Misreading Philip Larkin

philip and the mammy

I was amused by this photograph of the poet Philip Larkin and his mother that appeared in The Guardian last week accompanying a review by Blake Morrison of Larkin’s letters home.

First of all I wondered where on earth it was taken?  It couldn’t be at home, surely?  If so, what is that white bridal dress doing framed in the background? I’m guessing it must be a university common room or some such given the other period touches on view – the comfy but functional “easy” chairs, the 1970s catering coffee set.  Fashion-wise there’s Larkin’s priestly socks and sandals look and  his mother’s pert white handbag planted on the floor like a badge of respectability ready to be tripped over.

I’m also fascinated by the low angle of the photograph – was the photographer lying on the floor?  Or are the Larkins on a raised dais?

The photograph says a lot about their relationship – Larkin, studiously avoiding the photographer’s eye, appears to be busily writing, while his mother peers wistfully at us vainly trying to make a connection.

Most of the correspondence in the just published Philip Larkin: Letters Home (edited by Anthony Thwaite) were to his mother – and there was a lot of it.  For three decades, from his mid-20s to his mid-50s (until she died aged 91) he wrote to her every weekend.  Despite that, the relationship was, to say the least, ambiguous.

He described his visits home with piercing and chastening accuracy.  I defy any adult child of an ageing parent not to identify with at least a couple of the tropes in this litany of bad behaviour. “I become snappy, ungrateful, ungracious, wounding, inconsiderate and even abusive, longing only to get away, muttering obscenities because I know she can’t hear them, refusing to speak clearly so that she can hear, refusing to make conversation or evince any interest in her ‘news’ or things she has to say.”

I was fascinated to read in Morrison’s review that Larkin’s poem “Reference Back” is all about his mother, although when I read it first, I completely missed that.  I quote it here in full: –


That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly,
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.

Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique Negroes blew
Out of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
To my unsatisfactory prime.

Truly, though our element is time,
We’re not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.

I discovered Larkin when I was feeling my way into poetry in the mid 1970s, and specifically when I bought Volume Two of Corgi Modern Poets in Focus (1971), a cheap and cheerful series that featured six poets – Wilfrid Owen, Thomas Blackburn, Philip Larkin, William Meredith, Keith Douglas and Seamus Heaney. corgi poets - philip larkin

Strangely, I don’t remember reading the other poets – although I have turned down the top right corner of the page featuring Heaney’s “Follower” so that must have impressed me at the time – but it was Larkin I was really drawn to, and “Reference Back”,  in particular.

I clearly remember believing that the speaker and the “you” in the poem were lovers, not mother and son; lovers where there’s a big age difference. I was at the time “going out” with someone who was 18 months younger than me and I was very touchy about that – two years seems a chasm when you’re 20. So I read – and drew consolation – from “Reference Back” even though I was completely misreading it.

Coincidentally,  I was still living at home myself at the time, and going through all those petty defiances with my own mother that Larkin describes above, but I never once saw that this was a poem about the disappointments and pitfalls of parental love.  Maybe I couldn’t afford to see it then.

When I read the poem now, I can’t see it any other way than as a paean to lost opportunities.  That brief flicker of optimistic, or desperate, contact at the start – that was a pretty one, I heard you call –  followed by all the “unsatisfactory” qualities of the home and the relationship – the unsatisfactory hall and room, age and prime.  The idle wasting of time playing records which his mother “so much looked forward to”.  And of course, the melancholy cadence of the poem that is so quintessentially Larkin – We are not suited to the long perspectives/ Open at each instant of our lives/ They link us to our losses.

I don’t think as a 20-year-old you can understand this kind of regret, so you tailor what you imagine are grandiose feelings to your own situation. On the other hand, it shows the generous open-endedness of a great poem like “Reference Back”.  It can be read at any age, and becomes whatever it is the reader needs it to be, because the experience it describes has been rendered so precisely.

Asked  in a interview in The Paris Review why he wrote, Larkin said simply: “The duty is to the original experience. It doesn’t feel like self-expression, though it may look like it. As for whom you write for, well, you write for everybody. Or anybody who will listen.”

I’m one of those anybodies still listening to – and maybe still misreading – Larkin after 40 years.












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