if that existence is almost aggressively humdrum. Of reviewers who once wondered at this existence Larkin said: ‘I’d like to know how they spend their time ... do they kill a lot of dragons, for instance?’
The tone is a Larkinian updating of the tone of Keats’s letters, the refusal to be romantic which – kidding on the level – conceals a consciousness wholly devoted to romance. Yes, Larkin in his poems does in a sense kill dragons, just as he writes his own versions of the Nightingale Ode in such poems as ‘Here’, ‘The Large Cool Store’, ‘Essential Beauty’, ‘Days’. In their deft immaculate way these poems wonder at the quotidian realities they turn into faery lands forlorn, provided the beholder does not possess them but remains an equivalent of the figure parodied by Yeats’s idea of Keats:
I see a schoolboy when I think of him
With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window.
Often, as in ‘Essential Beauty’, Larkin parodies them himself, his art finding the ways in which all true romance is intensified by parody. ‘Our live imperfect eyes/That stare beyond this world ... seeking the home/All such inhabit’ may find in advertisements
that unfocused she
No match lit up, nor drag ever brought near.
But the silent, poignant joke in the poem is that its art is itself an advertisement for elsewhere, feeding our ‘bad habits of expectancy’ that depend on non-fulfilment.
The most famous of all his poems presents the ‘I’ as voyeur at Endymion-like rites of initiation and fulfilment. Hardy might well have written about finding himself on a trainful of brides about to start their married lives, and he would have taken his usual grimly compassionate pleasure in imagining their lives-to-be. His musings would certainly have been erotic, but nothing like so erotic as Larkin contrives to be in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. Everything in that poem is charged with the peculiar potency of Larkinian sexual arrest:
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
The just-married couples ‘watched the landscape, sitting side by side’, for this moment voyeurs themselves, watched by a voyeur. Just the same double tactic is used throughout A Girl in Winter – a marvellous and sustained erotic prose poem, in which the girl Katherine, a foreigner without a surname, watches the English in what seems their ‘elsewhere’ and is herself watched by the author and his readers. So Madeline attends a vision of her future lover while he is gazing on her from hiding, and the reader of the poem gazes on both. In the focus of this sort of poetry everything can be sexier than sex, for everything is seen as if in the sweet-shop window. Having her first meal in an English train, Katherine is fascinated by clear soup joggling in white plates; when she has to take a colleague to the dentist she watches him drop into a glass of water a pink tablet which ‘sank furiously to the bottom’. Through the poet’s eyes the wedded couples watch train details of mesmeric significance and exactitude, and are then themselves plunged forward into an unending metaphor of Arthurian power and mystery:
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The paradox of elsewhere, as glimpsed in this ‘travelling coincidence’, is that the unchanging human progress through sex to birth and death can be seen out of time, in the right words.
And they are not knowing words. Larkin’s deepest romanticism is neither knowing nor overtly symbolic, but concentrated solely on its own vision and its own frankness. The double self and the dual vision are fixed counters which give the vision and the personality behind it an unexpected variety, as well as a kind of instant grip. He is the only sophisticated poet today who needs no sophisticated response from the reader. Apparently not interested in art, its cosy responses and communal strategies, the poetry knows every sense of the difference between living in the world and looking in on it. Both activities are necessary to each other, but their interchange produces instant fiction in depth inside every poem. He is the only poet since Hardy really to use the novel, and the way he does it, inside an apparently limited poetic field, makes the ‘confessional’ poetry of the last twenty years, as well as the ‘communal’ poetry of today, seem one-dimensional.
The brevity of his poems, as of Hardy’s, is an aspect of their robust variety. The personal and the fictional join hands in them, and with the novels, which are also in Larkin’s case long poems. Hardy said the poet ‘touches our hearts by revealing his own’, and the simple sentiment fits Larkin as well as himself – all the more so because both in their own way express simple and forceful sentiments with which we may disagree. They share the essential simplicities of romanticism and neither (in Hardy’s case, over a very long span) could be said to ‘grow up’ or mature. A kind of arrest becomes poetry in Larkin as it does in Keats, and has the same direct power to move us, partly by seeming ever young, undiminished, fixed in essential concentration. Keats might have stopped being a poet as Larkin, in one sense, stopped being a novelist.
Keats wrote that poetry ‘simply tells the most heart-easing things’. The heart can be eased by unexpected things, as Larkin’s poetry knows. It never seems to want to move us, or ease our hearts, but they escape into comfort none the less. Today nobody uses the word ‘escapism’, a term of disapproval in the days when romanticism was being consciously reacted against. Larkin’s poetry profoundly understands it, and the popular need for it, its increasing if unfashionable importance in a religionless age. He is a connoisseur of its most paradoxical instincts, and of its place in the romantic tradition.
The man who is ‘not deceived’ is also the true escapist. Keats wrote to Reynolds: ‘Until we are sick we understand not.’ As an ‘old-type natural fouled-up guy’, Larkin makes a joke of it, but it means much for the stance of his art. Escapists make good novelists, and Larkin observed that he had found ‘how to make poems readable as novels’. Like the tip of an iceberg his poems imply depths of lives and selves, a mass of material not written, or not revealed. In understanding the importance of elsewhere, the undeceived also know that it ‘tolls me back from thee to my sole self’, and Larkin’s poems are made from this relationship. His kind of romanticism is out of fashion today. Is that why he remains so popular?
Listen to Seamus Perry and Mark Ford discuss Philip Larkin on the LRB Podcast.