01 June 2016
Three poems written by Philip Larkin
in Lichfield (3): ‘Ghosts’
Over these few mornings, I am reading the three poems that Philip Larkin (1922-1985) wrote in Lichfield in 1940, while his family was living at No 33 Cherry Orchard after the Coventry Blitz in 1940..
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 Young has joked that Larkin once said of Lichfield: ‘God this place is dull.’ But the three poems he wrote in Lichfield are anything but dull, even though they were never published in his own lifetime. Today, these three poems are part of the corpus of a poet that Andrew Motion has described as ‘one of the two or three most important British poets of the last part of the 20th century.’
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 Tamworth Street, beside the Regal Cinema and now the site of the Whippet, and at No 49 Tamworth Street.
There are many Larkin family graves in Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield. In 1977, the ashes of Philip Larkin’s mother, Eva, were buried in Saint Michael’s Churchyard, and although the poet is buried at Cottingham, near Hull, both Eva and Sydney are named on tablets among the raised stones in Saint Michael’s. Despite his well known line in ‘This Be The Verse’ about parents – They f**k you up, your mum and dad’ – the poet visited the graves regularly, he witnessed his mother’s ashes buried there in 1977, and he once asked for a plan of the churchyard.
Following the Coventry blitz, Eva and Sydney 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,’ which I was reading yesterday, ‘Out in the lane I pause,’ which I read on Monday, and ‘Ghosts,’ which I am reading this morning.
Peter Young suggests that in this poem Larkin may be referring to the ghost story of the White Lady at the Swan on Bird Street. The Swan was once the oldest pub in Lichfield, dating back to 1362, but it closed in the 1980s. Since then, the premises have been converted into apartments, with Ask restaurant on the ground floor, although the sign of the Swan has been retained on the Bird Street façade.
Larkin wrote this poem in Lichfield on 19 December 1940, and included it in a letter to his school friend from Coventry, James Ballard Sutton (1921-1997), the following day, in which he compares his style in his poem not to WH Auden, the poet to whom Larkin is most indebted, but to Rupert Brooke.
Writing for The Guardian in 2008, Andrew Motion said Larkin is ‘universally admired for the formal elegance of his constructions, the memorable beauty of his phrasing, and the candour of his gaze.’ When he sent this poem to Jim Sutton, Larkin wrote:
‘Have just written the above in about ½ hour – actually a great speed. Lousily technically done, but I wanted to send it to you to show you my real talent – not the truly strong man but the fin de siècle romantic, not the clinically austere but the Peg’s Paper sonneteer, not Auden but Rupert Brooke.’
This poem, like all three poems are reading this week, was never published in Larkin’s own lifetime. It was first published in 1992 in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite (p. 10). It was included in 2005 by AT Tolley in Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenalia (p 136), and more recently it is included by Archie Burnett in Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems (p 171).
They said this corner of the park was haunted,
At tea today, laughing through windows at
The frozen landscape. One of them recounted
The local tale: easy where he sat
With lifted cup, rocked in the servile flow
Of disbelief around, to understand
And bruise. But something touched a few
Like a slim wind with an accusing hand –
Cold as this tree I touch. They knew, as I,
Those living ghosts who cannot leave their dreams,
And in years after and before their death
Return as they can, and with ghost’s pleasure search
Those several happy acres, or those rooms
Where, like unwilling moth, they collided with
The enormous flame that blinded and hurt too much.