His name was taken along poets of the same generation as John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and who held him in high esteem even if his work was largely unknown to academic critics.
His inglorious exit however did elevate him to a minor legend within poetry circles and that’s where he has largely remained. His posthumous reputation is of a cult figure stuck somewhere between the high praise of other poets and the indifference of the critics. His stock seems to have risen in recent years, but not enough to muster a call to seat him at the high table.
Literary reputation is a strange and fickle beast. Unlike Kees, who never gained prominence as a poet, Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was Britain’s most beloved poet and remains a mighty cultural monument.
His poems are still quoted widely, his most famous of course having entered pop culture conversations. Who hasn’t come across this startling opener from This Be The Verse:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Or the singing phrase What will survive of us is love that ends one of Larkin’s finest poems, An Arundel Tomb. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that Larkin is among the most quoted poets in the world even today.
The high quality of his verse was evident even in The North Ship (1945), his first book of poetry, through two novels Jill and A Girl in Winter, and then in what critics consider his mature works such as The Less Deceived (1956) and The Whitsun Weddings (1964), by which time his reputation spread as the world-weary spokesperson of his generation.
Christopher Ricks wrote of the “refinement of self-consciousness, usually flawless in its execution” and Larkin’s summoning up of “the world of all of us, the place where, in the end, we find our happiness, or not at all.” He felt Larkin to be “the best poet England now has.”
But Larkin, about whom someone once wrote that he “tried to manage his affairs, both personal and literary, mostly by saying no...” was shielding himself from the outside world. “I don’t think I write well – just better than anyone else,” Philip Larkins would write to fellow poet Anthony Thwaite.
Though never prolific – he averaged around four poems a year – and it is quite something that his poetic achievements rest essentially on the three thin volumes of poetry. Though his name grew slowly, some of his best poems stuck in the memory and wouldn’t go away. He spoke to a wide audience, and in his poems they recognised a personal voice that spoke to them of love, nature, time, freedom and death. Death and unhappiness were his big obsessions. In the poem Dockery and Son (1964) he writes: “Life is first boredom, then fear”.
When he died in 1985, at the age of 63, the first cracks began to appear in his image and soon after the publication of a biography by Andrew Motion, Larkins was “revealed” to the world. We were informed that he had several women as lovers, sometimes more than one affair going simultaneously, and perhaps more shockingly, that England’s preeminent poet was an admirer of Thatcherism, and held right-wing views on race and class.
James Booth has set out in this current biography to redress the image. Booth was Larkin’s colleague for nearly two decades, and in effect has attempted to examine the poet and the man, to show that he was inherently warm and caring and not the misogynist he’s been made out to be. So much of the commentary in the new biography concerns Larkin’s politics and prejudices.
Booth does not gloss over Larkin’s many faults. Some he condemns even more vigorously than did Motion, especially the poet’s dishonesty with his lovers. Booth also unsparingly depicts Larkin’s physical decline in his mid-fifties into an almost deaf, grossly overweight, and impotent alcoholic. Booth, however, presents these problems in clarifying perspective. His biography is not an indictment but a careful investigation by a scholar who has spent decades studying the evidence.
The new biography also deals with Larkin’s poetry. His running commentary is consistently interesting and sometimes revelatory. For the first time, one sees the slow and uncertain development of Larkin’s early poetry, its sudden maturation in his late 20s, and then its equally sudden disappearance in the author’s early fifties.
Booth’s parallel narratives of the man and his writing also demonstrate the great personal price Larkin paid for his poetry. But for the public, the reason to read Larkin is that his work, like all great poetry, transcends the virtues and vices of its creator and lives as a special form of language that invites and rewards a special kind of attention. A better man would probably not have written so well.
His poems are delightful, observant, and memorable, but those are merely the outward signs of his achievement. The special power of Larkin’s poetry is that it earn its joy, humour, and compassion by working through equal measures of pain, depression, and resentment. The reader always feels the price – and therefore the value – of its hard-won clarities.
And if it turns out that Larkin was racist and sexist in his private life, there will always be his poetry to turn to, for that is his real legacy.