Philip Larkin, Part I: the Sad Man

One of Larkin’s more famous pronouncements was that deprivation was to him what “daffodils were to Wordsworth.” The deprivation was both personal and, in a broader sense, public. Unlike his good friend the novelist Kingsley Amis, Larkin never married, never had kids, and was, in a lot of ways, what a friend of mine likes to call a real “Death-of-the-West-er” -- i.e., a person who does not contribute to the propagation of the species. As you may have noticed in that list of his preferred topics, children don’t figure.

Although he managed to juggle several girlfriends for decades, sex, or its lack, was part of what he meant by “deprivation.” (“When I see a couple of kids / And guess he’s fucking her and she’s / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, / I know this is paradise / Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives,” he wrote in deliberately brutal fashion in 1967, when the sexual revolution sprung to life.)

But the deprivation was also social and political -- a personal intuition of a spreading civilizational malaise. Larkin was a Conservative who adored Margaret Thatcher, mourned the destruction of England’s traditions and countryside, and lamented the death of her Empire. In the ironically titled “Homage to a Government,” he wrote:

Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and this is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves…

The poem concludes:

Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

The sense of mourning became even more acute in “Going, Going,” with its rage at the commercial destruction of the landscape: “And that will be England gone, / The shadows, the meadows, the lanes, / The guildhalls, the carved choirs /… All that remains for us / Will be concrete and tires.”

Despite being as un-American as they come, Larkin has a surprising number of American fans. (He once imagined a trendy American academic describing him as “one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys” -- i.e., uptight, reactionary, and sexually repressed -- all of which would be correct.) He wrote two lesbian novels under a fruity nom de plume (as well as two serious ones, Jill and A Girl in Winter) and had a lifelong addiction to masturbation and spanking magazines, all while suffering from a serious strain of anhedonia.