144. (Philip Larkin)

[COMPLETE VERSION.]  A chief complaint against Larkin is the insularity, his reaction to modernism that confuses an affirmation of Hardy’s special and lasting richness with a rejection of the internationalism that characterizes Pound and Eliot. It is the Larkin we see in a conversation with 1964 Ian Hamilton (collected in Further Requirements); asked “Do you read any foreign poetry,” the reply is stodgy and affected: “Foreign poetry! No!” At the most generous, Larkin’s emphasis on “foreign” might be a sly criticism of the insularity implicit in the question. Larkin was not oblivious to European literature; nor was his poetry impervious to it. For instance, a note to Larkin’s “Sympathy in White Major” (in the complete edition edited by Archie Burnett) adduces a poem by Gautier as a source of the title. But that generosity feels ill-awarded in light of the remainder of the interview, and in light of Larkin’s interviews, in which his list of favorite poets is solidly, some would say “stolidy,” “Little England”: Barnes, Christina Rossetti, Hardy, Stevie Smith, early Auden. Looking abroad, Larkin looks to the United States, and we find him praising Whitman, the Beats, Lowell, and Jarrell.

A second complaint, less widely but more passionately voice, concerns his relationship to his audience, and his English audience specifically. Donald Davie in a 1959 piece, “Remembering the Movement” (of which he, Larkin, and Thom Gunn were said to belong, without considering themselves to be a club) that seethes with self-recrimination as well as recrimination of others: “But it’s just there–in the relations with the public (not with this public or that one, but with ‘the reader’ in general, however conceived of)–that the Movement seems to me to be most instructive. I come back to my first point–it wasn’t so much that we addressed the wrong set of readers, as that we addressed any reader too humbly. We were self-deprecating, ingratiating. What we all shared to begin with was a hatred for writing considered as self-expression; but all we put in its place was writing as self-adjustment, a getting on the right terms with our reader (that is, with our society), a hitting on the right tone and attitude towards him.” And, developing his censure, not against “tone” in general, but against the judgments a circumscribed conception of it inspires, he continues: “Just consider how much of an okay word [to critics, in Britain especially] ‘tone’ is, and has been ever since I.A. Richards put it into general currency; and how difficult we find it to conceive of or approve any ‘tone’ that isn’t ironical, and ironical in a limited way, defensive and deprecating, a way of looking at ourselves and our pretensions, not a way of looking at the world.”

Geoffrey Hill picks up where Davie leaves off. First, in his essay “Dividing Legacies,” he objects to Eliot’s late poetry for its reliance on “tone” (as against what Hill calls “pitch”), asserting that “Eliot’s poetry declines over thirty years from pitch into tone,” and then claiming Larkin to be one of the “residual beneficiaries” of that poetry and its reliance on tone. The argument against Larkin is carried out in a lengthy end-note:

During his lifetime Larkin was granted endless credit by the bank of Opinion, and the rage which in some quarters greeted his posthumously published Letters was that of people consider themselves betrayed by one of their own kind. In fact Larkin betrayed no one, least of all himself. What he is seen to be in the letter he was and is in the poems. The notion of accessibility of his work acknowledged the ease with which readers could overlay it with transparencies of their own preference. Mill, who condescended to Wordsworth’s poetry, allowed it the major significance of reflecting Mill’s own love of mountains, thereby rescuing Mill from depression. Mill’s intellectual heirs (‘a person’s taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse’) found it convenient to suppose that Larkin’s peculiar concern as a poet was exactly conformable to their pursed opinions (‘human life as we know it’). The Waste Land, at its first appearance, could only be understood exegetically; that is its remaining strength. Four Quartets, from its existence as an entity, was granted the major significance of reflecting Anglican empathy…

Whether Hill had Davie in mind, I do not know, but they converge in their criticism, objecting to that “tone” which represents a compromise with the reader’s taste, a self-deprecation and ironic detachment from one’s utterances in order to have it both ways, to leave open to the reader to take the side that suits their perspectives (Empson, one might recall, was generous in understanding the need for such irony).

Though I disagree with Davie and Hill’s assessment of Larkin’s achievement, I believe they are responding to what is essential in that achievement. I am not alone: one of Larkin’s most eloquent admirers, Christopher Ricks, whom Hill targets alongside Larkin and late Eliot, has written movingly of Larkin’s reluctance to read poems aloud, finding that Larkin’s poetry lives in the possibilities of intonation that any single reading would preclude, or at least isolate. Pandering compromise, Hill and Davie say; magnanimous and finely calibrated ambivalence, says Ricks.

I believe the matter of tone and compromise to dovetail with the first complaint: against Larkin’s insularity. And I believe that seeing them together can shift us away from the nettlesome terms of “tone” (and “pitch”) and towards another field: that of possession and property, in its foundational sense of ‘belonging-to-the-self’ (as in the French “propre”). Larkin’s poetry remind us again and again that there is much in life that might easily be thought one’s own and cannot be; that there is much that we would share with others, or have shared by others, but cannot share; and some that remains one’s own, but remains inadequate to life.

Chief among the possessions, and that which is proper to the poet, are the sentences he speaks, the phrases he utters. One understanding of Larkin’s professed unease with the “foreign” is a dislike of pretension; in a view that I find warped, he seems to suggest that he ought to be true to himself by being true to the poets of his country, and that to proclaim wide, cosmopolitan reading would be to falsify himself, to arrogate as his own what is not properly his. Likewise, at least some of the self-deprecations and ironies of tone might be read as diagnostic acts of self-scrutiny, querying the extent to which a phrase, a view, or a way of saying and seeing the world could be his to possess. In the most radical experiments of Pound and Eliot, the need for a stable self, a single perspective, was abolished as a principle of poetry; the poem harbored the world’s voices. Larkin’s poetry often harbors a voice that he is not certain is his own; rather than compromise his voice, he finds himself compromised by it, unsure of whether he can lay claim to it.

I was first moved to the thought of property and Larkin by the unforgettable end of “Afternoons,” which I saw that I had been misquoting in my mind:


Their beauty has thickened.

Something is pushing them

To the side of their own lives.


The word I had been missing had been “own”: without it, the sense remains loosely the same, and the ‘point’ is received, but the whole structure of thought and feeling is altered by the word. The mothers in the park with their children remain in possession of the lives–the word insists that their lives still belong to them; but it suggests also that their possession is not absolute; that, though their lives are their own, to possess a life is not to fill it or to direct it; and also, most poignantly, it points to the sacrifice, to the sense that they have lent out, shared out, what remains their own; it might be that they would abnegate or surrender the title if they could, but the word, is a reminder that, though pushed to a side, they are trapped within those lives, if they to have life at all (that is of course a deepening preoccupation in Larkin’s poetry over time: the discomfort of days spent nearer to the edges of life, within the narrowing constraints of a life).

[Another potently redundant instance of “own” comes in Ambulances: “Poor soul | They whisper at their own distress.” Had “soul” been plural, “souls,” the “own” would clarify; here it magnifies, without precluding that possibility that the distress that is their own might be in part distress for another as well as for themselves.]

The same line of thought is travelled, albeit in another direction, in the closing stanza of the first poem in The Less Deceived, “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album”:


To wonder if you’d spot the theft

Of this one of you bathing; to condense,


In short, a past that no one now can share,

No matter whose your future; calm and dry,

It holds you like a heaven, and you lie

Unvariably lovely there,

Smaller and clearer as the years go by.


The thought of “theft,” of stealing the record of the past life, runs against the realization that her past, like any past, is one that “no one now can share | No matter whose your future.”At the most the poet would stake a claim to the present, sharing with it the poet’s thoughts of the past that cannot be shared; but that impermeability between her past and the poet’s voice is cause, in the end, for celebration, which somewhat brings to mind the Andrew Marvell poem, “The Picture of Little T.C. In a Prospect of Flowers,” cherishing what is un-variable (not “invariable”) in the picture, the former subject, complete in herself in the photograph: perfect self-possession in art as could not occur in life.

What art can possess of the subject it represents, and how it can be said to possess the subject it represents, so as to both invite and exclude us from claiming that subject as our own, is the subject of one of Larkin’s most famous poems, “An Arundel Tomb.” The opening stanza:


Side by side, their faces blurred,

The earl and countess lie in stone,

Their proper habits vaguely shown

As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,

And that faint hint of the absurd–

The little dogs under their feet.


“Proper habits” not only refers to the clothing that is suitable and decorous for the occasion, but the clothes that belong to them, and have, in the stone, become them. But they are only “vaguely shown” so that the affirmation of possession is countered by the viewer’s uncertain experience of it; that uncertainty is among its central subjects, as the poem questions whether what the speaker attributes to them is their own, or whether it was imposed on them by the sculptor; did they possess the love and faithfulness that the sculpture possesses in their stead? The final stanza erupts in ambiguities and ambivalences:


Time has transfigured them into

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be

Their final blazon, and to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love.


For Davie and Hill, the final two lines would represent Larkin’s desperate self-betraying compromise; for Ricks, in his fine essay on Larkin, the varying possibilities of stress in the final line witness several competing truths among which we need not choose. I hear in the culminating lines an uneasiness on Larkin’s part, unsure of what he is willing to say of the statue, unsure that is of what it is his to say. An “almost-instinct” does not need to be less reliable than instinct; it might be something that we have learned so deeply as to almost hold as an instinct. To be proven “almost true” does not mean to not be proven or proven false; it means that more truth remains or that some truth is contained before him. But the “almost” in both cases refuses to take full-hold of the assertions. Rather than a cop-out, though, Larkin’s uncertainty is a justified response to the uncertainty of the sculpture itself. It is not Larkin, but “they” who “hardly meant” to prove what they prove–“hardly” being a pun, two ways, both because the statue is hard as stone, and because it is difficult to know (“hard words”) what belongs to the statue, what belongs to its original. The scope of the problem is widened, finally, by the first-person plural, “our” and “us,” so that the poem claims not only for its speaker but for the undefined “us” of the speaker’s companions (in the church? on the page?) the almost truths he sees almost proven on the tomb.

Whether language becomes one, or is properly one’s own, perplexes the end of several poems by Larkin. From “Reasons for Attendance”:


. . . Therefore, I stay outside

Believing this; and they maul to and fro,

Believing that; and both are satisfied,

If no one has misjudged himself. Or lied.


“Or lied” places a distance, not ironic but suspicious, between the words and the poet; it does not, to me, compromise for a reader, but testifies instead to the poet’s compromise sense of what is his to say. Similarly, the ending of Mr. Bleaney (about a man who, we are told, took a “bit of garden properly in hand,” and held little else as his own) which refuses to do more than speculate on the thoughts that were Mr. Bleaney’s; these are, without question, the thoughts of the speaker, but it is not for his to know for sure whether they were those of the stranger who occupied the room previously:


But if he stood and watched the frigid wind

Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed

Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,

And shivered, without shaking off the dread


That how we live measures our own nature,

And at his age having no more to show

Than one hired box should make him pretty sure

He warranted no better, I don’t know.


Or in a poem suspicious of those who would seem not to live selfishly, a final doubt as to what the poet knows or thinks of himself:


But wait, not so fast:

Is there such a contrast?

He was out for his own ends

Not just pleasing his friends;


And if it was such a mistake

He still did it for his own sake,

Playing his own game.

So he and I are the same,


Only I’m a better hand

At knowing what I can stand

Without them sending a van–

Or I suppose I can.


(Self’s the Man) “Or I suppose I can” grinds grammatically, since it finds no clear parallel; the “can” looks back to “what I can stand” but “I suppose” would need another verb: “I suppose I know what I can stand,” perhaps. The effect, again, is to shake the poet from the certainty of his own propositions, without leaving the reader free to hear the tone he will, or let the poet off the hook of self-accusation.

The unease at saying for sure which of his words fit is paralleled in the unease in saying for sure which words others would say might fit. From “Sympathy in White Major” (“Whitest man” means “most honest man”):


While other people wore like clothes

The human beings in their days

I set myself to bring to those

Who thought I could the lost displays;

It didn’t work for them or me,

But all concerned were nearer thus

(Or so we thought) to all the fuss

Than if we’d missed it separately.


A decent chap, a real good sort,

Straight as a die, one of the best,

A brick, a trump, a proper sport,

Head and shoulders above the rest;

How many lives would have been duller

Had he not been here blow?

Here’s to the whitest man I know–

Though white is not my favourite colour.


Rather than disown the entire row of empty sentiments, he squirms against the last: “white is not my favorite color.” The irony here is squarely set against the poet who, being called honest, is nonetheless dishonest in objecting no more to praise that he knows to ring hollow–not on account of its being wrong, but on account of its being inherently empty.

And in two of the most famous lines, closing out two of the most famous poems, about words that are not entirely possessed or able to be possessed:


Words at once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.


(Talking in Bed)


Last year is dead, they seem to say,

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.


(The Trees)

To seem to say–is it to say? To whom do the words belong?

The words were not all that were left to Larkin, but in many the poems, they seem to be what is most his own, all the sadder when they are themselves only uncertainly his. It is not uncommon for his poems to take account, as in “Mr Bleaney,” or “I Remember, I Remember,” of what has been and what one still can call one’s own. From “Dockery and Son”:

…. To have no son, no wife,

No house or land still seemed quite natural.

Only a numbness registered the shock

Of finding out how much had gone of life,

How widely from the others. Dockery, now:

Only ninety, he must have taken stock

Of what he wanted, and been capable

Of… No, that’s not the difference: rather, how


Convinced he was he should be added to!

Why did he think adding meant increase?

To me it was dilution. Where do these

Innate assumptions come from? Not from what

We think truest, or most want to do:

Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style

Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,

Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got


And how we got it; looked back on, they rear

Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying

For Dockery a son, for me nothing,

Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.

Life is boredom first, then fear.

Whether or not we use it, it goes,

And leaves what something hidden from us chose,

And age, and then the only end of age.


A poem that takes stock and settles on the end with a stock of words–one of the stock that Larkin himself called truest. In an interview published in 1981, answering a question, Larkin first disposes of an earlier answer, and then turns to claim the end of these poems as a distinct possession in his body of work. First is John Haffenden’s question, then Larkin’s response.

Q: I think you’ve said that a writer must write the truth–presumably the truth of his experience.

A: I was probably lying. A more important thing I said was that every poem starts out as either true or beautiful. Then you try to make the true ones seem beautiful, and the beautiful ones true. I could go through my poems marking them as one or the other. ‘Send No Money’ is true. ‘Essential Beauty’ is beautiful. When I say beautiful, I mean the original idea seemed beautiful. When I say true, I mean something was grinding its knuckles in my neck and I though: God, I’ve got to say this somehow, I have to find words and I’ll make them as beautiful as possible. ‘Dockery and Son’: that’s a true one. It’s never reprinted in anthologies, but it’s as true as anything I’ve ever written–for me anyway.

“For me anyway”–a final disowning, after the owning up, a final mistrust as to whether calling it “as true as anything I’ve ever written” could be his to say. Then, prompted by a further question, Haffenden quoting the final four lines, he strengthens in his resolve: “They’re true.” It’s a harsh patronage that Larkin affords to the words that are his own.



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