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RICHARD EDER

Eluding Himself : PHILIP LARKIN: A Writer's Life, By Andrew Motion (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $35; 570 pp.)

July 25, 1993|RICHARD EDER

Philip Larkin's gloomy and defiantly prosaic writing has an undertone of lyricism that he does not so much conceal as put down, like a betrayed lover mocking a passion he can't shake. It reflects the shrunken illusions of postwar Britain, and particularly those of its middle and blue-collar classes, largely betrayed by the national myths but unable to give them quite up. The poems sold well and still do.

"The Whitsun Weddings," the third and last major volume of Philip Larkin's poetry, did more than confirm his reputation, Andrew Motion writes in his detailed and revealing biography. "It turned his voice into one of the means by which his country recognized itself."

Motion's claim is accurate, as well as gracefully put. It is clear that he also intends it to be a very large one. He sets Larkin up there with Hardy, Eliot and Yeats and goes on to say that he "makes each of us feel that he is 'our' poet in a way that Eliot, for instance, does not." Something similar could have been said of Sir John Betjeman, at least as far as the English public goes. Warm, pretty and vastly inferior to Larkin's harsh and revealing work, Betjeman's poetry also provided a sort of mirror to his countrymen. A vanity-table mirror, not the mirror in the doctor's examining-room.

Larkin is worth a great deal, but I think that Motion gives too much for him and settles for too little. There are a great many readers for whom Hardy, Eliot or Yeats were entirely "their" poets. It all depends on whether you regard poetry as something that confirms or that stretches; whether a poem is for seeing yourself in, or whether you are for seeing a poem in. There are Larkin poems that stretch astonishingly but on the whole he is a confirmer, though of hard times. Eliot praised him in terms which, given the source, were quite as remarkable as Motion's but more discriminating. Larkin "can sometimes make words do what he wants."

If this begins to seem like a review of Larkin's poetry instead of Motion's book, there is a reason. In this part-critical biography, the author's detailed criticism is generally shrewd. It is the pantheon ranking that is the problem; not in itself--to each his own pantheon--but insofar as it causes a certain distorted swelling in an otherwise striking and perceptive portrait. Larkin was a recurring set of intensely small-scaled contradictions; Motion circles round and round the same contradictions, detailing the slight variations of a hesitant, depressive and utterly self-absorbed temperament. If you believe Larkin is a Yeats or a Hardy, the detail might be justified. If he is an excellent but lesser poet--a Kipling who never left home or an Auden living in boring times--it isn't.

Motion got to know Larkin when he went to the University of Hull to teach English. Larkin was the librarian, and one of the book's many achievements is to dispel the image of the provincial poet working at a humdrum job. Larkin, in fact, had made the place a formidable institution, increasing its size tenfold and becoming something of a university power himself.

The dynamism seemed to contrast with the image of the reclusive melancholic; just as Larkin's misogynistic persona--having sex, he wrote once, was "like asking someone else to blow your nose for you"--seemed to contrast with the fact that, as Motion reveals, he had simultaneous long-term relationships with three women. "Seemed" is the key. Motion may have followed Larkin's fidgety emotional life in more detail than it can stand, but he has made an unforgettable portrait out of the contradictions.

They begin with the plight of Larkin's literary executors, of which Motion is one. The poet instructed them to destroy all his unpublished papers; he also told them to publish what they deemed useful. This biography, based on boxfuls of notes and letters, unfinished manuscripts, library minutes and jam recipes--all neatly filed--is one result. A selection of letters, edited by another executor, will be published here this fall.

Motion gives a suggestive account of Larkin's "pot-bound" childhood in a cramped Coventry household. His civil-servant father, the Coventry treasurer, was an odd combination of autocrat and bookish right-wing nihilist. He thought rather well of the Nazis and, believing in their air as well as other supremacies, he stockpiled 1,000 municipal coffins at the start of the war. It was foresight, but perhaps of the wrong kind.

His reactionary streak, his suspicion of political and intellectual fashions, took root in Larkin. Some deeper current ran through a gentle poem in which the April snow "making the blossom on the plum trees green" recalls the father's jam-making hobby: "Behind the glass, under the cellophane, remains your final summer."

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