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Selected Letters of Philip Larkin.

A technical difficulty arises in reviewing Larkin's Letters: in all my experience I have never seen or read such foul-mouthed language, the whole virtuoso gamut of bawdry, swear-words often in every line, particularly in the earlier letters and to male cronies like Kingsley Amis. This makes it impossible to do justice to Larkin's idiom, since one cannot quote it.

The pity of it is that underneath the smelly swamp of such verbiage there is the firm ground of Larkin's thinking about poetry, again in the earlier letters where he is forming his creed and poetic persona. He told me that he was very careful of his persona. Fancy anybody bothering in such a society! However, Eliot did, so did Housman, and Hardy wrote his own biography under his (second) wife's name. Perhaps it was worth while in their society's day.

Did this stance on Larkin's part come from the undergraduate pose he and his friends took up? The crass Philistinism: 'Jazz is better than Beethoven', 'Books are a load of crap'. Of course they were clever boys, and some of it was pose. When not, they are flagrantly silly. All dons are put down as mediocre. Larkin's examiners at Oxford were Lord David Cecil, C. S. Lewis, Nichol Smith, Tolkien -- each one a man of distinction. They gave Larkin a First, much to his surprise: in spite of his perverseness, they perceived his quality.

The complex goes much further back, to his 'unspent childhood'. On the very first page, on glancing at the gravestones of his family in the churchyard at Lichfield: 'Major think. I reeled away conscious of a desire to vomit into a homburg hat.' When Coventry was so heavily bombed he was given refuge by an uncle and aunt at Warwick. They are cruelly caricatured for their pains. Is childhood all 'boredom'? He gives Coventry a sour acquittance: 'it's not the place's fault'.

Why does everybody, everything, every place, have to be demeaned, disparaged, insulted? Especially his fellow writers, if not every one -- Barbara Pym was a notable exception. But his friend, Ted Hughes, is 'no good, no good at all'. William Golding's Lord of the Flies 'I didn't find it convincing, a 'literary idea' dressed up as realistically as possible but not realistically enough'. Still, years later it is 'I've never thought very much of him'. Did he ever think very much of anybody? For myself I noticed how supercilious he was in person.

When young he had hero-worshipped Auden and D. H. Lawrence. Eventually everything that Auden wrote after 1940, i.e. in America, is condemned. This is undiscriminating -- I agree that much of it is inferior, but not all. And often Larkin's criticism, ruthless as it is, hits the target and one has to agree with it. The cantankerous Grigson, who was so nasty about everybody else, especially his old friend Betjeman, gets his comeuppance: 'how rotten his poems were and his criticism and his manners and his judgement'. What about Larkin's manners, though his judgement was sound, if too severe.

He did not spare his own publishers. He saw that, after Eliot's death, 'Faber's imprint isn't what it was'. His successors' judgement in poetry became very erratic, 'Faber's crap is as usual'. My own experience confirms Larkin in this, when my name was dropped from the list for a number of people who have never been much heard of since.

Places similarly: Hull is constantly disparaged, it is 'the a--hole of the East Riding'. Now Hull is fascinating historically, with one of the grandest parish churches in England, besides much else of interest to anyone of perception. On the threshold is Beverley, with a Minster the North Country equivalent of Westminster Abbey, the Percy tomb in it has the finest of medieval sculpture. To persons of any cultural sensibility, even common sense appreciation of the past, the East Riding is a paradise of pleasures. Nothing of all this anywhere in Larkin, plenty about jazz and seedy squalor.

Larkin was miserable, and made himself more so. His letters are full of whining and moaning. 'Wifeless, childless' -- that was by his own choice, which we must respect: then why complain about it? He admits at one point what was wrong -- he could not give himself to anyone. We cannot blame him for that: that was the way he was made. Conventional people think him 'diseased'; but that is not right, they do not understand the psychology of genius (for he was one). Writers of genius write out of the tangle of their complexes, it is for critics to estimate the product. Larkin agreed with Hardy's definition of poetry -- words from the heart expressed rhythmically in such a way as to move other hearts. Not much of that in Larkin, the overall message is -- as Eliot's widow has said -- enough to make one drown oneself.

Even so, he was a good poet, technically a perfectionist. He had no use for the uncooked, uneducated outpourings patronised by the media today. Interestingly he compared himself with Housman -- though no such scholar (except for Jazz), and Housman did speak straight from the heart to other hearts. A professor of English- of whom Philip would not have approved- calls him 'the best poet of the century'. What about Yeats or Eliot, Bridges, whom Housman, no easy critic, thought best; or Hardy, who would have been Philip's choice? The professor thought these Letters the best of any poet he had ever read. Has he never read Byron's, or Keats's, Shelley's, or the incomparable letters of Swift?

Anthony Thwaite has done a fine job in editing these- thorough and conscientious, the notes are most useful and properly fair. There is a fascinating paradox about Larkin. Why is he so popular, when he hated the society of our day? -- Because he was its laureate.
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Author:Rowse, A.L.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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