Books May 2011

Philip Larkin, the Impossible Man

How the most exasperating of poets met his match

And this returns us to the luckless Monica, whose possibly Aspergerish manners he strove in vain to correct. “I do want to urge you, with all love & kindness, to think about how much you say & how you say it …” Deploying—in a different but surely conscious declension—the most deadly word in the English vernacular, he warned her: “You’re getting a habit of boring your face up or round into the features of your listener.” That was in 1952, with almost 30 years of on-again, off-again stretching still before the pair of them. But he must have caught something of value in her opinions, because he took seriously her part-grammatical objection to line four of the closing stanza of “Church Going,” which is today perhaps his best-loved poem. Ought it to have been “And so much never can be obsolete,” instead of “that much”? Look and see. Even if, like me, you cannot imagine changing a word, you notice that she was a shrewd and attentive reader. (Here might be the place to say that Anthony Thwaite’s meticulous footnoting and cross-­referencing have made this book much more capacious and lively than it might have been, as well as affording us a unique view of some of Larkin’s most lapidary poems when they were still fluid and in formation.)

Rising above the low-level rancor and tedium that can make the scrutiny of private anomie so lowering to the spirit, Letters to Monica obliquely shows the civilizing effect that even the most trying woman can exert on even the most impossible man. With the exception of the occasional rather weak joke in passing, Larkin respected Miss Jones too much, it seems, to try any of his vulgar prejudices or cheaper doggerel on her. Most impressive of all, I found, was that even his anti-libidinous propaganda could yield its warm and poetic aspect. Take this stern epistle from 1951:

I think—though of course I am all for free love, advanced schools, & so on—someone might do a little research on some of the inherent qualities of sex—its cruelty, its bullyingness, for instance. It seems to me that bending someone else to your will is the very stuff of sex, by force or neglect if you are male, by spitefulness or nagging or scenes if you are female. And what’s more, both sides would sooner have it that way than not at all. I wouldn’t.

Such an ostensibly repressive and limited view, with its unimaginative image of “both sides,” had been given the most starkly beautiful expression by a poem that Larkin wrote the preceding year. “Deceptions,” suggested by a harrowing anecdote of forced prostitution from Henry Mayhew’s history of the London poor, implicitly vindicated the ruined female victim by pleading indirectly that her foul client was also a pathetic loser and that she, the innocent sufferer, might even turn out to have been “the less deceived.” He by no means omitted to picture the raw, latent violence of her own trauma. (“All the unhurried day / Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.”) Gem-hard, it is also an immediately striking piece of imaginative sympathy. Reviewing it, D. J. Enright gave Larkin a rare moment of (almost) unmixed pleasure by saying, as Larkin proudly reported to Monica, that “I persuade words into being poetry & don’t bully them.” A critic could not have approached more nearly to the core of Larkin’s gift.

It is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold, and the contrast in Larkin’s case is a specially acute one. Having quit Belfast, he removed himself forever to Hull, a rugged coastal city facing toward Scandinavia that, even if it was once represented in Parliament by Andrew Marvell, in point of warmth and amenity runs Belfast a pretty close second. Here he brooded biliously and even spitefully on his lack of privacy, the success of his happier friends Amis and Conquest, the decline of standards at the university he served, the general bloodiness of pub lunches and academ­ic sherry parties, the frumpy manipulativeness of women­folk, and the petrifying imminence of death. (Might one say that Hull was other people?) He may have taken a sidelong swipe at the daffodils, but he did evolve his own sour strain and syncopation of Words­worth’s “still, sad music of humanity.” And without that synthesis of gloom and angst, we could never have had his “Aubade,” a waking meditation on extinction that unstrenuously contrives a tense, brilliant counter­poise between the stoic philosophies of Lucretius and David Hume, and his own frank terror of oblivion. Many of Larkin’s expeditions to churches were in fact an excuse to visit cemeteries or memorials, in spite of his repudiation of the fantasy of immortality, and with another of the finest poetic results of these—“An Arundel Tomb”—it turns out he had taken Monica along as a companion and later accepted some of her thoughtful proposals concerning its final form. We might agree to find it heartening that, in consequence of a dead-average middle-English Sunday stroll, as the other half of an almost passionless relationship, Philip Larkin should notice the awkwardly conjoined couple on an ancient stone coffin lid and, without forcing, let alone bullying, the language, still tentatively be able to find:

Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In