Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
**I had to write about English at some point… When thinking about literature, it is really important to consider the text within its socio-historic context: you’re going to come across views that are now politically incorrect, but to write a text off for this reason is a real shame. **
When I first picked up Philip Larkin’s poetry, I thought I was in for a dull ride. Having watched a documentary on his rather reclusive and grumpy life, I found that narrative on every page. He seemed to ooze the cranky, middle to upper class, old man stereotype, with sprinklings of sexism and racism thrown in for good measure. Perhaps you could argue that Larkin is a product of his time, venerated for his accessible poetry whilst still alive and then condemned after death. Toads and Toads Revisited may fit the stereotype of the witty, solitary figure; indeed they are some of his most famous poems.
(I think I’ve heard fire alarms more appealing than this guy’s voice, soz)
Larkin’s voice throughout the poem conveys a sense of dissatisfaction at his life, with the half rhyme (words placed together that don’t rhyme exactly) mirroring his frustration that he can’t quite beat the “toad” of work. He presents the “toad”, a representation of working responsibilities, as a tyrannical figure that ultimately has control over his life, using sibilant (alliteration with an ‘s’ sound) and repulsive verbs such as “soil” and “squat”, the most base of actions, to illustrate this.
Whilst you could look at Larkin’s work through the lens of a moaning old man, I think it misses the nuances to his poetry: the compassion, melancholy, wry and honesty. As Andrew Motion has argued, “Larkin spends a good deal of his time as a poet trying to escape his “ordinary” social self; his lyricism is his salvation, not just his work.”
Indeed, within Toads itself, we see the poet explore the concept that he has a toad “cold as snow” living within him, something he is disgusted by yet ultimately accepts. This honesty forces readers to dwell on Larkin’s comment that perhaps we all possess a repugnant side to our personality, something rather insightful.
These kinds of probing questions are what make Larkin, in my eyes, a great poet. The very essence of his work forces us to consider what it means to be human, particularly regarding the concept of legacy and remembrance. One of my favourite poems, Church Going, explores the memorable presence of a church, and its status in years to come, considering the decaying role of religion within society.
Larkin’s ability to question not only what will happen once churches fall out of use, but after that, provides food for thought previously unbitten; perceptive comments such as “superstition, like belief, must die” lead readers to think beyond the poem and into their lives. The poet’s colloquial and witty language, such as commenting on the “holy end” of the church and dwelling on whether the roof has been “Cleaned or restored” adds a sense of comic relief to an otherwise melancholic poem.
Larkin could be described as a poet who expresses blunt honesty, something which makes his work realistic and accessible. However, this voice can often be called misogynistic, and I don’t disagree. Be that as it may, if you are to read one poem of his, make it Deceptions. For someone who can be incredibly degrading and brash towards women and their ability to please him sexually, Larkin here leaves you with a deep empathy at the young girl he is discussing. To provide some context (as I had no idea what was going on at first), Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor, the quote at the beginning of the poem, was a work of Victorian journalism that explored the state of the working class. The speaker in the quote is a young girl, who is describing how she became involved in prostitution. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “ruined” within a Victorian context, it means to be ruined sexually, i.e. to be impure and no longer a virgin.
(Dreaming of those fire alarms once again)
I have reread and reread this poem. There is something in its incredibly somber tone that sticks with you. Perhaps it is the nonchalant reference to “bridal London” bowing “the other way”, the hopes of marriage and security suddenly distant, or the oxymoron of “fulfillment’s desolate attic” in portraying the high price of male desire. Whatever it is, it sits in my gut.
I think it is fair to say Philip Larkin is a versatile poet, able to convey lashing of irony and wit, but also painful truth and loss. Whether you love him or hate him, his poetry became that of a generation, shaping aspects of our lives today.
To end, I’ll leave you with one of Larkin’s sassiest poems. Probably not best to play when the parents are around, or maybe just send it to them to piss them off. It’s called This is the Verse.
P.S. Mum and Dad you’re fab fear not.