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Recognizably Human: Larkin and the Sentimental

By (February 1, 2012) 2 Comments


In the annals of literary trivia, my favorite “Did you know” question is this: Did you know Philip Larkin once wrote a poem about a unicorn?

See for yourself. Open his Collected Poems—not to the hard-bitten, loveless, godless stuff (“Aubade” and “High Windows” and “They fuck you up, your mum and dad, / They may not mean to, but they do”), but to the earlier work. There it stands, in all its oddly erotic majesty, at the end of an untitled piece from Larkin’s first collection, The North Ship (1945):

…If I can keep against all argument
Such image of a snow-white unicorn,
Then as I pray it may for sanctuary
Descend at last to me,
And put into my hand its golden horn.

Other images in the volume include horsemen, crags, candle-flames, violins, and swans.

Plenty of poets change drastically as they develop, but few perform this kind of complete about-face. The Larkin who became a reluctant icon was famously irascible both in life and letters: “Poetry,” he once wrote, “is nobody’s business except the poet’s and everybody else can fuck off.” The Larkin who emerged in biographies had an even meaner streak; Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (1993) contains, among much other dished dirt, an account of the “increasingly bellicose,” increasingly racist politics of the aging poet. To his credit, Larkin kept this ugliness out of his published work, but the outlook of his poems remains savagely bleak. To find his younger self writing such dreamy Romantic stuff is like discovering that Walt Whitman started out by writing Swiftian satires.

And yet Larkin’s turnaround makes a strange kind of sense. In its total inversion of his mature sensibility, his early work reveals exactly how that sensibility arose. I don’t mean that The North Ship is simply phony, a medley of borrowed voices that the poet discarded once he found his own. On the contrary, beneath its thin veneer of imitation lies a remarkably clear window onto Larkin himself: the artless Larkin, the genuine Larkin (as in Oscar Wilde’s remark that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling”). Its naked sentimentality is what the poet spent the rest of his career covering up—sometimes elaborately, sometimes thinly, and often brilliantly.

The overwhelming influence on early Larkin was Yeats, whose spell he fell under at Oxford thanks to a visiting lecturer, Vernon Watkins. According to Larkin, “I spent the next three years [after meeting Watkins] trying to write like Yeats, not because I liked his personality or understood his ideas but out of infatuation with his music.” Certainly it’s from Yeats that Larkin cribs the ballad stanzas and sonorous intonations, as well as the pervasive mythological symbolism, of The North Ship.

But it was more than myth and music that won Larkin over. Despite his implied distaste for Yeats’ “personality” (due to its idealism? its vulnerability?), Yeats represented a model for him on the personal level, as a male poet writing constantly out of erotic disappointment. The specter of Maud Gonne turns up everywhere in The North Ship, whether as the lover in poem XXV, with whom the speaker has “worn down love” (an echo of the final stanzas of Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse”), or as the imagined snow queen of the title poem, who “will take no lovers / Till she winds me in her hair” (shades of “Brown Penny”). Even where no femme fatale is present, an oppressive atmosphere of loneliness inevitably is:

To pull the curtains back
And see the clouds flying—
How strange it is
For the heart to be loveless, and as cold as these.


We gather that for the young Larkin, deprivation was already (as he famously said) “what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” Yet this quip elides a nearer comparison: deprivation was for him exactly what it was for Yeats. Moreover, this aspect of Yeats’s work remained central to Larkin’s project, lingering as a template long after the unicorns were gone.

The defenses that Larkin would evolve against his sentimental instincts are already detectable in this first collection. In fact, the same poem that ends with a “snow-white unicorn” begins with a much more recognizably Larkinesque image: “I see a girl dragged by the wrists / Across a dazzling field of snow, / And there is nothing in me that resists.” Here we have an early version of the speaker of “A Study of Reading Habits”: a scrawny nebbish whose hatred of his own weakness manifests itself in imaginative complicity, even erotic fascination, with violence against women. Rather than purifying such nastiness through high-toned symbolism, post-North Ship Larkin will wallow in it, ruthlessly flagellating himself in the depths of “deprivation.” He’ll also begin to investigate, with much greater subtlety, that side of himself which actually gravitates toward loneliness. In other words, he’ll become “our” Larkin.

* * *

And yet even our Larkin sometimes regresses. In the uncollected late poem “The Mower,” a hedgehog dies and the poet mawkishly intones: “…we should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.” In a similar vein, “The Trees” (from High Windows) takes up one of the deadest subjects in poetry—budding spring trees:

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Ian McEwan has called the language here “almost Shakespearean”; to me it sounds more like Joyce Kilmer. Larkin’s fondness for the natural world is one of the elements that make his personality bearable—even sometimes endearing—but that doesn’t keep it from turning saccharine in the poems.

Sentimentality is less of a problem where his relations with human beings are concerned. One exception is the much-quoted final line of “An Arundel Tomb”: “What will survive of us is love.” Though many readers would vehemently disagree, I’ve never felt that the careful qualifications preceding this statement—“Proving our almost-instinct almost true”—redeem its basic sentimentality, or banality. (In general, I take issue with Larkin’s frequent strategy of conveying ambivalence through waffling words like “almost,” rather than embodying it through wordplay or irony.) Larkin’s characteristic precision of meter and rhyme undercuts his supposed ambivalence by making the end appear predetermined.

Of course, these are all unusual cases; no one would call the mature Larkin a greeting-card poet. His more characteristic flaw is a kind of anti-sentimentality that protests too much in the other direction. This is the Larkin of aggressive cynicism, of pointed vulgarity. He can be very funny in this mode, but he can also be more disingenuous than the pseudo-Yeats of The North Ship, who at least displayed real vulnerability. “Self’s the Man” is a representative example:

He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she’s there all day,

And the money he gets for wasting his life on work
She takes as her perk
To pay for the kiddies’ clobber and the drier
And the electric fire…

…Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.

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 bringing a van—
Or I suppose I can.

The gruff humor of phrases like “kiddies’ clobber” and “bringing a van” holds too much at arm’s length; it begins to sound like bluster. Again, the speaker’s ambivalence—which arrives toward the end, on cue—is evoked through stagey self-questioning (“Is there such a contrast?”) and waffle words (“I suppose”). Yeats distinguished between the “quarrel with others,” out of which we make rhetoric, and the “quarrel with ourselves,” out of which we make poetry; here the situation is a quarrel with the self, but the style is so rhetorical as to be glib.

Even the acid wit of “This Be the Verse” shares with the sentimental early lyrics an unsettling certainty. Apart from the phrase “They fill you with the faults they had, / And add some extra, just for you,” there’s not a single irony in the poem. Perhaps recognizing as much, Larkin keeps his “verse” short, but the ending (“Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself”) still feels anticlimactic and a little overbearing. A mock sermon is still a sermon.

Similar flaws weaken several of the late poems about death, including “Aubade.” I’m not a believer in life after death, but somehow I find “Aubade” more comforting on this score than any devotional poem ever could be, by virtue of its suspicious self-assurance in making all the “right” arguments. That’s not to deny its merits; its formal mastery is unquestionable and its best lines are unforgettable:

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never…

….Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

At the same time, I can’t think of a great poem more lacking in Keatsian negative capability; “irritabl[y] reaching after fact & reason” is exactly what it does, to the point of refuting old philosopher’s chestnuts:

…And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel
, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell…

From the beginning, too, “Aubade” lays the anti-sentimentality on thick: “I work all day, and get half drunk at night.” The final image (“Postmen like doctors go from house to house”) shows elegant restraint, but the poem as a whole compares unfavorably to something like Emily Dickinson’s “This World is not Conclusion,” which balances its own mockery of religious ideas (“Much Gesture, from the Pulpit—”) with a refusal to peddle certainties about the one thing we can never be fully certain about.

So much for the sentimental and the anti-sentimental Larkin. It’s difficult to generalize as to how he avoids these extremes, when he does; his successes vary considerably. Sometimes, as in “The Whitsun Weddings,” he steers a middle course by remaining an unobtrusive observer. I can’t help thinking that any Larkin poem about a wedding to which he had some personal connection would have incorporated nasty jabs at bride, groom, and himself alike. Instead “Whitsun” finds him watching strangers’ celebrations from a train window, and this sense of detached intimacy allows him to report rather than editorialize. Atypically for Larkin, the poem both begins and ends on a note of absolute ambiguity. The seemingly casual first line (“That Whitsun, I was late getting away”) implies a weekend escape, but from what and to what, we don’t know. The final lines are densely symbolic, evoking fertility, aggression, elation, melancholy, and sexual release in one concise image:

We slowed again,
And as the tighened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Throughout the stanzas between, the speaker remains unusually reserved in passing judgment on the figures he sees, while providing enough comic detail (the “uncle shouting smut,” etc.) to keep them recognizably human. The use of “we” throughout the closing movement is, by Larkin standards, an extraordinary moment of connection, yet he doesn’t exactly bear-hug mankind: he can’t and won’t be any more than a quiet witness to his fellow passengers aboard the “frail travelling coincidence” of the train.

In other poems, sheer musicality alleviates what would be gross sentimentalism in other hands. This is particularly true of Larkin’s flights of English nostalgia:

And that will be England gone:
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs…

[“Going, Going”]

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word…


He is careful, however, to take these songlike flights only in the context of apocalyptic elegies (another example is “Church Going”). He will not permit himself a celebration of country or culture that isn’t also a dirge.

Finally there are poems, like the uncollected “Love Again,” in which Larkin fuses vulgarity so closely with intense lyricism as to produce a genuinely unsettling effect. A very late piece, “Love Again” finds the poet in a situation familiar from “Aubade”: alone in the dark after a night of drinking. Humiliatingly, he is “wanking at ten past three” to the thought of a lover who (he imagines) has gone home with someone else:

Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt,
Someone else drowned in that lash-wide stare,
And me supposed to be ignorant,
Or find it funny, or not to care…

The first two lines of that quatrain are as powerful a mix of low and high diction as any in English poetry; they are a shock effect in the best sense. The poem’s larger contrast between content and form—it is a howl of jealousy and rage, kept utterly controlled as between clenched teeth—would have pleased Yeats. In a way Larkin has never progressed beyond “Dawn”: he is still awake in the wee hours, still as “loveless” and melancholy as the poet of The North Ship. He hasn’t stopped plundering Yeats’s subject matter, either: he’s as sick with desire and old age as the speaker of “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yet his voice and stance have become totally his own—and far bleaker than his predecessor’s. He speaks as an ordinary man, not a poet (much less a prophet), disclaiming any final understanding of his past or future:

The drink gone dead, without showing how
To meet tomorrow, and afterwards,
And the usual pain, like dysentery.


…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.

That “why put it into words?” is no rhetorical trick. As one of the last complete poems Larkin left behind, “Love Again” amounts to a final denial of poetry’s ability to save us. He entertains no illusions about artistic immortality; he will not be sailing with Yeats to Byzantium. Pugnacious to the end, his only consolation is his contempt for death, which he refuses to grant any more dignity than he grants himself.

On the evidence of biography, Larkin was a man whose sentiments—personal and political as well as poetic—tended toward extremes. His alternate warnings to “get out as early as you can” from the business of mankind and to “be kind / While there is still time” were twin sides of the same psychological coin. This may be why his ambivalence often seems more gestured toward than felt. And yet whenever he carries it through, he succeeds wonderfully: “The Whitsun Weddings,” “Love Again,” “High Windows,” and a handful of other lyrics all end in a perfect nowhere of baffled passion. Larkin may have killed off the unicorn early, but his sense of the unknowable remained alive to the end.

Austin Allen is a freelancer, teacher, and MFA student living in Baltimore.