Widely regarded as the leading English poet of the 20th century, Philip Larkin has also been called and labeled a number of things - from a curmedgeon and a pessimist to a misanthrope and a misogynist. But while his brand of melancholy surely isn't for everyone, his poetry, nudges at the darkness and the shadows that also afflicts life and in doing so provides an outlet for much catharsis. (It seems, Eric Homberger called him "the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket"—Larkin himself said that deprivation for him was what daffodils were for Wordsworth!)
"What I should like to write is different kinds of poems that might be by different people. Someone once said that the great thing is not to be different from other people, but to be different from yourself." - Philip Larkin
"The real trouble with me is my relations with illusion & reality. Illusion is poetry, art, love, belief, confidence, and is what you are enthusiastic about. Reality is daily work, illness, death, money, sex, one's actions independent of one's beliefs or fancies, and is impossible to be enthusiastic about." - Philip Larkin
"Joy impregnates, sorrow brings forth; perhaps that is the explanation' ... on how his muse demanded that he be in a constant state of privation to be able to write. Or put another way, he said: "life, personally is unhappy: imperssonally it is happy" - Philip Larkin
"I think what survives of us is love, whether in the simple biological sense or just in terms of responding to life, making it happier, even if it's only making a joke." - Philip Larkin (Interview with John Haffenden). "What will survive of us is love." is of course the last line of Larkin's famous poem, An Arundel Tomb, which I share below.
Philip Larkin (9 August 1922, Coventry, England – 2 December 1985, Hull, England)
And now five of his poems that I love:
by Philip Larkin
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.In time the curtain-edges will grow light.Till then I see what’s really always there:Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,Making all thought impossible but howAnd where and when I shall myself die.Arid interrogation: yet the dreadOf dying, and being dead,Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse—The good not done, the love not given, timeTorn off unused—nor wretchedly becauseAn only life can take so long to climbClear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;But at the total emptiness for ever,The sure extinction that we travel toAnd shall be lost in always. Not to be here,Not to be anywhere,And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraidNo trick dispels. Religion used to try,That vast moth-eaten musical brocadeCreated to pretend we never die,And specious stuff that says No rational beingCan fear a thing it will not feel, not seeingThat this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,Nothing to love or link with,The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,A small unfocused blur, a standing chillThat slows each impulse down to indecision.Most things may never happen: this one will,And realisation of it rages outIn furnace-fear when we are caught withoutPeople or drink. Courage is no good:It means not scaring others. Being braveLets no one off the grave.Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,Have always known, know that we can’t escape,Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ringIn locked-up offices, and all the uncaringIntricate rented world begins to rouse.The sky is white as clay, with no sun.Work has to be done.Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
by Philip Larkin
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
by Philip Larkin
Side by sideSide by side To see a recent photograph of this tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel that Larkin is describing, click here. , their faces blurred,The earl and countess lie in stone,Their proper habitshabits Clothes vaguely shownAs jointed armour, stiffened pleat,And that faint hint of the absurd—The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque pre-baroque In Larkin’s pronunciation, the phrase rhymes with 'shock.' The Baroque period, exemplified by ornamentation, followed the Renaissance. This tomb was sculpted in the Middle Ages.Hardly involves the eye, untilIt meets his left-hand gauntletgauntlet An armored glove, worn in the Middle Ages, stillClasped empty in the other; andOne sees, with a sharp tender shock,His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.Such faithfulness in effigyeffigy A sculptured likenessWas just a detail friends would see:A sculptor’s sweet commissioned graceThrown off in helping to prolongThe Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early inTheir supinesupine On their backs stationary voyageThe air would change to soundless damage,Turn the old tenantry away;How soon succeeding eyes beginTo look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadthsOf time. Snow fell, undated. LightEach summer thronged the glass. A brightLitter of birdcalls strewed the sameBone-riddled ground. And up the pathsThe endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.Now, helpless in the hollow ofAn unarmorial age, a troughOf smoke in slow suspended skeinsskeins Used figuratively, a skein is a quantity of threadAbove their scrap of history,Only anOnly an When first published in June 1956 in the London Magazine, the line began: Only their attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them intoUntruth. The stone fidelityThey hardly meant has come to beTheir final blazonblazon Both a coat of arms, and a public proclamation, and to proveOur almost-instinct almost true:What will survive of us is love.
by Philip Larkin
You do not come dramatically, with dragons
That rear up with my life between their paws
And dash me butchered down beside the wagons,
The horses panicking; nor as a clause
Clearly set out to warn what can be lost,
What out-of-pocket charges must be borne,
Expenses met; nor as a draughty ghost
That’s seen, some mornings, running down a lawn.
It is these sunless afternoons, I find,
Instal you at my elbow like a bore.
The chestnut trees are caked with silence. I’m
Aware the days pass quicker than before,
Smell staler too. And once they fall behind
They look like ruin. You have been here some time.
by Philip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh,