Towards arrogant eternity. Philip Larkin is often caricatured as a model of English miserabilism. But for Dan Jacobson he is a writer of grace and mystery, a master of self-division

Further Requirements

Philip Larkin, edited by Anthony Thwaite <em>Faber and Faber, 392pp, £25</em>

Philip Larkin's poetry is never obscure, but it is more complicated than either his admirers or his detractors would wish to believe. Even the most simple-seeming of his poems emerges from Nietzschean depths of self-contradiction. Larkin is today almost as famous for being bleak and negative in his outlook on life as Thomas Hardy, his idol, is for being "pessimistic". Indeed, he himself wrote ironically of "desolation [being] to me as daffodils were to Wordsworth". Yet, again and again, he celebrates with more passion than any other poet the unstable splendours of the English summer: its heat, fullness, heaviness, leafiness, the sultriness of its airs and the ever-changing densities of its light. Look at such poems as "Cut Grass", "Here", "The Whitsun Weddings", "Solar", even the visionary "The Explosion", and many others. In a poem written early in his career, but left unpublished until the appearance of his Collected Poems, Larkin described himself as "summer-born/And summer-loving" - and so he was, even though, in that same poem, he confesses himself to be inadequate to "the emblems of perfect happiness", which summer days should represent.

It is easy to find many other examples of Larkin's habit of creative self-contradiction. He is supposed - by himself, among other critics - to have been characteristically "English" in his insularity, his reluctance to visit foreign countries and to explore foreign literatures; also in his hostility to the modernist revolution driven by the Americans Ezra Pound and T S Eliot, in the meagreness of his ambition, the timidity of spirit and conservatism of poetic practice that apparently mark his work. And there is much in the generally disappointing collection of his letters which appeared a few years ago that would seem to justify these reproaches. Yet that volume also shows him to have been ravenously ambitious from his earliest years, a man who always worked with one eye on the unrelenting demands of what he refers to (in yet another poem published posthumously) as "arrogant eternity". Of this preoccupation or obsession, his three major volumes of verse, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows, provide ample evidence. Even "At Grass" - which Al Alvarez once held up as an illustration of the English disease of "gentility" - reveals itself, on a more careful reading, to be devoted to the subject of fame and death. Nothing less.

In any case, however disdainfully Larkin may have spoken of the modernist poetic revolution, and however faithfully (for the most part) he chose to cling to conventional rhyme and stanza forms, the subjects he explored and the patterns of imagery he developed owe a considerable debt to his modernist predecessors. W H Auden's early verse compellingly mediated the modernist influence on him. The rebellious D H Lawrence was another source of inspiration: not for "technical" reasons, still less for "prophetic" ones, but because Lawrence was a writer who never entirely lost his youthful responsiveness to ordinary things and ordinary relationships - sons, mothers, lovers, neighbours, flowers, animals - and the possibilities of transfiguration that they always seemed to contain within themselves. It is characteristic of this aspect of Larkin's work that he should say about one of his own lines (in an interview reprinted in this volume) that it sounds "like a slightly unconvincing translation from a French symbolist" - and then add wistfully: "I wish I could write like that more often."

In short, his best work is deeply dialectical in nature. (Not a term he might have appreciated, perhaps - although, with him, one can never be sure.) For all their translucence, the poems most worth going back to repeatedly - and there are a large number, relative to his overall output - not only arise from self-division, but are about self-division. Each is the record of an irresolvable, tripartite argument between Larkin's delight in the shapes and satisfactions of this world, his fear of losing them, and his unappeased hunger for some mode of being that would do away with both fear and delight, and yet leave him with the privilege of consciousness - "infinity and absence, the beauty of somewhere you're not . . . where there's neither oppressed nor oppressor, just freedom". Such poems are the record also of a "debate" (as Ian Hamilton puts it, in another of the interviews printed here) between the poet and his persona, the public self that Larkin carefully cultivated and was then given to rejecting huffily when people took it at face value, as a true self-portrait, his final verdict on himself. This persona, half-comic and half-desperate, an "indigestible sterility" (his own phrase), incapable of lifting its eyes above the humdrum details of petit-bourgeois life, was indispensable to the poems in which it appears; but it is an error to imagine that it is the sole author of the poems.

Nor is that low-spirited, self-preoccupied figure the sole author of many of the items in this volume. Towards the end of his life, Larkin published a selection of prose, Required Writing; now, in Further Requirements, Anthony Thwaite, who edited both the Collected Poems and the volume of letters referred to above, has swept up all the hitherto unpublished items. The subtitle of the book describes them as "interviews, broadcasts, statements and book reviews"; and it is fair to say that, without Thwaite's labours, most of them would have been lost permanently. For who but a devoted editor would ever have dug up old Third Programme talks, scripts for BBC programmes such as Desert Island Discs, prefaces to catalogues and unpublished books, brief reviews in back numbers of unknown journals such as Umbrella and Q, as well as the book pages of various daily and Sunday newspapers?

It is fair to say that to lose some of the items would have been no loss at all, either because of their inherent inconsequentiality or simply because Larkin does not always appear to his best advantage in them. (If abstraction is the ruling vice of French intellectual life, and megalomania is that of the Americans, then this volume suggests the equivalent sin of the English has always been, and will always be, a comfy middlebrowism. Vide Larkin's tireless championing of the novels of Barbara Pym.) Overall, however, what is impressive about the book is the standard of wit, thoughtfulness and courtesy that he managed to sustain over decades of reviewing, writing prefaces and talks, submitting to interviewers, and suchlike. Impressive, too, is the care he brought to these journeyman tasks and the insights he managed to convey while discharging them. The book abounds in amusing, offhand characterisations of himself and others, out of which there sometimes flash sudden, steely judgements. (The world evoked by Evelyn Waugh's gossipy letters, he finds, "is curt, cheap, brutal".)

These are not the only virtues to be found in the collection. Throughout his career, Larkin seems to have been ready to use the random journalistic occasions that came his way to view from different angles not merely his own work and that of the individual writers he discusses, but the nature and "uses" of poetry as a whole. Thus at one point he writes: "I am always very puzzled when I hear a poem condemned as 'mere personal emotion'. It seems to suggest that emotion can be impersonal, can exist in the abstract with nobody to feel it, which of course can't possibly be true . . . To me, now as at any other time, poetry should begin with emotion in the poet, and end with the same emotion in the reader. The poem is simply the instrument of transference."

And at another: "I quite realise that [the subjects of poems] are chosen by our own natures no less than the tone one adopts with them . . . but blessedly the links are for the most part out of sight and the subjects themselves free to expand. I sometimes think that the most successful poems are those in which subjects appear to float free from the preoccupations that chose them, and to exist in their own right, reassembled - one hopes - in the eternity of imagination."

How can one best describe these arguments? Do they contradict or complement one another?

Dan Jacobson's most recent book is Heshel's Kingdom (Penguin, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world