“Every good poet includes a critic, but the reverse will not hold.”
—William Shenstone

In the popular memory the interwar years in Western Europe were a period of instability, inertia, and poverty or, as Auden described the 1930’s, “a low dishonest decade.” One seldom hears about the interesting fact that during those interwar years, in England at least, there was a huge increase in the numbers of a new middle class of small business owners, local professional people, managers, and civil servants who lived in the thousands of new suburban houses being built around every town and suburban village. Although the more prosperous among them had a servant or two, or at least employed “help,” and owned a car, most of them were not too different from the lower classes they came from. All of them tended to keep their children at school until they took their School Certificate at 16, or, in growing numbers, stayed on through the sixth form to prepare for university entrance.

Unlike the old middle class, these people had no connection with the landed gentry or the aristocracy, and no wish to ape their manners. They were a self-made people of peasant or proletarian background, confident, self-reliant, politically conservative, and for the most part innocent of what Matthew Arnold called “culture.” They were often eccentric, even weird, in their tastes, as readers of the opening chapter of Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs describing his own family will know.

As a class they were not popular with opinion-makers and trend-setters. To people of more developed tastes their peculiar accents, reactionary politics, charmless houses, and contented vulgarity had no redeeming social value. Unlike the working classes, whose inherited folkways had all the authenticity of the unavoidable, the new middle class had no excuse for its habits, which it willfully chose and persevered in despite means and education sufficient for better—a criticism repeatedly heard during the period. There was even a textbook, Culture and Environment, much used in English schools to wean middle class boys and girls away from their parents’ tastes, and towards more wholesome models such as D.H. Lawrence and the Powys brothers.

Nonetheless, this is the class that produced the bright young men and women of the years after the Second World War in England, among them Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. Their cheeky rejection of upper-class approaches misled reviewers and critics into thinking they were a pair of working-class lads. Now, a generation later, with the publication of Amis’s Memoirs, Larkin’s Selected Letters, and now Motion’s Philip Larkin, the truth is out: Larkin and Amis are almost perfect specimens of the new middle class as it was before the combined forces of postwar socialism and Americanism inducted it into the postmodernist new order. Their class provides the background of their work, and its plain, energetic, sometimes eruptively vulgar English is the language in which they write, as in Larkin’s “Send No Money”:

Half life is over now.

And I meet full face on dark mornings

The bestial visor, bent in

By the blows of what happened to happen.

What does it prove? Sod all.

Larkin especially was a pure representative of his tribe, a specimen worthy of a bell jar, obstreperously Philistine (he once read a newspaper through a Mozart concert), insular, chauvinistic, Tory, and eccentric. His eccentricity was centered upon an emotional parsimony and defensiveness that led to a number of peculiar habits, among them hypochondria and a taste for girlie magazines. Lie must have realized quite early in life that he did not have vitality enough for both life and literature, and, being ambitious and competitive, for the most part spent his carefully husbanded intellectual and emotional energies on his poetry, and lived his life mostly in letters.

He maintained an enormous correspondence. Thwaite prints 707 letters, and Motion cites 787, of which only 196 are in Thwaite, making 1298 in all; but as Thwaite makes plain in his introduction, these are only a fragment of the total number. He often wrote to several people on the same day; in the deeps of his long-standing, complicated relationships with Maeve Brennan and Monica Jones he sometimes wrote each of them the same day, and often on successive days, playing them off against each other and keeping himself less than fully committed to either of them.

Obvious as it is that Thwaite’s and Motion’s fat but selective volumes must represent editorial and authorial perspectives rather than any kind of objective view of their subject, one fact emerges clearly from both: the much-loved poetic personality that people first encountered in Larkin’s three small published volumes. The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows, was as much the result of disciplined selection as the poems themselves. That sad, clearheaded, reclusive librarian who shared lower middle-class tastes and speech-habits with the majority of his countrymen was the public, presentable Larkin. As Thwaite’s edition of the Collected Poems suggests, and as the letters now reveal, the private, unselected Larkin was—as one might have expected—a more complex, far less assimilable creature.

The publication of these letters in England in 1992, with their revelation of Larkin’s fears, prejudices, weaknesses, and tastes, some peculiar to him, others typical of his class and time, produced a campaign of denigration that did no credit to its authors and raised once again a question that has become perennial in these days of revelatory biography: why should we pry into a writer’s private life? As Larkin himself wrote on reading lives of Auden and Day-Lewis, ” [I] was rather depressed by the remorseless scrutiny of one’s private affairs that seems to be the fate of the newly dead. Really, one should burn everything.”. Larkin sold his writings publicly; he kept his private life to himself and his friends. His critics, on the other hand, frothing at the mouth with righteousness, evidently believe that a man must be certified morally and politically correct before he may write a poem, let alone sell it.

Even readers better able than Larkin’s English critics to distinguish between life and art, between private thoughts and public actions, will find that this intensely private collection of letters puts them in a difficult position. It reveals more than we have any business knowing about a number of private lives. It tells us that, young and old, Larkin was timid, foul-mouthed, obsessed with sexual fantasy, terrified of death, and capable of extraordinary mean-spiritedness—as when he wrote of one of his women friends, “Wish I had some of the money back I spent on her, and the time: especially that.” But for readers able to absorb this kind of knowledge while resisting the temptation either to judge or patronize, there are compensations.

In these letters, self-caricaturing wit continually redeems misery; as Larkin wrote to one correspondent, “And then my sagging face, an egg sculpted in lard, with goggles on,” and to another, “None of my clothes fit, either: when I sit down my tongue comes out.” The literary judgments are sure and bracing, too. On Wilfred Gibson: “never wrote a good poem in his life . . . People like this make Rupert Brooke seem colossal.” On Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory: “an extremely confused book . . . morally as well as intellectually uncentered.” And although the letters to male friends like Amis and Conquest are spoiled by hobbledehoy bravado, they can also be cruelly truthful. On old age, to Amis: “My mother, not content with being motionless, deaf and speechless, is now going blind. That’s what you get for not dying, you see.” On his own aging, also to Amis: “[I] feel my mind’s NOT ON MY SIDE any more.” The letters to women friends, however, are consistently the best, those to Judy Egerton the most candid and straightforward, and those to Patsy Strang, with whom he seems to have been most happily in love, the most touching as a record of human experience, as well as of promise and failure.

Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, though largely based on Motion’s own selection of letters, is best used as a guide to Thwaite’s collection. As a book in its own right, it is too long for so uneventful a life, and it provides yet another example of a biographer out of sympathy with his subject, in this case probably scared stiff of being caught approving of a man who collected girlie magazines, adored Mrs. Thatcher, and did not like to see England being overrun by immigrants. Instead of approaching his subject as a historian and placing Larkin in his class and time, which might have produced a fascinating essay in cultural and literary history. Motion has taken the easier route of providing a simple chronological narrative of the life and judging his subject by the standards of the present moment. And although he is himself a poet, his comments on the poems are generally flatfooted, sometimes even plain wrong, as in the case of “The Whitsun Weddings”: “But while he admires the trainload of just-married couples, he knows he cannot join them. Alone in his carriage, sealed behind his window, he is conscious of loss but appreciative of his singleness.”

To begin with, the day of the poem was a hot one, and-the train windows were down, which is why Larkin noticed the weddings in the first place. If he was conscious of loss, there is no mention of it in the poem, which is actually about the happy, rollicking, unselfconscious release of joy and energy in all those ordinary, common, or garden weddings on a hot day in England: “fathers had never known / Success so huge and wholly farcical.” That is why so many people enjoy the poem so much. “I hope it conveys something of the impressiveness of the occasion; it really was an unforgettable experience,” he wrote to Judy Egerton. Informative, interesting, amusing, and moving as both books often are, one leaves them hoping that Larkin’s poems will survive the revelations of his letters and the judgments of this biography.


[Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, by Andrew Motion (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 570 pp., $35.00]

[Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 791 pp., $40.00]