Philip Larkin: Poems

Creative output

Juvenilia and early works

And kneel upon the stone, For we have tried All courages on these despairs, And are required lastly to give up pride, And the last difficult pride in being humble.

“ ” from "Come then to prayers" (1946), Collected Poems

From his mid-teens Larkin "wrote ceaselessly", producing both poetry, initially modelled on Eliot and W. H. Auden, and fiction: he wrote five full-length novels, each of which he destroyed shortly after completion.[72] While he was at Oxford University he had a poem published for the first time: "Ultimatum" in The Listener. Around this time he developed a pseudonymous alter ego for his prose, Brunette Coleman. Under this name he wrote two novellas, Trouble at Willow Gables and Michaelmas Term at St Brides (2002), as well as a supposed autobiography and an equally fictitious creative manifesto called "What we are writing for". Richard Bradford has written that these curious works show "three registers: cautious indifference, archly overwritten symbolism with a hint of Lawrence and prose that appears to disclose its writer's involuntary feelings of sexual excitement".[73]

After these works Larkin started his first published novel Jill (1946). This was published by Reginald A. Caton, a publisher of barely legal pornography, who also issued serious fiction as a cover for his core activities.[74] Around the time that Jill was being prepared for publication, Caton inquired of Larkin if he also wrote poetry. This resulted in the publication, three months before Jill, of The North Ship (1945), a collection of poems written between 1942 and 1944 which showed the increasing influence of Yeats. Immediately after completing Jill, Larkin started work on the novel A Girl in Winter (1947), completing it in 1945. This was published by Faber and Faber and was well received, The Sunday Times calling it "an exquisite performance and nearly faultless".[75] Subsequently he made at least three concerted attempts at writing a third novel, but none went further than a solid start.[76]

Mature works

It was during Larkin's five years in Belfast that he reached maturity as a poet.[77] The bulk of his next published collection of poems The Less Deceived (1955) was written there, though eight of the twenty-nine poems included were from the late 1940s. This period also saw Larkin make his final attempts at writing prose fiction, and he gave extensive help to Kingsley Amis with Lucky Jim, which was Amis's first published novel. In October 1954 an article in The Spectator made the first use of the title The Movement to describe the dominant trend in British post-war literature.[78] Various poems by Larkin were included in a 1953 PEN Anthology that also included poems by Amis and Robert Conquest, and Larkin was seen to be a part of this grouping.[79] In 1951 Larkin compiled a collection called XX Poems which he had privately printed in a run of just 100 copies. Many of the poems in it subsequently appeared in his next published volume.[16]

In November 1955 The Less Deceived was published by The Marvell Press, an independent company in Hessle near Hull. At first the volume attracted little attention, but in December it was included in The Times' list of Books of the Year.[80] From this point the book's reputation spread and sales blossomed throughout 1956 and 1957. During his first five years in Hull the pressures of work slowed Larkin's output to an average of just two-and-a-half poems a year, but this period saw the writing of some of his best-known poems, such as "An Arundel Tomb", "The Whitsun Weddings" and "Here".[81]

In 1963 Faber and Faber reissued Jill, with the addition of a long introduction by Larkin that included much information about his time at Oxford University and his friendship with Kingsley Amis. This acted as a prelude to the release the following year of The Whitsun Weddings, the volume which cemented his reputation; almost immediately after its publication he was granted a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature. In the years that followed Larkin wrote several of his most famous poems, followed in the 1970s by a series of longer and more sober poems, including "The Building" and "The Old Fools".[82] All of these appeared in Larkin's final collection, High Windows, which was published in June 1974. Its more direct use of language meant that it did not meet with uniform praise; nonetheless it sold over twenty thousand copies in its first year alone. For some critics it represents a falling-off from his previous two books,[83] yet it contains a number of his much-loved pieces, including "This Be The Verse" and "The Explosion", as well as the title poem. "Annus Mirabilis" (Year of Wonder), also from that volume, contains the frequently quoted observation that sexual intercourse began in 1963, which the narrator claims was "rather late for me": this despite Larkin having started his own sexual career in 1945. Bradford, prompted by comments in Maeve Brennan's memoir, suggests that the poem commemorates Larkin's relationship with Brennan moving from the romantic to the sexual.[84]

Later in 1974 he started work on his final major published poem, "Aubade". It was completed in 1977 and published in the 23 December issue of The Times Literary Supplement.[85] After "Aubade" Larkin wrote only one poem that has attracted close critical attention, the posthumously published and intensely personal "Love Again".[86]

Poetic style

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. In time the curtain-edges will grow light. Till then I see what's really always there: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, Making all thought impossible but how And where and when I shall myself die.

“ ” from "Aubade" (1977), Collected Poems

Larkin's poetry has been characterized as combining "an ordinary, colloquial style", "clarity", a "quiet, reflective tone", "ironic understatement" and a "direct" engagement with "commonplace experiences",[87] while Jean Hartley summed his style up as a "piquant mixture of lyricism and discontent".[4]

Larkin's earliest work showed the influence of Eliot, Auden and Yeats, and the development of his mature poetic identity in the early 1950s coincided with the growing influence on him of Thomas Hardy.[31] The "mature" Larkin style, first evident in The Less Deceived, is "that of the detached, sometimes lugubrious, sometimes tender observer", who, in Hartley's phrase, looks at "ordinary people doing ordinary things". He disparaged poems that relied on "shared classical and literary allusions - what he called the myth-kitty, and the poems are never cluttered with elaborate imagery."[88] Larkin's mature poetic persona is notable for its "plainness and scepticism". Other recurrent features of his mature work are sudden openings and "highly-structured but flexible verse forms".[4]

Terence Hawkes has argued that while most of the poems in The North Ship are "metaphoric in nature, heavily indebted to Yeats's symbolist lyrics", the subsequent development of Larkin's mature style is "not ... a movement from Yeats to Hardy, but rather a surrounding of the Yeatsian moment (the metaphor) within a Hardyesque frame". In Hawkes's view, "Larkin's poetry ... revolves around two losses": the "loss of modernism", which manifests itself as "the desire to find a moment of epiphany", and "the loss of England, or rather the loss of the British Empire, which requires England to define itself in its own terms when previously it could define 'Englishness' in opposition to something else."[89]

In 1972 Larkin wrote the oft-quoted "Going, Going", a poem which expresses a romantic fatalism in its view of England that was typical of his later years. In it he prophesies a complete destruction of the countryside, and expresses an idealised sense of national togetherness and identity: "And that will be England gone ... it will linger on in galleries; but all that remains for us will be concrete and tyres". The poem ends with the blunt statement, "I just think it will happen, soon."[90]

Larkin's style is bound up with his recurring themes and subjects, which include death and fatalism, as in his final major poem "Aubade".[91] Poet Andrew Motion observes of Larkin's poems that "their rage or contempt is always checked by the ... energy of their language and the satisfactions of their articulate formal control", and contrasts two aspects of his poetic personality—on the one hand an enthusiasm for "symbolist moments" and "freely imaginative narratives", and on the other a "remorseless factuality" and "crudity of language". Motion defines this as a "life-enhancing struggle between opposites", and concludes that his poetry is typically "ambivalent": "His three mature collections have developed attitudes and styles of ... imaginative daring: in their prolonged debates with despair, they testify to wide sympathies, contain passages of frequently transcendent beauty, and demonstrate a poetic inclusiveness which is of immense consequence for his literary heirs."[92]

Prose non-fiction

Larkin was a notable critic of modernism in contemporary art and literature. His scepticism is at its most nuanced and illuminating in Required Writing, a collection of his book reviews and essays,[93] and at its most inflamed and polemical in his introduction to his collected jazz reviews, All What Jazz, drawn from the 126 record-review columns he wrote for The Daily Telegraph between 1961 and 1971, which contains an attack on modern jazz that widens into a wholesale critique of modernism in the arts.[94] Despite the reputation Larkin not unwillingly acquired as an enemy of modernism, recent critical assessments of Larkin's writings have identified them as possessing some modernist characteristics.[95]


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