Philip Larkin Essay - Larkin, Philip (Vol. 3)

Larkin, Philip (Vol. 3)

Larkin, Philip 1922–

A British poet and novelist, Larkin is most highly regarded for his understated and frequently melancholy poetry of commonplace events. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Philip Larkin is typical of a younger group of self-snubbers and self-loathers (who, nevertheless, have never thought to put down their wretched mirrors). He is forever promising to be a wit and then appealing to the reader to pity him instead. It is another turn on that petty bitterness about life that Betjeman too sometimes exhibits—not a world's sorrow and loss of meaning, but the sullenness of a man who finds squalor in his own spirit and fears to liberate himself from it.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (copyright © 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 222.

Philip Larkin … has produced some of the most genuinely post-Eliot poetry that we have yet had in this country. At his best Larkin comes near to Eliot's kind of seriousness, but in his earlier poems the offhand manner and flat Movement diction usually work against this seriousness in a fatal way: Larkin seems to adopt a wryer version of Eliot's old man persona and to be happy only when he can collapse the intellect into knockabout so as to undermine the poetry entirely and save himself from emotional self-exposure. Many whole poems are variations on some simple self-deprecating theme…. Sometimes the poems just hint coyly at unnamed horror….

It has … been said that the feeling in Larkin's poems is thin. This is often true, and particularly in the earlier idea-poems where it comes out as a persistent kind of self-pity. Some of the more impersonal poems, on the other hand, are quite different and contain very impressive lines and passages…. And when Larkin has the courage to write really honestly and without self-deception the result is often powerful and moving…. At these times Larkin finds a very individual poetic idiom which brings together Eliot's intellectual tension and reflectiveness, Auden's sharp sense of contemporary things and scenery, and a very direct emotional strength based in ordinary speech and asserting itself firmly beneath the elegance of the finished style.

Colin Falck, "Dreams and Responsibilities," in Review, No. 2, June/July, 1962, pp. 3-18.

G. S. Fraser says that Larkin exemplifies "everything that is good in this 'new movement' and none of its faults." Most of the reviewers of The Less Deceived have tagged him as the best of its poets. A few have said he is the best poet of his generation. This is all high praise. It is undoubtedly true that Larkin is a distinguished poet. The range of his subject matter, however, is narrow. Faded photographs, wrong choices, expectations that came to little—this is the sort of thing that engages him. And the wry observation is his usual way of viewing them, although on rare occasions, as in "Toads," he can be rather funny. He has neither Hardy's grim glee nor Housman's ironic hopelessness. He lacks not merely gaudiness but exuberance and open excitement.

William Van O'Connor, "Philip Larkin: The Quiet Poem," in his The New University Wits and the End of Modernism (© 1963 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, pp. 16-29.

[The Whitsun Weddings] is Philip Larkin's first book for nearly ten years. It contains only thirty-two poems—three more than The Less Deceived, which represented the previous decade's worth of his work. Clearly, no one is going to accuse him of writing too much or of publishing verse he is unsure of. Indeed, I imagine no one is going to accuse him of anything. His last book was received none too brilliantly; it is only since then that his reputation has slowly, almost silently, gathered momentum. Any moment now someone is bound to pin on him that heaviest of gold medals: the one inscribed 'Great Poet'.

If this happens, it will be a pity. For Larkin is an excellent poet, part of whose excellence is that he knows his limitations as precisely as his strengths, and he overestimates neither. So he has never thrown his hat into the heavyweight ring. If he is contending for any crown, it is Betjeman's or De La Mare's, and he is better than either. He has none of Betjeman's coyness or condescension—though, judging by a poem like 'Naturally the Foundation will Bear your Expenses', he also doesn't have Betjeman's touch with light verse. His serious poems are more squarely of one time, one place than De La Mare's, though less generous.

Perhaps his main achievement is to have created a special voice for that special, localized moment: post-war provincial England in all its dreariness, with the boredom of shortages no longer justified, the cheap, plastic surface of things which nobody wants and everybody buys. He did in poetry much the same as Kingsley Amis did in Lucky Jim: created a tone of voice for the witty, sharply literary provincial outsider who was a good deal cleverer and more perceptive than those on the metropolitan inside.

To do this Larkin brought about no spectacular transformation of the technique of poetry. He merely made another series of those minute adjustments to the tradition by which most English poetry in this century has managed to keep abreast of the times without risking a jump into the uncharted future. It is a question not of forms but of accent….

In order to write well Larkin has deliberately turned his back on what he calls 'unfenced existence; Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach'. He has chosen instead a kind of suburban hermitage, with plenty of books and records, bottled beer in the cupboard and all mod. con. On the wall is a poker-work motto which reads: 'You'll never have it any better.'

A. Alvarez, "Philip Larkin" (originally published in The Observer, 1964), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 85-7.

[Futile] though life may be for the majority of people in our present society, it is not futile in principle in the way that Larkin makes it seem. By coming to rest so easily in this necessity, the necessity of life's meaninglessness, Larkin's poetry is most of the time a poetry of consolation. The grip of this deadening philosophy is not yet complete, though, and there are many poems where it is qualified or even held off altogether. It is this that makes "The Whitsun Weddings" itself so unusual…. There is disillusion enough here, and yet there is hope too: the long perspectives are at least open….

I think Larkin's general conception of truth and reality accounts for much that is typical in his style. In all the poems in The Whitsun Weddings there is an extreme propriety of syntax and language which seems to have intellectual clarity as its ideal and to regard metaphor as something rather special. When the poems do leave the level of basic description it is most often by means of explicit simile. The effect of this is to preserve the appearance of language as somehow in itself literal and to lodge the poetry self-consciously in a grammatical device….

For want of any overall texture of metaphor, Larkin's poems usually fall into a pattern of description-plus-evaluation: it is nearly always the summarising argument which holds the poem together. (His earlier technique, on the other hand, was very often to build from a single metaphor, carrying it right through the poem like an argument.) One result of this is that it becomes necessary to attempt direct descriptions of emotions themselves, almost as if these were simply another kind of object, to be observed and recorded along with all the objects of the external world….

Larkin has probably captured the feel of life as it is for a great many ordinary people much of the time, and this gives his poetry a certain kind of humanity. But he has done this only at the expense of a deeper and more important humanity, because he has done it ultimately at the expense of poetry. No doubt it is always important to maintain some general sense of what most other people's lives are like. But the poet cannot be content with this, and it might even be argued that it is not really his business qua poet at all, whatever might be expected of him as a novelist or as a human being. If there is really no beauty or truth or love to be found in the concrete here-and-now, however it might appear to ordinary people, then there is surely none to be found anywhere. The "other" Platonic truth, if it exists at all, is only the order which is to be found in the real world of existing things, and it is the poet, above all, who can be expected to find this order; and he will find it in his own experience. So that by identifying himself with the drab, fantasy-haunted world of the waste land Larkin has not only downgraded the whole of real existence against an impossible absolute standard, but has also cut the ground from under the poet's feet. The fantasy-world which he has elected to share has little to do with romanticism, because it destroys the very bridge which romanticism would construct between the ideal and the world which actually exists: the poet can no longer do anything to bring our dreams into relation with reality. The ideal, for Larkin, has become inaccessible, and being inaccessible it can only throw the real world into shadow instead of lighting it up from within. In the typical landscape of Larkin's poems the whole chiaroscuro of meaning, all polarities of life and death, good and evil, are levelled away. Farms, canals, building-plots and dismantled cars jostle one another indiscriminately—the view from the train window, with its complete randomness and detachment, is at the heart of Larkin's vision—and all of them are bathed in the same general wistfulness. There are no epiphanies. Love and death, though they are the controlling ideas of the poems, can never inflame the individual moments of existence; instead they simply diminish them, and the boredom of this diminished existence is invested with a kind of absolute necessity.

Colin Falck, "Essential Beauty," in Review, No. 14, December, 1964, pp. 3-11.

If anyone takes a beating in this book [The Whitsun Weddings], it's the author himself. And if Mr. Larkin's cheek doesn't sport a ready tear, none the less compassion for others is never too far away; and there are even rare intimations of a sort of muted glory. He writes of failure, or insufficiency rather, or rather of velleities and second thoughts, of dubious buses not too bitterly missed, of doubts about doubts, and there is a gentleness, even a dry sweetness, to his tone of voice.

'Love Songs in Age', if you paraphrase it, reduces to an observation, more an observation than a complaint, that love doesn't inevitably, or perhaps just doesn't, 'solve, and satisfy, and set unchangeably in order'. And yet what has gone before, what leads up to this fairly trite or more truly meaningless deduction (what is this thing called order, anyway?), holds a tenderness so charmingly conveyed as more to rebut than to support it. At least love seems to have done something. A pity, then, that the deduction should be there, merely words on the page. There is occasionally an element of the arbitrary about Mr. Larkin: as if he doesn't altogether trust poetry, not even his own….

For Mr. Larkin, there are serpents everywhere; he disposes sadly but nimbly of the alternatives and never makes a choice….

The quality of reverence in his work has been noticed before: 'Churchgoing' remains the most obvious example of this. An unsolemnly reverential attitude and a sense of mystery lightly worn, these (if nothing else has) have diverted him securely from the sentimental toughness, the parochial modishness and the shrill smart-aleckry to which in our day 'a gift for words' seems naturally to tend….

In verbal fastidiousness and a severe beauty of rhythm, Larkin is reminiscent of Edward Thomas, whose melancholy seems to me, however, a mite less complacent, a considerable mite richer. At times he has the appearance of a mid-century Emily Dickinson; at others … of Stevie Smith turned peevish. But more often—a characteristic and endearing persona—the reader thinks of the clever sadfaced clown, raising ambiguous smiles….

D. J. Enright, "Down Cemetery Road: The Poetry of Philip Larkin," in his Conspirators and Poets: Reviews and Essays (reprinted by permission of Dufour Editions, Inc.), Dufour, 1966, pp. 141-46.

A fundamental lugubriousness marks, and mars, much of Larkin's writing despite its colloquial ease and half-confessional naturalness. It is related to the question-begging assumption, only incompletely saved from dreariness by his witty effects, that most life is nothing much. Childhood—his own, at least—was 'a forgotten boredom.' It is silly to expect much happiness from love. As for his early home life and family, 'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (copyright © 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 233-44.