Cultural Cohesion, p.10Clive James
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
An elegantly cadenced admission that his own view of life might be neurotic, and excellent fuel for Jake’s chapter on the dialectical element in Larkin in which it is pointed out that his poems are judiciously disposed in order to illuminate one another, Yeats-style. The Sun and Moon, like Water, bring out Larkin’s expansiveness, such as it is. It’s there, but you couldn’t call it a bear-hug. Time is running out, as we hear in the wonderfully funny “Vers de Société”:
Only the young can be alone freely.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
Visions of The Building, for example.
The book ends on an up-beat. Its next to last poem, “Show Saturday,” is an extended, sumptuous evocation of country life (“Let it always be there”) which has the effect of making the rural goings-on so enviably cosy that the reader feels almost as left out as the narrator. The final piece is an eerie lyric called “The Explosion,” featuring the ghosts of miners walking from the sun towards their waiting wives. It is a superb thought superbly expressed, and Larkin almost believes in it, just as in “An Arundel Tomb” (the closing poem of The Whitsun Weddings) he almost believed in the survival of love. Almost believing is all right, once you’ve got believing out of it. But faith itself is extinct. Larkin loves and inhabits tradition as much as Betjeman does, but artistically he had already let go of it when others were only just realizing it was time to cling on. Larkin is the poet of the void. The one affirmation his work offers is the possibility that when we have lost everything the problem of beauty will still remain. It’s enough.
II. SMALLER AND CLEARER
Philip Larkin once told Philip Oakes—in a Sunday Times magazine profile which remains one of the essential articles on its subject—how he was going to be a novelist, until the novels stopped coming. First there was Jill in 1946, and then there was A Girl in Winter in 1947, and after those there were to be several more. But they never arrived. So Philip Larkin became the leading poet who once wrote a brace of novels, just as his friend Kingsley Amis became the leading novelist who occasionally writes poems: the creative labour was divided with the customary English decorum, providing the kind of simplified career-structures with which literary history prefers to deal.
It verges on the unmannerly to raise the point, in Larkin’s case, that the novels were in no sense the work of someone who had still to find his vocation. Chronology insists that they were written at a time when his verse had not yet struck its tone—The North Ship, Larkin’s mesmerized submission to Yeats, had only recently been published, and of The Less Deceived, his first mature collection, barely half the constituent poems had as yet been written. But the novels had struck their tone straight away. It is only now, by hindsight, that they seem to point forward to the poetry. Taken in their chronology, they are impressively mature and self-sufficient. If Larkin had never written a line of verse, his place as a writer would still have been secure. It would have been a smaller place than he now occupies, but still more substantial than that of, say, Denton Welch, an equivalently precocious (though nowhere near as perceptive) writer of the same period.
The self-sufficient force of Larkin’s two novels is attested to by the fact that they have never quite gone away. People serious in their admiration of Larkin’s poetry have usually found themselves searching out at least one of them—most commonly Jill, to which Larkin prefixed, in the 1964 edition, an introduction that seductively evoked the austere but ambitious Oxford of his brilliant generation and in particular was creasingly funny about Amis. Unfortunately this preface (retained in the current paperback) implies, by its very retrospection, a status of obsolescence for the book itself. Yet the present reissue sufficiently proves that Jill needs no apologizing for. And A Girl in Winter is at least as good as Jill and in some departments conspicuously better. Either novel is guaranteed to jolt any reader who expects Larkin to look clumsy out of his bailiwick. There are times when Larkin does look that, but they usually happen when he tempts himself into offering a professional rule of thumb as an aesthetic principle—a practice which can lay him open to charges of cranky insularity. None of that here. In fact quite the other thing: the novels are at ease with a range of sympathies that the later poems, even the most magnificent ones, deal with only piecemeal, although with incomparably more telling effect.
Considering that Evelyn Waugh began a comic tradition in the modern novel which only lately seems in danger of dying out, and considering Larkin’s gift for sardonic comedy—a gift which by all accounts decisively influenced his contemporaries at Oxford—it is remarkable how non-comic his novels are, how completely they do not fit into the family of talents which includes Waugh and Powell and Amis. Jill employs many of the same properties as an Oxford novel by the young Waugh—the obscure young hero is casually destroyed by his socially superior contemporaries—but the treatment is unrelievedly sad. Larkin’s hero has none of the inner strength which Amis gave Jim Dixon. Nor is there any sign of the Atkinson figures who helped Jim through the tougher parts of the maze. Young John comes up to Oxford lost and stays lost: he is not a symbol of his social condition so much as an example of how his social condition can amplify a handicap—shy ordinariness—into tragedy. All the materials of farce are present and begging to be used, but tragedy is what Larkin aims for and what he largely achieves.
The crux of the matter is John’s love for Jill—a thousand dreams and one kiss. Jill is a clear forecast of the Larkin dream girl in the poems. But if John is Larkin, he is hardly the Larkin we know to have dominated his generation at Oxford. He is someone much closer to the author’s central self, the wounded personality whose deprivation has since been so clearly established in the poems. What is remarkable, however (and the same thing is remarkable about the poems, but rarely comes into question), is the way in which the hero’s desolation is viewed in its entirety by the author. The author sees the whole character from without. The novel does something which very few novels by twenty-one-year-old writers have ever done. It distances autobiographical material and sets events in the global view of mature personality.
As if to prove the point, A Girl in Winter is a similar story of callow love, but seen from the girl’s angle. The book perfectly catches the way a young woman’s emotional maturity outstrips a young man’s. Katherine, a young European grappling with England (an inversion of the Larkin-Amis nightmare in which the Englishman is obliged to grapple with Europe), is morally perceptive—sensitive would be the right word if it did not preclude robustness—to an unusual degree, yet Larkin is able to convince us that she is no freak. While still an adolescent she falls in love with her English pen-pal, Robin, without realizing that it is Robin’s sister, Jane, who is really interested in her. Time sorts out the tangle, but just when Katherine has fallen out of love Robin shows up on the off-chance of sleeping with her. Katherine quells his importunity with a few apposite remarks likely to make any male reader sweat from the palms, although finally she sleeps with him because it’s less trouble than not to. Yet Katherine is allowed small comfort in her new maturity. The book is as disconsolate as its predecessor, leaving the protagonist once again facing an unsatisfactory prime.
A contributory grace in both novels, but outstanding in A Girl in Winter, is the sheer quality of the writing. Larkin told Oakes that he wrote the books like poems, carefully eliminating repeated words. Fastidiousness is everywhere and flamboyance non-existent: the touch is unfaltering. Katherine “could sense his interest turning towards her, as a blind man might sense the switching on of an electric fire.” Figures of speech are invariably as quiet and effective as that. The last paragraphs of A Girl in Winter have something of the cadenced elegance you find at the close of The Great Gatsby.
Why, if Larkin
III. YEATS VS. HARDY IN DAVIE’S LARKIN
In recent months Philip Larkin, based as always in Hull, and Donald Davie, back in Europe from California, have been conducting a restrained slugging match concerning Larkin’s fidelity to the locus classicus in modern times, as defined—or distorted, if you are of Professor Davie’s persuasion—in The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. Important issues have been raised, and it will be some time before any keeper of the peace will be able to still them. The time is propitious for an assessment of Professor Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, which in a normal climate might be politely—and erroneously—half-praised as a well-bred squib, but for the duration of hostilities demands to be regarded as live, heavy-calibre ammunition.
Professor Davie is a poet of importance—of such importance, indeed, that his academic title can safely be set aside for the remainder of this article—and from poets of importance we want works of criticism that are less safe than strange. There is nothing safe about this volume, and a lot that is strange. Thomas Hardy and British Poetry is a surprisingly odd book, but it is also a considerable one. In fact, the forces ranged against each other in the current squabble can now be said to be more evenly matched than might at first appear.
A good part of the secret of what Larkin really thinks about art is distributed through the pages of All What Jazz, and if you want to take the weight of Larkin’s aesthetic intelligence, it is to that collection (and not so much to his so-far uncollected criticisms of poetry in Listen, although they count) that you must go. On the Davie side, we are given, in this new book, a view of his thought which is at the very least as luminous as the one made available in Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor. When Davie talks about Hardy he sounds like Larkin talking about jazz. To put it crudely, on their pet subjects they both talk turkey. But this doesn’t mean that either man makes himself plain. Larkin worships Bix Beiderbecke and deplores Charlie Parker, believing that Parker destroyed with arid intellectualism the art to which Beiderbecke contributed by lyrical instinct. Conveying this distinction, Larkin apparently makes himself clear; but it would be a suicidally foolish critic who thought that such a distinction could be used unexamined as a light on Larkin’s poetry. In poetry, Larkin is Beiderbecke and Parker combined: his criticism chooses sides among elements which are in balance within his complex creative personality. Similarly with Davie: his critical position calls for an even more cautious probing, since he is less aware of self-contradictions by the exact measure that he is more receptive to Literary influence. Thomas Hardy and British Poetry raises confusion to the level of criticism: it is a testament to Britain’s continuing fertility as an intellectual acreage in which ideas will flourish at rigour’s expense, the insights blooming like orchids while the valid syllogisms wither on the vine.
Davie starts by proposing Hardy as a more important influence than Yeats on the poetry of this century. The distinction between is and ought is not firmly made, with the result that we spend a lot of our time wondering whether Hardy has been the big influence all along, or merely should have been. “But for any poet who finds himself in the position of choosing between the two masters,” Davie says, “the choice cannot be fudged; there is no room for compromise.” The reason why there is no room for compromise is not made as clear as the ordinary reader might require. “Hardy,” it is said, “has the effect of locking any poet whom he influences into the world of historical contingency, a world of specific places at specific times.” Yeats, apparently, doesn’t have this effect: he transcends the linear unrolling of recorded time and attains, or attempts to attain, the visionary. Davie says that the reader can delight in both these approaches, but that the writer has to choose. It is difficult, at first, to see why the writer can’t employ the same combinative capacity as the reader. Difficult at first, and just as difficult later.
The other important thing happening at the beginning of the book concerns Larkin. Davie mentions Larkin’s conversion from Yeats to Hardy after The North Ship in 1946, thus tacitly proposing from the start that Larkin was doing the kind of severe choosing which Davie asserts is essential. Neither at this initial point, nor later on when Larkin is considered at length, is the possibility allowed that Yeats’s influence might have lingered on alongside, or even been compounded with, Hardy’s influence. One realizes with unease that Davie has not only enjoyed the preface to the reissue of The North Ship, he has been utterly convinced by it: instead of taking Larkin’s autobiographical scraps as parables, he is treating them as the realities of intellectual development. Larkin conjures up a young mind in which Hardy drives out Yeats, and Davie believes in it.
But Davie’s main comments about Larkin are postponed until some sturdy groundwork has been put in on Hardy. We are told that Hardy’s technique is really engineering, and that he is paying a formal tribute to Victorian technology by echoing its precisioned virtuosity. A little later on we find that Davie doesn’t wholly approve of this virtuosity, and is pleased when the unwavering succession of intricately formed, brilliantly matched stanzas is allowed to break down—as in “The Voice,” where, we are assured, it breaks down under pressure of feeling.
A crucial general point about technique has bulkily arisen, but Davie miraculously succeeds in failing to notice it. At one stage he is almost leaning against it, when he says that Hardy was usually “highly skilled indeed but disablingly modest,” or even “very ambitious technically, and unambitious every other way.” For some reason it doesn’t occur to Davie that having made these admissions he is bound to qualify his definition of technique in poetry. But not only does he not qualify it—he ups the stakes. Contesting Yeats’s insistence that Hardy lacked technical accomplishment, Davie says that “In sheer accomplishment, especially of prosody, Hardy beats Yeats hands down” (his italics). Well, it’s a poser. Yeats’s critical remark about Hardy doesn’t matter much more than any other of Yeats’s critical remarks about anybody, but Davie’s rebuttal of it matters centrally to his own argument. He is very keen to set Yeats and Hardy off against each other: an opposition which will come in handy when he gets to Larkin. But keenness must have been bordering on fervour when he decided that Hardy had Yeats beaten technically in every department except something called “craft”—which last attribute, one can be forgiven for thinking, ought logically to take over immediately as the main subject of the book.
Davie argues convincingly that we need to see below the intricate surface form of Hardy’s poems to the organic forms beneath. But he is marvellously reluctant to take his mind off the technical aspects of the surface form and get started on the problem of what technical aspects the organic form might reasonably be said to have. “We must learn to look through apparent symmetry to the real asymmetry beneath.” We certainly must, and with Hardy Davie has. But what Davie has not learnt to see is that with Yeats the symmetry and asymmetry are the same thing—that there is no distance between the surface form and the organic form, the thing being both all art and all virtuosity at the same time. Why, we must wonder, is Davie
Davie is continually on the verge of finding Hardy deficient as a working artist, but circumvents the problem by calling him a marvellous workman whose work tended to come out wrong for other reasons. In “During Wind and Rain” he detects a “wonderfully fine ear,” which turns out to be a better thing than “expertise in prosody”—the wonderfully fine ear being “a human skill” and not just a “technical virtuosity.” It ought to follow that knowing how to get the ear working while keeping the virtuosity suppressed is of decisive importance to poetic technique. It ought to follow further that because Hardy couldn’t do this—because he wasn’t even aware there was a conflict—he spent a lot of his time being at odds with himself as a poet. What Davie is struggling to say is that Hardy wasn’t enough of an artist to make the best of the art that was in him. But the quickness of the pen deceives the brain, and Davie manages to say everything but that.
The strictures Davie does put on Hardy are harsh but inscrutable. There is in Hardy a “crucial selling-short of the poetic vocation.” In the last analysis, we learn, Hardy, unlike Pound and Pasternak (and here Yeats, Hopkins and Eliot also get a mention), doesn’t give us a transformed reality—doesn’t give us entry “into a world that is truer and more real than the world we know from statistics or scientific induction or common sense.” This stricture is inscrutable for two main reasons. First, Hardy spent a lot of his time establishing a version of reality in which, for example, lovers could go on being spiritually joined together after death: nothing scientific about that. Second, even if he had not been at pains to establish such a version of reality—even if his themes had been resolutely mundane—his poetry, if successful, would have done it for him. In saying that Hardy’s poetry doesn’t transform statistical, scientific reality, Davie is saying that Hardy hasn’t written poetry at all.
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