Larkin is the most quotable writer of the 20th century – not even Samuel Beckett and TS Eliot run him close. A few examples: “What will survive of us is love”, “Sexual intercourse began in 1963”, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” (a line he thought would “be my Lake Isle of Innisfree. I fully expect to hear it recited by a thousand Girl Guides before I die”), “Home is so sad”, “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”, “Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?” and (one of his many evocations of death) “The solving emptiness/That lies just under all we do”. His quotability covers religion (“That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die”), First World War recruits (“Never such innocence again”) and fate (“The unbeatable slow machine/That brings you what you’ll get”). Sometimes the lines emerge from an unlikely context: it was after accidentally trapping and killing a hedgehog in his mower that he came up with: “We should be careful/Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time”.
As those last lines suggest Larkin could be gentle, tender, even soppy, and despite his reputation for being a curmudgeon there are several poems that celebrate the joy of being alive. Hence his terror of death, which supplies his most memorable moments, not only in “Aubade” but in the culmination of “Dockery and Son”, which builds to a beautifully bleak climax four lines before the end, then extends it for three more:
“Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.”
Larkin could be casually wisecracking in letters and interviews (“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”, “I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back the same day”), but in the poems he earns the right to his aphorisms by struggling towards them.
This isn’t a man belting out what he already knows but one who begins from a position of ignorance (“Strange to know nothing, never to be sure/Of what is true or right or real”) and dramatises his search for knowledge and authenticity.
It’s a key point, given his reputation for being a man of extreme prejudice – racist, misogynist, right-wing. Few of the poems carry traces of that. They’re where he goes to leave himself behind and he exults in the escape (“Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!”). It’s the stuff he didn’t publish (included in letters to friends, for instance) that have damaged his name, not the poems.
Larkin’s humour is there even when he’s tackling the darkest of subjects. He took on the great essentials – love, sex, marriage, work, illness, death, religion, fate and free will – and had something insightful to say about them all.
This article is part of a series in which writers reflect on Larkin’s life, work and legacy to mark the centenary of his birth. Read the other contributions here.