Saturday 10 October 2015

Larkin and Embarrassment

P.J. Kavanagh's collection People And Places begins with the author in Westminster Abbey, watching, with mixed feelings, the unveiling of a memorial to sixteen 'War Poets'. A year later, in 1986, he's back at the Abbey, this time for the grand memorial service for Philip Larkin. How, Kavanagh wonders, will the service negotiate the awkward fact of Larkin's resolute, oft-stated atheism without embarrassment all round? A few minutes into the service, he reports, 'it met the central difficulty head-on... when this was said:
 "In particular on this day we commemorate with thanksgiving Philip Larkin, who, possessing outstanding literary gifts, combined distinction with rare humility. We give thanks for his intellectual integrity which would not allow him to share the consolations of a faith which he could not share and which would have delivered him from a fear of dying by which all his life he was haunted. Of this he frequently wrote or spoke, and never more movingly than in the lines:
    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die..."
It was 'brave', Kavanagh declares, 'in the midst of such a vast musical brocade, to quote those lines'. Well yes, but the address went on to conclude rather more assertively:
 'Now we commend him to the God who is the loving Father of all, of those who cannot yet believe in Him as well as of those who do, with the assurance that, his fears dispelled, he now shares our rejoicing in eternal life, the gift of that Risen Lord whom here on Earth he did not yet know.' Larkin 'not yet' a believer? Hmm. This is not so much meeting the difficulty head-on as politely acknowledging it, with the impeccable manners that distinguish (or used to) the Church of England, and then carrying on regardless. In fact, apart from some of the music being live jazz, the Larkin memorial service was a decidedly Godly affair, with Sentences from the Book of Common Prayer, a Psalm (39: 'I said, I will take heed to my ways; that I offend not in my tongue'), Ecclesiasticus (read by Ted Hughes), a Handel anthem, prayers and hymns ('Lead kindly light', 'Abide with me'). Today that would look like the memorial service for a devout Anglican churchman.
Three poems were read - Church Going, An Arundel Tomb and Love Songs in Age. The abbey was full. It was St Valentine's Day (or Ss Cyril and Methodius if you prefer). Kavanagh concludes:
 'Larkin gains much of his Silver Classical feel from his reticence, from his obvious dread of embarrassment, which ought to have made him a Church of England man. What he would have made of this no one can tell. Most of us, I think, were glad it happened.' Silver Classical is very good.


  1. Perhaps Larkin, in his atheism, always protested too much. Perhaps godliness resides not in the naming of it but in the being of it. He had a strange affinity for sacred places, a thought which occurred to me recently when I visited the Arundel tomb in Chichester cathedral.

  2. Yes, another one felled by the old stumbling block - Do you 'believe in God'? Yes/No. And tormented by a fear of extinction that's a contradiction in terms (if death is extinction then clearly there's nothing to fear). Still, without his conflicts we wouldn't have the poems...