Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Christopher MiddletonNotes on a Viking Prow
(PN Review 10)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Jenny Bornholdt 'Poems' Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This article is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.

Larkin's Dog Mark Thompson

Philip Larkin turns up only once in William Empson's Selected Letters. Clarifying a grumble about unnamed younger poets, Empson writes that he hadn't meant Robert Lowell and Larkin, who 'are very good poets I think, but they seem to me almost my own age'.1

That was in 1963. Twenty years later, Empson told me he hadn't 'liked poetry' since Dylan Thomas and Larkin. His admiration of Thomas was on the record, in half a dozen essays. About Larkin, though, he never printed a word. It's a loss that nobody commissioned him to review The Whitsun Weddings (1964) or High Windows (1974). As poets and personalities, both men were bywords for a laconic, witty, truthful sort of Englishness. There could even have been a regional spin: East Yorkshire's finest poet-critic and adoptive bard, together at last...

It's a teasing remark. If Empson (b. 1906) felt that Lowell (b. 1917) and Larkin (b. 1922) were almost his age, was it because their art seemed older than their years? Or did he feel younger than his? Both might be true. Early Lowell essayed archaic grandeur, and Larkin soon settled for tragi-comic ruefulness, ageing faster than the clock; while Empson - who by his forties styled himself an old buffer - aged without seeming elderly. Or had he, as a time-travel-ling modernist, simply absorbed Eliot's axiom that good poets are always contemporaries?

Although the age gap was not extreme, Empson became famous so young that Larkin's group had to reckon with him as a legacy or monument, almost like Eliot himself (b. 1888). Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) was twenty years old when the 'Movement' poets were making their ways, and many of Empson's poems were older still, nearly coeval with The Waste Land. Those world-making, world-breaking decades gaped between the younger poets and Empson's generation.

After Larkin's friend John Wain made a postwar case for Empson in 1949, a cult of his poetry evolved. Blake Morrison once showed how a refrain from 'Aubade' lodged like a splinter in the Movement poets' imaginations. But splinters go septic. Inspiration from a handful of poems unique in flavour, with plain phrases made strange and rich by odd transpositions; social language stripped of company and launched into orbit; spoken rhythms abridged into ghosts of real speech, or its harbingers; skeins of recondite knowledge; clotted clusters of slang and science; a stoic-epicurean take on life, love and politics - perhaps it was bound to grow oppressive. It oppressed Empson too; he almost stopped writing poetry in his thirties. By the mid950s his admirers were shying away.

Precocious Larkin was largely his own man when The Less Deceived came out in 1955. His initial dependencies on Yeats and Thomas have often been discussed, and Morrison saw Empson's shadow over some of the bleaker poems, such as 'Wants' (written in 1950, when the cult was burgeoning). The older poet's calm awareness of loss and waste, of fear and its price helped Larkin to become himself - the self he famously said he didn't want to go around pretending to be. Distaste for pretence was something they shared, for integrity was fundamental, entailing bluntness honed with an outsider's sociable humour; in the end it may have clipped their muses' wings - a deprivation that Empson took in his stride, and Larkin found hard to bear.

Their differences, too, interlock. Empson was much less guarded as writer and man, while Larkin's art had a lyrical fluency that the other's gift - his drive to end-stopping concentration - pre-empted. Empson was cosmopolitan, attracted to crowded strangeness (in Japan and China) as Larkin, 'singularly incurious about other places' as he admitted, was drawn to familiar solitude (in Ulster, Leicester, Hull). Empson once mused that English sentiment 'turns on feeling cosily within some ring', which is true of nationalism as such. Larkin wanted to be in that ring; his correspondence with Kingsley Amis and others confirms the cosiness on every page.

Amis's awed fascination with Empson ('the Master') in the early 1950s comes over in letters to Larkin and Robert Conquest, another insider. Larkin didn't reciprocate; the only gossip about Empson in his published letters comes later, to other correspondents, and trails no fascination. Yet we have Larkin's word for it that powerful currents were involved. After Empson's death in 1984, he sent condolences to his son Jacob Empson: 'although I much admired and respected Empson's verse I frankly could make little of it and had to be content with a sort of dog-like devotion'.

Empson's compliment in that 1963 letter brings Larkin's posthumous tribute back to mind. For those words about the father, to the son, revealed more than they said - more than Larkin himself had known. Settling for less ('had to be content') is such a Larkinesque reflex, it's a clue that genuine pressure was at work. His gift had smuggled, unawares, a clue into the mourning suit.

The discomfort he describes, any reader of Empson's poetry can recognise. Faced with 'High Dive' or 'Bacchus', Larkin, stickling for easy pleasure, would have thrown in the towel. What's striking is that he never found words for the poems that meant something to him, such as the five in his Oxford anthology.2

But his silence about Empson was only prosaic. Where it mattered - in his verse - Larkin communed with him, not so much in the gloomy poems as in the greatly loved 'An Arundel Tomb', his warmest performance. And the poem he communes with - making much, not little, of it - is 'Aubade': not Empson's darkest or smartest poem, maybe his most engaging and humane. The clue is dog-like devotion, a cliché that's also an avowal, stronger than the occasion required, shedding the armour that Larkin usually wears. His poems play on the contrast between this heavy burden - the price of identity - and the weightless crepuscular rays that flood their last stanzas with light. Devotion isn't Larkinesque at all, too confessional and committing. As for that dog-like, its animating intensity recalls the stone hounds under the feet of the earl and countess in 'An Arundel Tomb', framing the sculpted couple yet central in meaning: they herald the human fidelity and constancy that so catch at the poet.

After two stanzas observing the monument in Chichester cathedral, Larkin sets forth on his meditations: 'They would not think to lie so long.' The poem's first fully end-stopped line is also its first ambiguous one, and it evokes another end-stopped line that hinges on conditional, ambiguous lying: 'I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.' Like Larkin's, this line from 'Aubade' marks description tipping into reflection. An earthquake has awoken Empson and his lover, in Japan. The poet takes his bearings from her ('It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed'). Lacking a language in common, he can't grasp why she wants to hurry away alone; she doesn't realise that she hasn't reassured him. Nothing irreparable has occurred, they aren't at odds, but neither are they at one. These cross-purposes ache because the affair isn't working anyway, and under their pressure the poet anticipates its end, angrily likens Europe's political situation to Japan's (nationalist madness is something else there's no escape from), and wonders what it all means for and about him.

The poem builds on two lines, iterated five or six times: 'The heart of standing is you cannot fly' and 'It seemed the best thing to be up and go.' Like piles sunk into the welter of experience, these lines sustain the poet, but they are hewn of meanings that shift and settle. The Zen-like mantra about standing means that if you are stuck in an earthquake, there isn't much you can do; love affairs relying on sex can paralyse; we are earthly creatures, therefore earthbound; life is full of tautologies, which are contradictions turned inside out. The other mantra means that coming to Japan had seemed better than the alternatives; in an earthquake it's best to find a safer place; the time has come to pack his bags - because he's growing bitter, not because home is better.

Looked at hard, these meanings drain away, turning you into a stranger mumbling a foreign language, flummoxed by any deviation from phrasebook syntax. As the poem hints, you can't tell proper lies without fluency; foreigners stand out by their literal truthfulness - a painfully abnormal way to communicate; you might as well slide back to the seclusion of dreams.

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie: without the earthquake, Empson would have stayed as under a spell, unstirring; freed from some kinds of turmoil at the price of falsity - to self and self's restlessness. Without such threats, we slumber away our lives. It's a young intellectual's view-point: exalted, potentially severe, even unkind. And it's a beautiful line: the poet becomes a figure from legend, like one of the Seven Sleepers, or from Magritte. Or a recumbent statue on a medieval tomb.

They would not think to lie so long: Larkin's pun on lie is weaker than Empson's in 'Aubade'. Perhaps the wordplay is summoned only to be held at bay, or becomes undeniable only when we look back from the last stanza. Yet it's palpably here, even if at first glimpse it's dormant, as the earl and countess seem to be.

What's not ambiguous is Larkin's assumption that the tender gesture of holding hands isn't by itself a truthful emblem of the earl's and countess's marriage. The poem is so fluent that this premise - crucial, though it never lifts its head - is gone before we've quite seen it. Larkin doesn't presume to know anything about this marriage except that it cannot be summarised in a gesture or a moment because marriages exist in time. Larkin gazes at the stone couple, enjoys a sentimental inference, catches himself doing so, and reflects that he, we, don't want truthful portrayals: we want beguiling makeovers.

Three stanzas of persuasive science-fiction show time's passage helping posterity to forge the simplistic lie, surrounding and silhouetting the couple's changeless purity. Privileged in life by rank and in death by this tomb, their survival becomes an experience, binding the statues to each other. Their bond endures amid alteration, like any marriage.

The final stanza resumes with an enjambed bang:

Time has transfigured them into

We're back with Larkin's suspicion, so starkly that it would feel trite without the counter-current of his yearning. The 'untruth' stems from misreading a sculpted 'detail' as a sweeping, sentimental truth. He insists on the falsehood because he wants to brace against the seduction, not swoon with it. His resistance peaks with the cavilling of the penultimate line ('Our almost-instinct almost true'), then buckles, yielding to 'What will survive of us is love.' Which sounds like a quotation because he doesn't quite mean it. How could circumspect Larkin, one of life's less deceived, mean such an innocently hopeful line? Yet the pressure of wanting to believe is palpable; the cavils die away; ambiguities resolve; we're inside those crepuscular rays.

When he visited Chichester with Monica Jones, in January 1956, Empson's Collected Poems had just been published (September 1955). He would have seen the reviews not long before his mind assimilated the emotions stirred by the tomb to the perennial question of marriage. Is he anticipating the onset of impatience with his and Monica's lack of grand passion, and trying to defuse it in advance? Under cover of telling truth to the world, the last line petitions her: we're romantic enough, don't you agree, to survive the drastic constraints I impose: no living together, let alone marriage, and definitely no children. By not escaping into numinous privacy or barbed rancour, bachelor Larkin proves the love that he half-expects never to feel, or always to abandon.

But there's another possible account of the famous anthemic line. Darken the tone even a little, brush against its nap of glossy vindication, and it hurts like Kafka - a sentence that can't be appealed, for the writer has passed it on himself. There is love, and will be survival, but not for me. Shaded in this way, the last stanza feels - coincidentally - like a spectacular case of Empson's seventh type of ambiguity, where 'the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer's mind'. Many readers want splits of this kind to form 'a larger unity', Empson added, but 'the onus of reconciliation can be laid very highly on the receiving end'. Readers' dreams of wholeness are one thing, wholeness in a poem quite another; and the same holds for tomb-watchers in cathedrals. The twist here is that Larkin is both the reader, dreaming a larger unity of two, and the poet or text, refusing to comply. The poem's satisfying completeness turns on self-knowledge; its perfect closure slides home, leaving Larkin paired - caged, even - with the mirror of his art.

The achievement is entirely Larkin's, yet the unwonted resilience has an Empsonian feel. 'Aubade' ended by cementing the two choral lines with a comic affirmation:

It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
Up was the heartening and the strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.

The vaguely disowning second-person widens here to an inclusive 'we', coining a statement about the human condition. The same dilation shapes Larkin's prophecy: 'What will survive of us ...' Empson's poem was about a dwindling affair, feeling the failure keenly, seeing it steadily, weighing what's been gained and lost. Experience will have been had, something important learned, zest for life confirmed. Empson turned intimate defeat into a poem that Larkin could feel had itself become monumental, rising out of the prewar landscape like a ziggurat, showing how he might face his own conflict in his own poetry, in his own era. Where the other Movement poets bottled Empson's atmosphere, Larkin transmuted him. The earl and countess merge into the effigies of a Yorkshire squire's son and his Japanese lover, with a solitary librarian couchant at their feet.

1 William Empson, Selected Letters, ed. John Haffenden (OUP, 2006), p. 361.
2 The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), edited by Larkin, includes Empson's 'Camping Out', 'Aubade', 'Success', 'The Teasers' and 'Let it go'.

This article is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
Further Reading: - Mark Thompson More Articles by... (4) Reports by... (2) Reviews by... (8) Review of... (1) Translation by... (1)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image