Books: Don Juan in Hull : Philip Larkin (i) Wolves of Memory |
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Don Juan in Hull : Philip Larkin (i) Wolves of Memory

Larkin collections come out at the rate of one per decade: The North Ship, 1945; The Less Deceived, 1955; The Whitsun Weddings, 1964; High Windows, 1974. Not exactly a torrent of creativity: just the best. In Italy the reading public is accustomed to cooling its heels for even longer. Their top man, Eugenio Montale, has produced only five main collections, and he got started a good deal earlier. But that, in both countries, is the price one has to pay. For both the poets the parsimony is part of the fastidiousness. Neither writes an unconsidered line.

Now that the latest Larkin, High Windows, is finally available, it is something of a shock to find in it some poems one doesn’t recognize. Clipping the poems out of magazines has failed to fill the bill — there were magazines one hadn’t bargained for. As well as that, there is the surprise of finding that it all adds up even better than one had expected: the poems which one had thought of as characteristic turn out to be more than that — or rather the character turns out to be more than that. Larkin has never liked the idea of an artist Developing. Nor has he himself done so. But he has managed to go on clarifying what he was sent to say. The total impression of High Windows is of despair made beautiful. Real despair and real beauty, with not a trace of posturing in either. The book is the peer of the previous two mature collections, and if they did not exist would be just as astonishing. But they do exist (most of us could recognize any line from either one) and can’t help rendering many of the themes in this third book deceptively familiar.

I think that in most of the poems here collected Larkin’s ideas are being reinforced or deepened rather than repeated. But from time to time a certain predictability of form indicates that a pervious discovery is being unearthed all over again. Such instances aren’t difficult to spot, and and it would be intemperate to betray delight at doing so. Larkin’s ‘forgeries’ (Auden’s term for self-plagiarisms) are very few. He is more original from poem to poem than almost any modern poet one can think of. His limitations, such as they are, lie deeper than that. Here again, it is not wise to be happy about spotting them. Without the limitations there would be no Larkin — the beam cuts because it’s narrow.

It has always seemed to me a great pity that Larkin’s more intelligent critics should content themselves with finding his view of life circumscribed. It is, but it is also bodied forth as art to a remarkable degree. There is a connection between the circumscription and the poetic intensity, and it’s no surprise that the critics who can’t see the connection can’t see the separation either. They seem to think that just because the poet is (self-admittedly) emotionally wounded, the poetry is wounded too. There is always the suggestion that Larkin might handle his talent better if he were a more well-rounded character. That Larkin’s gift might be part and parcel of his own peculiar nature isn’t a question they have felt called upon to deal with. The whole fumbling dereliction makes you wonder if perhaps the literati in this country haven’t had things a bit easy. A crash-course in, say, art criticism could in most cases be recommended. Notions that Michelangelo would have painted more feminine-looking sibyls if he had been less bent, or that Toulouse-Lautrec might have been less obsessive about Jane Avril’s dancing if his legs had been longer, would at least possess the merit of being self-evidently absurd. But the brain-wave about Larkin’s quirky negativism, and the consequent trivialisation of his lyrical knack, is somehow able to go on sounding profound.

It ought to be obvious that Larkin is not a universal poet in the thematic sense — in fact, he is a self-proclaimed stranger to a good half, the good half, of life. You wonder what a critic who complains of this imagines he is praising when he allows that Larkin is still pretty good anyway, perhaps even great. What’s missing in Larkin doesn’t just tend to be missing, it’s glaringly, achingly, unarguably missing. But the poetry is all there. The consensus about his stature is consequently encouraging, even if accomplished at the cost of a majority of its adherents misunderstanding what is really going on. At least they’ve got the right man.

The first poem in the book, ‘To The Sea’, induces a fairly heavy effect of déjà lu. Aren’t we long used to that massive four-stanza form, that conjectural opening (‘To step over the low wall ...’) in the infinitive? Actually we aren’t: he’s never used them before. It’s the tone that’s reminiscent, and the tactics. The opening takes us back to the childhood and the lost chance of happiness, the shots that all fell wide —

                                The miniature gaiety of seasides.

    In the familiar way, sudden brutalities of diction bite back a remembered sweetness —

                                A white steamer stuck in the afternoon.

    Alienation is declared firmly as the memories build up —

                                Strange to it now, I watch the cloudless scene:

 Details well up in the mind with Proustian specificity —

                                                                ...and then the cheap cigars,
                                The chocolate-papers, tea-leaves, and, between
                                The rocks, the rusting soup-tins...

The mind, off guard, unmanned by recollection, lets slip the delicately expressed lyrical image —

                                The white steamer has gone. Like breathed-on glass
                                The sunlight has turned milky.

Whereupon, as in ‘Church-Going’ or ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, the poem winds up in a sententious coda.

                                                               ...if the worst

                                Of flawless weather is our falling short
                                It may be that through habit these do best,
                                Coming to water clumsily undressed
                                Yearly, teaching their children by a sort
                                Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.

The happiness we once thought we could have can’t be had, but simple people who stick to time-honoured habits probably get the best approximation of it. Larkin once said that if he were called in to construct a religion he would make use of water. Well, here it is, lapping at the knobbled feet of unquestioning plebs. Such comfort as the poem offers the reader resides in the assurance that this old habit of going to the seaside is ‘still going on’, even if the reader and writer no longer share it. A cold comfort, as always. Larkin tries, he has said, to preserve experience both for himself and for others, but his first responsibility is to the experience.

The next big poem is the famous three-part effort that appeared in the Observer, ‘Livings’. A galley-proof of it is still folded into the back of my copy of The Less Deceived. I think it an uncanny piece of work. The proof is read to shreds, and I can still remember the day I picked it up in the office. Larkin had the idea — preserved, in concentrated form, in one of the poems in this volume, ‘Posterity’ — that a young American Ph.D. student called Jake Balokowsky is all set to wrap him up in an uncomprehending thesis. The first part of ‘Livings’ is full of stuff that Balokowsky is bound to get wrong. The minor businessman who annually books himself into ‘the — Hotel in —ton for three days’ speaks a vocabulary as well-rubbed and subtly anonymous as an old leather couch. Balokowsky will latch on well enough to the idea that the poem’s narrator is a slave to habit,

                              wondering why
                I keep on coming. It’s not worth it. Father’s dead:
                He used to, but the business now is mine.
                It’s time for change, in nineteen twenty-nine.

What Jake will probably miss, however, is the value placed on the innocuous local newspaper, the worn décor, the ritual chat, the non-challenging pictures and the ex-Army sheets. It’s dependable, it’s a living, and ‘living’ is not a word Larkin tosses around lightly. Judging the narrator is the last thing Larkin is doing. On the contrary, he’s looking for his secret. To be used to comfort is an enviable condition. Beer, whisky, cigars and silence — the privileges of the old mercantile civilization which Larkin has been quietly celebrating most of his life, a civilization in which a place like Leeds or Hull (see ‘Friday night in the Royal Station Hotel’) counts as a capital city. There is another and bigger life, but Larkin doesn’t underestimate this one for a minute.

In fact he conjures it up all over again in the third part of the poem. The setting this time is Oxford, probably in the late 17th century. The beverage is port instead of whisky, and the talk, instead of with wages, tariffs and stock, deals with advowsons, resurrections and regicide. Proofs of God’s existence lie uncontested on dusty bookshelves. ‘The bells discuss the hour’s graduations.’ Once again the feeling of indoor warmth is womb-like. Constellations sparkle over the roofs, matching the big sky draining down the estuary in Part I.

The central poem of the trio squirms like a cat caught between two cushions. Its narrator is conducting a lone love-affair with the sea.

                                Rocks writhe back to sight.
                                Mussels, limpets,
                                Husband their tenacity
                                In the freezing slither —
                                Creatures, I cherish you!

The narrator’s situation is not made perfectly clear. While wanting to be just the reverse, Larkin can on occasion be a difficult poet, and here, I think, is a case of over-refinement leading to obscurity. (Elsewhere in this volume ‘Sympathy in White Major’ is another instance, and I have never been able to understand ‘Dry Point’ in The Less Deceived.) My guess — and a guess is not as good as an intelligent deduction — is that the speaker is a lighthouse keeper. The way the snow (‘O loose moth world’) swerves against the black water, and the line ‘Guarded by brilliance’, seem somehow to suggest that: that, or something similar. Anyway, whoever he is, the narrator is right in among the elements, watching the exploding sea and the freezing slither from seventy feet up on a stormy night. But we see at the end that he, too, is safe indoors. On the radio he hears of elsewhere. He sets out his plate and spoon, cherishing his loneliness. In this central panel of his triptych, it seems to me, Larkin is saying that the civilizations described in the side-panels — one decaying, the other soon to lose its confidence — have an essence, and that this is it. The essence can be preserved in the soul of a man on his own. This is not to suggest that there is anything consolingly positive under Larkin’s well-known negativism: the only consoling thing about Larkin is the quality of his art.

‘High Windows’, the next stand-out poem, shows an emotional progression Larkin had already made us used to.

                                When I see a couple of kids
                                And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
                                Taking pills or wearing a disphragm,
                                I know this is paradise...

Larkin is a master of language-levels and eminently qualified to use coarse language for shock effects. He never does, however. Strong language in Larkin is put in not to shock the reader but to define the narrator’s personality. When Larkin’s narrator in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ (in The Whitsun Weddings) said ‘Books are a load of crap’ there were critics — some of them, incredibly, among his more appreciative — who allowed themselves to believe that Larkin was expressing his own opinion. (Kingsley Amis had the same kind of trouble, perhaps from the same kind of people, when he let Jim Dixon cast aspersions on Mozart.) It should be obvious at long last, however, that the diction describes the speaker. When the speaker is close to representing Larkin himself, the diction defines which Larkin it is — what mood he is in. Larkin is no hypocrite and has expressed envy of young lovers too often to go back on it here. The word ‘fucking’ is a conscious brutalism, a protective way of not conjuring up what’s meant. However inevitable it might be that Jake Balokowsky will identify this opening sentiment as a Muggeridgean gesture of contempt, it is incumbent on us to realize that something more interesting is going on.

Everyone young is going down ‘the long slide’ to happiness. The narrator argues that his own elders must have thought the same about him, who was granted freedom from the fear of Hellfire in the same way that the kids are granted freedom from the fear of pregnancy. But (and here comes the clincher) attaining either freedom means no more than being lifted up to a high window, through which you see

                                                ...the deep blue air, that shows
                                Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

There is no doubt that the narrator is calling these callous sexual activities meaningless. What’s open to doubt is whether the narrator believes what he is saying, or, given that he does, whether Larkin (wheels within wheels) believes the narrator. Later in the volume there is a poem called ‘Annus Mirabilis’ which clearly contradicts the argument of ‘High Windows’.

     Sexual intercourse began
     In nineteen sixty-three
     (Which was rather late for me) —
     Between the end of the Chatterley ban
     And the Beatles’ first LP.

Evincing an unexpected sensitivity to tone, Jake could well detect an ironic detachment here. To help him out, there is a suggestion, in the third stanza, that the new liberty was merely license.

     And every life became
     A brilliant breaking of the bank,
     A quite unlosable game.

It all links up with the bleak view of ‘High Windows’. What Jake might not spot, however, is that it contrasts more than it compares. ‘Annus Mirabilis’ is a jealous poem — the fake naïve rhythms are there for self-protection as much as for ironic detachment. Larkin can’t help believing that sex and love ought by rights to have been easier things for his generation, and far easier for him personally. The feeling of having missed out on something is one of his preoccupations. The thing Balokowsky needs to grasp is that Larkin is not criticizing modern society from a position of superiority. Over the range of his poetry, if not always in individual poems, he is very careful to allow that these pleasures might very well be thought meaningful. That he himself finds them meaningless might have something to do with himself as well as the state of the world. To the reader who has Larkin’s poetry by heart, no poet seems more open. Small wonder that he finds it simply incomprehensible when critics discuss his lack of emotion. Apart from an outright yell for help, he has sent every distress signal a shy man can.

‘The Old Fools’ — even the ex-editor of the Listener blew his cool head over that one, billing it as ‘marvellous’ on the paper’s mast-head. And marvellous it is, although very scarey. There is a pronounced technical weakness in the first stanza. It is all right to rhyme ‘remember’ with ‘September’ if you make it quite clear why September can’t be July. Does it mean that the Old Fools were in the Home Guard in September 1939? It’s hard to know. Apart from that one point, though, the poem is utterly and distressingly explicit. Once again, the brutalism of the opening diction is a tip-off to the narrator’s state of mind, which is, this time, fearful.

     What do they think has happened, the old fools,
     To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
      It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools...

Ill suppressed anger. The crack about supposing ‘it’s more grown-up’ is a copybook example of Larkin’s ability to compact his intelligibility without becoming ambiguous. Supposing something to be ‘more grown-up’ is something children do: ergo, the Old Fools are like children — one of the poem’s leading themes stated in a single locution.  

    Why aren’t they screaming?

Leaving the reader to answer: because they don’t know what’s happening to them. The narrator’s real fears — soon he switches to a personal ‘you’ — are for himself. The second stanza opens with an exultant lyrical burst: stark terror never sounded lovelier. 

    At death you break up: the bits that were you
    Start speeding away from each other for ever
    With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:
    We had it before, but then it was going to end,
    And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
    To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
    Of being here.

The old, he goes on to suggest, probably live not in the here and now but ‘where all happened once.’ The idea takes some of its force from our awareness that that’s largely where Larkin lives already — only his vision could lead to this death. The death is terrifying, but we would have to be like Larkin to share the terror completely. The reader tends to find himself shut out, glad that Larkin can speak so beautifully in his desperation but sorry that he should see the end in terms of his peculiar loneliness. There is always the edifying possibility, however, that Larkin is seeing the whole truth and the reader’s defence mechanisms are working full blast.

If they are, ‘The Building’ will quickly break them down. Here, I think, is the volume’s masterpiece — an absolute chiller, which I find myself getting by heart despite a pronounced temperamental aversion. The Building is the house of death, a Dantesque hell-hole — one thinks particularly of Inferno V — where people ‘at that vague age that claims/The end of choice, the last of hope’ are sent to ‘their appointed levels’. The ambience is standard modernist hum-drum: paperbacks, tea, rows of steel chairs like an airport lounge. You can look down into the yard and see red brick, lagged pipes, traffic. But the smell is frightening. In time everyone will find a nurse beckoning to him. The dead lie in white rows somewhere above. This, says Larkin with an undeflected power unique even for him, is what it all really adds up to. Life is a dream and we awake to this reality. 

             O world,
     Your loves, your chances, are beyond the stretch
     Of any hand from here! And so, unreal,
     A touching dream to which we all are lulled
     But wake from separately. In it, conceits
     And self-protecting ignorance congeal
     To carry life....

There is no point in disagreeing with the man it that’s the way he feels, and he wouldn’t write a poem like ‘The Building’ if he didn’t feel that way to the point of daemonic possession. He himself is well aware that there are happier ways of viewing life. It’s just that he is incapable of sharing them, except for fleeting moments — and the fleeting moments do not accumulate, whereas the times in between them do. The narrator says that ‘nothing contravenes/The coming dark’. It’s an inherently less interesting proposition than its opposite, and a poet forced to devote his creative effort to embodying it has only a small amount of space to work in. Nor, within the space, is he free from the paradox that his poems will become part of life, not death. From that paradox, we gain. The desperation of ‘The Building’ is like the desperation of Leopardi, disconsolate yet doomed to being beautiful. The advantage which accrues is one of purity — a hopeless affirmation is the only kind we really want to hear when we feel, as sooner or later everybody must, that life is a trap.

There is no certain way of separating Larkin’s attitude to society from his conception of himself, but to the extent that you can, he seems to be in two minds about what the world has come to. He thinks, on the one hand, that it’s probably all up; and on the other hand that youth still has a chance. On the theme of modern life being an unmitigated and steadily intensifying catastrophe he reads like his admired Betjeman in a murderous mood — no banana blush or cheery telly teeth, just a tight-browed disdain and a toxic line of invective. ‘Going, Going’ is particularly instructive here. In ‘How Distant’ we hear about 

     ...the departure of young men
     Down valleys, or watching
     The green shore past the salt-white cordage
     Rising and falling

Between the ‘fraying cliffs of water’ (always a good sign when there’s a lot of water about) the young adventurers used to sail, in the time of what we might call genuine newness. Larkin’s objections to modern innovation are centred on its lack of invention — it’s all fatally predictable. Jimmy Porter was nostalgic for the future. Larkin is anticipatory about the past. He longs for the time when youth meant the possibility of a new start.  

     This is being young,
     Assumption of the startled century
     Like new store clothes,
     The huge decisions printed out by feet
     Inventing where they tread,
     The random windows conjuring a street.

The implication being that the time of adventure is long over. But in ‘Sad Steps’, as the poet addresses the Moon, youth is allowed some hope.

     One shivers slightly, looking up there.
     The hardness and the brightness and the plain
     Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

     Is a reminder of the strength and pain
     Of being young; that it can’t come again,
     But is for others undiminished somewhere.

An elegantly cadenced admission that his own view of life might be neurotic, and excellent fuel for Jake’s chapter on the dialectical element in Larkin in which it is pointed out that his poems are judiciously disposed in order to illuminate one another, Yeats-style. The Sun and Moon, like Water, bring out Larkin’s expansiveness, such as it is. It’s there, but you couldn’t call it a bear-hug. Time is running out, as we hear in the wonderfully funny Vers de Société

     Only the young can be alone freely.
     The time is shorter now for company,
     And sitting by a lamp more often brings
     Not peace, but other things.

Visions of The Building, for example.

The book ends on an up-beat. Its next to last poem, ‘Show Saturday’, is an extended, sumptuous evocation of country life (‘Let it always be there’) which has the effect of making the rural goings-on so enviably cosy that the reader feels almost as left out as the narrator. The final piece is an eery lyric called ‘The Explosion’, featuring the ghosts of miners walking from the sun towards their waiting wives. It is a superb thought superbly expressed, and Larkin almost believes in it, just as in ‘An Arundel Tomb’ (the closing poem of The Whitsun Weddings) he almost believed in the survival of love. Almost believing is all right, once you’ve got believing out of it. But faith itself is extinct. Larkin loves and inhabits tradition as must as Betjeman does, but artistically he had already let go of it when others were only just realizing it was time to cling on. Larkin is the poet of the void. The one affirmation his work offers is the possibility that when we have lost everything the problem of beauty will still remain. It’s enough.

(Encounter, June 1974)