12 October 2022

Why Philip Larkin never
became Poet Laureate
or Professor of Poetry

‘A serious house on serious earth it is’ (Philip Larkin) … Saint Michael’s Church, Greenhill, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this week, I was marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the poet of Philip Larkin (1922-1985) by recalling the time he spent in Lichfield during World War II.

The Larkin family lived in Coventry, and Philip Larkin was born 100 years ago on 9 August 1922. But the family roots were Lichfield, dating back to 1757, and while he was an undergraduate at Oxford, the Larkin family moved to Lichfield during the Coventry Blitz.

Larkin spent some time in Lichfield, staying at 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield and at 9 Sturgeon’s Hill, and wrote at least three poems in Lichfield, Christmas 1940, Out in the lane I pause and Ghosts.

When my blog posting on Philip Larkin was reposted on a Lichfield Facebook group earlier this week, one Facebook friend, Jayne Preston, recalled, ‘I used to deliver newspapers here year ago as a teenager. Can remember speaking to an elderly lady there who told me about a royal poet laureate. Would this be Philip?’

Yes, Philip Larkin lived there over 80 years ago – but he never was Poet Laureate. In fact, he declined the invitation to became Poet Laureate following the death of Sir John Betjeman.

Many felt Larkin should have been offered the position of Poet Laureate in 1972, but Betjeman was preferred instead. By the time Betjeman died in May 1984, Larkin was only months from his own death, and could only decline the position when it was offered to him. Instead, Ted Hughes became the Poet Laureate.

Hughes and Larkin were both published by Faber and Faber, but never saw eye-to-eye. Close to the former Faber and Faber offices at No 3 Queen Square, lines from Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin are inscribed below a floral bowl commemorating Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee of 1977.

Ted Hughes wrote:

A nation’s a soul
A soul is a wheel
With a crown for a hub
To keep it whole

Philip Larkin wrote:

In times when nothing stood
But worsened or grew strange
There was one constant good
She did not change

Having declined the position of Poet Laureate, Larkin wrote wistfully to Kingsley Amis: ‘the thought of being the cause of Ted’s being buried in Westminster Abbey is hard to live with.’

Larkin called himself ‘an agnostic, I suppose, but an Anglican agnostic, of course.’ Yet he too eventually joined Betjeman and Hughes with a place in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in 2011.

As well as declining the honour of Poet Laureate, a recently discovered letter in Saint Hugh’s College, Oxford, shows that Larkin also ruled himself out of consideration for election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1968. In a letter to a colleague, Larkin said he dreaded the post’s ‘sherry-drill with important people’ and that he would be ‘entirely unfitted’ for the job.

The position is seen as the second most important in British poetry behind that of Poet Laureate.

The letter, typed on Larkin’s letterhead at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones library, replies to a suggestion from the then college principal, Rachel Trickett, that he should stand for the prestigious role. After ‘the luxury of a few minutes day-dreaming on the subject,’ he wrote to dissuade her from putting his name forward.

He added that he had given just one lecture in his life. ‘I hated it, and a number of people walked out in the first few minutes,’ he said. ‘My idea of hell on earth (physical pain excepted, and I am not sure that it is excepted even in this case) is a literary party, and I have an uneasy feeling that the post carries with it a lot of sherry-drill with important people.’

Larkin was nominated again by WH Auden, in 1972, only to decline once again.

His comments about ‘sherry-drill link to his sardonic poem Vers de Societé, in which he writes:

I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted,
Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted
Over to catch the drivel of some bitch
Who’s read nothing but Which

Lines from Philip Larkin commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee of 1977 in Queen Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Despite his agnosticism or atheism, Larkin loved the country churches that knit the English landscape together. He spent a week back in the Midlands in 1954, mainly with his mother, when he visited ‘family graves’ in Lichfield around February or March 1954, including the grave of his father, Sydney Larkin, who was buried in Saint Michael’s Churchyard in 1948.

In a letter written in March 1954, Larkin says this visit to Saint Michael’s churchyard was followed by a ‘queer mixture of hell and rest cure’ – by this he meant a poorly attended service in Lichfield Cathedral.

Larkin described ‘Church Going’ as his ‘Betjeman poem.’ Although he later said it was inspired by a country church near Belfast, it may indeed have been inspired by that visit to Saint Michael’s in Lichfield with his mother in 1954, as I have suggested two years ago (HERE).

I ‘run my hand around the font’ (Philip Larkin) … the font in Saint Michael's Church, where generations of the Larkin family were baptised (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Wednesday 12 October 2022

The ‘Corporal Works of Mercy’ window (ca 1410) in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (12 October 2022) remembers Wilfrid of Ripon (709), Bishop, Missionary, with a Lesser Festival, and Elizabeth Fry (1845), Prison Reformer, and Edith Cavell (1915), Nurse, with commemorations.

I have a meetings later today in Kidlington, near Oxford, and Shenley Church End, Milton Keynes. But, before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

During the last two weeks, I was reflecting each morning on a church, chapel, or place of worship in York, where I stayed last month. This week I am reflecting on the windows in one of those churches: All Saints’ Church, North Street, York.

In my prayer diary this week I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection on the windows in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Feeding the hungry: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’; Giving drink to the thirsty: ‘I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink’ (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

It is interesting to note that Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell, who are commemorated today, both relate to the themes in the ‘Corporal Works of Mercy’ window in York, which I am reflecting on this morning.

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was born Elizabeth Gurney in Earlham, Norfolk. At the age of 20, she married Joseph Fry, a London merchant and a strict Quaker. She was admitted as a minister in the Society of Friends and became a noted preacher. The appalling state of the prisons came to her notice and she devoted much of her time to the welfare of female prisoners in Newgate. In 1820, she took part in the formation of a night shelter for the homeless in London. She travelled all over Europe in the cause of prison reform. She had a strong Christian and evangelistic impulse and this inspired all her work. She died on this day in 1845.

Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was born into a clerical family at Swardeston. After life as a governess, she trained as a nurse, ending up working with the Red Cross in Belgium in 1907. On the outbreak of World War I, she became involved in caring for the wounded on both sides. She refused repatriation and then began smuggling British soldiers from Belgium into Holland. She was arrested in 1915 and was put on trial. Protecting those who worked with her, she was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad on this day in the year 1915. She went to her death calmly, forgiving her executioners, convinced she had been doing her duty as a Christian.

Luke 11: 42-46 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 42 ‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others. 43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. 44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.’

45 One of the lawyers answered him, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.’ 46 And he said, ‘Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.’

Offering hospitality to strangers: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’; and Clothing the Naked: ‘I was naked and you gave me clothing’ (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

‘The Corporal Works of Mercy’ window, All Saints Church, York:

All Saints’ Church, North Street, York, which I described in this prayer diary recently (28 September 2022), is said to be ‘York’s finest mediaeval church.’ It dates from the 11th century and stands near the River Ouse.

The church has an important collection of mediaeval stained glass, including ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window, depicting the 15 signs of the End of the World; the window depicting the Corporal Works of Mercy (see Matthew 25: 31ff); the Great East Window, originally in the north wall; the Lady Chapel Window, which I am looking at tomorrow (13 October 2022); the Saint James the Great Window; the Saint Thomas Window; and the Coats-of-Arms window.

All Saints’ Church, on North Street, York, is known particularly for two early 15th century windows: the window depicting ‘The Pricke Of Conscience’ or ‘The Fifteen Signs of Doom’ window, which I was looking at earlier this week (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday); and the window depicting the ‘Corporal Works of Mercy’ (see Matthew 25: 35-46), which I am looking at this morning.

The ‘Corporal Acts of Mercy’ window may have been a memorial to Nicholas Blackburn senior, who was a merchant and mayor of York, erected by his son, Nicholas Blackburn, around 1410. Nicholas Blackburn was a merchant trader and the head of his family. His son and grandson also appear in the Great East Window in the church.

The ‘Corporal Acts of Mercy’ window is the western window in the Lady Chapel of the north choir aisle, the choir of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The glass was originally in the two-light window beside the north door. The glass around the main panels dates from the 1800s.

When looking at mediaeval windows, it is worth bearing in mind where they are seen. The nave belonged to the laity and its upkeep was paid for by them. Stained glass windows were often paid for by a wealthy individual or family, a guild or a group of parishioners, and the patron had a significant say in the subject matter of the scenes depicted.

At the time, wealthy parishioners were challenged morally by the Church to examine their consciences in regard to acts of charity. This window shows the way, and the chantry priest can help move the individual’s soul through Purgatory.

The window depicts six of the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy. The man who conducts the acts of mercy is older and bearded and possibly the dead man, Nicholas Blackburn senior.

In the top register amongst the pinnacles a pair angels peer down to witness the acts.

The corporal acts of mercy are then arranged in three panels in the two middle sections:

Row 1: Feeding the hungry: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’ (Matthew 25: 35). Giving drink to the thirsty: ‘I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink’ (Matthew 25: 35). Offering hospitality to strangers: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matthew 25: 35).

Row 2: clothing the naked: ‘I was naked and you gave me clothing’ (Matthew 25: 36). Visiting the sick: ‘I was sick and you took care of me’ (Matthew 25: 36). Visiting prisoners: ‘I was in prison and you visited me’ (Matthew 25: 36).

In each panel, the bearded man may represent Nicholas Blackburn performing these acts of mercy.

The one traditional act of mercy omitted is that of burying the dead. However, this seventh traditional act of mercy is not listed in Matthew 25; 35-36. Although part of the traditional mediaeval lists, it is not found in the list in Saint Matthew’s Gospel. Instead, it is found in asimilar list in Tobit 1: 16-22. Perhaps this explains its absence in the window in York; or, perhaps, this is because this is a memorial window and therefore it is implied throughout the window that the task has been done. The window itself, donated by his family, might be seen as a complete working out of the seventh act, the burial – or at least the commemoration – of the dead.

On the bottom register of the window to the right there appears to be a chantry priest singing and praying for the soul of the departed. He is mirrored on the right by a praying couple. The clean shaven man may be Nicholas Blackburn and the woman his wife. In between is a representation of the heavenly realms.

Visiting the sick: ‘I was sick and you took care of me’; Visiting prisoners: ‘I was in prison and you visited me’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Today’s Prayer (Wednesday 12 October 2022):

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who called our forebears to the light of the gospel
by the preaching of your servant Wilfrid:
help us, who keep his life and labour in remembrance,
to glorify your name by following the example
of his zeal and perseverance;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
in that new world where you reveal
the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share with Wilfrid and all your saints
in the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Day of the Girl Child.’ This theme is introduced this morning by the Revd Benjamin Inbaraj, Director of the CSI-SEVA department, which runs the Church of South India’s social ministries.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for the Church of South India’s Focus 9/99 programme, as it promotes and protects the rights of children across South India.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A chantry priest singing and praying for the soul of the departed; a representation of the heavenly realms; and a praying couple, perhaps Nicholas Blackburn and his wife (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Further reading:

‘Church of All Saints with Anchorage Attached, Historic England List Entry 1257067, <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1257067> [accessed 7 October 2022]
‘The Stained Glass of All Saints’, All Saint Church, <https://www.allsaints-northstreet.org.uk/stainedglass.html> [accessed 7 October 2022]
Dr Laura Varnam, ‘The Seven Works of Mercy: Part I’ (29 February 2016) <https://drlauravarnam.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/the-seven-works-of-mercy/> (accessed 7 October 2022)

The Edith Cavell Memorial in Saint Martin’s Place, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)