Friday, 2 December 2016
Two poems for Advent
by Philip Larkin
This morning, for the office and daily prayers in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, I prayed with the Litany of the Cross of the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral, and instead of a reflection I read the poem Church Going by Philip Larkin, who was baptised in Coventry Cathedral, who spent part of his late teens in Lichfield, and who once worked as a librarian in Queen's University Belfast.
I read this poem because it echoes some of our Advent hopes and anticipations, and because later this evening [2 December 2016] the poet Philip Larkin is being honoured in Westminster Abbey, 31 years after his death, when a ledger stone with his name was placed in Poets’ Corner, alongside great literary giants from Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens to Thomas Hardy, TS Eliot, CS Lewis, John Betjeman and Ted Hughes.
The stone includes words from one of his best-known works, An Arundel Tomb (1964):
our almost instinct almost true What will survive of us is love.
His stone lies at the foot of Anthony Trollope’s, and a few places away from Lord Byron and Dylan Thomas. The abbey’s masons, according to tradition, have placed a new penny under the stone to date its installation.
Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was as far from the beating heart of literary London as it is possible to imagine, and in recent years, following the posthumous publication of his letters in 1992, he has been accused of holding sexist and racist views.
Professor Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at University College, London, who died last year, famously dismissed Larkin as a ‘casual, habitual racist and an easy misogynist.’ On the other hand, Clive James says ‘Philip Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time.’
However, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Very Revd Dr John Hall, decided it is ‘the right time’ to honour Larkin and that the greatness of his poetry outweighs any objections about his opinions on race and women.
A spokesperson for Westminster Abbey said: ‘The Dean feels now is the right time to memorialise Larkin. Whatever rows have taken place about his views, the bigger picture is his poetry and what shines through is that he’s one of our greatest poets and should be recognised as such.’
Larkin was born in Coventry and baptised in Covetnry Cathedral. But during World War II Coventry with its military factories was a regular target for German bombing raids. 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. 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.
While he was in Lichfield, Larkin wrote three poems: ‘Christmas 1940,’ ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Out in the lane I pause,’ which was written when he returned to Lichfield for a Christmas holiday in 1940.
After graduating from Oxford with a first in English Language and Literature, Larkin worked at Queen's University, Belfast, and then as a librarian at Hull University.
In 2003, he was named in a Poetry Book Society survey as Britain’s best-loved poet of the previous 50 years. The Philip Larkin Society has long campaigned for him to be memorialised at Poets’ Corner.
Indeed Larkin seemed surprisingly confident of his place in Poets’ Corner. When he attended the unveiling of a memorial to WH Auden in 1974, he grumpily remarked in a letter to his mother: ‘Poets’ Corner seems to be getting pretty crowded! No doubt there will be room for me.’
Again, a year before he died, after attending the memorial service in Westminster Abbey in 1984 for the poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, Larkin wrote to his mother predicting that he too would see himself acclaimed as one of the greats: ‘Poets’ Corner is pretty crowded, but I think there will be a space for me.’
Dean Hall, who conducted today’s ceremony, explained: ‘While it is the Dean of Westminster Abbey who makes the decision as to who should be commemorated at Poets’ Corner – whether the cultural establishment approves or not – I get the feeling in Larkin’s case that they do.’
Dean Hall said: ‘Philip Larkin will be memorialised very near Geoffrey Chaucer finding a fitting place among his fellow poets. I have no doubt that his work and memory will live on as long as the English language continues to be understood.’
Dean Hall says: ‘Larkin himself had no strong faith, if any at all, but in Church Going and also in An Arundel Tomb, he’s thinking about the significance of the Church. There’s a sort of nostalgia there for faith and a sense that if the church disappears we will have lost something very important. Larkin’s engagement with this question is very important and it’s fitting that he’ll take his place at the heart of our church.’
The dedication ceremony is being led by the Dean of Westminster, with an address by poet and author Blake Morris, and readings by Anthony Thwaite, president of the Philip Larkin Society, which commissioned the memorial, the artist Grayson Perry, and the actor Sir Tom Courtenay.
Although Larkin is being honoured in Westminster Abbey today, and despite the fact that many generations of the Larkin family are buried in the churchyard at Saint Michael’s Church in Lichfield, the poet kept himself at arm’s length from the Church. In a number of poems, such as Church Going, he questions the relevance of the Church and asks whether it has a future in modern Britain.
Larkin once described himself as ‘an agnostic, I suppose, but an Anglican agnostic, of course.’ Yet two of his poems point to the watching and waiting theme of Advent. The Dedicated was written on 18 September 1946 and was published in XX Poems, poems collected and privately printed by Larkin in 1951.
The Dedicated by Philip Larkin
Some must employ the scythe
Upon the grasses,
That the walks be smooth
For the feet of the angel.
Some keep in repair
The locks, that the visitor unhindered passes
To the innermost chamber.
Some have for endeavour
To sign away life
As lover to lover,
Or a bird using its wings
To fly to the fowler’s compass,
Not out of willingness,
But being aware of
And if they have leave
To pray, it is for contentment
If the feet of the dove
Perch on the scythe’s handle,
Perch once, and then depart
Their knowledge. After, they wait
Only the colder advent,
The quenching of candles.
Arrivals, departures is set in Belfast and was written there by Larkin in January 1953. It was first published in Fantasy Poems no 21 (March 1954), and in Q no 11, Queen’s University Belfast, in early 1955.
Arrivals, departures, by Philip Larkin
This town has docks where channel boats come sidling;
Tame water lanes, tall sheds, the traveller sees
(His bag of samples knocking at his knees),
And hears, still under slackened engines gliding,
His advent blurted to the morning shore.
And we, barely recalled from sleep there, sense
Arrivals lowing in a doleful distance –
Horny dilemmas at the gate once more.
Come and choose wrong, they cry, come and choose wrong; And so we rise. At night again they sound,
Calling the traveller now, the outward bound:
O not for long, they cry, I not for long –
And we are nudged from comfort, never knowing
How safely we may disregard their blowing,
Or if, this night, happiness is going.