The Saddest Englishman

COLLECTED POEMS by Philip Larkin, edited and with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite. Farrar Straus & Giroux, $19.95.
PHILIP LARKIN, perhaps the finest English poet of his generation, died in 1985 at the age of sixty-three, leaving behind him a legion of frustrated admirers. This sardonic, lonely, despondent artist was unique among the English poets after Auden in his power to reach across national boundaries; but after he first attracted a following with his 1955 collection, The Less Deceived, he produced only two more collections in thirty years, The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). What Larkin’s long-awaited Collected Poems reveals is that after 1974 his poetry seems to have surrendered to despair and silence: Anthony Thwaite has found fewer than twenty poems, mainly unpublished, to speak for those last eleven years.
But this book does a tremendous service. Thwaite has carefully arranged all of Larkin’s mature poetry in order of its completion, and he has relegated youthful and apprentice work to a separate section, which amply proves that nothing worthwhile is being hidden from us. Thus the reader shares an almost biographical journey through the heartening rise and depressing fall of a writing life. Born in 1922 in Coventry, Larkin showed great precocity as a teenage poet, his muse vibrating to the echoes of Auden. At Oxford, during the Second World War, he was introduced to the work of Yeats by the poet Vernon Watkins, and he embraced it in dozens of imitations. After Oxford, Larkin spent most of his mature life in the ancient but foundering fishing port of Hull, in Yorkshire, where he served as university librarian and where he died. He was unusual among English poets in that he lived out his days in secondary cities, neither dallying in London nor spending any lengthy period of time in the countryside.
However despondent Larkin ultimately became, his poetry, in Thwaite’s exemplary edition, reveals a youth that began in Wordsworthian gladness, in “a dream of sea and hay.” Those increasingly rare poetic passages that deal with the satisfied senses seem always to evoke grass and the sea. But when Larkin’s work ripened, after Oxford, he emerged as the most polished of craftsmen, the most inhibited of personalities, the wittiest of self-depreciators. Yet Larkin discovered disappointment over and over again with an air of ghastly triumph.
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out
on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the
breathless stair
To burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic.
Once Larkin’s Oxford phase was over, words like failure and loss began to steal into his poetry like recidivist thieves. Failure gradually wound its way, obsessively, into a desolate counterpoint to images of the sea and the fields. The early work, expressing a time when meadow, grove, and stream called out to the poet, began to give way under the pain of some “obscure hurt” like that which afflicted Henry James and which, Larkin’s poems intimate, arose from some sexual rebuff. A long poem, “The Dance,” never finished, and published here for the first time, seems destined to get to the crux of the matter, but it breaks off in mid-sentence; other poems make mock of his frustrations:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
In mid-career Larkin seems to have written with relative copiousness, though spurts of creativity alternated with periods of dormancy. At this stage his work increasingly declared its debt to the poems of Thomas Hardy: formal yet demotic, earthy, aware of society’s discontents, ironic, though Larkin’s work leans toward self-castigation where Hardy would have taken the road leading to grief and regret. Glimpses of the unfulfilled, distant love appear (“Leaving me desperate to pick out / Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding”) but are shoved aside by animadversions on the decline of England, whether in looking back to 1914 (“Never such innocence, / Never before or since”) or, in “Homage to a Government,” complaining that ‟Next year we shall be living in a country / That brought its soldiers home for lack of money,” or expressing sardonic outrage at the state of the culture (“Don’t read much now:. Get stewed: / Books are a load of crap”). Death becomes a second obsession, and age; in one poem, “The View,” Larkin seems to be announcing his finish at fifty, even though at fifty Hardy in his poetry was just getting up steam.
At the bottom of this wonderful poet’s imagination, however, lies the dominant twentieth-century British vision, one of nostalgia for a glorious past (splendor in the grass) combined with a sour selfcriticism:
Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.

It is tragic to read through the exquisitely wrought, heartbreakingly endearing passages of Larkin’s work and find the poet not only predicting his own failure but also fulfilling it, sinking from satire into obscenity, from selfpity into self-hatred, from disgust with society to withdrawal from it. Oh, the journey is illuminated with wit, as in “Administration”:

Day by day your estimation clocks up
Who deserves a smile and who a frown,
And girls you have to tell to pull their socks up
Are those whose pants you&$8217;d most like to pull down.
But the destination rings with pathos. One of Larkin’s last public poems, “Aubade,” begins, ‟I work all day and get half-drunk at night . . . ,” and another begins, “I never remember holding a full drink.” It sounds remarkably like the aftermath of empire, nipping at the chota peg on the bungalow veranda while the native troops march back to their barracks—scenes and feelings all too familiar in the world of Masterpiece Theatre.
Perhaps this collective nostalgia has something to do with the reason why Larkin’s Collected Poems has sold more than 40,000 copies in Britain since October—“Something to do with violence / A long way back, and wrong rewards, / And arrogant eternity.” Larkin’s poetry rings the knell on the white man’s triumph, on the arts and riches of the island kingdom, on a culture of which he regarded himself as one of the last qualified, yet impotent, stewards.
English poetry since Larkin’s heyday has turned to deeper, supranational roots in the primitive past, in the work of such poets as Geoffrey Hill and Ted Hughes, and only recently have such younger poets as Tony Harrison and Craig Raine, after a long, grave pause to reflect, begun taking up the instruments that Larkin left them—rhyme, humor, irony— to resume the sort of Little England music that this sweet, sad poet left us. To have this poignant collection of his work in one volume now is a great gift, one of the prizes of the decade.