How can the first article in a column about British literature not be about Charles Dickens? When the column features in ‘Estella’s Revenge’, a zine founded on a Dickens quote, it may seem especially odd. The answer is shocking, yet simple; at the age of twenty two I have read precisely two novels by this most revered master. So despite being able to comment on big or small screen adaptations of Dickens’ books I’ll leave attempts at literary criticism of his novels until I have at least completed ‘Great Expectation’.
Instead let me start by talking about someone whose work I have actually read. This statement might sound stupid but reading book jacket blurbs it is clear that this is not a philosophy everyone subscribes to. If I sound a little intolerant of this type of big mouthed stupidity (I mean Christ it’s only books isn’t it) I’m glad. I’m sure my subject, Philip Larkin, would have approved.
‘This Be The Verse’ is probably Larkin’s best known poem. It’s the one that ends up in the anthologies because people feel they can (shudder) ‘relate’ to it. It’s one of the few poems where Larkin’s attitude is no longer perceived as grumpy but becomes universally accepted as an expression of world weary wisdom. Some people may think that the majority of his poetry reflects this tired knowledge and inability to conceal what has been realised but they are usually shouted down by those who maintain that he is a crabby old git. Sometimes they get cheese balls thrown at them.
‘This Be The Verse’ is a perfect example of the way that Larkin expresses himself in many of his poems. The first line, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ shows his unwillingness to conceal the truth about the family, the most taboo of subjects among the English. At the time Larkin was writing it was not acceptable to blame your parents for everything, nor was it encouraged to talk about your families faults. To blankly state that ‘elders and betters’ do not always know best, as Larkin does in this line, was quite innovative. However by choosing a straightforward style that utilises eight syllables in a line, regular rhyme, concise language and a casually thrown in swear word Larkin shows that he believes this idea to be a trueism, an undeniable fact. He feels that it would be impossible for anyone to have failed to notice the inherent destructive nature of parents. His words almost shrug, as if to show that this is an unpleasant aspect of life that everyone is aware of and that everyone finds a way to deal with.
In the second line of the poem ‘They may not mean to but they do’ Larkin shows his contempt for good intentions that are backed only by ineptitude. This is a typical attitude of Larkins found in poems such as ‘Mr Bleaney’. However this line also brings up another core concept of much of Larkin’s poetry, that in the end there is little use blaming ordinary people for their actions. In many of his poems Larkin slightly relives his harsh views on what people do with their lives by appearing to say that the way the world’s systems automatically function are the reason why people do what they do. Therefore there is little reason to assign blame to ordinary people, in the case of ‘This Be The Verse’ the parents.
This idea may seem to be at odds with Larkin’s extremely angry persona in poems such as ‘Faith Healing’ but it can actually be seen as an inevitable result of this anger. Larkin becomes resigned by the end of many poems to the fact that although he sees stupidity and waste all around him there is little he can do except report the facts. This idea is shown in many of his poems by the passivity of their structure. The regular layout of the lines, their length and rhyme scheme do not force the reader on towards a conclusion. They provide space to pause or even to stop. Larkin does not push the reader towards the truth. He says what he thinks and whether the reader progresses or agrees it ultimately doesn’t matter or make any difference to the way human beings work; ‘Man hands on misery to man’. Larkin’s poetry is not about global solutions but personal realisations, reason and in some ways growth.
This is where people start muttering about how Larkin is grumpy, fatalistic, a right sod. What sort of bloke has a problem with people buying pets for their children? (‘Take One Home For The Kiddies’) Who is he to judge anyone?
Well Larkin was an ordinary human being and as such he makes judgements about others of his species as every person has since we thought of a word for sentences. He just happens to write his judgements down. He is a realist who understands that small pets often die quickly, that people are easily fooled and that sometimes lives are wasted. Calling him a cynic is just another delusion that he would have been deeply scathing about.
Evidence for this argument is found throughout his poems. Looking again at the example of ‘This Be The Verse’ in the second stanza an explanation is provided for why parents messed up kids of his generation. It is not a happy explanation, ‘they were fucked up in their turn’, but by giving it he allows those particular parents some concession. By explaining the chain that led them to give their kids ‘the faults they had’, he also makes an allowance for all previous groups of parents who must surely also have been screwed up by their parents. This explanation displays his realism as it shows that he understands there are reasons why parents ‘fuck you up’ and that he is not attempting to heap unbalanced blame upon the older generation. However just because he understands doesn’t mean he has to approve of the results.
My favourite collection of Larkin’s poetry is ‘Weddings and Funerals’. In this collection Larkin displays a full range of emotions, showing what a varied poet and human being he really was. In ‘Faith Healing’ he is enraged by priests and religion, while contemptuous of how gullible ordinary people appear. In ‘Talking In Bed’ he is resigned to disappointment and yet still sorrowful when reality shows him to be right. In several poems, for example ‘Mr Bleaney’ he is depressed about the human condition and concerned about his own life. In poems such as ‘Love Songs In Age’ and ‘An Arundel Tomb’ he is softer, yet still sure of the falseness and futility that makes up much of the world. In possibly my favourite poem by Larkin ‘Water’ he is, dare I say, hopeful about what might be possible or at least sure of the potential of nature to improve things. But in all of these poems, except perhaps ‘Water’, he never allows himself to be seduced from realism.
I love Larkin’s poetry, I am utterly bowled over by his ideas, his straight forward way of expressing them and the way this is effectively coupled with the delectable force of his carefully chosen language. His linguistic devices form a solid marriage with the structure of each poem and yet there are always many nuances in each line. Larkin never strains to give information but allows the reader to use their own imagination, while still getting over his own tightly crafted vision. This passage from ‘Dockery and Son’, a poem about a young man visiting his old university, illustrates these points perfectly:
‘ ’Dockery was junior to you,
Wasn’t he?’ said the Dean. ‘His son’s here now.’
Death – suited, visitant, I nod. ‘And do
You keep in touch with –‘ Or remember how
Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half tight
We used to stand before that desk, to give
‘Our version’ of ‘these incidents last night’?
I try the door of where I used to live:
Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.’
The content and structure of them poem do not force but are casual and do not cling or implore the reader to go on. If you are curious read on, if not Larkin will continue anyway.
The way the word ‘Locked’ is not only separated on to a different line but placed after a stanza break and then hedged in by a full stop brings home the isolation of the speaker. These elements combine to make the word sound like a large lock being tightly shut. I encourage you to read this stanza aloud. Let ‘Death – suited, visitant, I nod’ weigh on your tongue as you pronounce each comma. As you feel them drop and disappear you will begin to understand the depth of one of Britains finest poets.