A reader in England (“I write from the Anglo-Welsh border”) writes: “I share your liking for Larkin, but it always surprises me that non-Brits go for him – he seems to me such a quintessentially English kind of misery-guts. Alan Bennett said somewhere that the trouble with Larkin is, part of him wants to drag you down to join him in the slough of despond, and you have a duty to yourself to resist.”
His surprise surprises me. The only demographic I recognize and trust among writers is excellence. It never occurs to me to muse, “Oh, I feel like a Frenchman tonight,” and then reach for Colette. I have my loyalties, of course, and in poetry that means the English. From Chaucer to Larkin, no other nation has reliably produced so much memorable verse. Such thoughts are frowned on, of course. Right-thinking people know that art and other gifts are equitably distributed among all God’s children. Bryan Appleyard will have none of it:
“It is unfashionable to speak of national characteristics. Queasy types think it is akin to racism. But the truth is that nations are definably different. Most importantly, they differ in what they do best. No nation has produced better essayists than France, none has produced better composers than the Germans, better painters than the Italians, nor better novelists than the Russians. America invented jazz and still masters the form and, though some may dissent, her record in film is unsurpassed. And the English? The English do poetry.”
Bryan and I would quibble over some things – even Larkin, whom he terms “superbly second rank” – but despite Horace, Montale and Zbigniew Herbert, poetry remains distinctly English to this Anglophone reader. And I don’t read Larkin quite the way my English reader does. I think of his poems as occupying the same shelf, though perhaps a little to the side, as Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and Dr. Johnson. Larkin’s best work shares their directness and urgency about what it means to be human. It leaves little room for happy talk and other forms of delusion. Some of us find encouragement in such an approach. I never find Larkin a “downer.” He’s too droll, too honest, too gifted a craftsman to leave me feeling anything but refreshed. Melancholy? Of course, but often playfully so. Larkin enjoys misery more than some people enjoy happiness. More importantly, he makes others enjoy it. Among his friends was the poet Elizabeth Jennings, a serious Roman Catholic who defied categories, poetic and otherwise. In Let’s Have Some Poetry! (1960), her introduction to the subject for young people, Jennings writes fondly of Larkin:
“Apart from his fastidious care for the precise verb, noun and adjective, and his impressive use of the conventional stanza form, Larkin’s chief quality seems to be a deep compassion which, though sometimes tempered by humour or irony, denotes a real concern for other people’s live.”
The same might be said of Dr. Johnson. Jennings goes on to quote lines from an early Larkin poem, “Wedding Wind” (The Less Deceived, 1955), the only one in which the speaker is a woman:
“All is the wind
Hunting through clouds and forests, thrashing
My apron and the hanging cloths on the line.
Can it be borne, this bodying-forth by wind
Of joy my actions turn on, like a thread
Carrying beads? Shall I be let to sleep
Now this perpetual morning shares my bed?”
Jennings judges the poem “beautiful,” and quotes with approval another poem from the same collection, “Triple Time”:
“And on another day will be the past,
A valley cropped by fat neglected chances
That we insensately forbore to fleece.
On this we blame our last
Threadbare perspectives, seasonal decrease.”
Jennings finds this and other early Larkin poems “melancholy though never self-pitying.” I detect no wish on his part to drag us into any Bunyanesque slough of despond. The lines might occur to any thoughtful grownup who could write first-rate poetry.