Why aren’t they screaming?

Helen Vendler

  • BuyPhilip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth
    Bloomsbury, 532 pp, £25.00, August 2014, ISBN 978 1 4088 5166 1

Twenty years ago, Andrew Motion, one of Philip Larkin’s literary executors, wrote a scholarly and comprehensive authorised biography of the poet, whom he had known well; it was subtitled ‘A Writer’s Life’. Motion informed his readers that some important ingredients of Larkin’s life were still unavailable, especially most of the letters written to Monica Jones, a lecturer at the University of Leicester, who was his closest companion and lover, but never wife. The publication, in 2010, of Letters to Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite, changed the earlier impression of Larkin’s mind and personality, especially the early ‘scandalous’ picture derived from Thwaite’s edition of Larkin’s Selected Letters (1992). In his introduction to Letters to Monica, Thwaite counts up the lovers’ correspondence: ‘Between December 1946 and April 1984, Philip Larkin wrote to Monica Jones more than 1421 letters and 521 postcards: about 7500 surviving pages.’ (Larkin also generally wrote to his mother twice a week, but those letters remain unpublished; they might convey another aspect of Larkin the man, but from those quoted, a less interesting one.) And now James Booth, who teaches English at Hull, and has already written two books on the poet (Philip Larkin: Writer, 1992, and Philip Larkin: The Poet’s Plight, 2005), has composed a brief for the defence of Larkin the man (whom he knew slightly at the university) in a new biography tellingly subtitled ‘Life, Art and Love’. The first sentence reads: ‘Larkin is, by common consent, the best-loved British poet of the last century.’

The aim of Booth’s new biography is to demonstrate that those who knew Larkin personally admired and liked or loved him; that to take ideology as the starting point for literary criticism is mistaken; and that formalist criticism should play a role in a biography. Booth argues that the accounts of critics branding Larkin as racist, misogynist, right-wing and scurrilous fail to notice that Larkin tailored his letters to his correspondent, and that the undergraduate raillery between him and Kingsley Amis (which reads like a form of schoolboy obscenity) was perpetuated in adulthood to sustain the language of their intimate acquaintance at Oxford. The hundreds of letters to Monica in part confirm the tailoring: Larkin is candid and funny and affectionate in them (as well as sardonic, bitter and despairing). However, Motion demonstrated that Jones, as well as Larkin, found high enjoyment in obscenity and scatology; he described their defacing, in 1962 and later, of Iris Murdoch’s 1956 novel, The Flight from the Enchanter:

They began systematically defacing a copy, taking it in turns to interpolate salacious remarks and corrupt the text. Many apparently innocent sentences are merely underlined (‘Today it seemed likely to be especially hard’). Many more are altered (‘Her lips were parted and he had never seen her eyes so wide open’ becomes ‘Her legs were parted and he had never seen her cunt so wide open’) … They continued this precise but childishly naughty game for years … finally producing a bizarrely sustained performance: nearly three hundred pages, every one altered to create a stream of filth, farce and clumping ironies.

The book is now in the Philip Larkin Archive in the Brynmor Jones Library of the University of Hull. Booth doesn’t conceal its existence; in fact, he gives further examples of the literary vandalism. In short, Booth’s wish to show a more admirable Larkin doesn’t evade the counterevidence.

Booth, who knows the poetry well, uses up most of his introduction defending Larkin against those who criticised him as a person. Although most of the attacks were made decades ago, Larkin’s wounded supporters (including Booth in The Poet’s Plight) are still contending against them. John Osborne (director of American Studies at Hull) attempted to refute those denigrating Larkin on ideological grounds in his 2008 Larkin, Ideology and Critical Violence; his new book, Radical Larkin, fortified with literary theory, wishes to reclaim Larkin as a sophisticated poet of philosophical depth and ‘technical mastery’, not a transparently autobiographical writer.[*] Essays on Larkin have proliferated in journals and edited collections, but we lack a variety of impartial books focusing on the poetry itself.

With the appearance of new evidence from interviews and letters, it was inevitable that a new biography would be written. And in 2012 The Complete Poems – a richly annotated edition by Archie Burnett – was published, supplementing the additional information about Larkin’s life with a careful annotation of the poems, not only establishing dates but drawing attention to parallel passages in the prose and letters. (The arguments about what an edition of Larkin should look like will never die: should an edition preserve the famous independent volumes of poetry – The North Ship, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows – or should it print the poems in chronological order and include juvenilia and unpublished poems? Should the poems published but not included in volumes be separated from poems never published by the author? Burnett’s solutions can’t please everyone, but at least we now have a secure text with detailed notes.)

The trouble with a Larkin biography is that he had a quiet life: childhood, school, work as a university librarian, various women. Some who knew him as a librarian had no idea he wrote poetry: his work became known in literary circles only after the publication in 1955 of The Less Deceived, and he gained fame only towards the end of his life. There are next to no foreign travels, no participation in war (his poor sight disqualified him), no moving in youth or middle age to London’s bigger aesthetic context, no role in literary disputes (except the one generated by his eccentric selections for the 1973 Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse). He had one elder sister, no marriages, no children. It is a life consisting of hardworking administration, filial duty (which he did not always enjoy), a succession of affairs (more and less serious, for some years with three women at once), the publication of two unsuccessful novels, as well as two pseudonymously published novels about lesbian schoolgirl crushes, and many essays and reviews (the literary ones published in two volumes, Required Writings and More Requirements, and the jazz reviews in All What Jazz). But what he became famous for, the essential ingredient in the life, was his poetry. Because of the uneventfulness of the public life, the biographer is thrown back on the poetry for material, in Booth with mixed results.

While Motion’s handsomely written pages treated the poems both as undertakings in the life and as a record of moments in 20th-century English culture, Booth’s biography moves awkwardly into literary criticism, offering multiple instances of form and figuration in discussions of Larkin’s poetry. Since the poem is not reproduced on the page, the short quotations and mention of details often make for difficult reading, and the cross-references by title to earlier or later poems presume the reader’s recall. Too often, throughout Booth’s narrative, the biographical thread is lost for pages, and has to be resumed after the conclusion of paragraphs of literary commentary. It’s not easy to demonstrate the unhappy effect of this method without quoting at length. But here is a fairly short specimen. At this point in the biographical account Larkin’s mother has just been committed to a nursing home. Only a week later, Larkin writes ‘The Building’ (picturing a hospital not named in the poem, but corresponding, Booth says – after Motion, and disputing Burnett – to the Hull Royal Infirmary). Booth’s commentary on the poem occupies three full pages of rather fragmented remarks on diction, figures of speech, grammar, tone and allusion to other poets. I have made cuts to the excerpt, but they don’t alter the effect of Booth’s strangely disconnected observations of this and that:

But towards the end of the stanza the poet’s figurative nerve collapses: into flat description (‘The porters are scruffy’), superstitious circumlocution (‘not taxis’) and the gallows humour of zeugma (‘in the hall/As well as creepers hangs a frightening smell’). Prosy description follows … Then the tone becomes more detached and impersonal with the stumble of a loosely appositional noun phrase: ‘Humans, caught/On ground curiously neutral’ … Two crushing noun phrases rub in the point with the same repeated grammar and rhythm: ‘The end of choice, the last of hope’, an effect so Larkinesque as to border on self-parody. Poetic metaphor flickers back into life …

In stanzas six and seven metaphor stands on its head as the ‘real’, dull ordinary world takes on the glowing inaccessibility of a Grecian urn or mythical Byzantium: ‘Red brick, lagged pipes, and someone walking …/Out to the car park, free.’ Outside lies the gorgeous normality of traffic, terraced streets and, in an elegiac metonym of life as glamorous as anything in Keats or Yeats, ‘girls with hair-dos’ fetching their separates from the cleaners. This achingly poignant evocation of the loveliness of everyday things prompts an impassioned apostrophe.

For another full page Booth pursues in detail the rhyme scheme of ‘The Building’ before biography proper resumes with ‘Larkin was deeply affected by his mother’s loss of independence.’ It’s difficult to imagine the audience for such critical passages (in which Booth often cannibalises his treatment of the poems in The Poet’s Plight). The discrete effects cited aren’t synthesised into a whole. Perhaps Booth wants the reader to do the synthesising – but without the poem at hand or in one’s memory, that is hardly possible. Booth’s method of analysis throughout is to instance, in sequential order, the steps that a poem takes, without asking – especially when he finds the step a failure – why Larkin might have wanted to speak in just that way, or whether it suffices to venture that ‘the poet’s figurative nerve collapses.’ Booth’s book illustrates chiefly the difficulty of pursuing on parallel tracks two such disparate genres as biography and analysis, alternating the one with the other. And it further exhibits the ineffectiveness of truncated individual comments that don’t add up to a coherent reading.

But leaving method aside, to what extent does Booth’s book give us a new Larkin? There is a good deal one can’t change about the life itself as we have received it: the lonely childhood; the gifted but peculiar father, with his admiration of Germany and Nazism, dying at 63; the dominated mother, fixated on her unusual son; his childhood stutter; the owlish spectacles; the lack of good looks; the fear of girls; the finding of friends; the First at Oxford; the struggle to find a career; the drifting into librarianship; the 30-year life-unto-death at Hull; the successive and sometimes simultaneous affairs; the constant nightmarish dread of death; the companionship-but-never-marriage with Monica Jones; the late deafness; the death of the poet’s long-widowed mother; his own death at 63 of metastasised oesophageal cancer; his burial in a single coffin, as he had foretold. And in and around this immobile and straitened life, there is the writing – incessant in letters and prose even after the capacity to write poetry dried up and left him desolate. What is changed by Booth is chiefly a matter of emphasis: since the public popular affection for Larkin has favoured a less complex version of the poet, one more invested in pathos and consolation than in subversion, Booth insists on the ironic and ambiguous Larkin while granting the case for the lyrical one (usually with adjectives: ‘poignant’, ‘moving’). As Booth draws on the letters to Monica and interviews with former lovers, friends and colleagues, the private Larkin appears as a genial and amusing and loyal companion (against Motion’s more ‘grumpy’ and ‘grouchy’ subject). And indeed the letters to Monica do demonstrate Larkin’s charm, wit, affection and pained honesty. Nonetheless, Larkin himself judged these thousands of letters to women a waste of time. In ‘At 31, when some are rich’, he indicts letters that ‘plot no change’, issue in no proposals of marriage:

Why write them, then? Are they in fact
Just compromise,
Amiable residue when each denies
The other’s want? Or are they not so nice,
Stand-ins in each case simply for an act? …
I begin
Writing the envelope, and a bitter smoke
Of self-contempt, of boredom too, ascends.
What use is an endearment and a joke?

Given his bleak and scrupulous devotion to truth, and his visceral revulsion from social hypocrisy, Larkin would find ‘affirmation’ blasphemous. ‘Fiction and the Reading Public’ jeers at the reader who demands not only ‘something…/That’ll sound like real life’, but also something reassuring:

Whatever you’re ‘trying to express’
Let it be understood
That ‘somehow’ God plaits up the threads,
Makes ‘all for the best’,
That we may lie quiet in our beds
And not be ‘depressed’.

Larkin’s work has been rebuked on psychological grounds even by fellow poets who, instinctively, dislike his unrelenting atheism and pessimism. Resistance to his poetry, in poets who do not share his devastating candour, stems from a wish for some concession to a more heartening position. Seamus Heaney took exception to Larkin’s remark in ‘Aubade’ that ‘Death is no different whined at than withstood,’ and pointed at the defiance of Shakespearean characters in Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’ as evidence: facing death, ‘they … do not break up their lines to weep.’ Heaney quotes Milosz, who agrees with him: ‘For, after all, death in [“Aubade”] is endowed with the supreme authority of Law and universal necessity, while man is reduced to nothing, to a bundle of perceptions, or even less, to an interchangeable statistical unit. But poetry by its very essence has always been on the side of life.’ But there can be no rational argument on this plane: each poet founds his creed on deep and convincing emotional experience. It is for those who share Larkin’s convictions to defend him – not on the ground of logic but of their own similar assessment of life. Many people have smiled and shuddered when reading, in ‘This Be the Verse’: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’

Contemplating his own end, Larkin knew that his inability to choose, whether fated or neurotic, had stopped something inside him working properly, and, watching others grow into a settled life, he asks, in ‘Love Again’, ‘why it never worked for me.’ His answer to that puzzle has been much commented on:

Something to do with violence
A long way back, and wrong rewards,
And arrogant eternity.

The first part of the answer is familial, the second commercial, the third Platonic. Larkin understood the second – that he could not desire, vocationally, the usual worldly rewards – and he knew, with respect to the third, that the implacable idealism of ‘eternity’ spoiled any practical compromise. But the first answer to his life’s deviance – the trauma of ‘violence/A long way back’ – is forever lost in the chaos preceding the arrival of reflexive consciousness. Only with the total loss of consciousness (as he says in ‘The Winter Palace’) can he ‘manage/To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage’. When Kingsley Amis’s daughter Sally is born, the wish Larkin has for her is that she escape being marred (as he believed he had been) by something ‘uncustomary’ which, ‘unworkable itself,/Stops all the rest from working’. With great ingenuity he framed and reframed his bafflement with life. Therefore his style had to be impeccable: the reiterated intuition had to be renewed from within whenever it was uttered.

We look to the early writing to find the mistakes that Larkin will root out in pursuit of the epigrammatic and pointed later style, which, at its best, as all critics have noted, keeps an exquisite poise between savagery and ruefulness, between hilarity and truth-telling. From the beginning, he worked very energetically on technique, experimenting with all sorts of stanza forms and rhythms and varieties of rhyme. It isn’t surprising to find mimicry of Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas. But what really vitiates the earliest poems isn’t their mimicry but a lack of ruthlessness in the service of accuracy. The young poet tries biblical fancifulness (butterflies are ‘Priests of the golden sun, dancing because/the sun says to them: Dance, that ye/need no other day’); florid comparison (‘The sun was like a scimitar/In the hands of a dying Sultan’); bizarre self-images (‘[we are] merely husks of coiled ice-cream’). He tries tetrameter balladry, crossing Auden with Eliot in a style that wants to be cynical but is merely foolish:

Today we pace the sexual stones
     And coyish shrieks we cutely utter;
Sexual laughter rings along
     The cynic echo of the gutter.

Once in a while, however, a glimmer of the future can be seen, as when Larkin imagines (in an unfortunate mixed metaphor) ‘the mind taking off its gloves/Into nudity’. A valid programme, in theory, drawing perhaps on Yeats’s declaration that ‘there’s more enterprise/In walking naked.’ But how should ‘nudity’ sound when it is talking with its ungloved hands? What kind of bareness makes a bare style? Another glint of the future hovers promisingly when Larkin allows cartoon comedy to invade an early poem:

I have a feeling that I don’t like life;
But life likes me, and draws me near
Her shining teeth.

Larkin was already, at 19, aware of the difficulty of the act essential to his adult style, writing comedy into lyric:

The poet has a straight face
Otherwise he would be out of place.
Nothing like comedy
Can ever be admitted as poetry.

The admission of comedy into a scorching style would not be easy. The too-easy style of it can be seen in Larkin’s many satiric squibs in couplets and quatrains – funny but not deep:

See the Pope of Ulster stand,
Spiked shillelagh in each hand,
Vowing to uphold the Border,
Father, Son, and Orange Order.

The ruthlessness making for an authentic ‘naked’ style appeared as early as The North Ship, published when Larkin was only 23. There, in ‘Waiting for Breakfast’, he exposes the insoluble conflict between sex and art, wincing as he foresees his unnatural hybrid future self. As he chooses art over the girl, he asks his unnamed muse:

     Are you jealous of her?
Will you refuse to come till I have sent
Her terribly away, importantly live
Part invalid, part baby, and part saint?

On the part of a 23-year-old, this acidic fortune-telling is more than talented, and its lurid triple forecast eventually comes true: the invalid, the baby and the saint cohabited in the poet’s chronic alcoholism, chronic dependence on women and chronic pursuit of an absolute style.


In his asceticism of style Larkin brings to mind George Herbert, who could make a transcendent climax of ‘So I did sit and eat.’ How does a poet arrive at that degree of spareness? Yes, Larkin purged his art of what he called the ‘myth-kitty’ (both classical and Christian), but jettisoning Jove and Jehovah doesn’t create a new style. Nor does avoiding polysyllables necessarily make something memorable to the ear or to the mind. The dread of death that shadows Larkin’s mature poems appears in explicit form as early as 1947, in ‘And the wave sings’, but at this stage its single pointed moment (‘in the word death/There is nothing to grasp, nothing to catch or claim’ – a formulation reappearing in better form in ‘Aubade’) is swathed in a set of tedious pentameters fore and aft, their rhythms borrowed from Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Such are the sorrows that we search for meaning,
Such are the cries of birds across the waters,
Such are the mists the sun attacks at morning …
And the waves sing because they are moving.
And the waves sing above a cemetery of waters.

When we turn from verse like this to the best canonical poems, we see that Larkin has found a way to move out of Swinburnian abstractions about mists and morning into effective narratives about self and others. But the lines he constructs can seem artless, so devoid are they of the visible accoutrements of art. A comparison of prose and verse of similar content proves revealing. Larkin frequently repeats in letters his opposition to marriage and his choice of the ‘glittering loneliness’ of art; in 1946, he writes to his friend John Sutton: ‘It’s very easy to float along in a semi-submerged way, dissipating one’s talent for pleasing by amusing and being affectionate to the other … but I find, myself, that this letting-in of a second person spells death to perception and the desire to express, as well as the ability.’ That sentence, though it has structure, metaphor and rhetorical emphases, isn’t a poem. But Larkin’s fiercely minimal 1955 version of it is. ‘Counting’ austerely allows itself only small words; small lines (of two beats or three); small units (couplets); small rhymes (monosyllables, all but one); invariant and insistent appearances of the baleful word ‘one’; and – a tour de force – the tiny simultaneous appearance and disappearance of the wishful word ‘two’. A child could understand ‘Counting’:

Thinking in terms of one
Is easily done –
One room, one bed, one chair,
One person there,
Makes perfect sense; one set
Of wishes can be met,
One coffin filled.

But counting up to two
Is harder to do;
For one must be denied
Before it’s tried.

It’s only by looking for it that the art can be found: it hides itself in the sinisterly unpartnered and unrhymed line ‘One coffin filled’; in the way the ‘co’ of ‘coffin’ loops the word immediately to the next line’s ‘counting’ and to the ‘Counting’ of the title; in the magnetic antonymic attraction that clasps together ‘Thinking’ and ‘Counting’, and ‘easily’ and ‘harder’; and in the ineluctable logic of the final rhyme as ‘denied’ undoes ‘tried’ – and undoes it without even permitting the trying. Such little links – not omitting the white space between the one coffin and the stifled attempt at ‘two’ – give the sting of aesthetic fulfilment as the prose in the letter doesn’t.

Even in Larkin’s more extravagant triumphs, such as ‘Aubade’ and ‘The Old Fools’, the promise to the reader that the poem will be apparently artless is declared in the arrant ordinariness of the opening lines: ‘I work all day, and get half-drunk at night’ or ‘What do they think has happened, the old fools,/To make them like this?’ And the extravagance is attained, in ‘The Old Fools’ (as the poet contemplates the population of a nursing home), not by any recondite allusions or learned vocabulary but by the poem’s broad pentameters and its lengthy 12-line stanzas, all depending on the ‘simple’ repetition of parallel syntax.

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning?

After its amplitudes, every stanza flings a knife in its final words, mutilating the expected conclusive pentameter into two beats: ‘Why aren’t they screaming?’

An earlier version of the nursing home poem, ‘Heads in the Women’s Ward’ (written a week after Larkin’s mother had been doomed to one) ends in an over-neat little epigram: ‘Smiles are for youth. For old age come/Death’s terror and delirium.’ One can almost hear Larkin thinking: ‘This will never do.’ Yet he won’t use the emotionally flamboyant ‘Why aren’t they screaming?’ (or something like it) as a conclusion to ‘The Old Fools’: instead he makes his characteristic turn (with the final questions paralleling and echoing the opening ones) into a dry personal application of the horror:

     Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.

Larkin’s mutation of the cliché ‘second childhood’ into ‘the whole hideous inverted childhood’ is another sample of his almost tacit brilliance: ‘inverted’ brings with it not only the susurrus of ‘inversion’ but also his repudiation of the reassuring successive euphemisms of both ‘second’ and ‘childhood’. The abstraction of the persons in the nursing home into the anonymity of verse is Larkin’s usual way of making art without abandoning its felt link to life; and his querying inhabiting of the failing minds of the ‘old fools’ is what contributes terror to the poem. Booth mentions the link to the mother’s ‘final home’, quotes Larkin’s letter on the feelings represented in the poem, and comments sympathetically and at length, giving himself enough time to treat the whole poem. Even so, life and art aren’t easily yoked in a way fair to both: there is something repugnant in seeing ‘The Old Fools’ represented as Booth does. Mistakenly, I believe, he asserts that Larkin ‘reverts to awed jeering, mimicking the old fools’ witlessness: “Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power/Of choosing gone (‘Oh, ow, eeh, oo, ow, oo’).”’ I hear neither awe nor jeering in these lines. However, every remark about a poem stimulates more in its wake, and by dwelling on the poems as well as the life Booth will awaken readers to the complexity and weight of Larkin’s accomplishment.

When Larkin died in 1985, I had a phone call from John Clive, who was then teaching history at Harvard, asking if I’d take part in a commemorative evening, adding that I could read any poem I wanted. I said: ‘But what if some of us choose the same poem?’ ‘That will be fine,’ John replied, and the evening duly took place. What was eerie about the event was that each person’s choice (and there were no duplicates) was like an X-ray of the person. We had all, it seemed, found an accurate delineation of ourselves somewhere in Larkin’s pages.

[*] Radical Larkin: Seven Types of Technical Mastery by John Osborne (Palgrave, 304 pp., £50, March, 978 0 23 034824 0).