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This item is taken from PN Review 49, Volume 12 Number 5, May - June 1986.

HE disappeared in the dead of winter. He has become his admirers. The pity is, he seems to have been given over to entirely familiar affections. His words are modified in the journalism of the living.

Of course, Philip Larkin often said what he was expected to say. Donald Davie suggested that Larkin wrote with authority as an outsider. But he wrote so well that he was spirited inside. He was useful, exemplary. After the Oxford Book, it became impossible for him to maintain the marginal stance he required. Poems like 'Livings' and the Betjemanesque 'The Explosion' in High Windows attempt new strategies, but in the spirit of exercises. The agonized 'bottom of the night' of his last, bad major poem 'Aubade' reveals a poet reduced to bluntness not only by the prospect of death but by a coarsening of sensibility in part induced by his admirers' expectations of him. The memorable lines evince his unimpeded skill. What has been impeded is his formal tact, that once unerring sense of the progression and attenuation of voice that make his earlier poems processes of discovery. 'Aubade' is re-iterative: there is nothing left to discover.

Larkin was not alone in succumbing to the pressure of audience. The present Poet Laureate said over a decade ago that it was hard not to write what people expected: it is a penalty of fame and of highly individual style and subject. What sets Larkin apart is that he did not imitate himself; he went silent.

I cannot be alone in regretting the way in which Larkin's death was marked by the media. The poetry editor of his own publishing house was early on the scene with an obituary in the Guardian which, it seems to me, drove long crooked nails into the coffin. Larkin, Craig Raine says, yearned for aggression. 'The nice thing about him is that he was a reactionary.' He was a counter-puncher, and his voice in its maturity was 'no longer straining for the top notes, but content with the middle range'. His was a note of 'sceptical disenchantment'. He was a 'camera' (a still, not a cine camera, Raine believes). In short, he was a very familiar figure and had something in common with Craig Raine. The intention of the obituary was to make us comfortable with the poet.

Other obituaries made less of the poet's 'explicit aggression', but agreed on the essentially Betjemanesque virtues and vices of his manner. He spoke directly, from the hip, his complications were 'our' complications.

Larkin's rage has little to do with 'sceptical disenchantment'. This is too cold a formulation for the voices behind 'The Old Fools', 'Ambulances' or, indeed, for the Hardyesque longing behind 'Church Going'. There is more of Hardy-the impassioned Hardy-in Larkin than a simple antidote to Yeats. Larkin was not comfortable with being born into an age of losses, of endings. The losses are anatomized with the economy of one who understands the 'dread/That how we live measures our own nature'. He applies this understanding to himself, to the cut-price crowd, to the industrial landscape, to our traditions. He defines his characters not in terms of their subjectivity but by the objects with which they surround themselves, or with which they are surrounded. Mr Bleaney is painfully anatomized through his absence and the things and tones he left behind. In Larkin's world the individual becomes unstable, becomes subject. It is possible to read Larkin as among our most radical poets in the ways he censures the age. He is an elegist, but his elegy is instinct with satire. He is a poet of intense disillusion, not only because there have been personal and social illusions, but institutions and traditions, too, which have been destroyed. They were sources of identity; their destruction is a source of instability, the vertigo of perceived emptiness. No poem is more eloquent on this score than 'MCMXIV', and if 'Show Saturday' is 'an empty poem', it is because it has been emptied by history. Larkin achieves high notes, time after time, without apparent effort (though a study of his working drafts would reveal how much art is involved). It is hard to think of any other poet whose 'lift-offs' are more surprising, assured and harrowing.

I am not persuaded that he is quite so direct and easy a poet as some of his memorialists claim. There is subtlety not only in his artistry but in his modes of statement. The changes that occur in the speaker of 'Church Going', the self-referential quality of 'High Windows', the fact that much that is taken for social commentary is commentary on perceived attitudes, not on perceived facts, make him anything but a representative voice. His poems can be understood quite easily: they can also be misunderstood.

The poems are consistent neither in voice nor in tone. Here again Larkin resembles Hardy. What is most remarkable about the small, wonderful oeuvre is its variety, the absence of repetition, the wealth of slowly clarifying themes. Familiarity with his rhetorical strategies does not simplify him: it adds resonance. He may undercut grand gestures with irony, but the gestures have been made and the irony is often a protective reflex which fails (by design, I think) to qualify them.

Larkin is something rare in the literary world: a 'committed' poet whose life was largely devoted to the good of letters. It is possible to be 'committed' not to the destruction of systems or to alternative ideologies, but to a world recognized as poor, human and given, a world that it is easy to exploit or misrepresent and impoverish further, but hard to love and add to. In later years, Larkin's activities on behalf of the British Library, Poetry Book Society, Compton Bequest, various library committees and associations he sat on and chaired with wry efficiency, not to mention his work at the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull, cast doubt on the famous obiter dicta quoted with glee by his champions and detractors. He was concerned with what the French call patrimonie and the tenuous continuities implied in that term. Larkin has to his credit important achievements over and above his poems. These achievements weigh in the balance against what he said 'in character' of a reputation which never accurately represented him.

This item is taken from PN Review 49, Volume 12 Number 5, May - June 1986.

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