Reading some Philip Larkin poems the other day I noticed a theme of self-criticism. It has helped me understand his enigmatic attitude towards religion that writers such as Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton have written about. He was an atheist and in his startling poem about death called Aubade he famously calls it “a vast moth-eaten musical brocade/created to pretend we never die”. One notices a hint of disappointment in that description. Like anticipating to see a wonderful old painting but only finding some kitsch Virgin Mary replica.
The most direct expression of this self criticism is in “Wild Oats” where he describes going out with a girl when he was young who ultimately rejected him:
“Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn,
And easily bored to love.”
Wild Oats has a connection with another poem called “High Windows” where he describes seeing young people and envying their free joy as “everyone young going down the long slide/To happiness, endlessly”. He thinks that rejection of the old morality has something to do with it “That’ll be the life;/No God any more, or sweating in the dark/About hell and that”. But ends with this vision of high windows:
“Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”
In “Vers de Societe” Larkin returns to the theme of an inability to connect with others hinted at in Wild Oats. A wistful description of quiet evenings is interspersed with strangely forceful injunctions; “All solitude is selfish” and “All virtue is social”. Then it ends with:
“Only the young can be alone freely.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
Beyond the light stand failure and remorse”
This explains that powerful description of the fear of death that Larkin expresses in Aubade which you really should read in full. I hadn’t before realised how important to that poem is the phrase “Time torn off unused”. Larkin has the sense that there is only so much time to do what is worthwhile and reproaches himself for not doing enough. But with his English and Anglican Christianity no longer driving him, but still making some quiet demand below the hum of thought to do something worthwhile, what is it that should be pursued?
The only answer that Larkin could find is in his poem “An Arundel Tomb”. He describes a man and woman who have been buried in adjacent graves with a single inscription that has been slightly eroded in the passage of time. Presumably they had some changing and dynamic relationship but it is captured for posterity in the only way it can be. So he ends that poem:
“Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”