People used to be buried in their Sunday best .. not so much now
Philip Larkin died in December 1985, holding a nurse’s hand and saying, ‘I am going to the inevitable’, and death was indeed his constant companion and preoccupation. He was faithful to/absorbed by death all his writing life, whatever the apparent distances between attitudes expressed and life lived in all the other aspects of his behaviour.
He bridged the worlds of ‘high art’ and ‘accessible poetry’. He wrote about everyday things like work, ambulances, windows, gin, with enormous skill, depth and intelligence. He was known as ‘the Hermit of Hull’ and affected disdain towards university socialising or the London cultural scene, describing himself as an isolated curmudgeon, but he often broadcast on the BBC, and had a national reputation.
Larkin is one of the few writers to have lodged a recognisable image in the public mind, well before the onslaught of social media, as a dour looking man in owlish glasses. He is famous for being born too early for sexual intercourse, and for having been fucked up by his Mum and Dad. However, subsequent revelations show that there was actually a considerable amount of sexual activity in his life, and that his relationship with his mother was close and supportive, if occasionally impatient and fretful.
His writing reveals much casual misogyny and fear/distrust of women, but he not only loved some women, he was loved by them, and some of those loving women (see Foxy article on Monica Jones link) were intelligent and discerning people. His loyal partners put up with a great deal for the pleasure of his company and affections, even while these relationships were being run in tandem.
He worked hard as Chief Librarian of Hull University, was proud of his department and of the university, but referred to work as ‘the toad’ squatting on his life (‘Toads’ 1954). Later in life (‘Toads Revisited’ 1962), he wrote ‘Give me your arm, old toad; help me down Cemetery Road’, this poem having been written just before sexual intercourse began. He adored jazz and was knowledgeable about it, writing occasional reviews for jazz magazines. He revered musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and yet is reported as speaking in vilely racist terms about, for example, fear of people on the tube in London.
‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’
Throughout all of these contradictory attitudes, his one recurrent interest and reference point was death. In 1944, aged 22, he wrote of the ‘dream of death drawing close’ (‘Songs, 65’North) which did not seem to be a reference to the war, and in subsequent years he referred to ‘the desire of oblivion’ (‘Wants’ 1950) and ‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’ (‘Absences’ 1950), sounding celebratory rather than afraid. In 1967, in ‘High Windows’, he describes ‘…the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless’ and in ‘The Winter Palace’ in 1978 he talks of an eventual forgetting, when ‘My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow’. In ‘Aubade’ in 1977 he said, ‘Being brave/ lets no-one off the grave./ Death is no different whined at than withstood.” , thus covering both the complaining and the stoic approach.
So now, over thirty years since he went to the inevitable, Larkin does not offer a model way to live, but he does still offer a model way to write. Aspiring poets can still learn from him, poetry-lovers can still enjoy and admire his work, and, despite his many personal failings and ugly attitudes, readers like me can criticise the man, but still love what he wrote. I don’t know if it was a life well lived, but it absolutely was a life well written.