Skip to main content
Read page text

m e n o f l e t t e r s

It is now in print again, so readers can judge for themselves.

I spotted a few minor factual errors, easy to correct in future impressions. Ackroyd says Collins never wrote directly about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but an anonymous article discussing their work in Bentley’s Miscellany on 1 June 1851 is by him. He never acknowledged it, for though less direct than Dickens’s attack the previous year, Collins’s piece makes clear his reservations about the work of his friends Millais, Holman Hunt and his own brother, Charles Collins. His travelling desk was not a relic of his schooldays, but an exact replica of one owned by Dickens and much admired by Collins. When Caroline Graves left Wilkie temporarily in 1868 to marry Joseph Clow it would have been bizarre even by Collinsian standards if Caroline’s new mother-in-law had gone to live with her ex-lover. It was not Frances Clow but old Mrs Graves, the mother of Caroline’s first husband, who stayed from time to time with her granddaughter at Collins’s house in Gloucester Place. Her death in 1877 (not 1876) in nearby lodgings was registered by Wilkie’s cook.

A short, accessible life of Collins for new readers of his novels has long been needed and Peter Ackroyd, with his intimate knowledge of London and fascination with creative Londoners, is an obvious person to provide it. If Wilkie Collins lacks some of the individual flavour and quirkiness that has made Ackroyd’s larger books on Blake, Dickens, and London itself so memorable, this may be because, as Dickens complained to John Forster when writing the weekly numbers of Hard Times, ‘the difficulty of the space is CRUSHING’. It is not easy to write a literary biography in less than 200 pages that gives due weight to both life and work. Ackroyd has succeeded admirably in keeping the balance and giving a vivid impression of an important nineteenth-century writer. To order this book for £10.39, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 39

mat t h e w a dams

All That Has Survived he Complete Poems of Philip Larkin

Edited by Archie Burnett

(Faber & Faber 729pp £40)

When the young Philip Larkin – mole-like, bespectacled, apprehensive, stammering – was a pupil at the King Henry VIII School in Coventry and living with his parents in Manor Road, he began to shape himself as a writer. The house he inhabited was, he recalled in an autobiographical fragment from the 1950s, suffused with a ‘curious tense boredom’ – a place that was ‘dull, pot-bound, and slightly mad’. His father, Sydney – ‘intensely shy, inhibited not robust, devoid of careless sensual instincts’ – kept a figurine of Hitler on the mantelpiece that, at the touch of a button, would leap into a Nazi salute; and mealtimes would routinely feature monologues from his mother – who grew to be an ‘obsessive snivelling pest’ – so ‘resentful, self-pitying, full of funk and suspicion’ that they remained in his mind as something he mustn’t ‘under any circumstances risk encountering again’. Once, he remembered, she ‘sprang up from the table announcing her intention to commit suicide’.

Such themes – gloom, futility, solitude, bitterness, resentment, deprivation

– tend to be seen as wholly characteristic of Larkin’s poetry, and one can, reviewing his life and work, understand why this view pertains. ‘Please believe me’, he said to a childhood friend, ‘when I say that half my days are spent in black, surging, twitching, boiling HATE!!!’; and if you have wondered whether the young Larkin even had friends, consider his own reflection on the subject: ‘you cannot howl to yourself ’. Similar attitudes can be found throughout his work (where he was, on occasion, howling to himself ). Yet Larkin was essentially a romantic poet, and when he was sat in his Manor Road bedroom as a boy, adrift in the ‘forgotten boredom’ of his youth and sewing together little volumes of the poems he had written and wished to preserve, he was already giving an indication of what were to be his enduring preoccupations during his life as a writer: love, and the life lived, as it is phrased in the title of one of those homemade books, in The Village of the Heart.

This beautiful phrase comes from a poem of W H Auden, the opening line of which – ‘To settle in this village of the heart/My darling, can you bear it?’ – Larkin quotes on his title page. The elegiac strains, and the lament for a lost world and for lost love, are characteristic of the tone and themes of Larkin’s subsequent work. One thinks, for example, of ‘Going, Going’, in which Larkin speaks of the demise of his country of birth, of a world that was once his. ‘And that will be England gone,’ he writes:

The shadows, the meadows, the lanes, The guildhalls, the carved choirs. There’ll be books; it will linger on In galleries; but all that remains For us will be concrete and tyres.

The verse seems final, bitter, plangent; but, as is so often the case with Larkin, the poem is imbued with a level of equivocation (‘But what do I feel now? Doubt?/ Or age, simply?’) and a latent generosity (‘Most things are never meant./This won’t be, most likely’). Larkin said to Monica Jones that England was destined to become ‘one huge dismal wet imbecile Yanked-up slum’; in ‘Going, Going’, ‘The crowd/Is young in the M1 café’, and for them life will continue somewhere.

Larkin’s peculiar sense of continuity is addressed more explicitly in ‘An Arundel Tomb’, where an ‘earl and countess lie in stone’, offering an image that ‘Hardly involves the eye, until/It meets his lefthand gauntlet, still/Clasped empty in the other’. Over the years, in lines that again recall Auden (this time his ‘Musée des

Literary Review | m a r c h 2 0 1 2 12

My Bookmarks


Skip to main content