Monday, March 27, 2023

'And Starts to Be Happy'

Yet another reader scolds me for my devotion to Philip Larkin and what he calls his “doctrine of misery.” Larkin’s only doctrine was that after the loneliness and despair of a life imperfectly lived, beauty remains. That’s the writer’s job – finding beauty in the materials given him by life. Unhappiness is no excuse for ugliness. I’m not alone in often finding Larkin a tough-minded morale-booster. Realism about human nature is always bracing. He never leaves gloom in the mind of this reader. With Auden, Richard Wilbur and a few others, Larkin seems to me among the last unignoreable voices in English-language poetry. In 1973, Clive James wrote in his review of Donald Davie's Thomas Hardy and British Poetry: 

“[Davie] cannot or will not see that Larkin’s grimness of spirit is not by itself the issue. The issue concerns the gratitude we feel for such grimness of spirit producing such a beauty of utterance.”


Which would you rather read?: Someone gushing “It’s a joy to be alive!” or Larkin’s “Coming” (The Less Deceived, 1955):


“On longer evenings,

Light, chill and yellow,

Bathes the serene

Foreheads of houses.

A thrush sings,


In the deep bare garden,

Its fresh-peeled voice

Astonishing the brickwork.

It will be spring soon,

It will be spring soon —

And I, whose childhood

Is a forgotten boredom,

Feel like a child

Who comes on a scene

Of adult reconciling,

And can understand nothing

But the unusual laughter,

And starts to be happy.”


By Larkin’s standards, “Coming” is a giddy cry of exaltation. James Booth in his biography of Larkin calls it “one of his most serenely beautiful poems.” The poet's phrasing and word choice is unexpected and precise (in most poets, a rare combination): “Its fresh-peeled voice / Astonishing the brickwork.” So too, “forgotten boredom,” seemingly an oxymoron. Thanks to Larkin we can learn to value flickering spots of happiness. Someone said there are no happy lifetimes, only happy moments.


[The Clive James review can be found in his final book, Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin (Picador, 2019).]

1 comment:

Harmon said...

The only problem I have with Larkin’s poetry is that there is not enough of it.