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Review: A New Life of Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin / The Paris Review, Facebook
• November 21, 2014 5:00 am

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After taking a bad fall in his downstairs bathroom, the poet Philip Larkin was rushed to the hospital on the night of 29 November 1985. Having actively contemplated death for most of his 63 years, he now felt—accurately—that his moment of expiration was approaching. In the ambulance, he begged his longtime companion Monica Jones, who rode to the hospital with him, to destroy his diaries.

After Larkin’s death a few days later, Monica complied, turning the diaries over to his secretary—who happened to be another ‘longtime companion' of Larkin's, Betty Mackereth. Mackereth spent an entire afternoon shredding and incinerating their contents.

But Larkin had said nothing about the letters in his possession, nor—of course—was there anything he could have done about the vast amount of correspondence he had mailed to others over the years. Decades earlier, in a poem he had composed on the occasion of his 31st birthday, Larkin had written:

Ends in themselves, my letters plot no change;
They carry nothing dutiable; they won’t
Aspire, astound, establish or estrange.

How wrong he was. When Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin was published in the early nineties, readers were astounded—even scandalized—by revelations drawn from Larkin’s correspondence, which included a dizzying number of romantic connections, and quite a few of them conducted simultaneously, for a man with such a fusty public image. There was less evidence of much actual sex having occurred, but the letters between Larkin and his circle of literary friends more than made up for that with a generous dose of explicit talk that showed a certain lack of interest in what most would consider conventional behavior.

Consider this passage from a 1949 letter to Larkin from his friend Kingsley Amis, discussing the availability of Amis’ wife for some amateur photography:

I have asked Hilly about your dirty-picture proposal, and obtained a modified assent. She is prepared to do corset-and-black-stocking or holding-up-a-towel stuff, and bare-bosom stuff…but is a bit hesitant about being quite undraped, "though I’ll probably get bolder when I start." Does this give you the hron? It does me, slightly, oddly. Do you want "some of us together"? ("Why you narcissistic—").

The next year, Hilly herself wrote to Larkin while frustrated with her husband’s serial infidelities, musing that, "I’ve got a weekend off in April when I shall be going to London, I dream that I’m meeting you there, & that we’ll have loads to drink & then go to bed together, but alas, only a dream." And Larkin’s correspondence with the Amis’s almost pales in comparison to his letters with the writer Robert Conquest.

In his biography, Motion seemed to enjoy leveraging the angle of scandal for most of what it was worth. To some extent, a hard hit on Larkin was unavoidable, considering the available evidence. What can be said positively, or even neutrally, about a man who, in the aftermath of his married girlfriend’s miscarriage in 1952—the child was likely his—wrote in a letter that, "I fancy you should be thankful…you would have got pretty tired of ‘a lifetime of deceit’, which really is what it would’ve turned out to be." The letter is illustrated by two drawings from Larkin, the first of an adult seal smiling at a baby seal, and the second of the grown-up seal waving good-bye to the baby.

Some things are just not right.

Motion’s approach—as critical reviews noted at the time—lacked balance. For one thing, Motion oddly missed much of Larkin’s irony and humor, much of it self-deprecating, and seemed to assume that the gathering bitterness of Larkin's later years had been the norm throughout his life, despite abundant evidence of altogether healthy relations he maintained with both colleagues and loved ones. (His most frequent correspondent was his widowed mother, to whom he sent more than 4,000 dispatches.)

James Booth’s new biography, Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love, sets out explicitly as a corrective. Booth—at one time an English professor at Larkin’s university, Hull, as was Motion, briefly—is the literary adviser to the Philip Larkin Society, and so we readers must settle for a compromise: We know that there is going to be a fannish element to the approach, but can also expect mastery of the material. There appears to be much mastery and also a self-conscious effort on the part of the author to moderate his natural apologetic impulse. The resulting volume is engaging: mostly judicious, light on faults, and heavy on fair, even illuminating, observations.

Booth’s surest terrain is his sense for Larkin’s humor and its role in his complex rhetorical strategies, which differed with every correspondent. Speaking of an interview Larkin gave to the press in his final years, Booth points out that, "Sincerity and irony are blended in an inscrutable mix," but this is an observation that could have applied to virtually everything he wrote, in his poems, his letters, and, for that matter, the letters his literary friends wrote to him. As those familiar with a certain sort of witheringly dry English humor know, there is absolutely no way to be sure just how serious Amis is when, for example, he speaks of the plans to involve his wife in taking dirty pictures for Larkin.

This ambiguity extends to the poetry. It is often a challenge to determine just how serious Larkin is there, or even if he always knew just where he had left the line drawn between sincerity and irony. This applies not only to obviously semi-humorous efforts like ‘This Be The Verse,' but also to more ostensibly grand affairs like ‘An Arundel Tomb‘, where the narrator stands before the grave of a medieval wedded pair who are depicted—in an intimate detail wrought by the 14th century sculptor—holding hands. The final stanza concludes with a typically Larkinian crescendo:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. 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.

Incautious readers have long finished the poem feeling buoyed by that last line, having missed the import of the two almosts that precede it.

Keeping track of his irony must have been only marginally more difficult for Larkin than keeping track of his women. Monica Jones, a brilliant but difficult academic, was the longest serving companion of Larkin’s maturity, and the only one who was his intellectual peer. She was never granted her desire that she and Larkin marry, and had to share him with others—though it seems that he was principally an emotional Lothario rather than a physical one. Monica’s main competition was initially Maeve Brennan, a woman of serious Catholic principles (hence the limited physical dimension to the affair) who worked for Larkin at Hull, where he was the university librarian. Later, both Maeve and Monica had to share time with Betty Mackereth, the secretary who destroyed Larkin’s diaries at Monica’s request.

Booth navigates these unstill waters with care, defending Larkin from the more unbalanced and hypocritical censures of his critics, while presenting the affairs as the record seems to show they were: dishonest and often dishonorable, but also decades-long sources of frequent warmth and purpose to their participants. At times Booth lapses, attempting even to defend Larkin from the poet's own self-criticism when he wrote in a letter of his simultaneous involvement with Monica and Maeve, that

There isn’t any need to make my situation any better-sounding than it is: a self-centered person conducting an affair containing almost no responsibilities with one girl getting mixed up with another, heedless of the feelings of either. Well, not heedless, but not heedful enough to do anything about it, anyway.

This seems about right. Of the poetry, Booth provides thought-provoking and sometimes persuasive readings anchored almost always to the biographical circumstances surrounding the composition of a poem. With Larkin, who asserted that he wrote "poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt…both for myself and for others, though I feel that my prime responsibility is to the experience itself," this approach seems particularly appropriate.

When Booth goes wrong it is, usually, at moments of ill-restrained enthusiasm, and there is an unfortunate (though useful, in a sense) tendency towards relying at such moments on unpardonable clichés: noting that the poem ‘Days' is a "timeless masterpiece," or that another effort involved Larkin having "pulled out all the organ stops" (at least that "organ" is in there) or otherwise having "cast discretion to the winds," so as better to "let rip," perhaps while "spoiling for a fight." And I will be happy never to encounter the word "Lawrentian" in print again.

But the pleasures of the book are many. One is being reminded of less prominent Larkin poems unpublished in his lifetime and less-frequently mentioned than show-stoppers like ‘An Arundel Tomb.' Consider the brief, untitled elegy he wrote shortly after the death of his father in 1948:

An April Sunday brings the snow,
Making the blossom on the plum trees green,
Not white. An hour or two, and it will go.
Strange that I spend that hour moving between 

Cupboard and cupboard, shifting the store
Of jam you made of fruit from these same trees:
Five loads—a hundred pounds or more—
More than enough for all next summer’s teas, 

Which now you will not sit and eat.
Behind the glass, under the cellophane,
Remains your final summer—sweet
And meaningless, and not to come again.

For a work that he considered either too weak—or too personal—to publish, there is so much that is typically Larkin here, from its plainspokenness to the suburban "cellophane," the fascination with death and the threat of nihilism. There is also its gentle Englishness, and it is hard to read it without thinking of the wild poem written by the Welshman Dylan Thomas—whom Larkin admired—at the prospect of his own father’s death, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,' only three years later.

Larkin never married or had a child, and his horror of such possibilities, along with his fascination for those who took such a path, infused much of his poetry. When he died, Monica took charge, and had him buried with a simple headstone identifying him simply as a ‘Writer.’ Booth describes how the complicated ironies of Larkin’s life extended even into the cemetery. When Monica died in 2001, she had herself buried in a plot near Larkin’s. Maeve followed in 2003, and was interred with the man she took up with after Larkin only a few graves away from both Monica and the poet. (At the funeral, Booth reports that Betty Mackereth had "commented wickedly: ‘Now nobody can contradict me.'")

Maeve—a sweeter, simpler woman than Monica, and one who did not catch every implication of Larkin’s work—had the last line of ‘An Arundel Tomb' ("What will survive of us is love") inscribed on her own headstone. Booth notes that Maeve

had always been earnest that ‘Philip really did mean' what he had written, insisting that there was no irony in the line. One can hear the ghostly less deceived snort across the grass from Monica’s grave…

One wonders if Larkin would have sighed or inwardly chuckled at this—or both.

Published under: Book reviews