Philip Larkin and the Splendid Poem / Unsplendid Reality

Nora Delaney

The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin
edited and with an introduction and commentary by Archie Burnett 
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 729 pp., $40.00  


When I was a student at the University of Edinburgh, a favorite professor taught me how to read poems closely; he introduced me, too, to the no-nonsense charm of Philip Larkin—a poet who has learned his vocabulary and how to end his poems from Thomas Hardy; the two share a knowingness of things, which Larkin learned from Hardy. In his introduction to the Faber edition of The North Ship (included in Professor Burnett’s commentary), Larkin writes “One book I had at my bedside was the little blue Chosen Poems of Thomas Hardy: Hardy I knew as a novelist, but as regards his verse I shared Lytton Strachley’s verdict that ‘the gloom is not even relieved by a little elegance of diction’. This opinion did not last long”.

Like Hardy, Larkin knows gloom and knows to make inelegant-seeming diction elegant. The first poem I learned of his was “Mr Bleaney,” about a single man renting a single room. This lonely soul speculates about the previous tenant, Mr Bleaney, and shoves cotton-wool in his ears to rid himself of his predecessor’s presence lingering on through the landlady’s radio (“The jabbering set he egged her on to buy”). “Mr Bleaney” is heavily anthologized, and possibly the best known of Larkin’s poems—perhaps for the accessibility of the sentiment and the language, and, perhaps, for the remarkable two-stanza sentence that ends it:


          But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
          Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
          Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
          And shivered, without shaking off the dread

          That how we live measures our own nature,
          And at his age having no more to show
          Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
          He warranted no better, I don’t know.


I can’t think of anything more Hardyesque, but it is, at the same time, all Larkin. I’ve carried that poem around with me, in all its sadness, with those final three agnostic words—a mature person, a mature poet, doesn’t ever really know, even if he suspects he does—somewhere in my head from Edinburgh, across the Atlantic, to Boston. It has met with Robert Frost in my mind, too; Frost, like Hardy and Larkin can end a poem with such tension between knowing and not knowing, and with those simple monosyllabic words that have so much gravity.

In a felicitous way, Larkin appeared for me again in Boston where I had the great fortune to be one of Archie Burnett’s students. More strangely and more felicitously, I learned that Professor Burnett knew that same professor I had in Edinburgh who first introduced me to Larkin. Now, reading “Mr Bleaney” in the new Complete Poems edition makes me think of my first readings of that poem, but it is greatly enriched by the scholarship and depth of information that can be found in Professor Burnett’s commentary. Of course my response must be colored by the fact that I am a student of the editor—I think of Professor Christopher Ricks’s statement in his recent review of the same edition in the New York Review of Books: “the present reviewer is a friend and colleague of the editor. Full disclosure, then, even though Larkin’s art is one that finds itself preferring intimations to disclosures”.

“Mr Bleaney” is 28-lines long, and Professor Burnett has provided three and a half pages of accompanying commentary. This commentary is data, rather than opinion. Here I think it is helpful to repeat Professor Ricks: “the editor’s job is rightly understood as not the issuing of critical pronouncements or appreciations, but the provision of such information, textual and contextual, as makes possible the common pursuit of true judgment.” The editorial commentary, in this case, reveals not only something of the poem, but something of the poet—the gap between the presented self and reality. As Burnett observes, Larkin claimed on a BBC broadcast that he wrote “Mr Bleaney” “in one evening out of pure exasperation.” But the poet’s workbooks reveal somewhat otherwise; a draft of stanza five was revised a week after the first drafts. In other words, the presented reality is only a half-truth. We also learn of Larkin’s own (very high) opinion of the piece in a letter to his longtime companion, Monica Jones: “an extraordinarily good poem”, “I love the dark recommencement” (here he is talking of starting up that penultimate stanza with the word “But” to initiate the extended parting salvo), “O a splendid poem.”

At the same time “Mr Bleaney” very much was Larkin’s quite unsplendid reality, and Professor Burnett gives us the context and, importantly, the textual evidence that the poem is based on the poet’s “bleak lodgings at 11 Outlands Road in Cottingham, just outside Hull, which he took shortly after taking his post as University Librarian: Motion (1993), 247; Brennan (2002), 25.” Burnett here is scrupulous in his documentation, citing Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin as well as the 2002 account by Maeve Brennan, who had been a friend of Larkin’s and had had a romantic relationship with him as well. The references to the biographies are useful, but more telling perhaps are the poet’s own words. Burnett cites several of Larkin’s letters that mention the house, including one to Monica Jones from October 9, 1957, referring to “that ghastly house in Outlands Road, the Mr Bleaney house”. The editorial record continues: “In Nov. 1974 he confirmed that the poem was ‘about a real lodging-house, digs that weren’t very satisfactory’.” These are just a few references to Mr Bleaney or the house from letters over the years that Burnett has found and diligently listed in the commentary. They leave this reader with no doubt in her mind that Larkin was haunted by Mr Bleaney and worried about becoming him.

Burnett also shows that details elsewhere in the poem are drawn from Larkin’s own experience, particularly the landlady’s noisy radio—the “jabbering set” Bleaney encouraged her to buy. An April 1955 letter to Monica: “Oh the wireless—gabble, gabble, gabble. I have the usual wool in my ears, but it doesn’t help much.” Now “gabble” is assonantly close to “jabbering,” but a year earlier in 1954—and a mere two months before Larkin first drafted the poem in his notebooks—he uses that very word in a letter to Monica: ”I can hear Jordan’s radio jabbering away downstairs”. Not only is the experience there first in Larkin’s letters, but so is the vocabulary. By providing us with information from the letters, Burnett provides clues to the poem’s evolution. I feel one of the appeals of “Mr Bleaney” is that it feels so much as if it were drawn from life; it is entirely believable. Professor Burnett’s scholarship provides the proof that it was, in fact, based on the poet’s reality.

I have narrowed my scope to one poem and hope I have demonstrated, just a little, what a careful and thorough editor can do at the level of the line and the individual poem. Now consider that the Complete Poems is roughly 700 pages long, with, as John Banville pointed out in his review of the edition, roughly 90 pages dedicated to the collections published in the poet’s lifetime and another 300 or so to poems published posthumously or not at all—many of which are painfully funny, scurrilous, or sad; several of which are lovely. The remaining half of the book is careful commentary, provisions of alternate drafts, and other editorial apparatus.

As Banville observes, “Page-counting is always a vulgar and dispiriting exercise, but in this case the results are truly impressive.” I agree. This edition is not the first or only—Burnett draws extensively on, and acknowledges fully the value of, Anthony Thwaite’s thorough 1988 Collected Poems, for example. However, the current editor’s meticulousness in providing full bibliographical information and carefully documented supplementary material from the letters makes this new edition immensely valuable and a supreme example of scholarly editing.


NORA DELANEY is a writer, translator, and editor. She is currently completing a PhD at Boston University's Editorial Institute and teaches in the program in writing and humanistic studies at MIT. Her chapbook of poems Tiles Kissing Closewas published by the Pen & Anvil Press and her poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in Little StarThe Critical Flame,Literary ImaginationFulcrumAbsinthe: New European WritingJacketDark SkyThe Arts Fuse, and elsewhere.

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