Monday, 30 May 2016

Three poems written by Philip Larkin in
Lichfield (1): ‘Out in the lane I pause’

No 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield… the Larkin family moved here in 1940 during the Coventry Blitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Many months ago, I wrote about the poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) and how his family had lived for some time in Lichfield.

Peter Young, the former Town Clerk of Lichfield who retired last August after 28 years in office, has spoken on a number of occasions – to Lichfield Discovered (2014), to Lichfield Speakers’ Corner Group (2012), and to Lichfield Civic Society (2008) – about Philip Larkin and his associations with Lichfield.

Peter was a student at Hull University when Larkin was the Chief Librarian, and he jokes that Larkin once said of Lichfield: “God this place is dull.”

Larkin was born in Coventry, the only son and younger child of Sydney and Eva Larkin. Sydney Larkin (1884-1948) was from Lichfield and his family’s long-standing associations with Lichfield date back to 1757. Some Larkin families lived at both No 21 and No 49 Tamworth Street, Lichfield, and the family graves are in Saint Michael’s Churchyard.

Philip Larkin entered Saint John’s College, Oxford, in October 1940. That year, following the Coventry blitz, Sydney and Eva Larkin moved with their family to No 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield, the family home of an aunt and uncle. Sydney Larkin continued to work in Coventry, while his wife Eva stayed in Lichfield.

However, the house was too small for all the Larkins, and Philip Larkin moved out to another house in Cherry Orchard. There he had a room to himself and he regularly walked in to the centre of Lichfield to drink in the George.

The George Hotel, Lichfield ... a favoured drinking place for the poet Philip Larkin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

While he was in Lichfield, Larkin wrote three poems: ‘Christmas 1940,’ ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Out in the lane I pause,’ and I hope to look at these three poem over these three mornings.

‘Out in the lane I pause’ was written when Larkin returned to Lichfield for a Christmas holiday in 1940. In this poem, he stands alone under a starless sky beside the railway bridge, contemplating the futures of the ‘Girls and their soldiers from the town’ whose steps he can hear on the steep road towards the shops.

From his invisible vantage point, he contemplates the disappointments to come:

Each in their double Eden closed
They fail to see the gardener there
Has planted double error.


The critic and biographer of Larkin James Booth says there is a touch of John Donne about the Biblical rhetoric in this poem and in its complicated rhymed stanzas. Larkin imagines the lovers going their separate ways from each other, and turning back in the future with ‘puzzled tears’:

So through the dark I walk, and feel
The ending year about me lapse,
Dying, into formal shapes
Of field and tree;
And think I fear its faint appeal
Addressed to all who seek for joy,
But mainly me.


This poem also shows how Larkin was influenced by WH Auden, who writes: ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed.’ And there are other echoes of Auden throughout the poem, and the stanza form seems to have been inspired by Auden’s ‘Brothers, who when the sirens roar.’

The narrow bridge over the railway line near Saint Michael’s Churchyard in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

I wondered whether the bridge in the poem is the narrow bridge over the railway line at Rotten Row, near Saint Michael’s Churchyard. This bridge links the east end of Cherry Orchard with Greenhill, where the street then passes down the hill through Tamworth Street, past previous Larkin family homes, and into the centre of Lichfield.

The footbridge over the railway line near Levett’s Fields (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Or is the footbridge that leads into the Levett’s Field, and so on into the centre of Lichfield?

The railway bridge at Upper Saint John Street … another candidate for Larkin’s bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Larkin does not say he is standing under the bridge, although if he is unseen, then it is more likely that this is the railway bridge at Upper Saint John Street, close to the west end of Cherry Orchard. Larkin would have passed under this bridge on his way to the George Hotel on Bird Street, but here there is no ‘steep road that travels down / Towards the shops …’

Larkin wrote this poem on the nights of 18 and 19 December 1940, and he wrote to James Ballard Sutton on 20 December: ‘I wrote a poem the last 2 nights which I will copy to out for you if I can find it. It’s highly moral of course.’

Larkin and Sutton met at school and remained close friends for years. A collection in Hull University of Larkin’s letters to Jim Sutton form the single most important body of evidence for Larkin’s formative years. The topics discussed include Larkin’s views on poetry, contemporary writers, jazz, family and friends and Larkin’s attitude to love and marriage.

This poem is included as ‘Poem XXX’ in Chosen Poems, 35 poems in typescript collected by Larkin in April 1941. But this poem written in Lichfield was never published during Larkin’s lifetime.

It was first published in Philip Larkin: Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite (1988), pp 253-254, and is included in Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenilia, edited by AT Tolley (2005), pp 137-1138. More recently, it was included by Archie Burnett in Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 2012/2014).

‘Out in the lane I pause’

Out in the lane I pause: the night
Impenetrable round me stands,
And overhead, where roofline ends,
The starless sky
Black as a bridge: the only light
Gleams from the little railway
That runs nearby.

From the steep road that travels down
Towards the shops, I hear the feet
Of lonely walkers in the night
Or lingering pairs;
Girls and their soldiers from the town
Who in the shape of future years
Have equal shares;

But not tonight are questions posed
By them; no, nor the bleak escape
Through doubt from endless love and hope
To hate and terror;
Each in their double Eden closed
They fail to see the gardener there
Has planted Error;

Nor can their wish for quiet days
Be granted; though their motions kiss
This evening, and make happiness
Plain as a book,
They must pursue their separate ways
And flushed with puzzled tears, turn back
Their puzzled look.

And if, as of gipsy at a fair,
Sorry, I inquire for them
If things are really what they seem,
The open sky
And all the gasping, withered air
Can only answer: ‘It is so’
In brief reply.

So through the dark I walk, and feel
The ending year about me lapse,
Dying, into its formal shapes
Of field and tree;
And think I feel its faint appeal
Addressed to all who seek for joy,
But mainly me:

‘From those constellations turn
Your eyes, and sleep; for every man
Is living; and for peace upon
His life should rest;
This must everybody learn
For mutual happiness, that trust
Alone is best.’

Tomorrow:Christmas 1940

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