The Sweet, Happy Side of Philip Larkin, the Sour, Sad Poet

“They f**k you up, your mum and dad,” poet Philip Larkin wrote in the late work “This Be the Verse.” “They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you.” Larkin kidded that those lines would be his best remembered, a guess not too far off 30 years after his death. Where others see in those lines a perfect portrait of the sour, sad curmudgeon poet, in the new biography Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, James Booth sees something different. “The poem’s sentiment is sad, but the poem is full of jouissance,” Booth argues. “This must bid fair to be the funniest serious English poem of the 20th century.” Likewise, Larkin — target of posthumous charges of racism, misogyny, and assorted cruelties — could lay claim to being the “funniest serious” English poet of the 20th century. Booth, who knew and worked with Larkin, shows the sweet, happy side of the sour, sad poet and makes a strong case for learning to love Larkin again, if not for the first time.

“They f**k you up, your mum and dad,” poet Philip Larkin wrote in the late work “This Be the Verse.” “They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you.” Larkin kidded that those lines would be his best remembered, a guess not too far off 30 years after his death. Where others see in those lines a perfect portrait of the sour, sad curmudgeon poet, in the new biography Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, James Booth sees something different. “The poem’s sentiment is sad, but the poem is full of jouissance,” Booth argues. “This must bid fair to be the funniest serious English poem of the 20th century.” Likewise, Larkin — target of posthumous charges of racism, misogyny, and assorted cruelties — could lay claim to being the “funniest serious” English poet of the 20th century. Booth, who knew and worked with Larkin, shows the sweet, happy side of the sour, sad poet and makes a strong case for learning to love Larkin again, if not for the first time.


There’s an equally strong case to be made that (at least for the American edition) you can judge Booth’s biography of Larkin by its cover photo (shown above). For those who know Larkin’s poetry and the persona he carefully cultivated over the years as the no-nonsense, unsmiling public poet, the sight of Larkin relaxed and smiling at the camera, comb-over bristling in the wind like the flag of his uncovered disposition, can be a bit disconcerting. Before you even crack open the text, you’re prepared to hear about a side of Larkin rarely captured on film or ever permitted to be seen by the guarded subject.

Booth begins with an enlightening introduction that spreads all the race cards, misogyny cards, etc., on the table. Larkin famously remarked that he didn’t want “to go around pretending to be me,” but Booth sees a great deal of pretending performance art in Larkin’s life. “Some readers fail to register the performative playfulness of Larkin’s self-caricatures,” Booth defends. “These are not the words of a gaunt, emotionless failure, but of an ebullient provocateur with an instinct to entertain.” Spying the agent provocateur behind the public persona, however, is difficult for those who never knew the man, yet those who did know him, such as Booth, remember the warm, generous soul rather than the “provisional personae” that Booth sees at the root of the “various ideological Larkins” that raise critics’ hackles.

Three decades after Larkin’s death, critics still wrestle over his remains, especially the controversial letters published in 1992. A year later, an official biography, Larkin: A Writer's Life, by Andrew Motion, one of the poet’s literary executors, made much use of what seemed to be the manipulative nature of Larkin’s correspondence to paint a negative view of Larkin that’s become the standard take for the past 20 years. Motion knew Larkin for nine years, while Booth knew him for 17, yet each man comes away with different interpretations of the poet.

Throughout Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, Booth counters Motion’s interpretations with his own well-intended correctives. Where Motion sees Larkin’s fling with Patsy Strang as “the most happily erotic of all his affairs,” Booth rebuts that “happy eroticism had no place in Larkin’s emotional repertoire.” Later, Booth takes Motion to task for uncritically accepting hearsay from Larkin’s long-time love Monica Jones about another woman, suggesting instead that the domestic tranquility the other woman offered was “not an arrangement that a man of Larkin’s temperament could possibly have borne.”  Even later, Motion sees Larkin mistreating Jones because he was “too self-absorbed to respond to her grief” and “emotionally stingy,” whereas Booth reads instead “protective sympathy … warm solicitousness, erotic tenderness, and sentimental rabbit language.” Reading Booth re-reading Motion (allegedly) misreading Larkin feels like a trip down the rabbit hole at times, but Booth keeps things civil, even praising Motion’s estimation of how Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings “transcends biography, diversifying the personal origins of poems, ‘until they become exemplary.’”

What’s exemplary about Booth’s approach to Larkin is his ability to balance a biographical reading of Larkin’s novels, poems, and letters with his personal knowledge of the man, which may still be the speculation of someone without intimate access to Larkin’s thoughts, but seemingly no one had that kind of insider access to this most private of public figures. “To some, omnivorousness of spirit will always seem a sign of deviousness and insincerity,” Booth writes of Larkin’s penchant for being a different person for different persons. “But self-contradiction is part of the human condition; and Larkin’s contradictions are central to his greatness.” To paint a less-complicated, simpler Larkin would be to do an injustice not just to the man, but also to the mission of biography itself.

In a book full of surprising insights, Booth’s chapter on “Jazz, Race and Modernism: 1961-71” caught me the most unprepared, despite knowing Larkin’s love of jazz. “Jazz allowed Larkin to indulge his longings without the censorship of reality,” Booth writes, “offer[ing] him an ideal of spontaneity and freedom” as well as “a more impersonal lesson in artistic rigour.” Booth also manages to take on charges of Larkin’s racism through Larkin’s love of jazz. Where others read racism in Larkin’s distaste for modern jazz figures such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus, Booth sees instead a preference for an ideal, apolitical, anti-modernist artist in the vein of Louis Armstrong, whom Larkin felt was more important than Picasso. (Larkin’s misreading of Armstrong as apolitical and anti-modernist is another matter.) Larkin admitted he disliked modernism, “whether perpetrated by [Charlie] Parker, [Ezra] Pound, or Picasso.” In the end, Larkin wasn’t a racist as much as a reactionary, a man out of step with the world changing around him.

If the opening lines of “This Be the Verse” aren’t Larkin’s virtual epitaph, then the closing lines of “An Arundel Tomb” just might be. After musing over the stone memorials of a couple dead centuries ago, Larkin concludes, “What will survive of us is love.” Many read that final line as Larkin’s romantic heart bleeding through, but Booth sees something deeper. “The poet knows that the concluding affirmation is mere rhetoric,” Booth writes, “but its ineffectuality is precisely what makes it so moving.” Any attempt to understand Philip Larkin reduces inevitably to rhetoric, which is precisely what makes Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love so moving as a labor of love. Booth paraphrases that concluding line in his final judgment of Larkin: “What will survive of him is poetry.” My love of Larkin began in 1986 (rather late for me) between the second Reagan inauguration and Phish’s first LP, but his life and his poetry will always survive in me and all others who’ve encountered this strange, sad, inexplicably funny, and joyful soul.

[Many thanks to Bloomsbury for providing me with the image above and a review copy of James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love.]

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.