Philip Larkin at 100: Why the morbid curmudgeon still belongs in schools

A few years ago, for a birthday treat, I went to Hull. I wanted to walk The Larkin Trail, a tour of various workaday locations that held some significance to the poet Philip Larkin. It took me to the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, where he was librarian for 30 years, and the nearby house on Newland Park where he lived until his death in 1985 at the age of 63. The trail ended a bus ride away in the village of Cottingham, at the Municipal Cemetery on Eppleworth Road. By the time I arrived the gates were locked, which is how I found myself scrambling over a low stone wall, drenched to the skin by the pouring Yorkshire rain, looking for a poet’s tombstone.

To me, Larkin is a writer worthy of sodden pilgrimage. Like generations of British school kids, I first read his poems in GCSE English class. I fell in love with “An Arundel Tomb” not because of its famous final words, “What will survive of us is love”, but for the morbid way he moderates that epigrammatic thought in the preceding lines, “to prove / Our almost-instinct almost true…” On his original manuscript draft, Larkin scrawled a cynical rejoinder to himself: “Love isn’t stronger than death just because statues hold hands for 600 years”.

Larkin wrote about mortality more plainly and clear-sightedly than any writer I’ve ever read. The finest example is “Aubade”, Larkin’s great poem about, “The sure extinction that we travel to / and shall be lost in always.” Completed in 1977, shortly after the death of his beloved mother and occasional muse Eva, “Aubade” was first published in the Times Literary Supplement that December.

At the time, the poet Andrew Motion was also working at the university. “I remember seeing Philip a few weeks later, when the spring term began back at Hull, and saying that he’d ruined my Christmas for me in the best possible way!” Motion tells me from his book-lined office in Baltimore. “He was beaming. It’s a strange poem, though, in some respects. Even though that fear of death and the squaring up to it is absolutely central to his bones from the get-go, it’s so much less adorned. That gloomy iambic beat is similar to things that we’ve seen in earlier poems by him, but it’s also out there on its own as a candid statement of fearfulness.”

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