Philip Larkin like many Englishmen loved the Church of England but had little time for religion. So the here after was neither here nor there. Which is just as well for now he is safely positioned in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner he would have some explaining to do. He despised Chaiucer,thought Dickens was a gaslit melodramatist who dealt in queer names and queer characters . AS well Larkin thoroughly detetested Ted Hughes who along with Betjeman and himself bestrid English poetry for the last fifty years.
When Betjeman died in 1982 Thatcher naturally turned to her great fan and England’s favourite poet to be Poet Laureate. By then the shy and alcoholic Larkin(sherry for breakfast) was extinct as a poet and turned down the job. Knowing it would go to Ted Hughes he wrote this parody of his handsome rival’s work.
The Sky split apart in malice/Stars rattled like pans on the shelf/Crow shat on Buckingham Palace/God pissed himself.
Elsewhere he wrote “the thought of being the cause of Ted being buried in Westminster Abbey is hard to live with”
“His exposure as Poet Laureate made more realise he is no bloody good.” “A boring old monolinth and again pretty self interested.”
“In a sane world Hughes would not have been Poet laureate but the village idiot”
Eventually Hughes found out Larkin’s true feeling and accussed the librarian of being a “toxic pest”,”a bile green weed that uses all its energy concocting poison.”
Many have pointed out the natural antipathy of the glum librarian to the dashing naturalist,the Heathcliff of poets. Larkin said of himself that “deprivation is to me what daffodils are to Wordsworth.” And women were to Ted Hughes. While Larkin fantasised about pornography and played a long and sad game with his three girlfriends Hughes was out there driving them wild and forcing at least two to end it all.
The ever cynical Larkin actually said that he felt that Hughes’ dramatic love life not least the explosive disaster with Sylvia Plath was just a publicity stunt for a poet who was both “trivial and overrated.”
While Larkin lost himself in jazz for Hughes the great escape was salmon fishing. The best Larkin could say of Hughes was “he is alright when he is not reading.” By and large Hughes represented poets who were “shits in the shuttered chateau writing a few lines in the morning and spending most of the day in bathing, booze and birds.”
Of course Larkin was not only a curmudgeon , but a contrarian and intensely ironic. While the square jawed Hughes took natural forces so seriously that he would even write to Larkin on his death bed about faith healing; Larkin plumbed the psychological depths which we all either contemplate or swim in.
But let the people speak. A poll of the Poetry Society put the top five poets of the modern era as (in order)Larkin. Hughes and Plath equal,Heaney and RS Thomas(my favourite). Of poems while Larkin’s Whitsun Wedding is number one Hughes has none in the top ten. I know of five or six Larkin poems but not one of Hughes. Though I know too much about what happened when Ted met Sylvia.
Picture caption-Beauty and the Beastly