The Less Deceived by Philip Larkin
With the New Year well underway, the city of Hull has wasted no time in kick-starting a year-long series of events to celebrate its reign as 2017’s City of Culture. For this reason, it’s a good time to dig out an old poetry collection and re-read the work of Philip Larkin – widely regarded as one of Britain’s finest poets – who had a fond relationship with the city, regarding it as his adopted home as he held the position of University Librarian at the University of Hull.
Arguably Larkin’s most seminal poetic work, The Less Deceived was a collection of 29 poems released in 1955 which marked a sea change in his evolution towards becoming the literary colossus he is regarded today. Belonging to a (then) new generation of Angry Young Man writers, Larkin established his own unique voice – cynical yet lyrical, pessimistic yet profound – with an almost effortlessly ingenious ability to reflect the times he was living in.
This was a post-war Britain that had lost its Empire, so Larkin’s The Less Deceived almost reflected a sense of living in an isolated motherland. Indeed, Philip Larkin was a man ambling through life with a ponderous glare, capturing the foibles of modern life through a discerning lens and an overwhelming sense that one’s senses were diminishing. “Monkey-brown, fish-grey, a string of infected circles,” he describes the inside of his mind in If My Darling, “Loitering like bullies, about to coagulate.”
And yet the poetic approach Philip Larkin adopts here is inherently personal and insular – there is no doubt his poems are writing from experience and self-reflective, but even now it still feels like it holds up a mirror to society. The oft-quoted poem Toads reflects upon the drudgery of work (“Six days of the week it soils / With its sickening poison – / Just for paying a few bills! That’s out of proportion”) and alternately toys with rebellion but resigns itself to apathy within a single stanza (“Were I courageous enough / To shout Stuff your pension! / But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff / That dreams are made on:”).
There is a subtle humour to Larkin’s poetry which is refreshing – there’s a twisted barb for agnostics to be found in the poem Church Going (“superstition, like belief, must die”) and on Coming he even turns William Wordsworth’s notions of the importance of childhood on its head (“I, whose childhood / Is a forgotten boredom”). The influence of John Keats, W.B. Yeats and Thomas Hardy can be seen in the structure of these poems, but also found in that perfect blend of realism and classicist leanings; a stark, observational and literal-minded quality which seemed absent from much of the modernist poetry of its age.
Accessible but masterful, Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived gave the world poems which were formalist in dealing with relatively ordinary topics, but without it feeling any less poetic for it. In fact, what’s most noteworthy about The Less Deceived is how Larkin has a real instinct for meditative melancholy; each poem acting as an almost philosophical rumination on life’s biggest questions (love, death, etc.) all through the prism of ironic detachment.
Larkin seems, to me, to be the voice of the outsider – his poetry, therefore, finds its inspiration despite his own mordant tendencies toward loneliness and circumspection, and he does so with great poignancy and wit. In fact, a handful of these poems are a lot funnier than you’d expect them to be, but as a whole, it’s a beautiful collection of work which fully deserves its place in cementing Larkin’s position in history as one of Britain’s greatest poets of all-time. If you’ve not read The Less Deceived before – even if you don’t like poetry – I genuinely suggest you do so. It will convert you. I should know: it converted me.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.