Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth, Bloomsbury, 544pp, £25 (hardback)
Major modern poets are often saddled with a form of moral stigmata, which constantly threatens to overshadow their work. With T.S. Eliot, it's his alleged anti-Semitism and treatment of his first wife, who suffered from mental illness and was eventually sectioned. W.H. Auden, meanwhile, is said to have 'deserted' England for the USA on the outbreak of the Second World War. More notoriously, Ezra Pound, whose extreme political views are not a matter for dispute, was jailed after his fascist broadcasts. More recently, Ted Hughes was pilloried for several decades by feminist critics for the way he handled the posthumous literary legacy of his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath. But until the early 1990s, the general perception of Philip Larkin, man and poet, was of a bicycle-clipped master of the English lyric form. While there was certainly criticism of Larkin as a narrow, anti-modernist, rather miserable poet of middle England, popularly known as 'the Hermit of Hull,' such negativity was largely confined to literary circles and hardly represented juicy copy for national newspapers. But all that changed with the publication of first his posthumous Selected Letters (1992), edited by Anthony Thwaite, and Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin - A Writer's Life (1993), both of which sparked a controversy from which it is arguable Larkin's reputation has never fully recovered. Suddenly, Mr Miserable was transmuted into Mr Nasty.The author of such iconic collections as The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings and immortal lines of poetry like 'What will survive of us is love' and 'The trees are coming into leaf/ Like something almost being said,' was also revealed as the writer of such unpleasant ditties as this:
Prison for Strikers,
Bring back the cat,
Kick out the niggers,
How about that?
The previously rather genial caricature of Larkin as a literary traditionalist with a distaste for abroad and Pound, Picasso and Parker, was supplanted by that of a drink-sodden racist, a misogynist who strung at least two women along and a porn-loving senior librarian. Suddenly, the Larkin canon had to incorporate both High Windows and Swish magazine. England's best-loved poet since the Second World War found himself at the receiving end of a torrent of moral censure from leading critics, some of whom even demanded his work be removed from the curriculum. The anti-Larkin tirade reached its apogee with outspoken critic Tom Paulin's condemnation of the Selected Letters as 'a distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became' (in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, November 7, 1992). In a bitter ironic twist, Thwaite and Motion, Larkin's literary executors, had unwittingly undermined the poet's image in the minds of many left-leaning critics and thousands of his admirers throughout the world. The division in Larkin's reputation before and after publication of the two controversial volumes was neatly encapsulated by Martin Amis: 'In the early Eighties, the common mind imagined Larkin as a reclusive yet twinkly drudge - bald, bespectacled, bicycle-clipped, slumped in a shabby library gaslit against the dusk. In the early Nineties, we see a fuddled Scrooge and bigot, his singlet-clad form barely visible through a mephitis of alcohol, anality, and spank magazines.' (New Yorker, July 1993). Suddenly, admirers of Larkin's poetry felt defensive, as though they had to justify their love of a poet portrayed as a 'porn-addled, two-timing, racist misogynist' - to borrow the racy headline from a negative review of James Booth's biography. While the controversy surrounding the damaging double whammy of the letters and biography may have faded, any mention of Larkin in the popular press nowadays is almost inevitably accompanied by the now obligatory mention of his alleged racism, misogyny, heavy drinking and pornographic stash. Unfortunately for Larkin and his fans, the dirt has stuck.
Booth, who recently retired as an English lecturer at the University of Hull, where he had been a colleague but not a personal friend of Larkin for 17 years, has produced a fascinating, minutely detailed literary biography, which also serves as a rehabilitation of Larkin, man and poet. Set beside the 'monsters' of modern literature and art, Booth would surely argue, Larkin's 'sins' are very small beer. His book, the first major life since Motion's biography more than twenty years ago, seeks to set the record straight, or at least redress the entrenched negative perception of Larkin. While he feels Larkin's reputation as a poet is 'secure,' Booth, who has previously published Philip Larkin: Writer (1991) and Philip Larkin: The Poet's Plight (2005), admits that Britain's most cherished post-war British poet suffered a 'fall from grace' after publication of the letters and the biography in the early 1990s, which he feels has assumed 'the quality of a modern morality tale.' Tackling head-on the contention that Larkin 'was a shit in real life,' Booth calls on a wealth of new information, drawn from numerous interviews with those who knew and often loved the Hermit of Hull, to undermine the poet's posthumous Mr Nasty reputation. In what seems a central line in his introduction, Booth states: 'Larkin's negative public image is built neither on his poetry nor on the evidence of those who knew him well,' adding: 'The various ideological Larkins who raise the passions of some critics, are provisional personae.' Certainly, serious students of Larkin often remark on the multifaceted nature of the man and the extent to which he compartmentalised his life. This is immediately apparent in Larkin's letters. Most of the poet's racist, obscene or misogynistic comments were reserved for letters to his old friends Kingsley Amis and Colin Gunner, both of whom shared politically extreme views and relished bawdiness and bad language, to which Larkin responded in kind. There was a chameleon-like quality to Larkin's epistolary style, as the poet switched from toilet humour and non-PC language with Amis and Gunner to a church mouse gentility in letters to the prim and proper novelist Barbara Pym, or while sharing mundane domestic details with his long-suffering mother, Eva, to whom he was devoted. As Booth commented on BBC's Today radio programme, just ahead of publication, there is often the sense that Larkin is 'speaking in inverted commas...as perhaps lyric poets do.' While this many-faceted, if not Janus-faced Larkin is often viewed as duplicitous, Booth reads this aspect of the poet's personality as one with his 'complusion to express himself in the widest possible range of literary registers, from civilized formality to intimate gossip.'
However, the charge that Larkin was racist is not so easily dismissed. Booth calls the accusations of racism 'a similar fiction,' seeing some of the poet's most unpleasant comments as the product of what he calls 'self-irony,' concluding, rather unconvincingly, that Larkin's 'subconscious was not racist.' (How, we may reasonably ask, does his biographer know that?) Answering critic Lisa Jardine's estimate of Larkin as 'a casual, habitual racist,' Booth explains away much of this strain in the poet's correspondence as 'performative riffs,' adding: 'They never come directly in his own voice or without subversion.' At such moments, some readers may accuse Booth, who serves as literary adviser to the Philip Larkin Society and is co-editor of its journal, About Larkin, of special pleading or selective criticism. Again, in his bid to humanize or rationalize Larkin's bigotry, Booth can indulge a taste for literary semantics while probing the infamous stanza beginning 'Prison for Strikers,' when readers may feel some moral censure would be more appropriate: 'The slogans are held up provocatively for examination; they are not proposed as his sincere political creed.' But the reality is that Larkin recycled his sleazy stanza several times in his correspondence, as though proud of it. There is a recording of Larkin and girlfriend Monica Jones 'singing' his infamous ditty during a drinking session, even enthusiastically riffing on the original for added emphasis - 'Niggers, niggers, kick out the niggers' - which cannot fail to ring unpleasantly in the ears. Booth notes that Larkin and Monica often dined with an Indian colleague in the English Department at Leicester University, while the poet was also supportive of Indian writer Vikram Seth, as though such isolated incidents of apparent inter-racial 'generosity' undermine the bigotry elsewhere. And when Booth complains that Larkin 'has suffered so disproportionately for the flashes of performative racism (my italics) in correspondence with his more prejudiced correspondents,' there's a sense in which the famous poet is being offered moral dispensation for his casual racism by a biographer too anxious to give him the benefit of the doubt. It's at such moments that Booth's fair-mindedness can prove something of a biographical handicap. Larkin's racism, bigotry and generally crude political outlook may have had familial roots. For the poet who famously coined the line 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad,' it's possible that Larkin's extreme views and atheism were simply absorbed wholesale from his right-wing, anti-Semitic father, Sydney, City Treasurer of Coventry, who even in the run-up to the Second World War, decorated his office with Nazi paraphernalia from Nuremberg rallies and conferences. Larkin senior even collected a small figure of Hitler, with a movable, saluting arm. In truth, Larkin seemed temperamentally right-wing, without possessing any serious knowledge or understanding of politics. (In a 1993 TV documentary, fellow poet and Hull friend Douglas Dunn called Larkin 'a political blockhead.') And such views also contradict and confuse the image of Larkin as a lifelong and authoritative fan of jazz and blues, the music of black America, and someone who idolised Louis Armstrong far more than T.S. Eliot. Booth may indeed be right that Larkin was a 'performative' racist and someone who liked to deliberately shock the left-wing, politically correct literary world by expressing non-PC views or undying admiration for Margaret Thatcher. But almost thirty years after his death, such aspects of Larkin's personality continue to trouble both his admirers and unsympathetic critics.
However, the new biography is far more than a simple defence of Larkin and his often extreme opinions or alleged misogyny. In vast detail, drawing on new interviews, previously untapped correspondence and fresh research, Booth effectively traces the growth of a poet's mind, seeking to give a much more comprehensive view of a highly complex man and multifaceted literary artist than ever before. His biography provides a minutely detailed account of Larkin's devotion to his muse, which proved stronger than many of his human relationships. Although he attacked much of the syllabus at Oxford in letters to Amis, Booth feels Larkin learnt much from his studies, which fed into his ideas about art, first in his novels Jill and A Girl in Winter and his later ventriloquial poems, influenced by first Auden and then Yeats: 'When he finally graduated from Oxford, he gained not merely the qualification which secured him a job in librarianship; he graduated as a poet.' In common with the most recent Larkin criticism, Booth is keen to stress the depth and variety of Larkin's reading, which he suggests was 'as wide and deep as Eliot.' Certainly, when the older Larkin played up his anti-modernist views and well-rehearsed image as the supreme English literary traditionalist, it was easy to forget his early interest in French literature. Similarly, in his most intimate and emotionally open letters of the early 1940s, to his close friend Jim Sutton, Larkin also revealed great sympathy for the ideas of Jungian anthropologist John Layard. And as Booth notes, the young Larkin also expanded his consciousness and aesthetic horizons by listening to his beloved jazz, unequivocally calling the famous clarinet player Sidney Bechet 'the great artist,' later dedicating a poem to his jazz hero, which significantly places musical art above what he increasingly saw as the more conditional world of human affection:
On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.
And while Larkin admired classical music, particularly Handel, he chose one of Bessie Smith's final recordings, 'I'm Down in the Dumps,' as his favourite track when he appeared on radio's Desert Island Discs in 1976. (Larkin also expressed enthusiasm for The Beatles and Bob Dylan, once calling the latter's 'Mr Tambourine Man' 'the best song ever written.')
It was arguably in his relationships with women that Larkin is best defined - or found wanting - as a man. His friendships with some women, such as his Hull-based early publisher, Jean Hartley, or the art historian Judy Egerton, were warm, uncomplicated and long-lasting. Further, Booth stresses how well-liked and popular Larkin was among the female staff at the University of Hull, where the famous poet-librarian was known as a friendly, supportive and witty colleague. But matters became much more complicated and painful for the poet - and his partners - when affairs of the heart were involved. Larkin generally saw existence as a Yeatsian struggle between perfection of the life or the work. In essence, he found it impossible to devote his life to just one woman. As early as 1946, in a significant and heartfelt letter to his male 'confessor,' Jim Sutton, about his unsatisfactory relationship with his girlfriend, Ruth Bowman, Larkin delineates an emotional pattern which would be played out in his future, often troubled relationships with Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan. Placing the call of art above the need for a stable love live, Larkin expresses to Sutton what reads like an aesthetic manifesto: 'I find that once I 'give in' to another person, as I have given in not altogether voluntarily, but almost completely, to Ruth, there is a slackening and dulling of the peculiar artistic fibres that makes it impossible to achieve that mental 'clenching' that crystallizes a pattern and keeps it still while you draw it...This letting-in of a second person spells death to perception and the desire to express, as well as the ability. Time & again I feel that before I write anything else at all I must drag myself out of the water, shake myself dry and sit down on a lonely rock to contemplate glittering loneliness. Marriage, of course...is impossible if one wants to do this.' While the long-suffering Monica was clearly not the most attractive personality in the world, pushing Larkin towards even more extreme views and, Booth suggests, providing not always reliable literary criticism, it's hard not to see the spinster academic as being used and abused by the poet, who enjoyed a simultaneous and initially secret relationship with Maeve Brennan, whose affair with the poet ended in considerable anguish. Admitting his infidelity in a nakedly confessional letter to Monica in 1966, Larkin gets to the heart of the matter: 'There isn't any need to make my situation any better-sounding than it is: a self-centred person conducting an affair with another, heedless of the feelings of either. Well, not heedless, but not heedful enough to do anything about it, anyway.' For Booth, Monica's 'abject dependence' made Larkin feel emotionally responsible for his long-term partner, and the woman to whom he - uniquely - dedicated The Less Deceived, while seeing the more emotionally open but devote Roman Catholic Maeve as providing 'freshness and spontaneity lost in his relationship with Monica,' adding: 'He had to an extent created both women...Neither woman wanted to be free of him. Both knew they would find no other partner so attentive and life-enhancing as he.' But Martin Amis paints a bleaker picture of Larkin's tangled love life in his introduction to his selection of Larkin's poems in 2011, suggesting 'it isn't fanciful to surmise that the gauntness of Larkin's personal history (with no emotions, no vital essences, worth looking back on) contributed to the early decline of his inspiration.'
Some critics have suggested that Larkin's true muse was neither Monica or Maeve, nor his uncomplicated, no-nonsense secretary, Betty Mackereth, with whom he enjoyed an uncomplicated, physical and happy relationship in later life, but the poet's long-suffering mother, Eva. Larkin wrote to his widowed mother at least twice a week, despite often being driven to distraction by her constant, neurotic moaning. As Booth stresses, Larkin's letters to his mother represent 'by far his most consistent and extensive correspondence, running to about 4,000 letters and cards by the time of Eva's death in 1977.' Certainly, the shadow of his mother's slow decline falls over the page in his later, death-haunted poems, such as 'The Building,' 'The Old Fools' and 'Aubade.' And Eva's death in November 1977, at the age of ninety-one, effectively signalled the end of Larkin's creative life. The poet's mother represented the one emotional constant in his life, Booth suggesting there was 'something deeply moving about this lifelong correspondence: intimate, polite and interminable.' And Larkin's image as an emotionally deprived Mr Nasty dissolves when we read poems such as 'Reference Back,' inspired by his mother commenting 'That was a pretty one,' while Larkin was listening to jazz records. The poet's tenderness towards his mother is obvious in the poem, as is his bitter self-reproach, as he recalls
... the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly,
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.
Booth argues that no man capable of such lyrical tenderness - and there are many such empathetic passages in Larkin's work - can be the unfeeling, woman-hating figure of literary caricature. And as the editor of Larkin's early girls'-school stories and poems, Trouble at Willow Gables and Other Fictions (2002), Booth also reveals how the poet's adoption of the 'Brunette Coleman' persona allowed him to extend his literary repertoire, while also underlining his desire to understand the female psyche: 'It was the adoption of a female persona that uncorked the bottle...Trouble at Willow Gables is not pornography. The narrator is empathetic rather than lubricious.' Further, Booth believes the seven poems of the Sugar and Spice sequence in his Brunette Coleman persona first reveal the mature Larkinesque voice. And while some critics view Larkin's early novels as an artistic dead end, it's surely significant that both Jill and A Girl in Winter are concerned with fictional female identities, at a time when Larkin was under the literary spell of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.
But Booth's penetrating study seeks to do much more than undermine Larkin's Mr Nasty image. The book is principally an insightful literary biography, tracking and tracing the arc of Larkin's poetic career, as it intertwined with the life of the Coventry-born son of an unhappy marriage. The result is acute poetic insights on almost every page. Working from the central source material of Larkin's eight manuscript workbooks - which he believes 'contain his most intimate poetic autobiography' - Booth highlights the variousness of the mature canon and the meticulous care with which the poet avoids repeating himself, in terms of both subject matter and even in the careful non-repetition of single words. Larkin also imbues ordinary diction with a unique poetic resonance, Booth detailing how he 'asserts his copyright over more commonplace words, which become unforgettable in the poems in which they make their unique appearances.' Larkin devotees can immediately think of several examples of this, such as 'That vase,' at the close of 'Home is so Sad' or 'afresh,' in 'The Trees.' Even those critics who believe Booth cuts Larkin far too much slack in his biography - such as Blake Morrison in The Guardian, who rather grudgingly called the book 'so partisan, so Hull-centric, so anxious to present Larkin as decent and companionable,' and merely a 'supplement to Andrew Motion's biography' - also conceded the quality of Booth's close readings and his justifiable highlighting of what Sean O'Brien inThe Independent called the poet's unrivalled ability to 'bind the vernacular to imaginative transcendence.' Even though it's clear Booth rates The Whitsun Weddings (1964) above High Windows (1974), he devotes a whole chapter to elucidating what he calls 'Larkin's Late Style,' highlighting self-imitative aspects and sentimentality in the later poems, as the outside world and public and professional commitments increasingly encroached on Larkin's muse, 'driving his poetry deeper and deeper into a private space.' Most famously or infamously, High Windows includes 'This Be The Verse,' its title ironically echoing Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Requiem,' with Booth applauding what he calls 'the confident Armstrong-like trumpet line' of the poem:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Booth's analysis reveals Larkin's ability to bring a unique poetic freshness to universal expressions: 'This sentiment will now always be a quotation from Larkin. The casual inflections are perfect for recitation, and the malicious relish of that final insinuating phrase 'some extra, just for you' has the verbal taste of vermouth in a martini...The poem's sentiment is sad, but the poem is full of jouissance.' While Booth's biography ably and comprehensively traces Larkin's professional and private life, including his significant friendships with Kingsley Amis, Jim Sutton and others, plus the way his lifelong passion for jazz informed his aesthetics and sustained his soul, the book's ultimate value lies in its many subtle and illuminating readings of individual poems. Larkin the man may have hidden behind multiple personae in his sometimes troubled private life, but his poetry contains his true self. Life and poetry came together most painfully when Larkin's mother died in 1977, prompting the poet to return briefly to his final masterpiece, 'Aubade,' Booth noting how he redrafted the final stanza, adding 'all the uncaring/ Intricate rented world begins to rouse.' Although Larkin would later produce a handful of poems before his death in 1985 - most strikingly, 'Love Again' - it's hard not to read 'Aubade' as his last will and testament. In an elegiac, almost Tennysonian turn of phrase, Booth concludes that Larkin's final, death-possessed major poetic set-piece marked the end of his exploration of each genre, form and verbal channel open to him: 'The death of his art in 1977 was as natural and inevitable a process as his biological death in 1985. A flower which has bloomed cannot remake itself as a bud.' James Booth's striking biography remakes Larkin for the 21st century and is unlikely to be bettered.