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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
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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
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Beaux Arts’), the couple have ‘Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths/ Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light/Each summer thronged the glass’, and now
Time has transfigured them into Untruth. The stone fidelity They hardly meant has come to be Their final blazon, and to prove Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.
surdly, did not). Larkin took ‘great care’ over the ordering of his poems (‘the last one is chosen for its uplift quality, to leave the impression that you’re more serious than the reader had thought’). To encounter ‘An Arundel Tomb’ in its proper place, as the final poem in The Whitsun Weddings, is to encounter a work that now seems more emphatic in its affiliation to the idea of enduring love.
The unintended legacy captured in these lines has prompted readers to wonder whether the almost-instinct was something Larkin felt himself. The conclusion to the poem is, of course, deliberately qualified, and the idea that what will survive of us is love looks like a chimera (in the sense of something that we long to be true but that is illusory). Yet one of the virtues of Archie Burnett’s fine new edition of these poems is that it arranges Larkin’s work as it was published in its individual collections (as Anthony Thwaite’s original edition of 1988, ab-
This view is supported by Larkin’s own remarks, which Burnett includes in this edition’s wonderful commentary (together with the relevant revisions, dates of composition, and allusions for all of the poems). It is true that, underneath a workbook draft of the poem, Larkin wrote that ‘Love isn’t stronger than death just because two statues hold hands for six hundred years’. However, when asked whether he felt sceptical about the image of love preserved in stone that had occasioned his poem, he replied: ‘No. I was very moved by it. Of course it was years ago. I think what survives of us is love,
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whether in the simple biological sense or just in terms of responding to life, making it happier, even if it ’s only making a joke.’
There is a tenderness here that is too often overlooked, and The Complete Poems is full of material, some of it previously unpublished, that reminds us of that quality. For the obsessive and the scholar, it is a wonderful resource. But this is an edition to consult rather than curl up with (the decision to print more than one poem per page is misguided: poetry, especially poetry as technically proficient as this, needs space), and Larkin’s work is still probably best approached in its original collections.
To make such an approach is to confront a figure who might have seen in the ‘greenness’ of fresh trees ‘a kind of grief ’, and who spent his life much possessed by failure, by deprivation, by ‘unresting death’. But one also finds a figure who knew that ‘courage’ meant ‘not scaring others’. To order this book for £32, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 39
Strindberg A Life Sue Prideaux Novelist, satirist, poet, photographer, painter, alchemist, and hellraiser – August Strindberg is principally known for leading playwriting out of the polite drawing room into the snakepit of psychological warfare. This mesmerising biography, supported by extensive new research, uncovers the full story of his chaotic life and his revolutionary writings. 20 colour + 50 b/w illus. £25.00
Interviews with Artists 1966–2012 Michael Peppiatt An informal, behind-the-scenes account of art and artists over the past half-century, consisting of fortyfive interviews with eminent and lesser-known artists by the renowned curator and writer Michael Peppiatt. These entertaining and informative interviews combine to give a unique perspective on art from the Second World War to the present day. 50 b/w illus. £20.00
Nights Out Life in Cosmopolitan London Judith R. Walkowitz In this lively book Judith Walkowitz shows how London’s sophisticated and subversive Soho district became a showcase for a new twentieth-century cosmopolitan identity. ‘A scrupulous and intelligent survey of a mythologised area where those qualities are rarely found. A real contribution to the history of place.’ – Iain Sinclair 9 colour, 29 b/w illus. + 9 maps £25.00
Opium Reality’s Dark Dream Thomas Dormandy This extraordinary book explores the entire history of the world’s most fascinating drug, revealing opium’s power to relieve suffering, inspire great art and promote medical advances … but also to destroy individuals, families and even nations. ‘considerably surpasses, and should replace, all previous general histories.’ – Mike Jay, author of High Society 25 b/w illus. £25.00
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