Philip Larkin
The Complete Poems
Archie Burnett, Editor
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
He certainly was a Gloomy Gus, this Larkin. Where the rest of us would see springtime as green and beautiful, bursting with life, he sees it as "most gratuitous," with the people but "green-shadowed." You might invite visitors to visit and play, but for Larkin

    My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
    To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps...

In the woods, the rest of us may recall "unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life;"

    His little, nameless, unremembered acts
    Of kindness and of love.

These vistas, for Larkin, only bring the thought: "All day the clouds hung over the cathedral
Like soggy paper bags bursting with water...
All day I bubbled with curses
While the silly, pointless rain trotted down
or fell, like a silver sword,
Avenging some old wrong."

We have here a 700 page book that collects all of his available poems, those that had been published before his death in 1985 (150 or so) ... along with those that had not been published in his lifetime (another 150). He appears here on the cover, standing on a dock at, presumably, Hull or wherever it was that he hung out, scowling at the camera, scowling at me and you and the world, all the while, looking prim like the librarian that he was, reminding us how the keeper of the books (and the silence) would stare at you if you did anything noisy or fun. It was shut up and work, and that guy there behind the desk was there to make sure that you minded your p's and q's. And stop giggling.

But, I must say, Larkin did revamp our view of the clogged-up librarian. I've often thought that the English and American Library Associations should join together to strike a metal for that old reprobate for freeing his brothers and sisters of that ancient and hoary curse --- that librarians are all old passionless prisses. Instead, he shows us that they ... or at least one of them ... had another side. This old fuss-budget, bald as a hoot-owl, hectors us, "I work all day, and get half-drunk at night." Our very own nanny, scowling at the world, thinking about mum (safely upstairs) and dad (safely in the grave), and thereby thinking grave thoughts on the both of them:

    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.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another's throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don't have any kids yourself.

§   §   §

Today I went to a typical poetry blog, one called "Poetry Connection," and found that in their "Top Thirty Poems," the number one poet was Pablo Neruda, with eight entries. Number two --- ahead of Wilde and Yeats and Dylan Thomas and Swinburne --- was Larkin, with four poems. Which includes the delightfully misnamed "This Be The Verse" [see above], "High Windows" (kids and sex, "I know this is paradise"), "The Trees" ("Their greenness is a kind of grief"), and "Annus Mirabilis,"

    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.

These four, like so many of the three hundred in this collection, contain a breathtaking overload of irony, agony, and woe: precisely what was needed for the world they brought us up in. This fusty old librarian, his upper lip so stiff with disdain, growing up amidst the atomic bombs, the Cuban Missile Crises, Vietnam, the Profumo Affair, Suez, Hungary ... trailing off only with the Iron Lady, who was so bent on screwing up his country as he lay dying. He did not go gentle into that good night.

I've spent the better part of two days wandering about in Larkiniana, poems known and famous, poems unknown and until recently, unknown and unpublished. Outside the aching bitterness, cynicism, the ocasional luridness, and the virulent loneliness --- this last a key theme --- we find something missing. What is it? Humanity? Love? Passion?

He often let it be known that one of his great inspirations was William Butler Yeats, but Yeats, at the end of his life, after years of dry and formal compositions, penned a few funny, non-sentimental, lusty Crazy Jane poems. In Larkin we get none of that: there might be ribaldry, but it is a dispassionate ribaldry ... flirting with the vulgar. His last few years were a wasting away (he wrote almost no poems of note in the ultimate decade of his life), but, even, before that, there was a passionless passion, a passion deep in irony and anger, yes; but little in the way of pleasure --- carnal or otherwise. Terror, yes. Tenderness, no.

He was an Eliot, but an Eliot with a difference. That is, Larkin showed his fear ... and showed it fearlessly. In one of the great poems of the English language he wrote of our mutual common horror, the one that the rest of us try so hard to hide from: "Unresting death a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / And where and when I shall myself die. / And interrogation: yet the dread / Of dying, and being dead, / Flashes afresh to hold and horrify."

    The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse ...
    ...But at the total emptiness for ever,
    The sure extinction that we travel to
    And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
    Not to be anywhere,
    And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

§   §    §

There's been a lot of specious nonsense written about Larkin. People digging about, trying to figure out who or what he was, obviously miffed because he seems to try to reveal so little of himself, and because he was notoriously --- like Salinger and Nabokov --- offended by would-be biographers fishing about in his past and his writings for something scandalous (or even personal). One critic even had him pegged as "a lesbian," because when he was at Oxford, he wrote a silly, bottom-paddling romance, titled Trouble at Willow Gables, which one writer described as scenes of "frisky young ladies in hockey skirts and black stockings, hairbrushes in hand as they prowl their dorms."

Perhaps he was, but who cares? For there are, in this collection, and now for the world to know, perhaps a half-dozen poems that stand with the greatest in the modern English oeuvre: Yeats without the Gaelic nonsense, Eliot without the distancing chilblains, Auden without the simpering, Owens without the war. "Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel," "Money," "This Be the Verse," perhaps "Toads," "The Trees" --- but above all

    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die,
    And specious stuff that says
    No rational being
    Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
    That this is what we fear --- no sight, no sound
    No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
    Nothing to love or link with,
    The anaesthetic from which none come round.

--- L . W. Milam
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