Literary friendships (Sidney and Greville, Pope and Swift, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Eliot and Pound) have interest for the critic as well as the biographer. They show how unlike temperaments of near-equivalent talent may be drawn together by unanimity of literary principle. This unanimity should therefore be worth looking into, especially in the case of work like Philip Larkin’s, always more reserved and elusive than it seems. I want to consider his writing in juxtaposition with that of Kingsley Amis, close friend of the poet’s for over forty years; and to begin with Amis’s recent Booker Prize-winning novel. The element of apparent circuitousness in this approach to Larkin is perhaps excused by the nature of friendship itself: both persons matter, as Montaigne implied in his well-known explanation of friendship, ‘Because it was he, because it was I.’ Amis’s remarkable individuality may be defined so as to clarify, however indirectly, Larkin’s great and always in some sense reticent achievement.
The success of The Old Devils was just: it’s a considerable novel, and if anything improves with rereading. But there’s a certain disjunction between the book and what might be called its notional character. Critics seem agreed that the book is not only set in Wales but is actually about Wales and Welshness. Certainly Amis writes here with his usual brilliancies of comic realism, and gives a whole ‘social geography’ of location and behaviour. But as to the people in his book, some reservations have been expressed. One or two reviewers complained that Amis’s characters have begun, in this late novel, to blur together, to talk and think too much like each other. The problem struck me in a slightly different way. If this is a story of Wales, then it has to be said that the people in it aren’t Welsh – that under all the carefully-assembled Welsh locutions the psyches of the characters remain obstinately English, or at least obstinately Amisian. Celts just don’t come like this.
One of the book’s major themes is the very loss of national and racial identity: Wales and Welshness, it is said, hardly ‘exist’ now except as a form of charlatanism, or a bane. Yet, just as this lament has its own moral counterpoise – what the individual does not find outside himself, he must find inside – so it offers a clue to certain of Amis’s aesthetic methods; and beyond him to Larkin’s, too – for it can be in the same way less easy than it may seem to settle just what Larkin’s poems are ‘about’. In The Old Devils, uncertainty about Wales and Welshness, and indeed about the whole characterisation of individuals, can act more as a positive than a negative, and lead the attention to where the book has its real strength and character. Amis is concerned here, as he has mostly been (and as the whole novel genre has usually been, insofar as it is a social medium), with love and friendship: the love, in this case, of men for women, and the friendship of men for men – and theoretically, too, the love of women for men, and the friendship of women for women. Wherever the story nominally takes place, the book is constructed in a series of emotional confrontations, the chapters being given (as in Henry James’s ‘dramatic’ novel, The Awkward Age) the names of the leading actors in each, and the ‘awkward age’ being in this case nearer 67 than 17. The plot concerns retirement and homecoming, ending and reconciliation, and the Welsh setting as Amis evokes it – a faded provincial distance – is therefore relevant. But this is a story of ‘coming home’ in a more inward sense. In the course of the book the all-male and all-female drinking-bouts that pass for ‘social life’ evolve to something closer to simple human loving-kindness, where human beings actually talk to each other. The relationship of parents to grown children becomes important, and there is even, in the form of a nice Labrador puppy, a kind of surrogate grandchild: it too, in the wedding that acts as grand finale, has become a grown-up dog.
This action falls naturally into dramatic encounters, sometimes chorus-like, more critically between person and person. Characteristic, though gentler than most, is the outing shared by Malcolm and Rhiannon in Chapter Five (‘Rhiannon’): their jaunt a climax obscurely awaited by the reader from the novel’s opening pages, with Malcolm’s narratorial thoughts of the returning Alun and Rhiannon. The occasion, seized by Malcolm to make his declaration of lifelong passion for the still pretty, ‘ordinary’, kind and sensible Rhiannon, is hopeless, for he is not only married – and he not only knows that Rhiannon loves him as little as does his wife, as well as being herself married and in love with someone else again who only ambiguously loves her – but is himself ‘hopeless’, a virtuously clumsy sexless loser. Yet something does come out of the touching communion of these two most innocent of the characters, and begins to affect the rest of the action.
The landscaping of Malcolm’s and Rhiannon’s outing, apparently west along the coast from Swansea, leaves even the most sympathetic reader not very clear about what it was all like: the writer is obviously so much more interested in the pathetic persons of the drama, trying to talk to each other. And the intensity of this encounter can best be explained in terms of its echoic nature. Their comic but weeping conversation seems to be a richer replay of the terrible evening-out of Jenny and Graham in Take a girl like you, the best novel of Amis’s earlier years. That previous heroine was, in theory, North Country English, and the hero’s sad grotesque friend a Thames Valley Scot. But the Welsh Rhiannon and her Malcolm (whom the end of the novel leaves not altogether unhappily putting his love into his translation of Welsh Medieval verse) are to all intents and purposes Jenny and Graham met again almost thirty years later. The whole point of their second encounter seems to lie, not in anything that has to do with shifts of localisation, but in that peculiar permanence of the characters, and in the burden and release of the phrase ‘thirty years later’. It matters that the devils of this book are old devils.
Chief Devil is Rhiannon’s husband Alun – famous, faithless, shallow, engaging – the story’s catalyst, as he is the source of the book’s dark vitality. He is in many ways sharply characterised, with a formidable resource of observed contemporaneity – Media Man in motion. Yet, for all his TV hair-do’s, he, too, has an ancestry like that of Rhiannon and Malcolm; he is surely descended from the incorrigible Patrick of the earlier book who lamentably rapes the gentle Jenny instead of marrying her the first time round: an attractive and intelligent if callow cricket-playing Classics master, as ‘English’ an archetype as one could find in the modern novel. Alun and Patrick have something important in common: what might be called a formally demonic quality in the judgment of the writer of their novels. Both are forgivable – or at least Alun is finally forgiven by some of his friends in the light of their own moral frailties, and Patrick, being to a large extent the empathetic, if not sympathetic central consciousness of his story, its ego if not its hero, can as little be absolutely rejected in the end by the reader of the novel as by Jenny herself. But the actions of both men are obviously repulsive to the moral sense. And the greedily erotic, vain and venomous Alun – brought by the dramatic method of the book as inwardly close to us as anyone else in it – would quite plainly have continued his escalating violences had not the developing logic of the story stopped him (by death: one of the few things to be said in favour of death, so the book reminds us, is that it kills off the destroyers). His homecoming is an ending in a sense he didn’t expect. But it also offers the novel a conclusion in a rather different sense: it serves to suggest intellectually that love and friendship can’t exist just to be defined in practice as hatred and enmity. The novel’s real achievement is to make its action follow this simple, strong, moral logic, adding to it the bringing-about from unpromising beginnings of several acceptable if quiet happy endings: a whole group of genuinely touching reconciliations, all dependent on first the arrival and then the stopping of the vital but deathly Alun, regarded by the little gang of ageing cronies, the Old Devils of the title, as their star and centre.
From this point of view, the novel conveys through its jovial title a faint luminosity of meaning more than merely colloquial. Its action really is a casting-out of Old Devils: the set of epically drink-sodden old boys gets not once but twice thrown out of pubs, the second time – epoch-markingly if not for ever – from their own headquarters, their den, the cramped cosy cubby-hole in Tarquin Jones’s public-house, the Bible and Crown, known throughout the narrative as ‘the Bible’. In this haunt of the Old Devils there is something strikingly reminiscent of one of Larkin’s most potent small poems, the Dutch 17th-century genre-painting of a tavern, at once radiant and very gross, which he called ‘The Card-Players’. The Larkin poem possesses a rich calm moral abstraction that works against and yet through its earthy image of what happens when, in the company of ‘Jan van Hogspeuw’ and ‘Dirk Dogstoerd’, someone behind ‘Old Prijck’ eternally sings his love-songs. It is possibly harder for a reader absorbed in Amis’s more densely naturalistic novel to recall that Tarquin (not the most commonplace of Welsh names) was a Roman who, like the hero of Take a girl like you, raped an innocent woman.
There are always good reasons for not reading allegory into work that succeeds at the vividly realistic level. Yet it perhaps does no harm to extend the number of ways in which a good novel can be good. And the English novel has often found a place for the psychomachia, the ‘battle for the soul’. Even the best novel critics don’t always leave room for the distinctness of the English novel tradition, but identify it with the kind of 19th-century realism in which Tolstoy and Balzac are supreme. Such criteria may not help in judging the more romantic English genre that contains Richardson and Jane Austen and Dickens, all as different from each other as they could be, yet none precisely a realist. Smaller in scale, Amis is – like Evelyn Waugh, in some respects an influence on him – a comedian, a comic artist: yet neither fails to be a novelist.
The Old Devils in particular shows what very various elements can get together to make up the idiosyncratic English novel. If it lacks the economy of the more savage Ending up (another dark comedy of age), and even something of the hard-hitting sociology of Stanley and the Women, and of the (lesser) Jake’s Thing, The Old Devils has a real largeness of its own that is more than a matter of its sprawling form. And this extra breadth and depth is owed to its quality of ‘Romance’ in several interlinked senses. Mainly this is a question of reliance on looser yet more abstract literary disciplines: forms right for the definition of love as reflected through life’s randomness, through social dispersion and simple human ageing – a treatment which we meet, for instance, in the Late Romances of Shakespeare (one of which, Cymbeline, even takes its action into wild Wales, where it finds things not altogether unlike England).
If Amis’s work has received rather little critical attention, a reason is possibly its deficiency in ‘seriousness’, as evidenced not only by humour but by lack of aesthetic concentration and intensity. The novels fall apart into farce here, social realism there, and moral polemic elsewhere. Similarly, it is probable that his career is generally felt to be that of an entertaining comic social reporter who interrupted his development with bewildering excursions into the darker forms of ‘genre’ or ‘romance’ fiction. The ghost or horror story, The Green Man (the name of a public-house called after a local devil), in which 17th-century demons penetrate a modern psychological story involving a child; the ‘Thirties’ thriller or detective story, The Riverside Villas Murder, which is at the same time an account of a disturbed child’s growing-up; and the historical novel, time romance or Science Fiction, The Alteration, whose central character is again a child – these three of Amis’s ‘Romances’, and the last two in particular, seem to me brilliant, ‘unpleasant’ and very underrated: I can think of no modern experimental writing below the very greatest that has more intrinsic aesthetic invention and daring. And if I have tried to point out a Romantic or abstract or even Morality element in The Old Devils, this is partly in the hope of building a bridge between it and these middle-period genre-writings, and in particular the last, The Alteration. It is this harsh fable of, among other things, childhood love that I want to pause over, anticipating as it does The Old Devils in its ‘Morality’ of Love and Age – thus showing how closely bonded the different genres of romance and novel may be for Amis. But more, I hope to suggest that the particular abstractions of The Alteration can lead a reader further into understanding literary principles and values important not only to Amis’s work but to Larkin’s too.
The story of The Alteration is brutal – a brutality figuring in all these romances, and needing an interpretation that I hope will gradually emerge. The ‘altering’ of the title is primarily the castration threatened throughout the action, and finally carried out on the small boy who is the story’s centre (as it might be, of an ironic version of a children’s historical romance): the operation being relevant because this cheerful, nice, serious and ordinary ten-year-old happens to be peculiarly gifted. A chorister attached to an Abbey School in some Age of Faith, he attracts the rival attentions of both Abbot and Pope in promising to be the greatest castrato singer ever, if only his ‘innocence’ can be preserved. The story has its matchingly brutal sub-plot, in which the lover of the child’s sympathetic mother, a rebellious priest, in trying to defend the child is promptly punished and killed by a similar act of emasculation.
This ghastly story doesn’t promise much enjoyment. And certainly its burden is of man’s inhumanity not only to man but to women, children, animals – any aspect of the creation that offers itself as subject by natural weakness or minority to an authoritarian higher power. This compassionate but also, in the event, complicated morality is announced as a theme by a curious small detail of presentation, worth mentioning as suggestive of the book’s method. Amis’s fictive world here is in some respects Medieval, and early in the story we are made to catch a half-glimpse of something seen through a window in the scenic background, just as in a Medieval work of art: some sort of white four-legged thing moves about in the distance. At a later stage of the story, the child, Hubert, is enough frightened and bewildered by the violences of adult sexuality to escape to seek a friend, and we meet the creature again: it turns out to be a young calf with its mother in a field, and Hubert is patiently trying to lure it to come and be caressed. Later again, just before the sinister final movement of the story, child and animal meet in a third and last encounter; the white-and-black calf comes near, and the two join in a kind of tender embrace, the animal’s head resting against the child’s shoulder. By this stage in the story, it is clear that the child and the animal come close in their fate – they are natural innocents, bound for slaughter. Yet the feeling by now involved is something other than simple painful heavy pathos. The particular irony of the end of the story is that ‘the alteration’ is scarcely, at last, carried out by the obvious villains – by Pope, Abbot or Father. It is enforced by a natural affliction in the child which may well be psychosomatic – induced by fear, misery, despair, some form of flight or weakness. Behind the Pope stands God, Life, Nature – especially what we can only think of as ‘human nature’. For there is something even in Hubert’s wholly gentle and affectionate stalking of the young animal that has its helpless parallel in the horrible hunt for the fugitive child himself at the end of the story. Cruelty and savagery are woven into the action, and are inseparable from human love.
This intrinsic quality of the ‘altering’ that is the growing-up into an adult estate is brought home by a peculiar and striking factor. As I have described it, the book sounds remarkably pleasureless: but its grim story is given a treatment in strange and ironical contrast to itself. The encounter of Hubert and the young creature is so disposed as by its third stage to procure above all the satisfaction of provoked curiosity: an amused enlightenment in the reader dominates the pity implicit in the event. Similarly, the action as a whole arouses in the end only a very detached sympathy and pain, because this isn’t a novel but a romance; the characters, even Hubert himself, are deft types and sketches, for whom we hardly feel very fully; and character has been replaced by something else at the centre of our attention. Hubert is a very specific personage: he is going to turn into, we see at the end that he has turned into, the greatest castrato singer who has ever lived. The ‘altering’ is not merely or primarily the frightful damage done by human beings to each other and to all natural creatures, but in this case one form of the making of an artist – even if only a second-order or performing artist (Hubert’s promise as a composer dies with the operation). And the style of the whole book is a brilliance of fanciful artifice very unlike what is sometimes thought of as Amis’s natural medium – though it is found pervasively through all his ‘romance’ writing: a style at once highly decorous to the whole aesthetic side of the fable, and strangely and deeply shocking by contrast with the simple brutality of the action.
The Alteration is, like Amis’s other romances, a virtuoso performance, in which a brilliance of intellectual fancy, a highly conscious and critical art, replaces character as the focus of our interest. The narrative may make any reader unfamiliar with the book assume that we are here involved with some hierocratic and authoritarian Roman Catholic state in Europe between, say, the 16th and 18th centuries. The book in fact takes place in England, and in the immediate present. To bring this about, Amis rewrites England’s and Europe’s and the world’s history over the last five hundred years, with a whole new social geography as well. The opening words of the book introduce the chorister-hero making his high pure etherial and childish music in ‘the Cathedral Basilica of St George at Coverley, the mother church of all England and of the English Empire overseas’ – on the site of Cowley Motor Works, presumably, just outside Oxford. And when, in the last movement of the book, Hubert’s father takes him by high-speed viaducted inter-continental railroad to Rome, we stare (like other tourists) at a completely re-architected re-sculptured St Peter’s and Vatican. Simultaneously, satire accompanies romance; the personalities of our own world flicker in and out in roles drolly unlike their present fortunes or avocations.
All this has a very complicated effect on the reading consciousness. The Alteration offers surprise, delight, amusement and fascination: the book is a spell-binding and sometimes extraordinarily pretty toy, a kind of up-dated Lilliputian scale-model of our existence, polished, reversed, and set up for the Hubert-like sophisticated child in any reader. For anyone who truly enjoys reading fiction also enjoys in some sense rewriting history, ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’. In reading, and above all in reading novels and romances, we choose an ‘elsewhere’ – and allowably, since history itself is to some degree a construct of the human mind, a profound act of communal imagination. And yet there is also in The Alteration, absorbing as it is, a reaction wholly different: a repulsion, an alienation, a deepening vertigo. Something in the mind says: ‘Put it back! Put it back!’ The fantasy contains its own criterion of unnaturalness, a vivid contrastive sense of belief that the world ‘exists’, that history and nature are (whatever they mean) real – that somewhere there is an out-there realer than the in-here. This double standard, this intoxicated but horrified attention, has immediate relevance to the story told. We resist and are repelled by the child’s ‘success’, the terms of his conversion to world-famous singer. Almost as much as Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ (a fable about saving the economy by eating children), The Alteration depends from the beginning on the simple nature of our response to the whole question of castrating little boys. The aesthetic and the moral issues work together and become one; the romance is an alteration about an alteration.
Amis has, of course, predecessors in this kind of moral fable. A classic Utopian tradition lies behind him (Lucian, More and Swift). And his story makes playful allusion to other more recent practitioners. If Amis’s book is, in fact, superior even to such refined and serious specimens of romance as Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘A Sound of Thunder’ or Keith Roberts’s sequence Pavane – both of which may have given him ideas – then the difference comes from the degree of intellectual self-consistency. Amis writes with a kind of working self-knowledge that brings him closer to the earlier and classic masters. His larger ‘artistic’ capacities, that is to say, can only be defined paradoxically as a larger and more coherent in-built revulsion from the ‘artistic’, or the artistic as licentiously self-defining.
The evil forces in The Alteration are authoritarian, whether Father or Pope – a matter of egoistic and brutal wills. But the presence of such brutal will may be very easily felt in certain writers of fiction too, may indeed be vital to all shaping form, all decisive mastery of multiple materials in art. The demonic Alun in The Old Devils is a writer too. Journalist and literary critic, he now hopes in retirement to be free to continue work on his first novel, Home Coming, his one and only true ‘art work’: but his (conceivably jealous and resentful) friend Charlie tells him that the writing is hopelessly derivative. All his life Alun has battened off Brydan, an ambiguously-gifted Welsh poet with something of the mythic status of Dylan Thomas; now there is nothing in his work but second-rate Brydan: ‘If I say it’s too much like Brydan I mean not just Brydan himself but a whole way of writing, and I suppose thinking, that concentrates on the writer and draws attention to the chap, towards him and away from the subject ... it all gets swallowed up and turns into the same thing ... I’m saying that if you want to talk seriously about that place of yours and the people in it you’ll have to approach the thing in a completely different way, as if you’ve never read a book in your life – well no, not that exactly, but ...’
The lifelikeness of the ‘dramatic’ treatment of The Old Devils leaves a trace of uncertainty as to Charlie’s impersonality here, just as it does as to whether it is indeed this blow which most contributes to Alun’s collapse. But the words have a power quite outside the fiction, and may be said – in a double sense – to reflect on it. In his most characteristic novels Amis is a writer whom one may hesitate to quote from because his style will tend to be so unintense, so unobtrusive, so unrewarding. The critique quoted is in its own style not only representative of The Old Devils but recognisable at sight as Amisian – what we expect to find in most enjoyable fictions by this writer. What we don’t perhaps so much expect to find is the kind of sparkling yet sinister intellectual effect which I have been trying to describe in the romances, especially in The Alteration. There, the fiction rules over the natural and the real. ‘It all gets swallowed up and turns into the same thing’ – and there is indeed something nightmarishly claustrophobic in them, or there would be without that critical purposiveness, that intellectual consciousness in the fabulist and the fable, which leads the way always back to light and air. As a result, they are by no means the surely very bad book that we guess Alun’s Home Coming would have been: just as at the end of The Alteration poor broken Hubert grows up into a wildly successful, world-famous but somehow ‘bad’ work of art, fluting others’ music but never composing his own, and relying for love on a childish memory more and more disembodied as time passes.
What interests me in this is a deliberate transition in Amis’s work always towards a kind of chosen ‘artlessness’: the artlessness of the style of the quoted passage in contrast to the beautiful fanciful ‘altered’ world Amis makes in his romance. Artlessness fuses with the forms of selflessness, lack of egoism; it doesn’t ‘concentrate on the writer’. Fantasy is safe when it knows itself to be fantasy, and the role of the imagination is to lead the way to the real – these are classic and dignified doctrines of the arts. But in Amis they recur with an edge to them, and even (when one considers the oppositions in his work – intellectual farce, horrifying romance) with a certain sound of conscious paradox. One might call this discipline of art against art a principled philistinism.
The word ‘philistine’ is always hard to handle, and there are self-evident ways in which it simply cannot be applied to two men who have spent their lives in literature: writing and thinking, teaching and lecturing, reviewing and caring for books and manuscripts – pastimes not particularly rewarding except in terms of the mind. Yet even the more degraded and modern sense of the word has a context in which it might make sense to write almost ‘as if you’ve never read a book in your life’. This secular self-discipline derives, even if at some distance, from an ancient puristical struggle against the image as icon: an ethos to be traced back through Victorian domestic sanctities to Protestant godliness, then to Puritan iconoclasm, an insistence that the world was real enough to be found wicked – then from that much farther back again through the rule of Islam to the early Christian centuries within a deliquescent Roman culture, with Augustine’s war on the world’s virtues as merely ‘splendid vices’; and from that back again to Greek and, above all, Judaic idealism, an austere and fierce feeling for absolutes. It’s not my wish to load all this onto the author of Lucky Jim. But it does remain interesting that his Booker Prize novel, which might well have been called ‘Home Coming’, Amis chose, after all, to name The Old Devils.
Larkin once dropped the pensive remark (concerning, I think, the reviews of The Whitsun Weddings, but it could just have been earlier, in the years after the publication of The Less Deceived, when I first got to know him): ‘I have no enemies. But my friends don’t like me.’ It was a joke. But the dislike of the friends of poetry can be interesting, if it is intelligent and honourable. Larkin attracted, all his working life, hostility from a kind of criticism which at its best – either American or more or less based on Cambridge English studies – articulated the opinion that his work was profoundly philistine. I want to praise his writing for precisely this reason: that it made itself permanently vulnerable to such charges. Larkin’s poetry helped to continue, I would suggest, a great English or British tradition that has for centuries refused to avail itself of the self-indulgent securities of ‘Art’, that made itself philistine for the good of the soul of literature.
Larkin and Amis share, especially in their earlier work (and I would guess that Larkin initiated it), a practice of ‘shocking the bourgeois’, but in a special reversed form: needling the aesthetic reader – ‘Filthy Mozart’ and the rest. Few friends and fewer enemies of Larkin’s verse need reminding of these provocations, which also relate back to perfectly serious attitudes. ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ (‘Books are a load of crap’) is a self-undermining comic attack on authorial complacency which also defines the circumstances in which the reader, too, may misuse both life and literature simultaneously. All the other gruff jokes involving cycle clips and Marks nighties and gin-and-tonics, and the even more notorious four-letter words, derive together from the resolution not to make the
deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
The most perfectionist aestheticism can, of course, throw off this special contempt for the ‘perfect’: it is hardly an English philistine who yawns that ‘all the rest is literature.’ But I want to go rather further and try to show that in Larkin’s work this feeling for the ‘reprehensible’ goes deeper, shaping and affecting it at that inexplicit level from which his verse takes so much of its real power. Indeed, a pursuit of truth which is also a flight from ‘Art’ seems to me to condition the whole development of Larkin’s poetry. It is relevant here that Larkin said his ambition was to write novels, works closer to life than poems; indeed, his address from the chair of an earlier Booker-Prizegiving is a superb defence of the novel precisely for this truth-to-life.
Larkin’s ‘development’ is itself open to question. Most of the appreciative obituaries published since his death a year ago described him as a writer who did not develop. I strongly agree with Alan Brownjohn’s original review of High Windows, one of the finest Larkin essays we have, that this simply isn’t true. There is, in fact, a considerable distance between The North Ship and High Windows. And I would myself explain the difference in terms of the poet’s own conscious struggle to leave behind what he surely saw as the great weakness of the early volume: its helpless artiness. Something in this innocent Yeatsian collection links up with the superficially very different, and better, translation (published by John Fuller’s Sycamore Press) which the even younger Larkin, painstakingly following Eliot and other Modernists, took from Baudelaire’s ‘Femmes Damnées’ – the Larkin poem a fascinatingly talented if odd attempt to fuse the ‘French’ or ‘Aesthetic’ subject of lesbian passion with a setting in the English philistine green-belt suburbs. And that quality links with the more self-guarding and self-censoring, but still very solemn, two novels that followed The North Ship.
The young Larkin took Art very seriously. It was to him more than a profession: it was a calling. The entirely touching and powerful ‘Send no money’ from The Whitsun Weddings is evidence of this, even without the rest of his career. And very obviously the writer had an amount of talent and intelligence in itself remarkable enough to justify any seriousness. Yet for the Protestant moralist (and Larkin once described himself in conversation as ‘one of Nature’s Orange-Men’) all arts present problems. Even at the technical level, the arty, the merely derivative, the simply pleasing remained the writer’s solace and quandary at once. In Larkin’s work there is always the temptation towards the perhaps merely pretty which recurs in some of his most popular but weaker poems: ‘Church Going’, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, for instance. And an awareness of this weakness for the ‘beautiful’ seemingly led him to try to compensate in the direction of the ‘efficient’ (the terms are his own), with results of grossness and hardness including the four-letter words. The two faults that Larkin’s poetry comes most triumphantly to avoid are sentimentality, on the one hand, and brutality, on the other.
Larkin’s verse develops according to the struggle, perhaps the effort of all true makers, to escape soft personal predilection and allow the poems to commit themselves to lucid strength, to the nature of things as they are beyond the fantasies of the ego. The essential virtue of the last two volumes, and especially of High Windows, is the concentration of personal feeling in each poem accompanied by an extreme circumscription of any merely personal expression of the self. Larkin is often described now as a Romantic poet, as he probably is in some sense: but the term explains too little without qualifying questions and explanations. The presence of feeling, and the attribution of feeling to familiar objects doesn’t itself constitute Romanticism, unless we are Romantic every time we stroke the cat. What is striking in Larkin’s poems is the way in which the simple ceremonies and occasions of feeling (the ‘Whitsun weddings’) are set forward, in these intensely crafted works of art, to fill the void of the abnegation of poetic authority. Few English Romantic poets have ever said ‘I’ as little as Larkin; and the pervasive absence of the word is less mere reticence or self-dislike than a strange personal strength, part of the work’s haunting power: almost a strategy. ‘Here’, for instance, which superbly opens The Whitsun Weddings, and doesn’t contain the word ‘I’, isn’t Hull, but a true private world startlingly voided of egoism: a rich and radiant arrival Northwards at Nowhere. The whole poetic career, in so many ways so prudently managed, is also a drive to extinguish the false artistic ego: it closes with the last true Larkinian poem, ‘Aubade’, which followed High Windows by a few years and took as its subject the writer’s own death.
Work that reduces its ego together with its appearance of artifice (the art of what Larkin in a very early poem called ‘Modesties’) will find an enjoying audience, but at a price. His verse wears an air of artlessness that constitutes its success, but that breeds misconceptions. Not only the very regrettable Times obituary but others more sympathetic agreed that the poet was unproductive, his major verse amounting to three slim volumes. This is as questionable as the truism that Larkin never developed. The issue turns on our sense of what poetry is. If we regard Larkin’s work as social statements, and the poet as a ‘decent chap, a real good sort’, the old White Major in person – and obituaries are of course bound to pay attention to the decent chap – then the contents of these three volumes could be regarded as the sadly scanty remains of one (though curiously elusive, various and self-contradictory) personality. But as artefacts, created objects, what Larkin calls in ‘Show Saturday’ ‘rows/ Of single supreme versions ... pure excellences that enclose/ A recession of skills’, these poems are as unpredictably unlike each other as the ‘Show’ goods themselves. In terms of works of art, Larkin’s harvest was quite remarkable: few lyric poets have achieved eighty or ninety poems, all autonomous, all essentially different from each other. And their variety comes, precisely, from that escape from personality which Eliot made us associate with Modernism, but which is an attribute, really, of all disciplined art, especially that of a Puritan-derived or ‘philistine’ society. The artist as such has no standing, but sets his goods among the ‘lambing-sticks, rugs,/ Needlework, knitted caps, baskets, all worthy, all well done,/ But less than the honeycombs’: a bee could do better.
An unobtrusive art, however fine it is, may get itself confused with artlessness – and that, in its turn, with a mere affability. A position shared by several obituaries was that Larkin’s work brought poetry back to ordinary people. This is a difficult issue, because people who read poetry are never ordinary people; the habit of reading at all differentiates a person, and the degree of education is largely irrelevant. I once took an adult education class composed of the intelligent under-schooled – a garage mechanic, housewives, an elderly lord of the manor – and the wild success of the course was Beckett’s Endgame, which was found so funny and so lifelike that the meeting broke up in hysteria. I suspect, in short, that the artistic and under-educated prefer their poetry obscure and elaborate, Metaphysical or Modernist; the Movement was – as it usually is – for tired intellectuals. And, if it is a case of bringing poetry to philistines (a somewhat different matter), then the success was more Betjeman’s than Larkin’s.
Questions of audience are always abstract and difficult. Of perhaps more interest are what one might call expectations of response in the work of Larkin and Amis, and in each case these are complex and ironic. Both work within straightforward social criteria that involve courtesies and rationalities: but both make use regularly of means like Larkin’s four-letter words which may offend precisely because they figure in an idiom otherwise so well-behaved or well-adjusted, even so cautiously temperate. Whatever there is to say about Larkin’s particular poetic medium is consonant with this. For reasons at once personal, moral and aesthetic, the poet has found himself, as a painter might do, by the selection of a restricted palette. In that selection there is a comparable element of the complex and ironic. Larkin has come to make his own a field that one might well love especially in compensation for, or in contradiction to, a lifetime above all shut up in books, papers, words – the abstract appurtenances of literary intellect. The poet turns tenderly to the sweet middle ranges of ‘philistine’ experience:
The pictures on
The walls are comic – hunting, trenches, stuff
Nobody minds or notices ...
These lines from ‘Livings 1’ are by someone who spent his life in some sense minding and noticing (‘The Card Players’, from elsewhere in High Windows, is a remarkable simulacrum of a 17th-century Dutch genre painting). And ‘Livings 1’ is in itself a work of art that one could do worse than offer to anyone who observed, not without point, that our period has produced little at the level of Eliot, Yeats, Hardy: it is probably as good as any single short poem written by any of them.
The ‘philistinism’ of ‘Livings 1’ is central to the poem, not incidental; it is ‘principled’ in a full sense. The lines, spoken in the first person, define the life of a young commercial traveller who, inheriting his father’s business, in his faithful pursuit of it is staying the night at a small hotel, somewhere north-easterly or easterly, in a year that turns out to be 1929 (the first year of the great economic slump). He dines, he visits the Smoke Room – where the pictures are comic – and he walks around the square:
Later, the square is empty: a big sky
Drains down the estuary like the bed
Of a gold river, and the Customs House
Still has its office lit.
The slow, sleepy and cumulative ending of this pellucid poem (with its final Cavalcade-like declaration of date) can move a reader to tears. But its power depends neither quite on its magnificent image of an East Anglian evening, lit by half-symbolic meanings, nor on the pathos of the date: but on the slow-building pure factuality of the first two stanzas, and especially the first.
‘Livings 1’ has an extraordinary sense of place (I once asked Larkin if it were King’s Lynn, and the guess was confirmed). But the factuality is something other than just a sense of place: it is, rather, a sense of a life, and of life. The almost monosyllabic first stanza, describing arrival, dinner, newspaper, begins transparently with the self-introduction of the young businessman: ‘I deal with farmers, things like dips and feed.’ The much earlier ‘Arrivals, Departures’ from The Less Deceived presents the dawn arriver, the hopeful ‘traveller ... /His bag of samples knocking at his knees’. Amis, too, has an interest in this seediest of social figures, the commercial traveller, and makes his poet the man with ‘A Case of Samples’; and in one of the funniest incidents in Take a girl like you, the schoolmaster-hero tries to impress a formidably beautiful but mean and stupid whore by pretending to be an expense-account businessman, a dealer in such things as dips: ‘Goat dip. Horse dip. Pig dip. Donkey dip. Mule dip. Camel dip. Elephant dip ...’ After a pause for thought: ‘ “How could you dip an elephant?” she asked vigilantly. “An elephant’s too big to be dipped.” ’ What we get from the novelist Amis’s Classics master is a farcical poetic fantasy of the business life (‘You don’t actually dip him, you see ... you more sort of hose him’). It is the Larkin poem – in the first person, and without inverted commas – which takes the commercial traveller seriously; the depth of its factuality goes well beyond the novel. Traveller and poet here become one. The ‘philistine’ conditions, sufficiently loved, offer up an unused, fresh symbol of life in its workaday transience and in its moments, like the poem itself, of fugitive, wasted, inexplicable glory, as the sky shines on the river, and the light is on in the Customs House.
This beautiful and disturbing poem works because it is more than a conceit; it finds that ‘principle’ in philistine existence (‘things like dips and feed’) which makes poet and businessman together ‘think it’s worth while coming’ – a principle that makes a ‘living’ also a rectitude, as ‘the Customs House/Still has its office lit.’ In it, Larkin’s art goes beyond the clever skills of ‘Femmes Damnées’ or the fervent feelings (mostly self-absorbed) of The North Ship; it has become purely an art of what earlier periods used to call ‘invention’, a ‘finding of the subject’, a sense of the real that is also self-knowledge: knowing what the writer is here to write about. ‘Things like dips and feed’: the phrase itself half-ironically half-salutes that densely actual commonplace existence that all Larkin’s poems ‘invent’ as their subject. In the two ‘Toads’ poems, one to each of the earlier volumes, there is an element of the sardonic, an unrest in the presentation of the self as mere businessman (‘What else can I answer?’). But in ‘Livings 1’ and sustainedly throughout High Windows there is no ‘what else’: the condition becomes its own symbol, and is enough, or not enough.
I have stressed this art of ‘invention’. The peculiar nature of Larkin’s originality may become clearer in the light of an odd fact. I was browsing through a forgotten anthology picked up in some charity sale, and I came across a poem by the late Vivian de Sola Pinto, professor of English at Nottingham for many years. The anthology was titled England, and was put out by the English Association in 1946. The poem is called ‘In the Train’; it’s a pleasant though unremarkable little poem which would not have caught my attention but for the fact that it evidently caught Larkin’s attention very profoundly. The first two of its six stanzas go:
I am in a long train gliding through England,
Gliding past green fields and gentle grey willows,
Past huge dark elms and meadows full of butter-cups,
And old farms dreaming among mossy apple trees.
Now we are in a dingy town of small ugly houses
And tin advertisements of cocoa and Sunlight Soap,
Now we are in a dreary station built of coffee-coloured wood
Where barmaids in black stand in empty Refreshment Rooms,
And shabby old women sit on benches with suitcases ...
This artlessly ‘philistine’ poem furnished Larkin (almost certainly unconsciously) with a surprising quantity of his poetic materials for the rest of his writing career. Pinto’s rushing, scrambling account of a train journey North, itself dependent on Auden’s ‘Night Mail’, gave Larkin the phrase ‘tin advertisements of cocoa’ (see ‘MCMXIV’); half of another, in ‘Afternoon is fading’ (see ‘Afternoons’, which begins ‘Summer is fading’); more than one adapted image (‘Sunshine flashes on canals and then the rain comes,’ ‘In the murky Midlands where meadows grow more colourless’ – see ‘The Whitsun Weddings’); and, most of all, the figure of the train journey North as an image of commonplace Romantic experience.
Yet, as anyone who glances at Pinto’s poem realises, none of this matters at all – although it justifies Larkin’s generosity in his Twentieth-Century Verse to those almost-giftless poets who nourish the great community of writers. Pinto’s poem only provided details of ‘scenery’; it only suggested a journey. These reservations are required by the distinction between scenery and poetry. In High Windows Larkin is a poet ‘philistine’ and ‘business-like’ enough to write a whole poem about, and actually titled, ‘Money’: a fine and strange poem, not much noticed by critics, one that, uniquely starting from the arrival of a bank-statement (‘Quarterly, is it?’), contemplates a lifetime’s savings and listens to ‘money singing’. But money’s song, which tells of all the ordinary riches of life, falls on deaf ears; money becomes ‘a provincial town’ distantly looked down on from long French windows:
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
High Windows is a collection which may often still be thought of as celebrating, like the rest of Larkin’s work, a real and essentially commonplace England. Certainly the book creates a poetic territory which one could call, if one wants, entirely English, a Kingdom of Philistia. But this is an aesthetic and inward version of middle earth, imagined and rendered with an extraordinary self-consistency and autonomy of tone and texture, subject and ethos; and it is very much more original and much odder than it may sound. Its slums, its canal, its churches are ‘ornate and mad/In the evening sun’; and it is in more senses than one looked down on from high windows. That creative consciousness in Larkin which made Pinto’s poem about England part of the harvest of Philistia, has here mapped out a region that is something other than ‘celebrated’: a region peculiarly substantial yet, like all material things, full of void, the fabric of a dream. The exquisite seaside poem ‘To the Sea’ is full of darknesses, strange vacuities and echoes,
The distant bathers’ weak protesting trebles
Down at its edge ...
And in the similarly beautiful ‘Cut Grass’, the English summer itself is a long breath exhaled, a dying in ‘the white hours’.
Larkin’s invention of Philistia is best summarised simply by quoting a whole poem. The choice is large, and all are different; but here is one less familiar than some have become, ‘Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel’:
Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.
In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.
A sonnet of principled love for Philistia, a one-night hotel at best, the poem ends by seeing its subject as sole bastion of ancient empires but also infinitely fragile, dissolving into that Roman and pre-Roman night. An image of ‘home/(If home existed)’, the lines are alive with negation and paradox, light that ‘spreads darkly’, empty chairs that ‘face each other’ and yet are coloured differently, a dining-room that is ‘a larger loneliness’, corridors ‘shoeless’, a paper ‘unsold’. This is an England that Pinto’s train has hardly travelled to.
Larkin’s ‘Royal Station Hotel’ reaches back to some Dark Age of the imagination, where isolation is a fortress – the isolation, perhaps, of the life of reading and writing. Some small part of its intensity can be glossed in merely literary terms. Not too much should be made of the reading in ‘foreign poetry’ faithfully carried out by the very young Larkin in pursuit of Art. But I suspect that his verse never lost certain ghostly memories of a larger literary universe, which even helped him (paradoxically) to create his Philistia. The last lines here, with Larkin’s quiet transition to a vaster more primal world of exile, always bring to my inner ear a memory of the fact that Eliot’s ‘East Coker’, a poem similarly acquainted with ‘Chaos and old Night’, evokes dawn with an echo from Eliot’s own translation of Anabase, St-J. Perse’s Symbolist epic of ancient exile and huge nomadic wanderings: ‘out at sea the dawn wind/Wrinkles and slides.’ Something comparable happens at the end of the last fully characteristic poem Larkin wrote, ‘Aubade’. This starts philistinely enough with ‘I work all day, and get half drunk at night,’ moves through its confrontation of death, then ends wonderfully with its evocation of a new dawn. Somewhere within its rising rhythm at the end there stirs a memory of a famous poem that Larkin probably read when young, ‘Le Cimetière Marin’ by Valéry – with the unforgettable last stanza that begins: Le vent se lève ... il faut tenter de vivre. Some ironical ghost of that phrase moves within Larkin’s ‘Aubade’, as is hinted perhaps by its French title. An aubade was an ancient dawn-song of love; Larkin finishes with a grim yet loving evocation of the working day come back in its reality again, the ‘locked-up offices’ with the phones getting ready to ring, and all the ‘uncaring /Intricate rented world’ beginning to rouse:
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
The very great power of this ending has nothing to do with any French – or any other English – poet, though Larkin’s peculiar stoical modesty perhaps gains depth from comparisons with other traditions. ‘Work has to be done’ is a line that would surely weaken in any other language than English, but in English has a quite classic strength. And the final postmen (‘like doctors’) are purely Larkinian. Poems perhaps are ‘letters of exile’ too, carried by poet-postmen every day ‘from house to house’. The true density of this image shows how serious the ‘philistine’ art could be. In this sense, Larkin’s work not only ‘had to be done’, but was done.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.