The publication of the Collected Poems of Philip Larkin four years after his death will please many of his readers who have had to search for long-out-of-print books of poems. It is also likely to create many new readers of these remarkable poems. The poems have been arranged by editor Anthony Thwaite in a very unusual configuration. Thwaite does not break the poems into the published books of the poet as is customary. Instead, there are two large sections: “Poems 1946-83” and “Early Poems 1938-45.” The first section contains the poems “which strike [Larkin’s characteristic note and carry his voice.” This means that Larkin’s first published book, The North Ship (1945), has been relegated to the “Early Poems,” or the juvenilia. The long first section contains all Larkin’s published poetry after The North Ship and sixty-one previously unpublished poems; the second section contains twenty-one unpublished poems. Thwaite’s arrangement offers not one volume of published poems after another, from first to last, but a chronological record of nothing less than the growth of a poet’s mind. Once the reader becomes accustomed to this unusual arrangement—and there is an appendix which contains a list of the order of poems in each— separate book—there are opportunities for new discoveries, delights, and connections in the Larkin canon.
Philip Larkin was a twentieth century poet, but he was certainly not a modern poet. After a youthful fling with the Yeatsian mode in The North Ship, he was consistently antimodern in style and tone. In the 1950’s, he was identified as being one of the major poets in the group known as the Movement, which included Donald Davie, Thom Gunn, and Kingsley Amis. The virtues of Larkin’s poetry are not the complex, mythic, or allusive ones found in Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot; instead, Larkin’s virtues are clarity, wit, humor, and feeling. His mentor was not one of the great modernists but rather Thomas Hardy. This does not mean that Larkin’s poetry lacks art or finish; he was one of the most skillful poets of the century, as his cunning rhymes and syntactic arrangements demonstrate. His characteristic concerns, however, were those of ordinary life; he did not strive for grand and obscure poetry as Eliot or Pound did.
As one reads the poems in the sequence in which Thwaite has arranged them, a number of themes begin to appear. The first is the problem of solitude in a social world. In “Best Society,” an unpublished poem written in 1951, Larkin traces his changing attitude toward solitude. As a child, he felt it was “Something everybody had,/ Like nakedness, it lay at hand.” However, “after twenty,” what is real or “fact” can only be achieved “In terms of others.” The conflict is resolved as the Larkin speaker is forced to admit that he is not one of “the virtuous sort” who can define himself by his connection with others. The poem ends with a beautiful metaphor: “Solitude supports me on its giant palm;! And like a sea-anemone/ Or simple snail, there cautiously! Unfolds, emerges, what I am.” The conjunction of the “anemone” with the “simple snail” suggests the range of experience that solitude, rightly understood, comprehends; it also affirms that it has its own values and virtues.
Larkin deals with solitude in very different ways in other and later poems. In “Mr. Bleaney,” solitude is not a desired but an enforced condition, as indicated by the “one hired box” which is all Mr. Bleaney possessed and all he “warranted.” In contrast, “Vers de Societe”’ wittily plays with the conflict. The speaker at first rejects the invitation of “Warlock- Williams” to a party, but is gradually drawn into the social demands of company.
Only the young can he alone freely.The time is shorter now for company,And sitting by a lamp more often bringsNot peace, but other things.Beyond the light stand failure and remorseWhispering Dear Warlock-Williams: Why, of course
The confidence about self-sufficiency in “Best Society” is weakened by age and a recognition of failure. The Larkin of 1951 is now twenty years older, and the compromises that make up people’s lives are acknowledged where they were once defied.
A related subject that Larkin deals with quite often is death and aging. “Nothing To Be Said” is a good example of the Larkin view. The poem is divided into three stanzas; in each the phrase “slow dying” recurs as it analyzes nations, “building,” and man’s life. The last stanza hits most...
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