Photo (c) Paris Review
Philip Larkin (1922-85)
Christopher Hitchens saw Larkin and George Orwell as embodiments of a certain type of Englishness. Both men loved the English countryside and feared for its future. Neither had any religious faith but both respected and learned a lot from the simplicity of Anglican prayers. When his collection The Whitsun Weddings (1964) appeared, fellow poet John Betjeman felt Larkin had “closed the gap between poetry and the public” with his down-to-earth, casual and often humorous style. Larkin and Orwell also admired English church architecture and furthermore both cherished the English affection for animals. In At Grass, Larkin writes of former champion horses in retirement; horses that were famous years before.
Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry
He wonders for a moment if “memories plague their ears like flies” but then observes they have “slipped their names, and stand at ease”. He is glad that they, at least, can enjoy their well-earned, care-free retirement, so the mood of the poem is human nostalgia for the passing of those old glories; those “classic Junes” of racing seasons past.
In MCMXIV the faded photograph is of an English crowd at the start of the Great War. The poem indicates colossal loss as he writes of the army recruitment lines having been like crowds gathered for sporting occasions at “the Oval or Villa Park”, uniquely, innocently
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark
The poem is packed with everyday details of the vanished world: the coins; the “tin advertisements”; the children named after royalty; the large number of domestic servants. They were all enveloped in hazy summer when the war began, when all these men signed up for the carnage.
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
A personal suspicion and fear of marriage features strongly in Larkin, even when writing of the excitement it can initially bring. The Whitsun Weddings title poem was inspired by a journey from Hull to London in 1955. Traditionally Whit Saturday was a popular choice of wedding day for the working class. A few years before his death, Larkin recalled the genesis of this, one of his most famous poems.
“I hadn’t realized that, of course, this was the train that all the wedding couples would get on and go to London for their honeymoon: it was an eye-opener to me… there was a sense of gathering emotional momentum. Every time you stopped, fresh emotion climbed aboard. And finally between Peterborough and London when you hurtle on, you felt the whole thing was being aimed like a bullet – at the heart of things… Incredible experience. I’ve never forgotten it… It was wonderful, a marvellous afternoon. It only needed writing down. Anybody could have done it.”
The poet vividly sets the scene in terms of touch, sight and smell as the journey begins, “all sense of being in a hurry gone”, giving us sensations like hot cushions, blinding windscreens and a smelly fish-dock. Industry breaks into the countryside, in the form of “floatings of industrial froth” on a canal and “acres of dismantled cars”.
It takes him a while to notice the fuss at the stations, mistaking it for “porters larking with the mails”, but he is soon leaning out the windows, to see the girls in “parodies of fashion”, the “mothers loud and fat”, and “an uncle shouting smut”. These are not rich people but Larkin does not despise them. He uses ambivalent phrases like “happy funeral” to describe the mixed feelings and tension among the female onlookers before turning to the “fresh couples” catching their breath aboard the train.
It speeds up for the last fifty minutes of the journey as the couples sit side by side and watch the passing landscape, all oblivious of the others sharing this same special, brief experience.
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
Though the poet later said he meant the last line of the poem to indicate fertility, to go with the postal districts of London “packed like squares of wheat”, many people have read the transformation into rain as a sad metaphor. Thus there are other aspects of Englishness in which Hitchens thought Orwell and Larkin also had a share. This was the world of bad food and watery drinks, drab and crowded accommodation, bad plumbing, long queues, poor hygiene, rain and uncultured ignorance.
For a man who knew such things yet never really engaged with life, not to mind entertaining the idea of an afterlife, Larkin had an excessive fear of death. Ambulances is a meditation on how near and random death still is (“They come to rest at any kerb:/All streets in time are visited”). Today people may see them as a positive intervention, preserving life, but, when the poem was written, in the Fifties, to be carried away in an ambulance was a very bad sign, when passers-by could be morbidly hypnotized by, for example
A wild white face that overtops
He links his personal and cultural obsessions again in Church Going, by which he means his habit of visiting churches. His comical English diffidence appears again at the very beginning. Only when he is sure there’s nothing going on does he step inside. He has no hat so he takes off his cycle-clips “in awkward reverence” before he moves to “the holy end” and gets up on the lectern, where he imitates a vicar. Back at the door, he signs the book and, in a cynical yet funny gesture, donates an Irish sixpence.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into…
He muses about who will be the last person to go to the church just because it is a church. Will it be someone like himself?
…yet tending to this cross of ground
… because it held…
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these –
So it actually pleases him to stand in silence there. He becomes a spokesman for all those who, lacking belief, nevertheless find some spiritual need satisfied by churches. “A serious house on serious earth it is”, where individuals can at the very least place their own lives in the context of the life and history of their tribe.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious
Larkin once told an interviewer, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” and he found much of his inspiration in the overcrowded, grubby society that he so much claimed to resent. After his death, the publication of his letters led to him being widely condemned as a misogynist and racist but, as Clive James has written, Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say awful things. Nonetheless he didn’t say them in his poems, which he thought of as a realm of responsibility in which he would have to answer for what he said forever.
In his last interview, Larkin recalled judging the final stages of a poetry competition. When he commented on the absence of any poems about love or nature, the organizers told him they had thrown all those away. “I expect,” said the disappointed and politely disapproving Larkin, “they were the ones I should have liked.”