Tag Archives: larkin

‘Born Yesterday’: Philip Larkin at 100

The 100th anniversary of the poet Philip Larkin’s birth took place earlier this week. Larkin is an important poet for me, yet I still somehow manage to underestimate the hold he has on the public imagination. If you mention poetry in this country to someone who doesn’t read it, they might still mention Larkin back. They might even quote him. The recent furore over the GCSE syllabus must have helped generate coverage but the BBC have also commissioned a lot of features (from poets, which is nice). The Philip Larkin Society and Larkin100 team has been incredibly busy.

It helps that Larkin makes such good material. He is present, tangible, in a way many writers aren’t. When we think about Larkin’s character we usually mean his attitudes, but the novelistic observations he’s so often praised for – a ring of water on a sheet of music or ‘an uncle shouting smut’ – are also deployed to paint memorable mini-self-portraits: the famous bicycle clips in ‘Church Going’ or the narrator in ‘Dockery and Sons’ who eats ‘an awful pie’ as they change trains. Then there’s the technology: for a famously reclusive man there is a fair amount of footage and recordings. This, I think, is not a coincidence. Larkin was probably the first generation for which making primetime features about poets was an option (possibly the last).

Another reason – perhaps the main reason – why Larkin feels ‘present’ today is the conversation that’s grown up around his actual character. As a result of the casual racism, sexism and classism revealed by Andrew Motion’s biography and the private letters, as well as the way women are represented in the poems themselves, even the most appreciative discussions of the poems now begin with a kind of ritual throat clearing – the point at which the author indicates that, obviously, they don’t share Larkin’s opinions. I understand why. I do it myself. Some of them indefensible.

But I increasingly think the urge to disassociate the man from the poems leads to some strange places. Every now and then I read one of Larkin’s advocates arguing for a clear division between the man and the work: the man was a rotter, but the work expresses (in the words of one TLS writer) ‘universal truths’. Or you have the late Clive James, possibly Larkin’s loudest cheerleader, who spoke of the way he ‘went narrow to go deep’, avoiding social issues in order to plumb the depths of human nature.

This isn’t my Larkin. For me, the poetry has always contained a sustained, consistent criticism of post-war society – its obsession with youth and beauty, its endless consumerism, its failed promises of freedom – all of which is contrasted with the realities of aging and increasing social isolation. There is a kind of willful turning away from so much else that was going on in the published poems, and a grim reactionariness to the man, especially later in life (there’s the throat clearing again). This is where critics who see Larkin as a poet of post-imperial self-pity have a point. But to cast Larkin’s poetry as fuzzy nostalgia, or to defend it on the grounds of its unique insight into universal ‘human nature’ is to miss the point: Larkin wrote about limits – and his approach to limits clearly had something to do with who he was and the times he lived in.

Personally, that particular sensibility – the concern with limits – has never felt like something from a bygone age, despite the period fittings. In the first episode of Simon Armitage’s ‘Larkin Revisited‘, a series of a series of short clips in which the poet laureate takes Larkin’s poems ‘for a spin’ to see how they bear up now, Armitage reads the poem ‘Born Yesterday’ with a group of dance students in Liverpool. Written for Sally Amis, daughter of Larkin’s friend Kingsley, the poem declines to wish the baby will be ‘beautiful’ or ‘a spring of innoncence and love’. Instead, Larkin wishes ‘what none of the others would’:

May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull —
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called

Implicitly, the students we hear from recognise this as a response to their own world of socially conditioned, unreal expectations. If you read Larkin’s poems, and especially the letters, you see how deeply he felt this pressure himself – instead of the calm, collected resistance of the poem there is an obsession with failure, of looking back on opportunities not taken, of believing he should be living some other kind of life than the one he is. The titles of some of the uncollected pomes tell their own story: ‘Failure’, ‘Success Story’, ‘At thirty-one, when some are rich’… ‘Born Yesterday’ is, to use a cliché – ‘hard won’. It is a form of resistance.

One thing I like about ‘Larkin Revisted’ is that Armitage doesn’t ignore the poems’ more troubling elements, the ones right there in the text. One of the students picks up on a phrase Larkin uses earlier in the poem that, for some, shows his other side – the patronising sexist:

They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

Armitage discusses that phrase, ‘lucky girl’, with the poet Sinéad Morrissey, whose poem ‘On Balance’ is a riposte to Larkin’s (though as others have pointed out it takes some poetic license with the original). Morrissey suggests that Larkin would not have written the same poem about a boy, and I think this is true. Larkin, Morrissey’s poem argues, rarely mentions women, and when he does it is only to comment on what they look like or what they can’t do. It’s true, too, that this is how women often feature – although I’d question ‘rarely’. If I had to guess I would say there are more women in Larkin’s poems than men, and I think this is one of the more interesting things about them.

What makes Larkin’s poetry so well-loved is that alongside the neat stanzas, memorable phrases and occasional flight into mystic vision, it is rooted in life as it was lived. Not just what it looked like, but what it felt like. For Morrissey, by addressing itself to a baby girl ‘Born Yesterday’ imposes limits on its subject and by implication on women generally. For Armitage, and many of the students, its value lies precisely in the way the poem embraces limitation as a defence against a culture whose promises are neither true nor kind, and often flat-out manipulation. These aren’t historical questions, but they’re not universal, timeless ones either. They are about how we live now.


Two Types of Pessimism

Thomas Hardy’s comprehensively if not especially catchily titled collection Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses includes an introduction by the author framed as an ‘Apology’ against the charges of ‘pessimism’ which dogged him his whole career.

In the piece Hardy protests that ‘what is today [this was just over a century ago, in 1922] alleged to be “pessimism” is in truth only questionings in the exploration of reality, and is the first step towards the soul’s betterment, and the body’s also.’ If way to better there be, he quotes from one of his own poems, ‘In Tenebris’, it exacts a full look at the worst.

Hardy is a profoundly pessimistic writer, sometimes to the point of perversity. Awful things happen in the books: there is one scene in Jude the Obscure that made me cry on the train. There is a lingering air of melodrama in ‘Late Lyrics’, too, where the characters (most of the poems are ballad-like stories) are forever betraying each other or encountering misfortune of some kind. He is never shy to point out that bad things happen to good people. 

In Hardy’s day, the charge of pessimism went hand in hand with censure, particularly over the way he challenged Victorian sexual morality and religion. Hardy’s universe does not appear to have a Christian God or any more abstract sense of benevolence.

What is interesting about the ‘Apology’ is that Hardy does not say simply that ‘what is alleged to be “pessimism”’ is simply how the world is or appears to him – which is what his most famous acolyte Philip Larkin did whenever he was accused of a similar attitude.1 It could be that Hardy felt that gambit was unnecessary: he was describing Victorian rural life as he witnessed it, with all its attendant cruelties.

Instead, Hardy takes his critics on their own turf and defends his perspective as useful – even positive. ‘Pain to all… tongued or dumb [i.e. to humans or animals],’ he writes, ‘shall be kept down to a minimum by lovingkindness operating through scientific knowledge, and activated by the modicum of freewill conjecturally possessed by organic life when the mighty necessitating forces – unconscious or other… happen to be in equilibrium, which may or may not be often.’

If this is hope it is incredibly qualified and not a little obscure. But despite the forbidding grandeur of phrases like ‘mighty necessitating forces’ there is a recognisable, positive philosophy here in which compassion is linked to finding and applying rational solutions to moral and social problems.

In a reissue of his first collection, The North Ship, Philip Larkin says that, shortly after those poems were published he threw off the influence of W. B. Yeats’s symbolism in favour of Hardy’s more plain style, paving the way for the ‘mature’ Larkin voice of The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings.

Critics have largely gone along with this story, though some suggest Yeats’s influence might have been stronger, and continued longer, than Larkin let on. But you don’t, I think, admire a writer to the extent of identifying yourself with them, as Larkin did with Hardy, without also engaging with their broader vision. Which makes the differences in their ‘pessimism’ particularly telling.  

Two key themes that Larkin and Hardy have in common is their attentiveness to suffering and their tendency to attack the sexual morality of their day. Hardy’s ‘Apology’ makes him out to be in some ways a good Victorian liberal, holding out for ways of alleviating human misery and for a time when people can love according to their true selves, even if this rarely happens for the characters in his work.

For Larkin, on the other hand, suffering and sexual privation – for him, the two were usually associated with one another – were not problems to be resolved but states which offered insight into the true nature of life, and which became the starting point of his own poems. Larkin takes Hardy’s so-called pessimism (which Hardy claims is only a qualified hope for others) and turns it into something both more personal and more intractable – almost a kind of mysticism.


1 See for example the remarkable interview with John Haffenden, subsequently published in Viewpoints: poets in conversation with John Haffenden (Faber, 1981) and Further Requirements (Faber, 2001). Haffenden presses Larkin on this point several times.

NB the cover picture is a detail of an 1983 etching of Thomas Hardy by William Strang (National Gallery of Scotland)

Tweeting Ourselves to Death

I was once part of a large, discussion-based event for secondary school students, where the organisers (myself included) tasked the participants with discussing whether social media was bad or good for the world. The arguments they came up with were, as you might expect, varied and nuanced, and, when they drafted them, pretty much fifty-fifty.

But when it came to putting the motion to a vote, the room was overwhelmingly in favour of “good for the world”. Judging by their presentations, and the general mood, the participants had clocked that the question implied a kind of judgement on their own lives, of which social media was simply a fact, offered by older generations that thought it was still somehow optional.

Literature is full of pessimistic prophecies about the future of society and culture, or the destruction of the planet. These judgements are frequently issued with good reason and they often come true. But the more accurate they are, the more condescending they feel. Philip Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’, for instance, with its vision of ‘England, gone’, buried underneath motorways and service stations: most of my life has been spent driving around motorways, stopping at service stations. I am the ‘crowd at the M1 café.’

Concrete is one thing. When culture is involved, the judgement feels even more personal. I recently read Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1984 polemic about the effect of television on public life, for the first time. His argument, the general gist of which feels undeniable, is that television’s ubiquity, in the US especially, has changed how we see the world, and not just on TV: everything is entertainment and context is irrelevant.

Postman is remarkably open about judging the present by the standards of the past. His (sweeping) thesis is that nineteenth century America was an exceptionally print-based culture, which in turn meant rational argument had a genuine purchase on public life in a way it no longer does. By his reckoning, audience members at political debates in the US at that time would happily sit through up to seven hours of back and forth, often over dry, technical issues. You do not get Boris Johnson or Donald Trump without television, and they are just the surface.  

I say remarkably open, because, if Postman is right, by now the thinking apparatus of almost everyone on earth is seriously fried and no one wants to hear that.1 When a technology is as constitutive of culture as television was (according to Postman) in the late twentieth-century, or as social media is today, anything positive or exciting will either be indirectly associated with that technology, or happen through it. Because that is where people are: it is where they live.

So I can understand why the students would interpret the question “is social media good or bad for the world?” as a referendum, not on social media, but on the present. And if you are going to be the ones living in the present, self-respect means there is only one answer.

No one wants to think of their lives as someone else’s dystopia.


1 Despite the joke Postman’s argument doesn’t rely on any quasi-scientific, argument about the damage TV does to our brains: it is a question of what modes of representation – what standards of truth – we become familiarised too. Similarly, a lot of the debate about what social media does to our attention spans is irrelevant: the question is what we are being trained to pay attention to.

The Long Slide: Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’

Most writers dislike most of what they write most of the time but the savagery of Philip Larkin’s self-criticism still has the power to shock. In his workbook, the final three words of ‘High Windows‘ – ‘and is endless’ – are replaced by ‘and fucking piss’. This is not very helpful, given I’m going to explain what I like about the poem. In fact, I think the way the poem works says something important about how poetry works in general.

‘High Windows’ kicks off with the classic ‘Larkin’ persona, a frank enough observer of post-war society to talk about sex, but clearly an outsider. A faintly creepy one at that:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s   
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm […]

But a Larkin poem, and this one especially, is also a series of different voices, a feature which too often gets lost in critics’ eagerness to talk about ‘Larkin’ the character, and in some of his own public reflections on poetry. ‘You use them when you want to shock.’ Larkin wrote about swear words: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever shocked for the sake of shocking.’ [1]

The next stanza adds another category of person (old people) and the language shifts again:

I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—   
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester […]

You could argue there are as many voices in a poem as there are strong words, which is to say, words with associations, words which put us in mind of people or ways of life, even if they aren’t fully realised. Now we are in the realm of social analysis. It is Larkin the librarian talking: the language (‘bonds and gestures’) is almost academic.

Having warmed up, Larkin then shifts tone again. The narrator imagines someone older than himself observing Larkin’s own generation and jealous of their freedoms (‘no sweating in the dark about God’). In this case the text is clearly designated as reported speech:

[…] He
And his lot will all go down the long slide   
Like free bloody birds.

Throughout Larkin’s poems the uncertainty and self-criticism sits alongside grand generalisations about life: the latter wouldn’t be convincing if they weren’t accompanied by the former. The shifting of tones I am talking about here performs a complimentary, but different, function. Hopping between voices is just more fun than being talked at, endlessly: it adds variety. But, more than that, it is the way in which Larkin smuggles in what I suppose we have to simply call poetry – that heightened language which takes you outside of yourself.

It is like the opposite of a Zoom call: you get something like an encounter with a series of genuinely individual, human voices, but also, at the same time — whether through the sheer weight of impressions, or that ‘third person’ voice used for sweeping metaphors or grand, universal statements — a momentary sense of coherence which brings all those impressions together. And you get both sensations, the personal and the impersonal, without the unwelcome, impossible demand of having to commit entirely to one or the other, either fully empathising with another person or submitting yourself to some greater, unfeeling whole.

This is one way of thinking about why poetry might be valuable, now, in lockdown, although it’s only a version of why it’s always been valuable. If poems were only about helping us to empathise with other people, the current vogue for them would suggest that, usually, we get our fill of that elsewhere. But poems are something else, too: a movement between self and not-self. No other art does this in quite the same way. If people are turning to poems now it might be because our understanding of who we are, and how we relate to other people, is under such pressure.

All of this comes together in that astonishing last stanza:

[…] And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:   
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The tone shifts decisively, for the final time. Here is the poetry, the grand statement, the highly symbolic image of the window with the blue sky behind it. Larkin’s reflection on the way different generations see each other has led him to see the way they are each part of something bigger, which is a kind of nothingness, which is a kind of freedom. But we have been prepared for this as readers, precisely because he has worked his way through a series of tones first. It’s as if the journey from being ‘Larkin’ at the beginning, through the various other guises, has stripped him of that overbearing personality which announced itself so forcefully at the beginning. The poem is a ‘long slide’.

Despite having once said he couldn’t be a professional poet because he wouldn’t want to go around ‘pretending to be myself’, Larkin recording readings of many of his poems. But the line about ‘pretending’ is one of those self-deprecatory remarks that hides a serious point about how his poetry works: by manipulating tone on the page, playing off the contrast between the ‘ordinary’ voice and the poetic.

Inevitably any reader, even the poet, only has one voice, and one voice is all it takes to break the spell. That is why the recording of Larkin reading ‘High Windows’ doesn’t work for me: it fails on the final word, where Larkin — pretending to be himself — stresses ‘endless’ like someone lost, confused, or slightly afraid of the sublimity of it all. The suspense only holds on the page.   


1. He said it was ‘part of the palette’, (i.e. not necessarily his) which implies he was recording what he was hearing. You can tell Larkin was self-conscious about the swearing, because he brings it up unpromoted: ‘I have a new collection of poems coming out early next month. My advance copy seems full of four-letter words, not at all likely to please a JP! Perhaps you can ban it.’ The person he was writing to had just been made a magistrate. When Larkin started writing publishers could still be prosecuted for ‘obscenity’. (The Complete Poems)