I read poetry because it paints pictures in my mind, because it makes me laugh, and think, and cry. I know not very much about poetry except I would say that poets put into words the deepest emotions, thoughts and feelings any of us have. I am Rector of six small country parishes in the north of this county, blessed with five glorious mediaeval churches and one Victorian one, 3000 parishioners and a weekly congregation of 125 spread between the six churches. Some might say my role is outdated. I would not agree with them.
Philip Larkin is one of the most famous English poets of the 20th century. Born in Coventry in 1922, he studied at St John’s College, Oxford, graduating with a 1st in 1943. His career was as a Librarian, firstly in the Shropshire town of Wellington, then the University College of Leicester, Queen’s University in Belfast, and finally as Librarian of the University of Hull where he was to stay for over 30 years.
Throughout his working career, and indeed as a schoolboy, Larkin wrote poetry, as well as, in the early years, two novels. In 1965 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry. He also wrote Jazz reviews for the Daily Telegraph, and was editor of the Oxford Book of 20th century Poetry first published in 1965.
He was given many awards for his writing, among them an honorary DLitt from Oxford, a CBE, and he was invited to become the Poet Laureate following the death of John Betjeman, but he declined as he said he didn’t like the limelight and high profile that would have brought him. In 1985 he was awarded the Companion of Honour – an honour in the personal gift of the Queen, but was too ill with cancer to go to BuckinghamPalace to receive the award, and died not long after in December 1985 aged only 63.
It seems to me that Larkin, like all of us I suppose, is not a straightforward character.
He is at least a three stranded rope;
The first strand is his poetry, where he has a very English voice, gentle, somewhat introspective, maybe gloomy at times, understated but able to connect well with the average reading public who have enjoyed works such as Whitsun Weddings, and Churchgoing.
Then again one can discover him in the second strand which are his letters – many of which were not found until after his death, where he seems to be totally outrageous, racist, misogynist, sexually a bit weird, foul mouthed, intolerant of his parents, and of society which he believed was truly going to the dogs.
Finally one can have found him in his life and dealings with real people, and in their reminiscences of him, where he was funny, gentle, caring, amusing, insecure, loving, exasperating and very human.
During his lifetime and in the years since, he has gone from being lauded and feted by the literary establishment to becoming something of a pariah, and now back to rehabilitation and general public acceptance, maybe even adoration….a sort of John Betjeman with a twist of lemon!
He was certainly the master of the one liner – a pithy comment no doubt designed to enrage or amuse and amongst these include comments on Hull where he is nowadays regarded as one of the city’s famous sons
“I’m settling down in Hull all right,” he wrote, “Each day I sink a little further.” It was, he said, “a frightful dump”.
Larkin apparently loathed children, sending him a baby photograph was, he once said, “like sending garlic to Dracula”, and his most well known poem, This be the verse, starting with the infamous line “They… ruin your life your Mum and Dad” concludes with the words “Get out as early as you can (from the parental home) and don’t have any kids yourself.” However, stories told by parents whom Larkin knew describe him as very good with children.
Hull nowadays has a Larkin25 festival to encourage people of all ages to discover his poetry. There are all sorts of activities for children.
One of these activities is making a pair of Larkin spectacles – a bit like Harry Potter’s – which Larkin would have found strange as he only wore glasses because he was as blind as a bat! He actually described his bespectacled face thus; “carved out of lard, with goggles on.” He had a rather poor self-image.
Perhaps the most strange of these children’s activities is making toads; two of Larkin’s poems deal with toads, but they are not the friendly froggy sort of creatures that you might finding a Garden Centre and secrete in a flower border, rather they stand for work, which in the first poem is a sort of bogey-man whom Larkin wished he had the nerve to tell clear off and he’d manage without the pension scheme and simply enjoy freedom, whilst in Toads Revisited again the toad is work but this time the activity which saves us from becoming lonely unwanted strange people.
You might see some parallels between those two poems and the Bible reading we have heard tonight; don’t worry all the time about earthly things; instead put some effort into seeking after spiritual things, and an earthly kingdom where righteousness, peace and justice dwell.
Larkin might have been appalled to hear me say that, for he was not obviously a believer in God. He had a sense of his own mortality and maybe even a fear of death which he anticipated would find him at the age of 63; ‘I suppose,’ wrote Larkin, ‘I shall become free [of mother] at 60, three years before the cancer starts. What a bloody, sodding awful life.’ His, of course, not hers. Eva Larkin died in 1977 aged 91, after which the poems more or less stopped coming, but possibly Larkin is himself the narrator in the poem Churchgoing which we heard this evening.
The cycling traveller goes inside yet another church for a look round, even though he appears to have no faith that might need nourishing, nor any architectural or historical interest which might need feeding. He clumsily moves around the building, and yet knows bits and pieces from religious services which he acts out. His conversation with himself argues the case for and against religion, for and against the protection and maintenance of churches and vacillates between support and opposition.
The final stanza maybe speaks for a great many people today who are, as David Mitchell in that agonisingly funny sketch of the Vicar finding two young visitors in his church puts it “Oh you’re spiritual… are you?” Larkin seems to acknowledge that within each one of us is a spiritual hunger and a need for a special serious safe place where that hunger can be satisfied. What Larkin is far from sure about is the role of organised religion in the world today.
This Chapel, like all the college Chapels would once upon a time have been full on many a Sunday. Now, like most of my village churches, it is thinly populated for services – except for candle-lit specials at Christmas – but, I would argue, and Larkin might suggest, still of enormous value to the busy educational establishment where people are taught facts and ideas but maybe have to discover for themselves how to cope with life, and love, and death and success and failure… how to be a human.
The choir and their beautiful music, sung far too often only to God and to gilded frescoes, the presence of the Chaplain, the open door of this room, the round of services faithfully maintained, do what I as a country parson do, what my churches and their open doors do, do what is of enormous importance to most people at many special, difficult, hard, wonderful and significant moments in their lives;
We keep the rumour of God alive; the rumour of the God who believes in us even when we don’t believe in him; the God who loves us always whatever we are like; the God who died for us and who calls us to live eternally with him; the God who understands our doubts and shortcomings and faults and failings; and who eagerly makes contact with us whenever we let down our guard and ask him into our lives. Churchgoing meets many needs; I urge you to continue to do it.