Phil the Lark

Ian Hamilton

Philip Larkin, we are told, left instructions in his will that certain of his writings had to be destroyed, unread. His executors obeyed: the word is that several of the poet’s notebooks, or journals, are now ashes. Did Larkin expect to be so obeyed? Or did he imagine that perhaps someone, somehow, might take a peek at the material before it reached the flames? And if such a thought did cross his mind, why didn’t he destroy the stuff himself? He must have known that, by not doing so, he was bequeathing at least the possibility of a dilemma. But then some of his most moving poems contrive a subtle, unsettlable dispute between revelation and concealment. There is a wanting-to-be-known that can desolate or undermine our self-sufficiency.

And now, it seems, there are things about Philip Larkin that we’ll never know. So what? Well, put it like this, the loss can be made to sound not at all what Larkin, as we know him from the poems, would have wholly wished. But then again, who knows? After all, those now-incinerated notebooks might have been full of household accounts or noughts and crosses: the instruction to destroy them a librarian’s last, bleakest joke. Throw these away and you are doomed to imagine that my life was not really as boring as I always used to say it was. Having something to hide is generally reckoned to be better than having nothing to show, he might have thought.

There are no explicit instructions in Larkin’s will concerning the publication or re-publication of his poems. He seems not to have minded the idea of having his most early work exhumed. Nor did he leave any advice about what ought to happen to the various unfinished pieces he would leave behind. We can assume, therefore, that he must have envisaged a Collected Poems rather like the one we’ve now been given: a volume that adds something like eighty poems to his lifetime’s known tally. This is a hefty addition, since the poems we already know him by and most admire total a mere 85. I’m thinking here of the poems collected in The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows. So his ‘output’ has been almost doubled. (I say ‘almost’ because The North Ship, reprinted ‘with considerable hesitation’ in 1966 and offered more as a curiosity than to be admired, adds another 30 titles to the list.) What it all boils down to, or up to, is that Larkin the thrifty now has a Collected Poems of substantial bulk.

Ought we to think, though, as he generally did not, that adding means increase? Kilograms aside, the plumpened Larkin oeuvre does not carry a great deal of extra weight. On the contrary, a poet whom we value for his sparingness, for not out-putting work that he wasn’t ‘pretty sure’ amounted to the best that he could do, is now to be seen as somewhat cluttered with botch-ups, immaturities and fragments. It’s as if this most bachelor of poets had suddenly acquired a slightly messy family life.

Apparently, it could have been messier. Anthony Thwaite has decided not to include various squibs and limericks (these will appear later on in Larkin’s Letters), and has also ruled against certain of Larkin’s unfinished pieces; he mentions an ‘attempt at a long poem called “The Duration” ... which takes up 15 pages of drafts between April and June 1969; and what was apparently his final struggle with a substantial poem, “Letters to my Mind”, drafted in October and November 1979’. I am not sure that these items don’t sound to be more interesting than some of the bits and pieces Thwaite has chosen to include. But then, ought we to have any ‘fragments’ at all in an edition of this sort? And if we do have them, ought they not to be herded off into a section of their own? This was Eliot’s method, and it might have been Larkin’s if he’d had the choice and if – a big if – he had thought as highly of his own ‘The Dance’ fragment as Eliot did of Sweeney Agonistes.

Was there not a case, in Larkin’s case, for two Collected volumes: the first a one-volume reprint of the three grown-up, finished books plus the handful of poems he completed after publishing High Windows (these, of course, would include the marvellous ‘Aubade’); the second, a mop-up of juvenilia, fragments, occasional light verse, even limericks and squibs? Thwaite’s edition does divide itself in two, with mature Larkin at the front of the book and learner Larkin at the rear, but it makes no other formal separation between the poems Larkin passed for press and those which, for one reason or another, he hadn’t wished to see in print.

I find this a bit disconcerting. The beauty of Larkin’s three grown-up books, or one of their beauties, is that you can open them at any page and find something that only Larkin could have written. And even his most lightweight pieces are consummately ‘finished’ – there is nothing slovenly or make-weight or derivative. With this Collected Poems, there is an almost fifty-fifty chance that ‘any page’ will reveal lines which you’d swear could not possibly have sprung from Larkin’s pen.

                 I declare
Two lineages electrify the air
That will like pennons from a mast
Fly over sleep and life and death
Till sun is powerless to decoy
A single seed above the earth:
Lineage of sorrow; lineage of joy ...

The next line does not, alas, read: ‘Going well so far, eh?’ In fact, there are about fifty similarly exalted lines to go before the thing finally deflates:

             Joy has no cause
Though cut to pieces with a knife,
Cannot keep silence. What else could magnetise
Our drudging, hypocritical, ecstatic life?

This poem, entitled ‘Many famous feet have trod’, was written in October 1946, and thus earns its place among the ‘mature’ work. 1946 is the year in which Anthony Thwaite believes Larkin’s ‘distinctive voice’ can first be heard. So it can, in the poems ‘Going’ and ‘Wedding Wind’, which we already know. In the other 1946 poems printed here, we have to strain to pick it up, in odd lines, now and then; and in ‘Many famous feet ...’ I’m afraid I can hear no trace of it at all. Larkin used to chuckle that he of all people had once written a never-published volume called In the Grip of Light. I’m inclined to think that the chuckle was intended to cover those ‘pennons from a mast’, that ‘lineage of joy’.

1946 was in fact the year in which Larkin read Thomas Hardy’s ‘Thoughts of Phena’ and experienced a literary conversion, ‘complete and permanent’. Hardy rescued him from Yeats, just as Yeats – three years earlier – had captured him from Auden. Under the Hardy regime, he was indeed able to find his own distinctive voice, but the Yeats and Auden periods offer almost nothing in the way of even potential Larkinesque. To peruse the eighty or so pages of juvenilia that are reprinted here is to discover scant line-by-line poetic ‘promise’. Anthony Thwaite finds Larkin’s Auden poems ‘astonishing and precocious’ and they are, to be sure, pretty good going for a kid of 17. But they are also fairly stiff and dull, and, because of their enslavement to the icy Master, we have no way of guessing what their author might or might not do should he ever manage to break free: it could be everything or nothing. Larkin himself, writing of these poems at the time, said: ‘As for their literary interest, I think that almost any single line by Auden would be worth more than the whole lot put together.’ Now there we do hear the later man’s distinctive voice, and that was in 1941.

The sheer bulk of Larkin’s juvenilia might seem irksome when presented as part of a Collected Poems, but biographically the bulk does matter quite a lot. This juvenilia period, 1938-46, would be later looked back on as a lost idyll of aliveness and fertility. By the age of 24, Larkin had written two books of poems – The North Ship and In the Grip of Light – and two novels – Jill and A Girl in Winter. Three of these books were published, but none of them had made much of a splash. In 1947 and 1948 he seems to have written almost nothing, and when the poetry does start up again in 1949 it is a poetry of failure, loss, rejection. In ‘On Being 26’, the poet regrets the flagging of his ‘pristine drive’, the withdrawal of ‘Talent, felicity’, and is bitter about having now to settle for something ‘dingier’ and ‘second best’:

Fabric of fallen minarets is trash.
    And in the ash

Of what has pleased and passed
    Is now no more
Than struts of greed, a last
Charred smile, a clawed
Crustacean hatred, blackened pride – of such
    I once made much.

Thus burnt-out, and ‘clay-thick with misery’, the poet falls silent yet again. There is nothing between May 1949 and January 1950. In this month, Larkin’s first really spectacular development takes place. In ‘At Grass’ the theme is still to do with ‘what has pleased and passed’, but the subject is thoroughly out there: retired racehorses perhaps plagued by memories of esrtwhile triumphs. In the next few months, we have ‘If, My Darling’, ‘Wants’, ‘No Road’ and ‘Absences’. Within a year, the clay-thick self-pity of 1949 has become lighter, wiser, more sardonic:

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say.

It’s an extraordinary falling-into-place, and the month-by-month dating of the poems gives the whole business a certain narrative excitement: although we will have to wait for Andrew Motion’s biography to tell us what happened, or didn’t happen, in 1947-8.

Throughout the book, the precise dating of the poems (meticulously recorded in the poet’s worksheets) can evoke a sort of mini-tale: we learn, for instance, that January is a strong month for Larkin poems but that July is almost always a complete write-off, that ‘Home is so sad’ was composed on New Year’s Eve, that the anti-marriage poem ‘Self’s the Man’ immediately follows ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and was completed on Guy Fawkes Day, and that in one month (January 1954) Larkin wrote ‘Reasons for Attendance’, ‘I remember, I remember’, ‘For Sidney Bechet’, ‘Born Yesterday’ and ‘Poetry of Departures’.

Although I have grumbled about Thwaite not separating the unfinished pieces from the finished, there is undeniably a drama in observing that straight after finishing the expansive ‘Dockery and Son’ (just in time, one guesses, for it to be included in the Whitsun Weddings book), Larkin spent over a year grappling with a longish narrative poem, to be called ‘The Dance’. The wish, evidently, was to build on the ‘Dockery’ model, to combine narrative relaxation with verse-strictness, but Larkin seems to have discovered that relaxation, for him, usually means a drift towards light verse, or over-surly self-parody – not at all what he wanted for this essentially angry and distressed love poem:

                      In the slug
And snarl of music, under cover of
A few permitted movements, you suggest
A whole consenting language, that my chest
Quickens and tightens at, descrying love –
Something acutely local, me
As I am now, and you as you are now,
And now; something acutely transitory
The slightest impulse could deflect to how
We act eternally.
Why not snatch it? Your fingers tighten, tug,
Then slacken altogether I am caught
By some shoptalking shit who leads me off
To supper and his bearded wife, to stand
Bemused and coffee-holding while the band
Restarts off-stage, and they in tempo scoff
Small things I couldn’t look at, rent
By wondering who has got you now ...

The very awkwardness reminds us how many of Larkin’s best effects depend upon him sounding both superior and vulnerable, unloving and in need of love. It’s a difficult balancing-act, breathtaking when it works; when it doesn’t, he can veer uneasily between the boorish and the sentimental. ‘The Dance’ was, it seems, en route to failure, and Larkin was probably right not to persist with it, but there is a memorable painfulness in watching him trying to wrench this exposed and ambitious poem into shape.

Since ‘Aubade’ in 1977, Larkin published only four poems – two rather charming birthday poems (one for Gavin Ewart, the other for Charles Causley), a poem about a dead hedgehog, and a couple of stanzas specially written for a Poetry Review special number on poetry and drink. After his death in 1985, a handful of unpublished poems was found. The strongest of these are desperately miserable, indeed inconsolable, as if Larkin had grown weary of trying to fathom ‘whatever it is that is doing the damage’. The last poem of any weight was written in 1979 and it isn’t easy to read, if you care at all about what happened to this awesome yet companionable poet. But unhappily it does help to explain the six-year silence:

Love again: wanking at ten past three
(Surely he’s taken her home by now),
The bedroom hot as a bakery,
The drink gone dead, without showing how
To meet tomorrow, and afterwards,
And the usual pain, like dysentery.
Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt,
Someone else drowned in mat lash-wide stare,
And me supposed to be ignorant,
Or find it funny, or not to care,
Even ... but why put it into words?
Isolate rather this element

That spreads through other lives like a tree
And sways them on in a sort of sense
And say why it never worked for me.
Something to do with violence
A long way back, and wrong rewards,
And arrogant eternity.