Philip Larkin, who died yesterday at the age of 63, was one of the most admired and beloved English poets of his generation.
Larkin would flinch from such a statement. He was, from all accounts, an extremely modest man, noted, even notorious, for his homey virtues, diffidence and melancholy. "Deprivation," he once said, "is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth." For nearly 40 years he lived alone, worked as a college librarian (at the University of Hull), washed his own dishes and relaxed by listening to golden age jazz. A quiet sort of man, as Professor Higgins might say.
There were only four books of poetry, and though they were slender, they were tough, unsentimental, stoic and immensely readable:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP. -- "Annus Mirabilis"
That slangy, yet sturdy classical perfection, coupled with a self-deprecating melancholy ("which was rather late for me") made Larkin as popular with ordinary readers as with literary folk. A volume of tributes for his 60th birthday counted such admirers as novelist Kingsley Amis (his best friend), the critic and wit Clive James and a host of poets.
It seemed inevitable that Larkin would become poet laureate after the death of Sir John Betjeman this year. The betting parlors favored him; but some years earlier he himself said of the laureateship, "I dream about that sometimes and wake up screaming. Nah, with any luck they'll pass me over." They did. (Ted Hughes got the appointment.) Rumor has it that Larkin privately refused the queen's offer. Now it seems that declining health, as well as modesty, may have had something to do with it. Wags, of course, claimed that Larkin's use of a common obscenity for sexual intercourse as a word in the very first line of a famous poem failed to please the Queen Mother.
Perhaps. Yet the two did share a passion for Dick Francis thrillers. Larkin admired Francis' craftsmanship and his portraits of quiet, neat men with a gloomy sense of the world. Not surprisingly, he also championed the revival of Barbara Pym. He loved Louis Armstrong, and loathed John Coltrane and Miles Davis -- "theirs is not the music of happy men." His favorite poets shared his passion for the traditional and the unemphatic: Hardy, Wordsworth, Edward Thomas, Betjeman, Frost, Wilfred Owen. "What I like about Hardy primarily is his temperament and the way he sees life . . . his subjects are men, time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love." Elsewhere he observed of Stevie Smith's poems -- and implicity of his own -- that "they speak with the authority of sadness."
His most famous single work, "Church Going," evokes the modern loss of faith by describing a bicyclist entering an empty church, finding himself bored -- and yet yearning after something, knowing "a hunger in himself to be more serious." Larkin, for all his wit, was a serious man, with a keen sense that poetry, like life, "is an affair of sanity, of seeing things as they are."
Philip Larkin's books include four collections of poetry: "The North Ship" (his first book of poems, published in 1945), "The Less Deceived," "The Whitsun Weddings" and "High Windows" (his last published poems, 1974). His two novels -- written in his early twenties -- are "Jill" and "A Girl in Winter." His various essays appear in the collection "Required Writing" and the recently published "All What Jazz."