Philip Larkin and 20th Century Alienation

This poem, from 1971, is probably the most famous ever written by Englishman Philip Larkin, who was born in 1922 and died in 1985.


This Be the Verse

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.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

Scholars suggest, seriously, that Larkin wrote this after spending several weeks with his mother, who outlived his Nazi-sympathizing father by many years and who was a difficult and needy person herself.  The poem’s sentiment is harrowing, but he is said to have treated her kindly.  She died the next year.

Larkin understood himself as a damaged individual.  As might be surmised, he never married and never procreated, frustrating the women who over the years were partners of some sort to him.  He was mostly asexual but keen for pornography, a lover of natural beauty but disinterested in the outer world of civilization.  He worked as a librarian and wrote poetry of steadily growing acclaim.

Larkin’s title comes from the first line in the second stanza in a less downcast poem by another Englishman, Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived a century earlier.



Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

(Apologies for the inconsistent formatting.  I know better, but WordPress does not.)

The contrast between the two works could hardly be greater.  In essence, Larkin offered his personal correction to the more romantically inclined Stevenson, who was “glad” in his life and wanted his gravestone to say that he had been buried “where he long’d to be.”

There is no reconciling these two poets’ outlooks, but each is true to its moment.  Larkin denied sometimes that his work was modern, but the moderns admired his bleak and unsparing honesty.  The 20th century and its two wars too their huge toll on Western sensibilities and confidence.  The period also gave us film noir, abstract expressionist art, atonal music and Brutalist architecture — all reactions against traditional norms.

We don’t know yet what conclusions the 21st century generation, millennials, will draw of the world as they found it.  There are good signs and bad signs.

One of the bad ones is the disconnection of so many people in the wealthiest country in world history.  Coming soon:  The Kids Are Not All Right.  Other posts may follow.


More Larkin

Below is a morning song, the 1977 Larkin poem most admired by literary critics.  It is beautifully written, but its attitude is consistent with the cold eye cast in the work above.



I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse

—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,

A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


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