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27 July 2022updated 09 Sep 2022 3:06pm

Philip Larkin is a love poet who doesn’t trust love

He offers an uncensored picture of a damaged and unhappy sensibility – but leaves us with the possibility of hope.

By Rowan Williams

I have never found Larkin an easy poet to like; never mind for the moment the unhappy record of his personal views and attitudes. I suspect this is partly because the first collection of his that I read properly was High Windows, which struck me (and still does) as indulging the least appealing of his poetic mannerisms – the mumble and shrug and occasional snigger that warn the reader not to take any of this stuff too seriously, the tugging undercurrent of resentment, fear, self-pity.

And yet, having got that confession out of the way – is there not something to be said for such an uncensored picture of a damaged and unhappy sensibility? You can’t make poetry just out of fear and self-pity, but what sort of poetry happens when these are so starkly acknowledged? Larkin is still widely admired, even loved, by a lot of non-habitual poetry readers. And this surely has something to do not only with the sheer lucidity of his language – the unobtrusive brilliance of how he can in so many poems sustain a scheme of rhythm and rhyme without breaking his conversational stride – but with that commitment to an undeceiving voice.

The title of his early collection, The Less Deceived, is a significant marker. “Poetry of Departures” repudiates the “reprehensibly perfect” moral life, and warns against mistaking our lives for some kind of aesthetic exercise, a conscious project designed (in the absence of a divine judge) for a sympathetic public. The central image of the title poem in High Windows evokes a heady sense of emptiness, the lack of any pressure that could come from being seen (and judged). It connects with the “wish to be alone” spelt out harshly in an earlier poem, “Wants”.

A bit of a paradox: the poet writes precisely so as to show what human life feels like when released from the pressure that arises from being displayed, being judged, which leaves the reader in a rather odd and complicated position. To write at all is some sort of appeal to be, if not judged, at least heard or seen, and if not loved, at least attended to.

Larkin may say, in “Love Again”, that what people talk about in relation to love “never worked for me”. But – like a medieval mystic attempting to define God by spelling out what God is not – he anatomises repeatedly where the void is and what its emptiness entails.

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The featureless sky beyond the “high windows” may be liberating for the suffocated mid-20th-century English ego. But such liberation is not straightforward. In what is probably Larkin’s most famous poem, “An Arundel Tomb”, the apparent persistence of love, symbolised in the joined hands of the tomb figures, remains a fiction: “Time has transfigured them into/Untruth” (the line-break stresses the jarring character of the sentiment here).

Time makes the importance of love “almost” true; yet it also disproves it. “Faith Healing”, from The Whitsun Weddings, is not one of Larkin’s better-known poems, but it contains a very poignant portrayal of ageing, lonely women finding a moment of some sort of truth as they receive the laying on of hands by an American evangelist who calls each of them “dear child”. They feel “an immense slackening ache” (a wonderfully characteristic Larkin phrase), a sense of “all they might have done had they been loved” – yet this is also a sense of “all time has disproved”, everything that they know has never happened and never will.

Perhaps we should rethink Larkin as a very unusual kind of love poet. Love doesn’t work for him; and even if the experience of others has been less bleak, none of us, in his eyes, has ever been loved enough. But the “almost-instinct” of the “Arundel Tomb” remains: so is “almost true” a statement of failure or of hope?

Larkin survives as a serious poet, I think, because – sometimes despite his own intentions – he leaves this question on the table.

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.

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