The Complete Poems, by Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett (Farrar, Straus, 729 pp., $40)
It would be a fine cosmic joke if Philip Larkin were eventually remembered as a great religious poet. Yet it may happen. William Blake said of John Milton that he was of the Devil’s party without knowing it. There is a far better case for saying that Larkin was of God’s party while grumpily insisting otherwise.
Larkin’s dogged, shabby Englishness has so far largely limited his appeal to his own country. His verse inhabits a distinct, grey territory of windy railway platforms, drizzle, sad suburbs, sadder cemeteries, and damp raincoats. He is also famous, to the extent that he is famous, for the wrong things. There is that rather silly verse whose opening lines Adrian Mitchell once gloriously parodied as “They tuck you up, your mum and dad, / They read you Peter Rabbit too.” And there is the one that is in danger of becoming wholly hackneyed, about sexual intercourse’s starting in 1963. Then there are his awful, embarrassing letters, which he rightly never intended for publication.
Larkin is much, much better than that. It seems quite possible to me that he will survive long enough to attain the classic standing of Robert Frost or W. B. Yeats, once he has shaken himself free of his popular reputation and emerged as what he really was: profound, melancholy, and in rebellion against the materialism and modernism of the nasty century in which he lived.
A rather fine and desirable new edition of his verse, edited by Archie Burnett, allows us to see just how serious he was, and for how long. There are of course the complete published poems and genuinely interesting notes on their conceptions and births. There is also a great cloud of lesser work, much of it showing glimmers of the brilliance that was to come. Here too there is death, and there are hospitals. There is plenty of gloom, solitude, and sexual discontent. If you read Larkin on a brilliant sunny morning, you would emerge from his pages expecting to be greeted by a gust of gritty wind, and a slash of sleet.
What might the new reader, unprejudiced by reputation, see in this odd, ugly man’s poetry? There is first of all a great deal of gentle kindness, not very well hidden behind a grumpy and unsympathetic public persona. Take “The Mower,” in which Larkin tells how he accidentally killed a hedgehog — a small, benevolent, and prickly garden-dwelling animal that features in many English children’s stories — in the blades of his motor mower. The notes tell us that he was genuinely distressed by this real incident. One of his girlfriends records that “when it happened, he came in from the garden howling. He’d been feeding it, you see.” Later, when he told his secretary about it, “he had tears streaming down his face.” The poem itself is no bigger than the dead animal. At the heart of it is the desolate word “unmendably,” and at the end the regret-filled conclusion “we should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.”
And why should we? Time for what? There is something more than faintly Biblical about this ending.
Much heavier in the mind is “Ambulances.” It is typical of Larkin that he should have made a poem about these disturbing vehicles that “thread / Loud noons of cities” and are “closed like confessionals.” “All streets in time are visited,” warns the poet, once more using language that has the urgent, alarming power of Scripture.
For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there
At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come
And dulls to distance all we are.
In a civilization that seeks to avoid death, these initially comforting vehicles, passing close by with their gigantic electronic howls, are not so reassuring when we think too hard about them. They are the most insistent reminder that life does and must end. Older warnings on this subject are largely confined to ancient churches, where the curious visitor can still sometimes see and be silenced by stone cadavers, macabre sculptures of the deceased as they might be expected to look some weeks after death. Larkin must have encountered them. But the tomb he writes about is quite another sort, the 14th-century earl and countess of Arundel, side by side in cold, worn marble, but her hand tenderly resting in his. Larkin doesn’t want to like this. His carefully cultivated, snorting skepticism is plainly holding him back from saying what he wishes to say. The extensive notes on the poem make it clear he was uncomfortable about it. Yet paradoxically, this reluctance makes the conclusion a thousand times more powerful than if it had come from the pen of a cuddly sentimental believer such as John Betjeman:
The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
This great pealing line, wrung out of the author despite himself, comes at the end of a depiction of the passage of time that is one of the most evocative and moving in the English language, almost as good as music, or perhaps better. As for that “almost” in his text, as we shall see later, Larkin likes to use this barrier against the temptation of belief. But it is not really much of an obstacle.
He had done this before, in “Church Going,” a lament about the decay of England’s hundreds of ancient churches, once again all the more potent for having been written by a man who professes bleak unbelief. We learn from the notes that, before writing it, he had been surprised to see a ruined church in Ireland. “It made a deep impression on me. I had seen plenty of bombed churches, but never one that had simply fallen into disuse, and for a few minutes I felt the decline of Christianity in our century as tangibly as gooseflesh.”
The magazine to which he first sent this poem procrastinated about publishing it, and then lost it for months before eventually finding it. So we too can experience the gooseflesh, while shuddering to think the whole thing might easily have been stuck forever at the back of a forgotten closet. It is rather terrifying, this somber vision of a near future in which the very purpose of the place will have been forgotten, and it will be the resort of “dubious women” who “come / To make their children touch a particular stone; / Pick simples for a cancer.”
His conclusion, once again founded on the dourest pessimism, is surprisingly heartening: “A serious house on serious earth it is, / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies. / And that much never can be obsolete.” This is no rallying call blasted across a stadium by some noisy revivalist. But to the thoughtful mind it is surely a door in the wall, through which the most arid materialist can briefly step and in “tense, musty, unignorable silence” feel an “awkward reverence.”
In this way does poetry ambush not only the hearts of those who read it, but also the hearts of those who write it, with thoughts they never really meant to entertain.
For instance, I have never been able to read the lines “The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said” without hot tears forming behind my eyes. I have no real idea why this happens (it just happened again) but I know that it does and that these two immensely simple lines contain a mystery of language which I shall never solve in this life. Alas, the notes are for once silent. No history is given, no explanation offered, no relevant letter unearthed. But note, once again, that cautious, reserved, rather bad-tempered “almost.” Philip Larkin knew perfectly well that when the trees come into leaf, something is being said. It was his greatest success that he — almost — put it into words.
– Mr. Hitchens is the author, most recently, of The Rage against God.