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Philip Larkin

On the poet's classicism.


Book publishers are inscrutable. In the 1990s, Penguin produced an excellent series titled “Poets in Translation,” featuring the classic works of non-Anglophone poets from the Psalmist to Baudelaire in their best and most influential English translations. The central question was in keeping with the critical outlook of the era: How has English literature absorbed material from non-native traditions? How have we gotten to where we are now? The books were, as a rule, carefully selected, edited, and commented—late monuments of the last century’s confluence of popular and scholarly interests. Needless to say, they are now out of print.

The exemplar of the series is Horace in English, edited by the late D.S. Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes. Alongside the expected renderings of Dryden, Pope, and Housman there are a few surprises—John Quincy Adams and even Gladstone. Carne-Ross is at pains to insist that Horace is not merely the property of the Augustans; his echoes in English can be heard all the way through to the heroes of Carne-Ross’s own generation. He singles out Philip Larkin as the giant with whom to contend.

“We may however find qualities that seem genuinely Horatian—the tough reasonableness beneath the lyric grace, the alliance of levity and seriousness by which the seriousness is intensified—in poets who show no interest in Horace and may not even have had any Latin,” Carne-Ross argues. “Let admirers of Larkin who prize his stern insularity not be affronted by the relation to Horace proposed here. Let them, if they wish, insist that no such relation ever entered Larkin’s mind.” 

The relation proposed is between “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” the first piece in The Less Deceived, and Odes I.19; Carne-Ross invokes the sudden changes of register in each, the particular dynamics in the speaker’s view of the beloved. Not a wholly unconvincing parallel, but it certainly leaves the reader hungry for a neater intertext, a way to draw the prophets of disappointed and straitened middle age closer. The critic may indulge in some light historicism—Larkin finished third in Latin among the Arts Sixth at King Henry VIII School in Coventry. If there is a discernible chain of influence between Larkin and Horace, surely something more concrete than mere impressions of similar technique must emerge.

As it happens, I think there is one, and that Carne-Ross cannot be blamed for missing it because it appears in a collection that is now generally regarded as Larkin’s juvenilia: The North Ship, published in 1945, a full decade before his mature epoch begins. Larkin himself did not care to revisit these works. “With regard to the republication of the poems, I am still undecided about this,” he wrote in 1965. “They are such complete rubbish, for the most part, that I am just twice as unwilling to have two editions in print as I am to have one.” Elsewhere he described the collection as “ghastly,” “awful,” and “not very good.” 

Daunting stuff. Yet here is exactly the intertext pulling together the twin objects of Carne-Ross’s fascination—and not in especially subtle form. Horace, Odes I.11:

sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Readers will recognize “carpe diem” from its crude popular rendering, “seize the day”; but carpere properly signifies a gentler horticultural activity, a picking or a plucking. Among his chosen renderings of these lines, Carne-Ross offers us the following from Charles Stuart Calverley, that eminent Victorian who, “proving too witty and obstreperous to please constituted authority,” transferred from the staid Oxford atmosphere at Balliol to Christ’s College at Cambridge, and later gave up a promising career at law after injuring his head while ice skating:

Be thou wise: fill up the wine-cup; shortening, since the time is brief,
Hopes that reach into the future. While I speak, hath stol’n away Jealous Time. Mistrust To-morrow, catch the blossom of To-day.

Let us turn our attention back to the nearer past. In The North Ship, XXX:

So through that unripe day you bore your head,
And the day was plucked and tasted bitter
As if still cold among the leaves.

Begone, “stern insularity”; come hither, intertextuality and the burden of history. This unmistakable parallel repudiates Horace’s studied relaxation in the face of mortality in a way that points to Larkin’s later efforts to address death in “Aubade.” It has gone unremarked by all Larkin’s commentators. But it is not the only hint of the classical in The North Ship. Let us examine XIII:

I put my mouth
Close to running water: 
Flow north, flow south,
It will not matter,
It is not love you will find.
I told the wind:
It took away my words:
It is not love you will find,
Only the bright-tongued birds,
Only a moon with no home.

Here is Catullus, drawing on a common Greek motif in poem LXX:

sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
In vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.
But what a woman says to a lusty lover,
One might scribble in wind and running water.

Or take XVI:

And I am sick for want of sleep;
So sick, that I can half-believe
The soundless river pouring from the cave
Is neither strong, nor deep;
Only an image fancied in conceit.

An imprecise image, but unmistakable—indeed, apparently a combination of two descriptions of the gates of Hell in Aeneid VI:

spelunca alta fuit vastoque immanis hiatu,
scrupea, tuta lacu nigro nemorumque tenebris
The cave was deep and vast in its gulf
Rugged, guarded by a black lake and the shadows of the wood


facilils descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis
The descent to Avernus is easy;
Through nights and days the door of Dis lies open

So what does this mean? In 1945, Larkin could still draw upon his sixth-form Latin reader for three images in a thirty-two-poem collection. While this brief tally is a nice piece of trivia, it hardly seems more relevant than Larkin’s single echo of Poe, also from The North Ship—“the birds’ clamour, nor / The image morning gave / Of more and ever more.” Serious commentators have ignored these allusions in favor of hardier parallels to Yeats and Auden. And the very categorization of “juvenilia” writes off the relevance of the early work—poems from “before I began to sing,” in Larkin’s own words.

Yet perhaps Carne-Ross’s instinct—although imprecise and possessed of incomplete information—is basically correct, and there is a recurrent classicism in Larkin’s mature work. In his final collection, High Windows, we encounter “Cut Grass”:

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.

Here is an echo of the unseen mower in Frost’s “Tuft of Flowers,” but the arrow passes through to the original image found in Catullus:

Nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
Qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
Ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
Tactus aratrost.
Nor does she look, as she once did, to my love,
Which through her carelessness has fallen as the meadow-
edge’s flower, after by the passing
Ploughshare it is touched.

Running westward from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde is a curious ridge, turfed over and in many parts forested. Trees growing from it push out at odd angles, and their mature crowns are displaced from where they would rise were the ground even. This rise is the Antonine Wall, the terminus of Roman power in Britain and in northern Europe—slumped, overgrown, pillaged for stone, and largely neglected until the nineteenth century. Yet this deep past conditions how trees still grow. Saxo Grammaticus wrote that the Roman walls are proof that true giants, primordial earth-movers, must once have walked the earth.

The past pushes us at the tips of its fingers; ends are found in beginnings. Sometimes influence is so deep that it looks like a grassy knoll. Is it too bold to agree with Carne-Ross’s discovery of the “genuinely Horatian” in the work of Coventry’s most famous son? Or can we say that Horace pushes up through the ground into Larkin’s early poems, and Larkin’s early poems push up into the deep blue endless air of his later verse?

Carne-Ross died in 2010; Horace in English was not reprinted after its original run. A boy scrambles down a Scottish slope, chasing sheep along the ridge; underfoot, turfed stones wait.

Jude Russo’s writing has appeared in First Things, America, and other publications.

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