Yesterday, I posted a link to a review by Theodore Dalrymple of The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas, by Byron Rogers. In it, Dalrymple quoted Philip Larkin’s christening of the Welsh poet-priest as “Arsewipe Thomas.” This irked a reader, who wondered about the source of the line. He told me in an e-mail:
“Every time I try to make accommodations for Larkin I come across something like this. I’m tempted to let him rot.”
I understand the sentiment without sharing it. In 1992, with the publication of his Selected Letters, Larkin unleashed a posthumous shit storm of politically correct outrage. Readers and critics can be forgiven for sometimes confusing man and poet (the man wrote most of the letters), but the stench of self-righteousness clings to the affair. Larkin joked and ranted, sometimes savagely, about blacks, Asians, women -- most anyone. Like other men, he was many men. No boorish lout wrote these lines from “Church Going”:
“….someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.”
A lout, however, sometimes wrote the letters. Thomas shows up five times in Larkin’s published correspondence – once neutrally, four times disparagingly. On April 25, 1956, Larkin wrote to his friend Robert Conquest, the poet and historian:
“And Arse Thomas getting the Heinemann [Award]. Oo the bible-punching old bastard.”
On Feb. 20, 1962, in another letter to Conquest, comes the phrase quoted by Dalrymple:
“Our friend Arsewipe Thomas suddenly was led into my room one afternoon last week, and stood there without moving or speaking: he seems pretty hard going. Not noticeably Welsh, which is one comfort.”
To Judy Egerton, on March 5, 1966, he wrote:
“Two very posh friends of Jocelyn came up, one bearing a Hasselblad camera, They’d just been visiting R.S. Thomas so naturally they thought I was marvelous. At least I hope they did.”
And to C.B. Cox, on Feb. 23, 1972:
“I am interested to hear of your plans for CRITICAL QUARTERLY – is it in those chaste pages that you intend to launch these polemic? Jolly good stuff: better than counting the colons in R.S. Thomas.”
Disparaging, yes, of course, but funny. And, in the case of “Not noticeably Welsh, which is one comfort,” very funny. I know nothing about the source of Larkin’s disdain for Thomas, and for many other poets, but I feel no need to reconcile them. I don’t expect writers I admire to admire each other, any more than I expect my friends to get along. With Larkin and Thomas as fixed points, I can triangulate my own position regarding poetry, religion and other matters. I love the work of both men, both give me great comfort and pleasure, but literature is not a Montessori class. Not everyone behaves as we would like them. Writers bitch and moan and carry on badly, then they stun us with their grace.
After I responded to my reader, he wrote back: “I realize that I need to make some sizable concessions for [Larkin]. Reading him, at times, has paid off. It's a struggle though. Despite their differences, there are some striking parallels between Larkin and Thomas.” He included “Sorry,” a poem by Thomas:
I forgive you my life,
Begotten in a drab town,
The intention was good;
Passing the street now,
I see still the remains of sunlight.
“It was not the bone buckled;
You gave me enough food
To renew myself.
It was the mind's weight
Kept me bent, as I grew tall.
“It was not your fault.
What should have gone on,
Arrow aimed from a tried bow
At a tried target, has turned back,
With questions you had not asked.”
My reader was thinking, of course, of “This Be the Verse,” Larkin’s most famous poem:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
“But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
“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.”