Review: Simon Petchon Clive James and Philip Larkin

The Middlebrow Men: Clive James on Philip Larkin

This, Clive James’s final book, is a collection of his writings on Larkin and his work. James takes his title from the final words of Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ (1959). The ninety four pages, which include copies of one manuscript letter and two typed letters from Larkin to James, don’t offer very much book for your money, but you do get Clive James, who’s always good value. His explanation of why Jack Nicholson is the only Hollywood actor appropriate to play Larkin onscreen justifies the price of admission.

The book consists of eleven reviews and two poems, all published between 1974 and 2018. There’s an introduction, dated 2019, and an undated coda. As a collection of occasional pieces, all of them short, this is anything but a sustained consideration of Larkin’s writing. It’s a bits-and-pieces book, and its critical reflections are hit-and-miss. The misses are few, the parade of hits is good, and James writes as well on Larkin’s prose as on his poetry. The best essay in the book (which is also the longest), ‘On Larkin’s Wit’, is reprinted from Anthony Thwaite’s 1982 collection Larkin at Sixty. Here, James maintains that the jazz reviews that Larkin wrote for the Daily Telegraph, collected in 1970 as All What Jazz, constitute ‘one of the great books of creative criticism in our language’. An extravagant claim, perhaps, but this essay remains a significant revaluation of what Larkin called ‘the one book of mine that no one ever bothers about’.

In recognition of ‘the sheer quality’ of the writing in the two novels that Larkin wrote in the 1940s, James finds a compositional parallel in Chopin’s two concertos: ‘good enough to promise not merely more of the same but a hitherto unheard-of distillation of their own lyrical essence’. After literature, James’s habitual frame of reference is music, and he has a good ear for Larkin’s poetic music as produced by the combination of syntax and verse-form, of sentences shaped into rhymed and rhythmic frames by line-ending and punctuation.

He is a strong reader of a strong writer, but his Larkin is to some extent a projection of himself, the poet that he might have liked to be. James’s own poetry is light on the ‘lyrical essence’ that he celebrates in Larkin because James’s own poetic persona is a more public presence than Larkin could ever have been. James’s most confident poetic form is the verse letter, a classical genre whose masters in English are Pope, Tennyson, and W.H. Auden. Because it is usually addressed by one man to another, the verse-letter tends to the ‘blokey’, and that’s the case with James, whose addressees in these poems are predominantly men – Martin Amis, Peter Porter, Tom Stoppard, and, in this volume, ‘A Valediction for Philip Larkin’. Written soon after Larkin’s death in 1985, the poem gurgles into vapid public statement: a line like ‘Your saddest lyric is a social act’ falls flat by trying too hard.

Clive James rarely falls flat, and the other poem of his that is reproduced in this book, ‘The North Window’ (1974), is an absolute cracker. Rather than tell us things, James here works himself inside Larkin’s head by presenting Larkin in his place of work, the library at Hull University, looking out over the local landscape as evening falls. One poet (James) boldly tries to imagine the imagination of another poet (Larkin). Grounding his poem in the familiar territory of Larkin’s provincialism, James takes it somewhere quite different by using the compound diction of Old English with which the poem throngs – thanedom, moon-cold, furzle-field, death-dark. This is a master-stroke, for any map of east Yorkshire lights up with place-names that are redolent of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – Snaith, Withernsea, Fraisthorpe, Stamford Bridge. The poem’s language pushes Larkin from the familiar into the authentic, shifting his imagination from the twentieth century suburban pastoral with which so much of his poetry is concerned to a richer sense of place, steeped in earth, blood, and sea. Larkinland is remapped by James, the Englishness of Larkin’s poetic identity made continuous with the imaginative spaces of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and A.E. Housman’s Wenlock Edge.

It is a central perception. The sense of place conjured here is not something of which, in James’s poem, Larkin’s imagination is conscious, and the Larkin of James’s poem is certainly not how Larkin saw himself as a writer. In 1965 he wrote to his publisher lamenting the fact that ‘ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things can’t find a publisher these days’. Such novels represent ‘the tradition of Jane Austen and Trollope’, and Larkin continues: ‘I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful or lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called “big” experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour’. This middlebrow aesthetic is hardly the earth, sea and blood sensed by Clive James, but it claims a more substantial moral tone than the middlebrow is usually accorded, and it crucially locates the roots of the middlebrow in such ‘classic’ writers as Austen and Trollope. Many admirers of Austen and Trollope are more familiar with the visual adaptations of their work for television, the middlebrow medium, than with the printed versions. BBC’s The Pallisers (1974), a 26-part adaptation of Trollope’s political novels, and BBC’s 6-part adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995), are established television classics that have contributed to a reworking of cultural categories.

Cue Clive James, whose television criticism for The Observer in the seventies established him as a high-priest of the middlebrow. But ‘middlebrow’ may be a more flexible category than we think. In Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook (2016), James makes a major cultural claim for HBO’s Band of Brothers (2001). The title ‘band of brothers’ comes from Shakespeare’s Henry V, and in praising the ‘monumental moral scope’ of this series, James discusses television drama in language usually applied to Shakespearean drama. James rightly identifies Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) as this show’s strong precursor, and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) as the urtext behind both works. Those films, like Band of Brothers itself, are incorrigibly blokey, growing as they do from masculine traditions of writing and filming about the second world war. Cutting against these traditions is the German series Generation War (2013, seen by some as a riposte to Band of Brothers), no more blokey than Shakespeare’s history plays, which surely set the gold standard of war drama. That said, James reads the series’ episodes well because he understands how emotional effects trump spectacle, and also because he’s particularly alert to the subplots and their ‘lavish range of nuance’. But what is most interesting is that James applies to this show the moral vocabulary that is usually reserved for high culture. He is now a long way from Dallas, the US mega-series soap (it ran from 1978-1991); his column’s comic riffs on Dallas set a new standard for TV reviewing.

James’s interpretation of Band of Brothers straddles the high/low cultural divide, and so too does his translation of The Divine Comedy (2013). The first question to be asked of any translation of Dante is, does it pass the Dylan test? In ‘Tangled up in Blue’, Dylan’s voice responds to a book of poems ‘Written by an Italian poet/From the thirteenth century’ (Dante was born in 1265):

And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul . . .

Bob sets the bar high here, and Clive doesn’t clear it. Nor, to be fair, does he try. One translator who certainly did try for sublimity was Dorothy L. Sayers, whose landmark translation of Dante’s poem (1949) aims for the kind of effect that James avoids. Canto V of the Inferno ends with the famous Francesca and Paolo episode. Sayers’ translation of the final line, which is the climax of the poet’s response to the tragic story of the lovers, reads: ‘And, as a dead man falling, down I fell.’ James’s version of the same line is: ‘[I] went down as if going down to stay.’ At the risk of trying to out-Clive Clive, I think his Dante here sounds too much like Sonny Liston (who in Miami, 1965 took a dive in the first round of a heavyweight title fight against Cassius Clay). James loses the line’s pauses, he sidesteps death, and his repeated ‘down’ dumps the modulation of ‘falling’ into ‘fell’. (For the record, here’s Dante: ‘E caddi come corpo morto cade’.)

Colin Burrow judged James’s translation a failure, but expressed respect for its ‘colloquial’ and ‘approachable’ touches. He was onto something. It’s almost as if James set himself against Sayers with a view to creating a middlebrow Dante. He includes no scholarly apparatus, no theological explication, no unpacking of classical references, or of thirteenth-century Florentine politics. His attempt to build all these into the substance of the poem makes the poem more reader-friendly than many translations. Poetically, though, much is lost. In my view James undersells Dante as much as he overvalues Band of Brothers, using both texts to collapse low and high cultural norms.

Larkin’s equivalent boundary-riding is his enthusiasm for pre-modern jazz. Finely expressed in his poem ‘For Sidney Bechet’ (1956), this enthusiasm is predicated on his understanding of the jazz of Armstrong, Beiderbecke, Billie Holiday, and of Bechet himself, as a form of folk poetry untainted by the abstract intellectualism of high culture. Bechet’s clarinet, ‘the natural noise of good’, untainted by ‘scholars manqués’ evokes an ‘enormous yes’ from Larkin. (Curiously enough, ‘For Sidney Bechet’ is written in the terza rima chain-rhyme pioneered by Dante.)

Larkin’s preferred jazz is a musical counterpart to ‘the distilled lyricism of common speech’ that James identifies as the essence of Larkin’s poetry. This is a familiar view of Larkin’s poetry, conditioned by the great monologues of the secular void, ‘Dockery and Son’ (1963) and ‘Aubade’ (1977), for which Larkin is best known. But it’s also a limited view. James admits to not understanding ‘Sympathy in White Major’ (1967). When writing on Larkin many years ago, I was similarly baffled by this poem until, in a review of my book on Larkin for the London Review of Books, Barbara Everett revealed that Larkin’s poem was an echo of Théophile Gautier’s Symphonie en Blanc Majeure, a nineteenth-century French Symbolistpoem. Larkin’s poem is difficult to unpack without this knowledge. (In the notes to his comprehensive edition of the poetry [2012] Archie Burnett also draws attention to two J.M. Whistler paintings titled ‘Symphony in White.’) To read Larkin’s poetry, as James does, and as I myself have done, as a straightforward continuation of the lyrical tradition of Thomas Hardy and W. B. Yeats is not to misread, but it is to miss rather a lot. (In a letter to Everett, Larkin referred to my book as ‘quite simple and straight’, words that are not untrue and not unkind, but which put my book firmly in its place, and which have prevented its author from getting any fancy ideas about his contribution to criticism.)

Larkin’s poetry thrives on the thickening literary traditions that gather behind it. The colloquial opening of ‘Sad Steps’ (1968), ‘Groping back to bed after a piss’, masks the title’s allusion to ‘With how sad steps, O Moone, thou climb’st the skies’, the first line of the thirty-first poem in Astrophil and Stella (1591), a sonnet sequence by Philip Sidney. ‘Ambulances’ (1961), in many ways a quintessential Larkin poem of the urban scene, is an aggressive rewriting of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Yes! In the sea of life enisled’ (1849), with which it shares a stanza form of six four-beat lines. Arnold’s Victorian isolation, symbolised by islands, is amplified by Larkin into existential alienation symbolised by the deadly, viral, busy urban presence of the ambulance. ‘Ambulances’ is also an adumbration of the Symbolist method that would determine Larkin’s later poetry: there is no ‘I’ in the poem, and any subjective presence is submerged in camera-like visualisation. Such imagery would come to dominate Larkin’s later poetry, but it was always there, and shows that the firmly English poetic traditions in which Larkin worked are inflected with a methodology pioneered by the French Symbolist aesthetic.

The title poem of the final volume of his poems published in his lifetime, ‘High Windows’ (1968), is a pivotal poem here. Beginning in the familiar lyric mode of casual musing, ‘When I see a couple of kids’, the poem feels its way into Symbolism. Meditation pushes beyond language, so that, at the conclusion of the poem:

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.

Language disappears into an infinity of reflection, both resistant to interpretation and open to endless explication, either as richness or desolation. These are the terms in which, Clive James tells us, he argued with his secretary about these lines.

The Symbolist touch is an aspect of Larkin’s poetry that James doesn’t quite get. I recall a lecture given by Peter Porter in the English Department at the University of Sydney circa 1975, in which Porter drew attention to what he called a certain afflatus in Larkin’s poetry. (To the best of my knowledge this lecture, on contemporary British poetry, has not been published.) Afflatus, with its implication of divine inspiration, seemed a strange word to apply to Larkin’s poetry, but Porter carried his point by discussing what were then some of Larkin’s lesser-known poems, such as ‘Water’ (1957):

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Seriously? Well, yes and no. The poem’s language flirts with comic extravagance, with sousing and drenching, all the while staying appropriately in touch with the infinite, which is where it ends:

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

The poem’s apparent casualness marshals its gathering energy, and the final words compound the physicality of ‘congregate’ with the conflation of space and time in ‘endlessly’. Reaching for eternity as it does, this poem exemplifies Larkin’s greatest achievement anywhere in his poetry, the transfiguration of the trivial. It’s also a triumphant middlebrow moment; rarely can a glass of water have been so intoxicating. And no poet since the eighteenth century, dazzled as its writers were by Newtonian theories of light, has written about light as memorably as Larkin.

The Australian perspectives of James and Porter afford central and remarkable insights into a body of poetry that is generally assumed to be quintessentially English. James digs deeper than most into this Englishness, and the ancient traditions of which it is constituted, but he also acknowledges its European affinities. Looking for writers who share Larkin’s gift for ‘the distilled lyricism of common speech,’ he turns to the Italian poet (and 1975 Nobel Laureate) Eugenio Montale (1896-1981), and the Polish-born Russian writer Osip Mandelstan (1891-1938). One wishes that James had given us more on these writers and their relation to Larkin than the few sentences on page 49, but at least he made the point. Larkin may be the most English of poets, but he also has a firm European footing. In 1975 the FVS Foundation of Hamburg awarded Larkin its Shakespeare prize, a European salute to English writing that now, forty five years on, radiates post-Brexit poignance. Larkin – characteristically – joked to his friends that he’d been awarded the Iron Cross, but the photographs from the ceremony at which the award was presented show him beaming pleasure and appreciation.

Larkin wore his particular brand of Englishness – conservative, middle-class – on his sleeve. As he got older, he struggled with the growing diversity of modern Britain, and in his private correspondence he gave vent to many explicitly racist and xenophobic statements. The poetry published during his lifetime includes the occasional grumble – in ‘Going, Going’ (1972) he laments England’s impending status as ‘First slum of Europe’ – but it isn’t racist or xenophobic, and ‘of Europe’ speaks volumes. Larkin’s jazz writing of course celebrates black music, and there is evidence that, in his professional practice as Librarian at Hull University, Larkin went out of his way to employ from minority groups.

Like most critics, James finds the later racist rants in letters hard to deal with, and he’s also troubled about Larkin’s relationships with women. Larkin (who never married) wrote some of the finest love poetry in English, from ‘Maiden Name’ (1955) whose phrase ‘variants of grace’ itself gracefully alliterates with ‘voice’ and rhymes with ‘face’, to ‘Morning at last’ (1988) a nine-line poetic gem. In the 1990s the status of such poems was shaken by post-mortem revelations that Larkin had been manipulative and duplicitous in his dealings with many of the women associated with the poetry: ‘in his love life he was not honest’, writes Clive James, who in his love life was not honest, and whose book sidesteps Larkin’s love poetry.

James doesn’t sidestep the substantial collection of pornography that was discovered among Larkin’s possessions after his death. Larkin doesn’t seem to have been particularly secretive about this; he kept it in his office, and his secretary knew about it. Without trying to excuse the racism, the duplicity, or the porn, but rather by way of explanation, James makes a distinction between the professional librarian and man of letters, and the private person with his own torments. That is generous enough, and we make of it what we will. Still, as James acknowledges, there’s ‘something twisted’ going on, and Larkin’s demons do force their brutal way into his poetry, sometimes as epigrammatic fizz – ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ – and sometimes as, well, something else: ‘Love again: wanking at ten past three’. Not too many variants of grace there.

While in his twenties Larkin wrote a novel about a girls’ school, Trouble at Willow Gables, which was eventually published in 2002. Anyone anticipating pornography was disappointed, for as James says, the truly astonishing thing about this novel was not just that it wasn’t pornographic; rather, ‘It was the way it wasn’t pornographic that staggered me’. The novel is a fantasy of ‘a world without men’, established by ‘finely noticed detail’ that James brilliantly compares with ‘the specificity of Pope’s cataloguing of Belinda’s dressing table in The Rape of the Lock’. This is a major insight into the resourcefulness of Larkin’s creative imagination.

I’d like to have seen more of this, just as I’d like to have read more about Montale and Mandelstam in relation to Larkin, but as I have said, this is a bits-and-pieces book. The best of it is breathtaking – ‘[Larkin] could hear the fizz when light hit the window’ – and even if its perceptions aren’t sustained, the consistent flavour is of admiration, and not just admiration, but admiration tinged with yearning. The letters from Larkin to James reproduced here suggest that their friendship was cordial but not close (Larkin didn’t do ‘close’.) I sense that James would have liked to be closer to Larkin, not in a personal sense, but to his writing, his imagination, his mind, for it’s in that direction that his best writing about Larkin takes him. In this book, one middlebrow man salutes another, to be sure. But throughout the book runs the yearning of James’s discursive imagination for the elusive flavour of Larkin’s lyricism, to which he could himself only aspire.

Works Cited

Poems by Larkin are dated here according to their first publication.


Bob Dylan, ‘Tangled up in Blue,’ Blood on the Tracks, 1975.

Barbara Everett,  ‘Larkin and Us,’ London Review of Books (4 November 1982)

Colin Burrow, ‘Burning Love,’ (London Review of Books 24 October 2013).

Clive James, Somewhere Becoming Rain, 2019.

Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook, 2016.

(trans) Dante: The Divine Comedy, 2013.

Philip Larkin, All What Jazz: A Record Diary, 1970.

— The Complete Poems, ed. Archie Burnett, 2012.

— Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1940-1985), ed. Anthony Thwaite, 1992.

Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life 1993.

Simon Petch, The Art of Philip Larkin, 1981.

Dorothy L. Sayers, (trans) Dante: The Divine Comedy 1: Hell, 1949