Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb,” click below:
What is that feeling that catches you when you see the hands of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert Browning, clasped together in bronze? I think it is a feeling, or rather a hope, best summed up by another English poet who came a century after the Brownings. A poet who has almost nothing in common with them.
The Brownings had one of the great love affairs of their time. Philip Larkin had nothing of the sort. The Brownings chose a life of exotic exile in Italy. Larkin chose to live in one of England’s ugliest towns and famously said that though he wouldn’t mind seeing China, he would go only if he could come back the same day.
Spending most of his life working as a librarian in Hull, Philip Larkin, who was born in 1922 and died in 1985, lived a life of almost provocative deprivation. He did not have to live in an unattractive house, but he did. He probably didn’t have much choice in women, but he still chose them badly.
Even at the end, as he was dying, he drank supermarket port rather than the good stuff that he might as well have enjoyed since he had so few days left. This fact was pointed out by the writer Martin Amis, whose sister, Sally, was Larkin’s goddaughter.
As it happens, Larkin wrote one of his best poems to her—“Born Yesterday”—which, like most of his work, is surprising, saddening, and filled with beautiful lines (a “catching of happiness” is my favorite).