On Larkin’s Life (June 2008)

I hadn’t finished reading Larkin’s last collection of poems, High Windows, when I knew I wanted to read his biography. That’s strange, I thought. Why read about Larkin’s life, already? Surely his life is only significant because of the poetry it produced: why not read more poetry? It felt like I was less interested in trying to understand the universal ideas and feelings which might emanate from his poems, and more interested in trying to understand the particular ideas and feelings Larkin had put into them. In short, I was interested in Larkin. Why?

I read the biography. Unlike most people who merit biographies, poets need not have done anything particularly exciting. Even so, Larkin did less than most. His life was marked less by what he did, and more by what he avoided. The list includes noise, spending, abroad, marriage, commitment, and other people. A case in point was Larkin’s growing fame as a poet. It is not easy for the biographer, Andrew Motion, to depict, as there’s simply nothing much to say about how it changed him. He certainly didn’t move house, leave Hull, or leave his job as chief librarian at its University. All there is for Motion to describe is how Larkin’s fame increased the threats to his solitude. It meant more people to avoid, invitations to decline, speeches to fear, honours to reject, and money to worry about not having spent. (“Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:/ ‘why do you let me lie here wastefully?”). All Motion can really do to leaven his descriptions of the effects of Larkin’s growing reputation is provide occasional updates on the changing ways in which he was seen by others. As Larkin’s stature and crabbiness grew year by year, you can practically picture each intake of students hanging around the Hull issue desk more diffidently than the last.The story of much of Larkin’s inner life is deeply conventional too. It is a story of a man drawing identity from his day job (“…give me my in-tray/ My loaf-haired secretary…”), caring for his widowed mother, growing more reactionary as he ages, and allowing friendships formed in youth to fall away as age draws each personality further into itself. Motion’s unobtrusive and illuminating style makes it a joy to read about Larkin’s life. Certainly, you feel that you’ve had a lot more fun reading it than Larkin had living it. But its brute facts alone didn’t seem to be what I was looking for.

The answer seemed to have something to do with his arrestingly bleak attitude to life, and the personality which gave rise to the poems in which he expressed it. What I really wanted to get at was how the external stimuli of his life were filtered through the layers of personality to result in the poems. An explanation of where his poetry came from. In short, the action I was looking for was inside Larkin’s head.

This is exactly what Motion’s biography gives us, and it is this which makes it quite so good. It is a rich and emotionally intelligent portrait of one man’s mind as it evolves over a lifespan. It illustrates how different aspects of the poet’s environment interacted with different aspects of his personality at different times. It is as close as we can get to listening in to Larkin’s mind as he wrote the poems we have come to know.

And what we hear, of course, is the sound of various different shades of gloom. Larkin’s whole oeuvre can be seen as a celebration of misery. The biography reveals that certain small things, like seeing his work in print for the first time, did make him happy every so often, but that he didn’t really seem to enjoy it. Misery was where his heart lay. I found this both frightening and funny. Frightening, that the whole of a man’s life can be so harshly oppressed by the prospect of its end. But funny because, like most of us, Larkin was feeling his way towards a certain kind of happiness, that of becoming a successful poet. The fact that, unlike most of us, he achieved it many times over – he was probably the country’s greatest living poet by the end of his life – would, I thought, make misery harder and harder to justify. What I found funny was that his muse would, in theory, be threatened by the success of the very writing it inspired.

But this was a misunderstanding on my part, of course. His misery was mainly existential; it was on much firmer ground than any pleasure he might derive from mere worldly success. Martin Amis put it neatly when he explained Larkin’s attitude towards the towering success of his poetry as “well, that’s not going to be any bloody use to me when I’m in the grave, is it?” There’s a moment in the biography where Larkin has been offered an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. As the day of the ceremony approaches, he becomes more and more terrified of the attention it will entail. He wrote to a friend: “my secretary says it’s all in my mind and I must practise positive thinking. I say if I’m getting it for anything at all it’s for negative thinking. Oh dear.”

But even this is only half the story. True, Larkin may have been constitutionally gloomy, but he did have choices. Another man would have married one of the three women who showed him devotion, spent more of the fortune he earned, had children, seen more of the world, socialised more. And so the obvious question is: why did he not at least try to be happy?

Motion’s answer to this question is that to a great extent, it was because he regarded all of life’s choices through the prism of what would be good for his poetry writing. And that was solitude, time, a day job which gave him the financial independence to be able to stop writing if he didn’t have any good ideas, and an involvement in emotional entanglements which stopped short of commitment. With the poet’s feel for the metaphor, Motion describes how Larkin was only able to write to his satisfaction during periods of the right emotional ‘weather.’ To a great extent, he relentlessly avoided conventional happiness, the better to preserve the boredom, misery and fear which he knew stoked his talent. It is this which I find so fascinating about Larkin. His life can be read as a story of a titanic struggle between artistic fulfilment and simple human happiness.

He chose art. He chose writing about unhappiness over seeking happiness. He opted out of the normal human pursuit of happiness, and in doing so, made misery his raison d’être. In a sense, his life is a story of a man preserving a unique distance from happiness, the better to fulfil the potential of his talent for expressing misery.