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Philip Larkin, Early Poems and Juvenilia, edited by A. T. Tolley, Faber

Philip Larkin was the patron saint of schoolboys who are picked last for the team. His poetry is the verse of a reluctant defender who is not entirely sure why or what he is defending, but who looks at the more able players with awe and perhaps a little jealousy. In many of his mature poems his persona aches to be doing something else, anything else, other than the tedious work within which he is trapped. But he is not convinced that he should express enthusiasm for anything outside of work, even for people he might love. Instead, by emphasising a sense of loss and detachment, especially in the alienating context of a bright commercialised modern world, his poetry continually meditates on the evasive nature of happiness and commitment.

One of Larkin’s great gifts derives from his perpetual disappointment in himself. In a mature poem like “Church Going”, failing to feel religious is the theme. He recognises the need he has to visit churches, the need to “surprise / A hunger in himself to be more serious” but has the intellectual rigour not to commit to a religious leap of faith. Churches are usually “not worth stopping for” - yet he stops again and again.

In these early poems that melancholy is there from the beginning. The first poems lament leaving school, draw scenes of bedraggled factory and office workers en masse, or grieve for forlorn love. Many are a little awkward technically, a little clichéd in imagery and they can be archaic in diction. Unfortunate phrases include “the cave of time”, “winter closes on us like a shroud”, and even “Diversity protests too much, methinks.” Nevertheless, these poems are fair for Larkin’s age (late teens and early twenties) and they show very strongly the influences which the master poet would later absorb. Writing in the late 1930s and 40s, he was clearly under Auden’s sway, generalising landscapes and communities with nearly a formal elegance, but he lacked Auden’s gift for sudden sharp focus and striking phrase. He would change direction towards a Yeatsian verse for his first published collection, The North Ship (some of which is included here), and then, finally, find the great Thomas Hardy as the mainspring of his mature poetry. These poems show that D. H. Lawrence, William Blake, and even James Hogg were poets he also read and whose clothes he briefly tried on.

One surprise is how much of Nature and the countryside there is in these early poems. Weather, the seasons, the precise delineation of the day – “Bonfires at four o’clock, And rotten apples on the leafclogged lawn” – are almost everywhere here. This was a concern Larkin never relinquished – it is there in the fine environmental poem “Going, Going”, published in 1972, for example – but the evocations of the urban and suburban world for which Larkin is remembered perhaps hide his almost Lawrentian tenderness for flora and fauna.

As this book shows, Larkin’s political roots were left-wing and of course he was writing during the Second World War. If he had reached his mature style the political and war poems here would not have been so hesitant or ponderous, but this is a fascinating collection for understanding one of the great poets of post-war England.

Richard Bradford, First Boredom, Then Fear: the life of Philip Larkin Peter Owen

Is there any way back for the severely damaged reputation of Philip Larkin? The posthumous publication of his letters in 1992 condemned him through his own words as a foul-mouthed and persistent racist, not to mention a misogynist with an appetite for pornography. The substantial biography by Andrew Motion published in the following year concurred. Motion suggested, even so, that the poetry could be separated from the man and still survive as the body of work of one of England’s greatest post-war poets.

This is the starting point for Richard Bradford who suggests that, on the contrary, the poetry should not be separated from the man. Surprisingly, Bradford argues this doesn’t do violence to the poetry’s subtleties. Rather, by keeping both Larkin and his poetry in view the verse does more than survive, it flourishes.

In the course of re-telling Larkin’s life, the reader is acquainted with just how peculiar a life it was he led. His father Sydney was an active Nazi enthusiast, travelling to Germany several times to see Hitler speak at his orchestrated rallies. The Treasurer at Coventry Corporation, Sydney was surely the only high-ranking official of any English city council to decorate his office with extensive Nazi regalia. He only reluctantly took it down when Britain declared war on Germany. Bradford makes little of it, but Larkin was briefly attracted to the left-leaning poets of the Auden generation, perhaps one way in which he tried early on to fight the right-wing influence of his father. Larkin’s jazz and his lengthy non-marital affairs can also be seen in this light.

Most devastating to Larkin, Bradford argues, was the lovelessness of his parents’ marriage. One of the last poems he wrote, the brutal “Love Again”, suggests that he believed, finally, he had inherited this inability to love or even to respond to affection when it was willingly offered. Several women doted on Larkin. He managed to betray most of them while, technically, never going back on anything he might have confided. Everyone else seemed to have the gift of human warmth, but in his own doubting and perhaps self-pitying eyes, his own coldness stopped him ever acquiring it. He had been fatally wounded by “Something to do with violence / A long way back, and wrong rewards, / And arrogant eternity.”

This repressed angry self-doubt is what is at the heart of Larkin’s poetry. Bradford is right to see it there, and not merely in the more obviously autobiographical pieces. The racism and the apparent women-hating of his private letters are manifestations of what is usually under control in his public writing, directed outward as he offers his devastating portraits of post-war England. His technical range, like his infamously parochial world-view, was small but commanding, as it was for his range of subject matter (coping with commitment, coping with routine, coping with the knowledge that other people are probably living far more enjoyably than you are). Like Beckett, however, he produces exquisite bleak miniatures. The reader may come to agree with Bradford in this thought-provoking biography that his poetry somehow synthesises all his seething discontents through nihilistic elegy, becoming far better than the man by being so much of the man, as near to love as this damaged writer could achieve.

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