Wednesday, 25 December 2019

How Christmas 1940 in
Lichfield inspired three
poems by Philip Larkin

33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield … Philip Larkin spent Christmas 1940 here after the Larkin family moved during the Coventry Blitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) has been described by Andrew Motion as ‘one of the two or three most important British poets of the last part of the 20th century,’ and Clive James, who died recently, once said ‘Philip Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time.’

Some years ago, Philip Larkin was added to the poets who are honoured in Poets’ Cornet in Westminster Abbey. The stone includes words from one of his best-known poems, An Arundel Tomb (1964): ‘our almost-instinct almost true What will survive of us is love.’

Peter Young, the former Town Clerk of Lichfield, has spoken on many occasions – to Lichfield Discovered (2014), to Lichfield Speakers’ Corner Group (2012), and to Lichfield Civic Society (2008) – about Larkin and his associations with Lichfield. Peter has joked that Larkin once said of Lichfield: ‘God this place is dull.’ But he wrote three poems in Lichfield that are anything but dull and form an important part of his collected works.

The Larkin family’s links with Lichfield date back to 1757, and many generations of the family are buried in the churchyard at Saint Michael’s Church. Some Larkin families lived at No 49 Tamworth Street, No 21 Tamworth Street, beside the former Regal Cinema and now the site of the Whippet Inn, and at No 21 Saint John Street.

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry, the only son and younger child of Eva Larkin and her husband, Sydney Larkin (1884-1948), who was from Lichfield. In October 1940, during the Coventry blitz, Eva and Sydney moved with their family to No 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield, the family home of an aunt and uncle. The house was too small for all the Larkins, however, and Philip Larkin moved out to another house in Cherry Orchard where he had a room to himself.

The sign of the Swan on Bird Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When Philip Larkin returned to Lichfield from Oxford for a Christmas holiday in 1940-1941, he regularly walked from Cherry Orchard into the centre of Lichfield to drink in the George and the Swan. During this time in Lichfield, he wrote three poems: Christmas 1940, Out in the lane I pause and Ghosts.

In Out in the lane I pause, the poet is standing alone under a starless sky beside a railway bridge. From his invisible vantage point, he contemplates the futures of the ‘Girls and their soldiers from the town’ whose steps he can hear on the steep road towards the shops, and the war-time disappointments to come.

Larkin wrote this poem on the nights of 18 and 19 December 1940, and included it in a letter to his school friend, James Ballard Sutton (1921-1997), on 20 December, along with two other poems, Christmas 1940 and Ghosts, written in Lichfield on the night of 19 December 1940.

Peter Young has suggested that Larkin may have referred to the Gazebo on Borrowcrop Hill in Christmas 1940, and that in Ghosts he is referring to the ghost story of the White Lady at the Swan on Bird Street, once the oldest pub in Lichfield.

Writing about Christmas 1940, Larkin told 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).

Christmas 1940

‘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.’

The ashes of Philip Larkin’s mother, Eva, were buried in Saint Michael’s Churchyard in 1977, and although the poet is buried at Cottingham, near Hull, both Eva and Sydney Larkin are named on tablets among the raised stones in Saint Michael’s.

Despite his well-known line in ‘This Be The Verse’ about parents, the poet visited the graves regularly, he witnessed his mother’s ashes being buried there in 1977, and he once asked for a plan of the churchyard. He died in 1985.

‘If only that so many dead lie round’ … members of the Larkin family are buried at Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield, and Philip Larkin’s parents are named on tablets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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