The Poetry of Mental Unhealth: Philip Larkin

May 3, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 10 14 min read

covercoverTo my knowledge, the last poet to have made the bestseller list — in England, anyway — is Philip Larkin, whose Collected Poems spent several months in 1988 battling it out with Robert Ludlum’s The Icarus Agenda. That’s a remarkable achievement for a poet whose constitutional cheerlessness would not seem designed for popular success, but maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. British readers in 1988 apparently found in Larkin what most readers would delight to find anywhere: a compulsively readable meditation on the common life rendered in language formally rigorous yet wholly accessible. Larkin’s poetry, wrote Clive James in As of This Writing, “gets to everyone capable of being got to.” In composing superb lyrics for ordinary readers, Larkin in some ways faced a more daunting challenge than some of his modernist forbears, who, writing for a coterie, could occasionally allow the large or small passage of complete gibberish to pass through the net. After three slender volumes of mature verse, Larkin essentially gave up the job forever in his middle 50s. Unlike more typically gargantuan Collecteds, his is an inviting and readerly 200 pages.

coverOr was. The newly issued Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), edited by Archie Burnett, weighs in at 729 pages. Is Larkin well served by exhaustive annotations and the preservation of every scrap of juvenilia and disjecta? Such is the unhappy fate of a major writer, even one as scrupulously self-editing as Larkin. Must we now read every word, the obligation that, according to T. S. Eliot, is the debt owed to every major writer? I like to think Eliot was just kidding; I haven’t read the collected works of anyone. The nearest I’ve come is Larkin, whose Collected Poems (the nice friendly early one, not the big daunting new one), two fine early novels (Jill and A Girl in Winter), one collection of critical essays (Required Writing), one collection of music criticism (All What Jazz), and the posthumous Selected Letters can be got through in a couple of months. Brevity — some might say parsimony — not only shaped his career; it inhered in his poetry. Aside from a few narratives and quasi-narratives, all of his poems are lyrics, most fitting comfortably on one page and some a mere quatrain or two of tetrameter or less. Brevity, however, is not the same as reticence. For all his Englishness, Larkin was, superficially at least, as “confessional” as any of his American contemporaries, though what he had to confess was rarely so lofty as the rarefied anguish of Lowell or Plath or Sexton. In “If, My Darling” he inventoried the contents of his mind, there to find:

                                           [a] creep of varying light,
Monkey-brown, fish-grey, a string of infected circles
Loitering like bullies, about to coagulate;

Delusions that shrink to the size of a woman’s glove,
Then sicken inclusively outwards.

Although the Larkin persona obviously resembled the man himself, he unashamedly distilled his worst qualities for literary effect. Neither “If, My Darling” nor any other poem tells you that Larkin ran a major research library at the University of Hull with uncommon perspicacity and professionalism for 30 years. Narrow, small-minded, and willful as his letters sometimes show him to be, Philip Larkin was hardly the monstrous collection of resentments and fears and lusts that the poem describes; or if he was, we all are, for the contrast “If, My Darling” makes between inner and outer, appearance and reality extends well beyond the individual case. It sickens inclusively outwards to us.

coverDuring the 1990s a great storm arose over the seamier revelations of Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life and the even seamier revelations of Anthony Thwaite’s edition of Selected Letters.I found all that censoriousness much too pleased with itself. Larkin hoarded like the miser he was, collected mild bondage magazines, and occasionally used the “n” word — hardly laudable traits, but not exactly war crimes either. Persona or no persona, didn’t he make it clear in “If, My Darling” that he was no model of mental health? The argument seemed to be that if someone used the word “nigger” in his correspondence (which he did — half mocking his own bigotry, but only half), the poetry he wrote must reflect the same racist, rancid prejudices. But it doesn’t. Larkin, who was very far from confusing art with life, knew that his prejudices and pettinesses were inassimilable to his poetry. “Wogs,” “niggers,” and “bitches” belong to the lexicon of his prose, not to his verse, which does indeed sometimes express conservative social and political views. Yes, I too wish he had been a liberal, but I fail to be horrified by the nostalgia for duty (“Next year we are to bring the soldiers home / For lack of money”) expressed in “Homage to a Government,” which happens to be quite a good poem.

Readers have a perfect right to regard Philip Larkin, as I do not, as a complete shit. But if they consider his personal failings indistinguishable from his poetry, I think the loss is theirs. Did the celebrated author and distinguished university librarian really believe that “Books are a load of crap,” as the last line of “A Study of Reading Habits” has it? Unlikely, even if the Larkin-like speaker of that poem gives vent to feelings of bibliographic disillusion and disgust that even the most enraptured bibliophile will secretly have experienced. As it happens, the sorts of books the poem describes (“the dude / Who lets the girl down before / The hero arrives, the chap / Who’s yellow and keeps the store”) are a load of crap; they certainly have damaged the speaker, who, unlike the poet, made the fatal mistake of confusing art with life. Any poet/librarian can gush about the wonder of reading; it takes a special kind to deplore it.

Philip Larkin is so hated in some quarters that it may be necessary to point out that the pulp fiction fantasies of “A Study of Reading Habits” (“Me and my cloak and fangs / Had ripping times in the dark. / The women I clubbed with sex! / I broke them up like meringues”) are not intended as models of social interaction. Larkin neither broke up women like meringues nor recommended doing so. Nevertheless, it would be hard to mistake the bitter irony of the title. This study of a severely damaged psyche does not hide its meanings in layers of symbol and allusion. None of Larkin’s poems do. Rather shockingly, they mean pretty much what they say. “There’s not much to say about my work,” he told the Paris Review. “When you’ve read a poem, that’s it, it all quite clear what it means.” I’ve read many fine essays about him but no book-length critical study. What would be the point? An ordinary reader with a modicum of experience in poetry and its forms is as likely to appreciate Larkin as any scholar or poet. Aside from the rare hermetic specimen like “Dry-Point” or “Myxomatosis,” every Larkin poem is eminently paraphrasable. This one is about the tedium of working for a living, that one is about visiting provincial churches, another one is about listening to jazz, and they are all, to invoke the similarly tarnished Matthew Arnold, a criticism of life. How is it that verse that can be reduced to paraphrase and that offers restricted scope for interpretation can be so affecting? Maybe it’s because the poems still allow for mystery, uncertainty, doubt. In “Days” Larkin asked the unrhetorical questions “What are days for?” and “Where can we live but days?” and proposed an unrhetorical answer:

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Larkin’s poetry may be unfashionably paraphrasable, but it rarely takes positions or declines into the merely personal; that’s what his letters were for. (“The Slade [art school] is a cunty place, full of 17-year-old cunts,” for example, or, thrillingly, this bit of railway intrigue: “I had a hellish journey back, on a filthy train, next to a young couple with a slobbering chocolatey baby — apart from a few splashes of milk, nothing happened to me, but the strain of feeling it might was a great one.”) How a dour, penny-pinching, provincial fussbudget created poetry of such delicacy and grace might in the end have something to do with the person in the persona. Could it be that Philip Larkin wasn’t such a horror after all? I leave that question unanswered. However, the sympathy he extended to ordinary suffering mortals is no less characteristic of his work than the mordant wit and atrocious honesty for which it is equally reputed.

The temptation with any Larkin poem is simply to quote it. What can be said about the overwhelming pathos of “Deceptions,” a depiction of the rape and abandonment of an impoverished girl in Victorian England, that isn’t already in the poem? Oh, I’ll think of something. In fact, I will stoutly rise to Larkin’s defense, because the tact with which he treats the subject has sometimes been mistaken for callousness. It’s true that “Deceptions” lacks all declamation or handwringing; therefore Larkin must be on the side of the rapist, mustn’t he? But after all, Larkin is merely writing about rape and abandonment. Unlike the girl whose testimony serves as the poem’s epigraph (“I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt”), he’s not actually suffering these things. These are rather different orders of experience, as he acknowledges in the lines, “I would not dare / Console you if I could.” He had the luxury to reflect in rhymed pentameter on the girl’s violation. She didn’t:

Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun’s occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.

And if she was, as the second stanza maintains, “the less deceived,” this hardly excuses her persecutor. The victimizer was more deceived than the victimized because, being male, older, and of a higher social standing, he could afford to be. The poor start out undeceived, and stay that way. Unless you think that the act of writing enacts the crime symbolically, the cruelty and coldness here belong to the rapist, not to the poet. Put it another way: If you read this heartbreaking, miraculous poem — a Dickens novel in 17 lines– and find in it nothing but confirmation of Larkin’s bad faith and misogyny, maybe the problem is you.

Paraphrasable but irreducible, Larkin’s work remains poetry, not argument. What possible ideology can be inferred from “Water” other than a nostalgia for transcendence? Typically for Larkin, such transcendence as can be imagined is to be found not in some exotic tarn or “crouched in the fo’c’scle” of a freighter rounding the Horn but in a glass of water:

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

As often as not in Larkin, such moments of nearly visionary consciousness are as likely to be negative as positive, but his work is in fact full of intensely lyrical apprehensions that belie his reputation as a crusty conservative with no patience for the inexplicable or the numinous. The man who revered Margaret Thatcher, wrote weekly letters to his nagging mother, and vacationed in provincial British resorts like Sark, Malvern, and Chichester, had more poetry in his soul — perhaps that was his problem — than he knew what to do with.

To return to the question of how Larkin’s poetry can be so affecting, I repeat that I have no clear answer except to say that his remarkable technique clearly has something to do with it. Like Thomas Hardy (his principal influence) or, for that matter, Shakespeare, he uses established poetic conventions as beautiful in themselves and as the most efficient means of carrying content. I like a little showing off, but Larkin’s most brilliant effects are deployed so subtly as to be undetected until the third or fourth or 20th reading. The concealed intricacy of his rhyme schemes and enjambments allows for a seemingly straightforward, conversational style; it sounds as if a man of unusual fluency is simply talking to you. For instance, the three stanzas of “Faith Healing” (“Slowly the women file to where he stands / Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair”) rhyme ABCABDABCD — often enough, that is, to knit the poem together, but at such spatial and temporal distance as to avoid any sing-song predictability and to afford pleasures both conscious (if you notice the pattern) and subliminal (if you don’t). And that’s an easy one. Sometimes the rhymes are consonantal (park/work, noises/nurses in “Toads Revisited”), sometimes they’re whole words (home/home, country/country, money/money in “Homage to a Government”), and sometimes I know they’re there but I can’t quite determine where (passim). Nor is this to speak of the variety of stanzaic and metrical variation, the enjambments, the half lines, and the metaphors so powerful that they lodged even within a mind so unpoetic as Margaret Thatcher’s. (When they met in 1980 the Iron Lady favored him with a misquotation of the lines, “All the unhurried day / Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives” from “Deceptions.” “I . . . thought she might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines, not that I don’t kiss the ground she treads,” he noted to a correspondent.)

Even readers hostile to Larkin will generally acknowledge his extraordinary craftsmanship. What ultimately matters, of course, is not this or that bit of adroit versification but the intellectual and emotive truth of his work. Even here, alas, we’re not quite in the clear, because Larkin’s pessimism is sometimes hard to distinguish from morbidity. I believe that his work is fundamentally humanistic and humane, but a poet capable of lines like “Life is first boredom, then fear” (“Dockery and Son”) and “Man hands on misery to man” (“This Be the Verse”) was not out to provide easy consolations.

No work of Larkin’s is more “challenging” — that is, more apparently inhumane — than “Aubade,” a sort of “Anti-Intimations Ode” and certainly his last great poem. Its theme, to put it more bluntly than the poem does, is that the horror of death renders life meaningless. (In a nice bit of Larkinesque irony, “Aubade” appeared in The Times Literary Supplement two days before Christmas in 1977.) It would be difficult to overstate the bleakness of this poem, starting with its savagely ironic title. The poem is, literally, an aubade — a song of dawn — but whereas most aubades herald the coming of light and life, Larkin’s proclaims the immanence of “Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / And where and when I shall myself die.” The speaker — oh, what the hell, let’s just call him Larkin — has awoken at 4 a.m. and waits out the dawn in existential terror. Till then the darkness will serve quite nicely as a metaphor for “the total emptiness forever, / The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.”

coverWell, Larkin certainly had the courage of his convictions. No stoicism or detachment softens the harshness of “Aubade.” The subject announced in the first stanza — “the dread / Of dying, and being dead” — is carried with remorseless consistency to its remorseless conclusion four long stanzas later. I might as well admit that I’m determined to find whatever shred of humanism I can in this pitiless poem, but others have given it up as a bad job. No less an authority than Czeslaw Milosz called it “a desperate poem about the lack of any reason — about the complete absurdity of human life — and of our moving, all of us, toward an absurd acceptance of death” (Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, University Press of Mississippi, 2006). It’s not that Milosz objected to Larkin’s thematics, and he greatly admired his “wonderful craftsman[ship].” What he found “hateful” about “Aubade” was its passivity, its “attitude of complete submission to the absurdity of human existence.” With this attitude, he went on to say, “Poetry cannot agree…Poetry is directed against that.”

coverThe first and perhaps feeblest answer to Milosz’s objections is to point to the sheer beauty of the poem, its equipoise and fluency. Any formal structure won out of the materials of horror and death represents some affirmation of the will, does it not? Larkin might simply have got “half-drunk,” lost the battle to insomnia, and succumbed to despair, as he no doubt did on many a night and as a few million people are probably doing at this very moment. But he also ordered his thoughts about that experience, conjoining the intimate and the cosmic in five 10-line stanzas rhymed ABABCCDEED, with a penultimate half line setting off the devastating apercus of the concluding pentameter line. And he makes it look easy. Seamus Heaney, who shared some of Milosz’s doubts about the ultimate value of “Aubade,” nonetheless found a moral significance in its artistry. “When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life” he wrote in Finders Keepers. “When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity…In this fundamentally artistic way, then, ‘Aubade’ does not go over to the side of the adversary.”

Nevertheless, Heaney believed that in every other way “Aubade” does go over to the side of the adversary. I maintain, on the contrary, that this doom-ridden dirge is on our side. You may disagree, and if you do, you should never read “Aubade” again. A book or a poem may chasten or challenge or disturb or disillusion, but if it just makes you feel lousy, you are well advised to toss it out the window. In the end, “Aubade” doesn’t make me feel lousy, though God knows it’s not a poem I can read casually or without a certain tautening of the nerves. In the first place, why would Larkin, who repeatedly and strenuously objected to what he considered the inhuman alienations of modernist art, inflict punishment on his readers? This was a man who adored Beatrix Potter’s fables for children and believed, as he wrote in “The Mower,” “We should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.” Still, the gentle, nostalgic Philip was quite at home with the scabrous, vindictive one, and there’s no reason that the latter couldn’t have written “Aubade,” as the less forgiving, bitterer man wrote “The Old Fools,” “The Card Players,” and some other characteristically intransigent pieces. “Aubade” is a long way from Beatrix Potter, but its ferocity is conditioned by an almost shocking — in the context — mildness of tone. The poem is not fundamentally about “remorse — / The good not done, the love not given,” but it includes those things, and if despair is inherently solipsistic, that too is conditioned by a recognition of a very special horror: at death there is “Nothing to love or link with.” It’s in the final stanza, however, that Larkin opposed, albeit gingerly, a rather surprising counterforce — life:

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Life, be not proud. It and we are going to lose this battle — forever — but on the way to defeat, people love and link, work gets done, responsibilities are met. It’s a sunless day to be sure; how much cheer can you reasonably expect from Philip Larkin? But ringing telephones, regular mail delivery, and relatively engaging office work were no small matters to him. The assertion of continuity that they represent gets the last word. One way to regard this tenuous and temporary victory for the human is as a hollow joke; another way is to regard it as a tenuous and temporary victory.

In a similar vein, many readers find the last stanza of “High Windows” blankly nihilistic. Here, I think I can be more assertive: they’re wrong. It’s as if the poem argues against itself, the first four quatrains rationally putting the case for the absurdity of our delusions, and the last quatrain triumphantly ignoring those very same arguments:

                                                         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.

There’s much to be said for nothing and nowhere and endlessness. What strikes some readers as an ice-cold vision of the Void strikes me as a nearly Zen-like apprehension of emptiness in fullness and fullness in emptiness, rather like Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” but without all the difficulty.

coverO.K., so maybe some of Larkin’s poems give in a little too easily to his predisposition to desolation. Martin Amis, who as a boy received grudging “tips” from his parents’ frequent and melancholy houseguest, wrote in The War against Cliché, “For his generation, you were what you were, and that was that. It made you unswervable and adamantine.” Although I want and maybe need to believe that Larkin’s dauntless pessimism represents a valid and responsible ethics, I don’t really care if his views are unbalanced, unhealthy, unsound, and unheroic. He turned them into something human, something I can use. I happen to believe that the light that seeps into the last stanza of “Aubade” redeems the poem for its mortal readers, but no such redemption touches the earlier and starker “Next, Please.” This is a poem that insists with an almost perverse satisfaction on the absoluteness of death and the folly of our pathetic fantasies. I ought to be appalled. That I admire, even love these lines is partly an effect of Larkin’s usual mastery — in this case the way the poem builds to the apocalyptic from the banal, using the controlling metaphor of an approaching ship of death, like some nightmare out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula:

Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

I could say that qualities of courage, honesty, and resolution inhere in “Next, Please,” but so do some other qualities — fatalism, perverseness, and morbidity, for example. Yet against these less ennobling qualities is a human sympathy that more than anything explains Larkin’s hold on his audience. To begin with, “Next, Please” is utterly accessible to the common reader. Nothing could be less esoteric than its form (couplets in quatrains) and nothing more straightforward than its argument — that we necessarily delude ourselves again and again until, finally, there’s no more life left to delude. The operative word is “we.” The poet clings to the same illusions that his readers do. After the poem is written and read, all of us will go back to the same “bad habits of expectancy / …Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear, / Sparkling armada of promises draw near.” I would like not to face death or even life the way Philip Larkin does in “Next, Please,” and I think I more or less succeed in doing so. But while I wait to achieve a heroic control over my fate that is never going to happen, I turn to Larkin’s poetry for companionship in my loneliness.

is the author of the memoirs College and Library. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Rumpus, and Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


  1. This was one of the best essays I’ve read on Larkin in a long time. Thank you for reviving my memory on certain “forgotten” poems.

    I’ve long been waiting for someone smarter than myself to uncloak the humanity–albeit plain humanity–of Larkin.

    I have the first Collected Poems and find that eminently comprehensive.

  2. Mr. Akey, I, right now, have a copy of your lovely little memoir College on my office desk. I was delighted to see your name at the top of one of my go-to daily reads. Library is also great and I can’t wait to read your third book. Thanks for sharing this essay.

  3. I’ve read more Larkin reviews in the past month or so than I’ve read of actual Larkin. This one is the best, by far.

  4. What to add to this discriminating, judicious appreciation written out of love and profound empathy?

    If Larkin runs out on you and you crave more, you can try the poems of Thomas Hardy, which Larkin loved (see “Wanted: Good Hardy Critic” in _Required Writing_). Hardy shares many similar emotional qualities and wrote a great deal more (he also lived 24 years longer than Larkin). From a technical angle—and anyone who reads poetry sooner or later comes to love literary carpentry—Hardy exceeds Larkin in innovating verse forms, in developing formal structures that give his best poems the authority that every poem Larkin collected evinces.

    Larkin _is_ on our side. When he writes of death “Most things may never happen: this one will,” some readers (me) feel a peculiar shiver. No one before has put this quite so inarguably or finally; and the understatement, the casualness (“things”) make this truth fresh all over again. If out of context, the line is not as powerful as it is in “Aubade,” even so, it stays. For me it is the private document that Blaise Pascal sewed into his coat and that never left him.

  5. A superb essay that applauds a great poet for all the right reasons. It is perhaps an act of courage that Larkin’s arguably best poem, “The Whitsun Wedding,” goes unmentioned, especially as a counterweight to the grave pull of “Aubade” or “Next, Please,” since there’s no way such a keen admirer of Larkin could simply ignore “Whitsun.” But that fair poem’s embrace of life and its arc of transcendence is another essay, I suppose.

  6. Thank you for a wonderful reading of an essential poet, and for coming to the defense of “Aubade” against Heaney and Milosz. One does so often in Larkin find the bleakness shot through with rays of light, even in the “characteristically intransigent ” “Old Fools” we do get “the million-petalled fower / of being here.”

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