Tuesday, 31 May 2016
Three poems written by Philip Larkin
in Lichfield (2): ‘Christmas 1940’
Over these few mornings, I am reading the three poems written by Philip Larkin (1922-1985) in Lichfield in 1940, while his family was living at No 33 Cherry Orchard after the Coventry Blitz.
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 has repeated how Larkin once said of Lichfield: “God this place is dull.” But the three poems he wrote in Lichfield are anything but dull, although they were never published in his own lifetime.
Philip 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.
Following the Coventry blitz, Sydney and Eva Larkin moved with their family to No 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield, and while he was in Lichfield, Philip Larkin regularly walked into the centre of Lichfield to drink in the George.
During that time in Lichfield, Larkin wrote three poems: ‘Christmas 1940,’ ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Out in the lane I pause,’ which I was reading yesterday.
In his lectures, Peter Young has suggested that Larkin may have referred to the Gazebo on Borrowcrop Hill in ‘Christmas 1940.’ During his ‘Lichfield Discovered’ talk in 2014, he said the arched field of ‘Christmas 1940’ refers to Borrowcop Hill.
Kate Gomez of Lichfield Discovered has pointed out that the name ‘Borrowcop’ suggests and recounts vague reports of Erasmus Darwin recovering bits of burnt bone there, although the Heritage Environment Report says ‘more recent excavations have so far failed to recover any evidence for human activity.’
Larkin wrote this poem in Lichfield on 19 December 1940, and included it in a letter to his school friend James Ballard Sutton (1921-1997) the following day. He tells Jim Sutton: ‘I scribbled this in a coma at about 11.45 p.m. last night. The only thing is that its impulse is not purely negative – except for the last 2 lines, where I break off into mumblings of dotage.’
This poem was never published during Larkin’s own lifetime. It was first published in 1992 in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite (p. 8). It was included in 2005 by AT Tolley in Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenalia (p 135), and more recently it is included by Archie Burnett in Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems (p 171).
‘High on arched field I stand
Alone: the night is full of stars:
Enormous over tree and farm
The night extends,
And looks down equally to all on earth.
‘So I return their look; and laugh
To see as them my living stars
Flung from east to west across
A windless gulf?
– So much to say that I have never said,
Or ever could.’
Yesterday: ‘Out in the lane I pause’