The Reading Room

Understanding Larkin

Some thoughts on Philip Larkin

In the age of retrospective cancellation I often wonder how the English poet Philip Larkin has managed to survive with his reputation relatively intact beyond the odd savaging by literary critics?  When, I wonder will the mob descend upon his statue at Hull’s railways station and cast it into the murky waters of the River Humber or call on Twitter to burn his books? Perhaps he will survive the retrospective cull after all but at what price and if so why?

Larkin wrote remarkable poetry, a Poet Laureate but for his refusal, his unremarkable life made him all the more fascinating and on the surface he cut a solitary figure, self-isolating on the east coast of England, he of bicycle clips and a beige raincoat, the stereotypical Englishman who eschewed the limelight and found solace in the whisky tumbler. Perhaps this sense of ordinariness  will prove his salvation, his middle class preserve in a city in its last throes of fortune as a destination port gives Larkin the air of a captain staying with the crew as the ship is sinking. His published letters show self-deprecation but what would the private diaries burnt at his insistence upon his death have revealed one wonders?

His output was hardly prolific but what he wrote struck a chord, he rose up with the new poetry movement of the 1950s, he was self-effacing and wrote in the manner the man on the street could empathise with when his parents famously ‘effed him up’.  His poetry confronted one’s every day anxieties about love, death, childhood, marriage and loneliness and to the outsider he represented the daily struggle with modern life in England, a middle finger to the romantic movement . But in reality Larkin was far from modern, he was a throwback to colonial Britain and the attitudes of men less educated than he. In later years his drinking bouts with his long-term partner Monica Jones produced loud and obnoxious ditties unbecoming of someone with such a gift for the English language.

Larkin’s outlook on life was bleak, he saw no future for the world and wallowed in its misery, this sense of darkness can be traced back to his childhood upbringing and that sense of repression he felt from his parents stuck with him throughout his life particularly in his attitude to love. The more one reads about Larkin the easier it is to understand but not condone his opinions, his father’s austere nature coupled with his love of Nazi Germany made Larkin hate foreign travel and was surely the earliest catalyst for his Little Englander attitude and his dismal approach towards women and sex. It is no surprise then that his closest friend was a fellow intellectual and a man, Kingsley Amis. Their published correspondence tells you much about them both but more especially Larkin whose repressed sex life spilled out in the adolescent, sexist and vulgar jokes about the opposite sex they were so fond of sharing.

So should Larkin be cherished or chastised? Is it possible in today’s climate to show understanding without condoning? I think on balance it should be, Larkin’s talent should not excuse him, in my opinion he was too intelligent not to know better, society should look towards intellectuals to help create and push forward modern thoughts and agendas on race and equality and to that end Larkin let himself down badly. Like many others from decades past Larkin was a flawed genius whose early years defined much of his character but in the end one must come to the conclusion that if Larkin couldn’t find a more reasoned outlook despite it all then more fool him. But he will survive with his reputation largely intact, mostly because his poetry is accessible, popular and wide-reaching, like many others his work deserves to be preserved and his life viewed as a whole and a balanced view taken and expressed as such. The pigeons on his statue can rest easy a while longer yet.






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