Considering the vast personality chasm between them during their lifetimes, there’s an irony to the fact Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes have been involuntary united in the afterlife by finding themselves on the hit-list of the permanently offended, those fanatical rewriters of history who are determined to find fault with any revered figures of the past who don’t reflect their contemporary dogma back at them. Mind you, both Larkin and Hughes had their detractors when they were alive and kicking. The latter was targeted by extreme activists of the feminist persuasion, convinced he drove his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, to an early grave – despite the fact the troubled Plath had attempted suicide ten years before she succeeded, and at a time when she had yet to meet her future husband. Hughes became Poet Laureate back when it was a job for life, though he only replaced Larkin’s friend John Betjeman in 1984 because first choice Larkin had turned down the honour; as it turned out, Larkin himself died just a year after Betjeman, so it was probably just as well the post went to the man Larkin referred to as ‘The Incredible Hulk’.
Criticism of Philip Larkin in his lifetime tended to be criticism of his actual poetry; misreading of this led to the man himself being (inaccurately) portrayed as a miserable curmudgeon. It was only when his private letters were published several years after his death that the more familiar criticism of the kind that is levelled at him with more ferocity today emerged. He’s considered ‘problematic’ because he’s viewed as right-wing, racist and misogynistic. As far as being right-wing goes, it is true that his father – who was extremely right-wing – was a fan of Adolph and went so far as to take his young son on a tour of Nazi Germany before the War, even attending the Nuremburg rallies. Yet, one of the curious ironies of Larkin’s life is that his private grumblings about ‘immigrants’ went hand-in-hand with his passionate love of Jazz and its practitioners, most of whom were black. The record he said he’d rescue from the waves on ‘Desert Island Discs’ was by Bessie Smith.
Similarly, his allegedly ‘sexist’ attitude towards women derives largely from his fondness for soft porn revealed in his published letters, yet this accusation is contradicted by the fact he loved women so much that at one time he had three on the go; and one of this trio, university lecturer Monica Jones, was the longest love of Larkin’s life. Their relationship spanned almost 40 years. Despite their intellectual and emotional compatibility, the only time they actually lived together was during the last couple of years of Larkin’s life, when he cared for Monica following a spell she’d had in hospital. For a man who physically resembled a gawky Eric Morecambe, Larkin evidently possessed an abundance of charm and charisma that attracted women, something that the caricature of him as a grumpy old git would have negated were it true. I suppose one could say conducting three simultaneous affairs doesn’t necessarily hold him up as ideal husband material, but all of Larkin’s faults and foibles when it comes to the three factors that remain sticks to beat him with simply show him for what he was – a human being capable (as are we all) of ‘unclean thoughts’. And it is this humanity that comes across so vividly in his verse.
It’s not unreasonable to surmise that one reason why Larkin was sometimes received less than enthusiastically by the literary establishment in his lifetime was the fact he largely shunned the creative cliques of the cocooned capital. Larkin was a poet of the provinces, the finest poetic commentator on the mood and mores of immediate post-war Britain as it existed outside of London. But then, he was a product of the provinces, born in Coventry 100 years ago this month. Once he’d escaped the stranglehold of Auden and Yeats as key influences on his early work, Larkin gradually began to develop a uniquely individual voice that combined the melancholy beauty of a fellow poet like Betjeman with the bleak black comedy of a playwright like John Osborne. His words flow with a literary flourish, but they also speak in simple and often blunt English that anyone born after 1945 can relate to. Indeed, what qualifies Larkin as a poet whose reputation in terms of his art remains so strong is that, along with Betjeman, he’s one of the few poets of recent decades whose lines are routinely quoted by those not necessarily regarded as bookworms.
One of the most quoted is from ‘Annus Mirabilis’, his astute observation on being too old to be a participant in the Swinging decade he just missed out on, something many born on the wrong side of WWII must have mused upon in the 60s – ‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me)/Between the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles’ first LP’; as he was someone who had to navigate the oppressive etiquette that dictated clandestine courtship in the 1950s, it must indeed have been frustrating to watch a generation emerge who weren’t bound by such rigid regulations. Then of course, there are the infamous opening lines of ‘This Be The Verse’ – ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/they don’t mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/and add some extra, just for you.’ A misconstrued poem, certainly; it has nothing to do with the juvenile sensibilities of some anti-parent pop song, but actually offers a sympathetic perspective on how an individual inherits both the good and bad that their own parents themselves inherited. ‘They were fucked up in their turn’, he goes on to say, before concluding, ‘Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf/Get out as early as you can/and don’t have any kids yourself.’
His two most famous poems quoted in the previous paragraph were penned in 1967 and 1971 respectively; by the time Larkin was offered the laureateship in 1984, his purple patch had somewhat run dry and he himself felt all his best poems had probably been written. He was also averse to the pressures that being Poet Laureate could possibly heap upon the creative juices, something he expressed to John Betjeman in a profile for the BBC’s ‘Monitor’ series in 1964. The idea of having to compose ‘on demand’ was not something that appealed to him, and even the most devoted disciple of Betjeman or Hughes could hardly claim the two poets’ finest works were the ones they were obliged to write as part of their Laureate duties when responding to a royal event, whether that be a marriage, a birth or a jubilee. Such a duty would have been anathema to Larkin, who recognised the greatest poets created in response to impulsive flashes of inspiration not dictated by outside forces, but by the erratic influence of the Muse. Betjeman also envied Larkin’s day job, that of head librarian at Hull University, a post he accepted in 1955 and held until his death at the age of 63 thirty years later.
His qualifications for the job were past stints working in the university libraries of Leicester and Belfast, but in Hull he found the perfect city for his particular worldview, being situated (as it often feels to its inhabitants) on the edge of the world, with endless grey vistas looking out onto a void where the nearest landmass is Scandinavia. Although already a published author, Larkin felt he needed more to his day than wrestling with the Muse; as he wrote in the poem ‘Toads Revisited’, ‘No, give me my in-tray, my loaf-haired secretary/my shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir/What else can I answer, when the lights come on at four/at the end of another year?’ And his post in Hull was no vanity project; he threw himself into it with gusto and oversaw the reconstruction of the building as well as instigating the installation of a computerised records system years before it became common practice. Perhaps the fact he had a life beyond the written word, one that infused his poetry with such wry observations on the human condition (something that eludes many poets permanently positioned as ‘outsiders’) gave him an accessibility that continues to speak to anyone who acutely feels the limitations of life whilst also seeing the unsung joy it occasionally throws up with the kind of laconic humour entirely absent from those who seek to block, ban, censor, and cancel.
© The Editor