The Last Romantic

John Bayley

  • Philip Larkin by Andrew Motion
    Methuen, 96 pp, £1.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 416 32270 0

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.

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