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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Jan/Feb 2019 > A life more ordinary

A life more ordinary

Philip Larkin’s correspondence with his mother put him in touch with the precious texture of the everyday, which he transformed into some of the most sublime poetry since Donne and Marvell
Actually, they don’t always fuck you up: Philip Larkin with his mother Eva
ALL IMAGES © ESTATE OF PHILIP LARKIN

As the ancillary books of correspondence and commentary accumulate, our picture of Philip Larkin grows more nuanced all the time, and at this rate he will soon be as complex a character as your weird uncle, the one who thought that modern society was falling apart for lack of discipline. A new collection, Letters Home, 1936-1977, edited by James Booth, does a vital job of apprising us, if we ever thought the opposite, that Larkin’s father’s pre-war admiration for the Nazis stopped well short of staging a Nuremberg rally in the parlour, and that his mother, while undoubtedly prey to psychological frailties, was no dullard. On p483, near the end of the book, she can be found reading The Rainbow, but firm in her opinion that Sons and Lovers was its superior.

Larkin himself is only 50 at the time, but his famously febrile mother, born in 1886, is the full 80-plus years of age including mandatory doddering. Yet on p490 one of her letters mentions Hardy, Lamb and Hazlitt. We learn that Larkin’s father, as famous for being pro-Nazi as his wife is for being feeble minded, had every book by Lawrence, all in a row, and on p568 we find that he is a fan of Howards End. Why do I suddenly have trouble imagining Larkin senior dressed up as Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi youth leader who composed a formally impeccable terza rima panegyric to Hitler?

Perhaps the neurotic pallor of Larkin’s upbringing was more complex than we thought. If that possibility could be entertained, it might be a help towards realising that the mentality of one of the most subtle and inventive of modern creative lives didn’t come out of nowhere. There was history behind it: his history, his family’s history, and finally our history too. There was an arrow-shower, somewhere becoming rain.

Some time after he had committed the “arrow-shower” to paper in “The Whitsun Weddings,” the poet let on that he had got it from Olivier’s wartime movie of Henry V. Most of us needed no telling: the poetic moment and the cinematic coup were so similar in their intensity. How a critic as finely tuned as Al Alvarez could have thought Larkin’s poetry was overly genteel is a secret that Alvarez, old and ill now, will probably take with him into silence: but we can confidently say that Larkin’s verses had an awful lot of dynamism for a critic to fail to spot. (I doubt if Alvarez did miss it, actually, but he was misled by his fond theory that poetry should exact a psychological cost from the poet, and Robert Lowell’s berserk stare made the gleam in Larkin’s glasses look placid.)

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s January/February double issue: A host of writers and personalities explain what they think will be the most important thing we need to learn in the new year. From Justin Welby arguing for new emphasis on learning to forgive and Lord Neuberger on the importance of a free judiciary to Hannah Fry on AI and Cathy Newman on what happens next for #MeToo—Prospect has it all. Elsewhere in the issue: Fintan O’Toole looks at Brexit from an Irish perspective, Wendell Steavenson dishes the dirt on what really happens to the waste you want to recycle, Frank Close questions why—half a century after our last visit—we’ve not been back to the Moon. Also, Michael Blastland argues that we’re ignoring the upsides of having an alcoholic drink and Clive James explores the life of Philip Larkin.