Passing It On: Teaching and Learning Larkin

Carol Atherton reflects on the centrality of Larkin to her own relationship with the study and teaching of English.

English teachers, we are told, often end up teaching the texts that they themselves were taught at school. There might be changes of specification and differences in approach, but the texts themselves stay the same, handed on from one generation to the next like an English-teaching version of Radio 4’s Inheritance Tracks. It’s certainly true in my case. In my fourteen years as an English teacher, I’ve taught a whole host of texts that I first encountered at GCSE or A-level: The Merchant of Venice, Browning’s dramatic monologues, To Kill a Mockingbird. And my students are doing their best to continue the tradition: one of them, now a secondary English teacher herself, is using the same hotseating exercise on Henry V that I did with her class nearly ten years ago.

It sometimes feels like a bit of a guilty secret, this falling-back on the tried-and-tested, this failure to branch out. (Other subjects, with their more linear sense of curricular progression, don’t have this problem: when did you last hear any Biology teachers castigating themselves for teaching photosynthesis?) If I had to justify it, I’d say that the texts we study at school are, of course, the ones we know best: the ones we’ve studied inside-out, through a slow, systematic building-up of knowledge in which we’ve had the chance to reflect and ponder and let our understanding grow. The frantic rush of degree level study seems superficial in comparison.  But maybe there’s another reason too: the sense that some texts are eminently suited to the late adolescent mind; that the years between sixteen and eighteen are, quite simply, the best time to experience particular authors. If I were asked to nominate one writer for inclusion in this category, it would be Philip Larkin.

I first encountered Philip Larkin in the early spring of 1990, when we did The Whitsun Weddings for A-level, sandwiched in between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. I was in the Lower Sixth and in that stage that I always alert my own students to at the beginning of sixth form: that fragile point when you’ve developed what Larkin described in ‘Church Going’ as ‘a hunger ... to be more serious’, when you’ve realised that you’ve fallen in love with a particular subject but are still a bit too scared to admit it. You weren’t supposed to like reading, at my school: confessing that I actually enjoyed one of my A-level subjects would have been positively dangerous. I also wasn’t sure, at that point, whether I was any good at English. There was still something about it that was a bit of a mystery; a sense that beyond the words on the page there were meanings that kept on eluding me. Then we started to do Larkin, and everything fell into place.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of Larkin’s death has occasioned a number of revaluations of his work. For me, it’s been a time to reflect on the centrality of Larkin to my own relationship with the study and teaching of English. I teach Larkin whenever I get the chance; and I’ve also spoken a number of times about teaching Larkin, using his poems to illustrate the ways in which students can be introduced to various aspects of literary analysis (the study of social and historical contexts, for instance, or the evaluation of different critical interpretations). But the importance of Larkin, for me, goes well beyond this. I’ve spent a long time trying to work out why this is.

I’m not alone in recognising the power of Larkin as a set author. He has long been a popular choice for A-level study. The copy of The Whitsun Weddings that I was issued with at school in 1990 had been in constant use since 1986, its pages bearing the annotations of five successive years’ worth of students. Larkin was around for the advent of Curriculum 2000, ten years later: Ian Stewart, former principal examiner for AQA Specification A, reported that when examiners were choosing set texts for the new AS-level specifications, The Whitsun Weddings was ‘an immediate and unanimous choice’.1 And Larkin’s poetry is still a significant presence in the post-2008 A-levels: ‘MCMXIV’ is included in AQA Specification A’s anthology of writing about World War I; AQA Specification B’s collection of post-1945 pastoral poetry contains three of Larkin’s poems (‘Going, Going’, ‘Show Saturday’ and ‘Church Going’); and Edexcel uses his work in three of its themed collections of set poems, grouped under the headings of Work, Home and War. The Whitsun Weddings is a set text for WJEC at AS level, to be studied alongside Dannie Abse’s Welsh Retrospective as part of a unit on poetry post-1900. Larkin’s work can also, of course, be studied for coursework, and could even be used as part of AQA Specification A’s unit on Love Through the Ages: it’s an intriguing idea.

Naturally, Larkin himself would have had misgivings about this. He was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of writing solely for ‘the dutiful mob that signs on every September’, seeing a student readership as no substitute for a genuinely pleasure-seeking audience, and commented that he would hate anyone to read his work simply because they had to.2  Many readers will also be aware of the range of objections that have been raised to Larkin as a subject of study – especially since the publication of the Selected Letters in 1992 and Andrew Motion’s biography the following year. Chief among these is Lisa Jardine’s oft-quoted statement that ‘we don't tend to teach Larkin much now in my department of English’, citing his ‘Little Englandism’, habitual racism and easy misogyny,3 but there have been hosts of other detractors. Bryan Appleyard asked in the Independent why ‘this provincial grotesque’, whose poetry exuded such ‘a repellent, smelly, inadequate masculinity’, is ‘so adored, edited, biographied and generally elevated to the highest ranks of Eng Lit’.4 In his discussion of Curriculum 2000, Ian Stewart notes that the now-defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Authority questioned whether The Whitsun Weddings was of sufficient weight and merit to make it worthy of inclusion in the new A-level specifications.5 The tutor who took me for my twentieth-century paper in my second term at university announced to my tutorial group that he was prepared to teach any twentieth-century poet – as long as it wasn’t Larkin.

Yet Larkin also has an array of supporters; and it is interesting to me – as someone who has written widely on the increasing distance between schools and universities, and the difficulty of ‘bridging the gap’ between post-16 and degree-level study – that there is a notable strand of writing about Larkin that has been produced by schoolteachers. Andrew Swarbrick, author of Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin (1997), taught English at Radley College; Jonathan Smith, who included an essay about ‘That Poem’ (‘This Be The Verse’) in his book The Learning Game (2000), was a teacher of English at Tonbridge School. Richard Palmer, author of a number of studies of Larkin and editor of Larkin’s Jazz Writings for Continuum, teaches English at Bedford School and attributes his awareness of Larkin’s ‘notably dense and precisely detailed account of the social history of [his] time’ to his years as a teacher, to the process of glossing and explaining social and cultural references that are becoming increasingly opaque to today’s teenagers.6 Palmer reports, nevertheless, that students often experience a ‘kind of instant rapport’ with Larkin’s poetry, and comments that he knows ‘of no writer who engenders more fun – including outright laughter’. In Palmer’s view, there are only two writers who ‘can be productively used across the whole secondary spectrum: Shakespeare and Larkin’.7 For Swarbrick, Larkin’s accessibility gives him an immediate appeal for sixth-formers: to the uninitiated, his perceived conservatism is also an attraction, making him ‘unlikely to inflame rebellious teenagers’.8

I am fascinated by these accounts, because I always am fascinated by English teachers writing and talking about their experiences of teaching particular texts and authors – especially when these experiences are rooted, as they are for Palmer, Smith and Swarbrick, in a deeply personal sense of engagement with the texts and authors in question. I am also fascinated because of the distance between their experience of Larkin and mine. All three of these writers are based in the independent sector, in single-sex schools; and all three write of having encountered Larkin’s poetry at the time it was first published. I was just thirteen when Larkin died, in December 1985: I was aware of his death, but on reflection, this was probably because I remembered the reference to The Whitsun Weddings in Sue Townsend’s The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, required reading for all self-respecting teenagers in the mid-1980s. So my early experience of Larkin’s work took place in a very different era from that of other teachers who have written about him. It also happened in a very different place: a small town in the north-west of England, in the no-man’s-land between Liverpool and Manchester that’s criss-crossed with motorways and where everyone seems perpetually on the way to somewhere else. In many ways it was a town ripe for Larkinesque experience. The most famous thing that ever happened there was the world’s first fatal railway accident, when the MP William Huskisson was killed by Stevenson’s Rocket at the Rainhill Trials in 1830. It was small and self-contained when I was a child, but by the time I was in the Sixth Form it had begun to expand, its mortgaged half-built edges encroaching on the surrounding fields. I had spent all my life there, but I was starting to outgrow the place and become impatient with its familiarities. Even though Larkin was writing about Hull – a city I’d never been to, and would not visit until many years later – his images resonated with me miles away at the other end of the M62: the ordinary scenes from ordinary towns; the dismantled cars and advertising hoardings; the desire for something beyond. Larkin wrote that ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’; but at seventeen there’s a particular kind of nothing that always seems to be wherever you are, stuck in a place that somebody else chose for you and waiting for the rest of life to come along. That was me when I was in the Lower Sixth; and whenever I read The Whitsun Weddings now it’s my sixth-form English room that it conjures up, Miss Nevin’s room on the first floor at the end of the English block, with its pale blue walls and view over the playing fields to another place entirely.

It didn’t take us long to familiarise ourselves with the stereotype of Larkin: the Hermit of Hull with his inch-thick specs, the curmudgeon permanently stuck in middle age. We used to conspire to wear black to our Larkin lessons, and delighted in finding yet more evidence of his misanthropy and gloom. Yet we actually quite liked him; and whenever I’ve taught Larkin I find students feeling the same sense of affection for the social inadequate contemplating his own mortality from the vantage point of Mr Bleaney’s fusty bed. Part of it, I’m sure, is because of the accessibility of his poetry: part of it is undoubtedly due to his confiding, colloquial narrative voice. But there’s something else about his verse that’s important; something that seems particularly attuned to the moods of late adolescence. Perhaps it’s the persistent sense of ambivalence: the push and pull of divergent attitudes, captured by Andrew Motion in a list of opposites that I remember discussing in an A-level essay: ‘sociability and singleness, work and idleness, resolution and despair.’9 Perhaps it’s the trying-on of different identities, a way of keeping the self at a defensive arm’s length. Swarbrick has written of the self-protective irony that distinguishes much of Larkin’s work, commenting that this is an attitude that students ‘almost instinctively know about ... as a mode of discourse and, in their case, almost as a way of life’.10 Perhaps it’s the fact that its narrative voice is prepared to confront its own shortcomings, owning up to the sense of ridiculousness that we all feel but flinch away from looking at directly. But also, crucially, there’s the sense of a search for an ungraspable ideal, summed up by Larkin himself in an interview with John Haffenden as a ‘long[ing] for infinity and absence, the beauty of somewhere you’re not.’11 For me, at seventeen, this was represented most vividly by the ‘unfenced existence’ of the ending of ‘Here’; but I was also intrigued by ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ and its focus on the desire for separateness and self-definition. Larkin’s poem, written three months after his move from Belfast to Hull in March 1955, gave a voice to my frustration at being in a world that was starting to feel much too small, hemmed in by the ‘customs and establishments’ of people who’d known me all my life but didn’t really know me at all any more. Years later, I was struck by Swarbrick’s description of beginning a scheme of work on Larkin with the poem ‘Wires’, a poem that ‘stealthily performs its theme of enclosure’. Swarbrick focuses on the same feelings of constriction and the desire for escape that formed a counterpoint to my own early experience of Larkin, commenting that ‘Larkin’s poems are to me expressions of a self not only thwarted in its desires, but in terms of knowing its own identity’.12 This is, surely, a profoundly adolescent state. I couldn’t have identified it as such at seventeen, but there was something in Larkin’s poems that told me I wasn’t the only person who felt like this.

Crucially, however, Larkin not only articulated the mood that I was so often in at the time I was studying The Whitsun Weddings, but also offered glimpses of a way out. There was the sheer intellectual pleasure I felt at being able to spot what he meant by ‘word after sprawling hyphenated word’ and ‘ships up streets’. There was also the sense of being made to look at things anew. Palmer has summed up the transmutational power of Larkin’s verse, saying that ‘he will take something ordinary – a journey, a glass of gin and tonic, a cocktail-party invitation, a room to let – and endow it with extraordinary definition, resonance, and power’.13 There are visions of immense clarity in Larkin’s poems that describe the apparently unremarkable or unnoticed with a precision that I’d never encountered before: the postal districts of London ‘packed like squares of wheat’ in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’; the undated snow that marks the passage of time in ‘An Arundel Tomb’; the vision of ‘those new, slightly-outmoded shoes’ in ‘Broadcast’. And there are others, of course, in the poems I’ve read since then: ‘the uncertain children, frilled in white / And grasping at enormous air’ in ‘To the Sea’; the ‘close-ribbed streets’ in ‘The Building’, that ‘rise and fall / Like a great sigh out of the last century’. Roman Jakobson described literature as ‘organised violence committed on ordinary speech’, but Larkin is rather different: it’s not so much ordinary speech that he makes us perceive in a different way, as the ordinary itself.14 Even if I couldn’t escape from all the everyday stuff, I could at least look at it as something that was potentially poetic. There was another way out that Larkin offered me, too. It was in studying Larkin that the whole business of ‘doing English’ started to make sense: when something clicked and literary criticism began to feel like a joyful intellectual game. And then I went to Oxford for an Open Day and saw someone sitting on a bench in St. Giles reading a book – something you definitely couldn’t have done back home – and decided that if this was a place where you could sit in the middle of the street and read books then this was where I wanted to be.

Earlier, I referred to Richard Palmer’s observation that it was only through teaching Larkin’s poetry to secondary school students that he became fully aware of its detailed account of the social history of the mid-twentieth century. Often, we notice different aspects of texts when we teach them: we read them more closely and experience them through different eyes. In the years that I’ve been teaching Larkin – both for the old AQA Specification A course, and latterly as part of AQA B’s unit on Aspects of the Pastoral – I’ve been struck again and again by what a brilliant craftsman he is. He’s one of those writers whose work is not just an object of study in itself, but a lesson in how to study literature. It’s like being told, look: this is what you can do with metonymy; this is what half-rhyme does; these are the effects that you can create by playing around with a poem’s rhythmic structure. (Arthur Miller is another writer I’d place in this category: here’s how you take classical tragedy and make it modern. Or Walt Whitman, with his poem ‘Patrolling Barnegat’, taught by English teachers up and down the country as part of the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology: look at what you can do with the sonnet form if you push against its boundaries). When students find out that ‘MCMXIV’ consists of only one sentence, they’re intrigued: when they discover that it’s not a complete sentence – that it lacks a main verb – and that this is the source of the poem’s restlessness and sense of uncertainty, they’re instantly made aware of how important it is to have a grasp of the underlying grammatical structures of poetry in order to describe the effects they create. This is reinforced when they study ‘Here’, and look at the contrast between the long opening sentence – spanning the first three verses, describing the bustle and chaos of urban life – and its successor, the strikingly brief ‘Here silence stands / Like heat’. Similarly, if students can identify stressed and unstressed syllables, and analyse the effects of some common metrical and rhyming patterns, then they will be able to articulate very precisely how Larkin creates the gnomic voice of ‘This Be The Verse’, with its regular iambic tetrameter and alternating rhyme; the restiveness of ‘Wires’, with its arch-rhyme and hypermetric lines; and the sense of unfulfilment and defeat in ‘Afternoons’, with its persistently shifting stresses.15 Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that in studying Larkin, students receive an important grounding in tact: in reading with care and looking beyond the surface. It takes sensitivity and patience, and a willingness to dwell on subtle nuances of meaning, to articulate what is meant by ‘Not untrue and not unkind’, by the endings of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ and ‘High Windows’, or by the narrator’s feelings about solitude in poems  such as ‘Self’s the Man’ and ‘Vers de Société’. (And, indeed, to appreciate that the narrator is not necessarily Larkin, that the narrative persona in one poem might differ from that in another, and that the stance that this persona espouses at the beginning of a poem is often very different to that reached at the end). Clearly, though, students enjoy the challenge. It is heartening to read Ian Stewart’s comments that Larkin’s work ‘consistently produces some of the most interesting responses’ from A-level candidates, who write about it ‘in a fresh and immediate manner’.16 My own students, over the years, have often started by mistrusting Larkin for his superficial cynicism, but then reach a point where they can sympathise with what he’s saying, where on some level he just makes sense. And I’ve seen students who’ve struggled to engage with other texts and authors suddenly become switched on by Larkin, in a way that is often remarkable.

* * * * *

Life occasionally throws up odd connections. In November 2005 my husband and I were approved as adoptive parents: six months later we had a phone call from our social worker to say that she’d been approached about a little boy, currently in foster care, who needed a new mum and dad. Where was he from? Hull, of course. And so it was that I made my first journey to Hull, for the endless meetings and interrogations that accompany the adoption process. We went for a walk along the Humber foreshore the evening before we met our son for the first time, and I remembered Larkin’s statement that ‘Always it is by bridges that we live’, thinking about the oddness of two bits of my life coming together.  (One social worker asked us how we planned to make our son aware of his ‘Hull heritage’, and of course my immediate thought was of Larkin, though I think it’ll be a while before we read him That Poem).

I went back to Hull last August, lured by the Larkin 25 events organised to mark the quarter-century since Larkin’s death. I went by train, naturally, although I changed at Doncaster, not Sheffield. I didn’t eat an awful pie, either. I’m not sure you can buy them, now: just panini, and muffins, and multiple kinds of coffee about which Larkin would no doubt have had something scathing to say. I took my copy of The Whitsun Weddings with me, and as the train pulled out of Doncaster and headed east, the landscape seemed remarkably familiar. There were wheatfields and poplars, occasional haystacks, and a low, louring sky with grey, striated cloud. There were harsh-named halts – Gilberdyke, Crabley Creek, Brough – and then the wide expanse of river with its graceful arch of bridge.

larkin toadOne of Larkin 25’s main attractions was the series of multi-coloured fibreglass toads, decorated by various artists and community groups, that were dotted around Hull and its environs. The first toad I saw – the Teletoad, painted to look like one of Hull’s distinctive white telephone boxes – was squatting outside a mobile coffee stall just opposite Paragon Station: the second, decorated with primary-school handprints, was outside Waterstones. Two women asked me if I would take a photograph of them with the Hidden Toad, outside City Hall. They were photographing the toads for an old schoolfriend of theirs who had emigrated from Hull to Australia a couple of years previously: she’d read about Larkin 25 on the internet and didn’t want to miss out.  The toads were bright splashes of colour, some fittingly placed – like the punk toad outside Hull Truck Theatre – and others more incongruous, such as the orange Tequila Toad sitting outside the Jobcentre on a slightly threatening road junction. There were lots of people looking for toads: mainly families with small children and lists to tick off, but some solo travellers, trying not to look too conspicuous with their cameras and maps.

The Georgian Houses Museum, in the restored Museums Quarter, was hosting ‘Larkinalia’, an exhibition of objects that once belonged to Larkin. I’m not generally a fan of authorial relics, but Larkin is such a poet of details – the precise objects that conjure up a life – that it was fascinating to see the minutiae of his own domestic space: a pair of enormous leather slippers, a collection of Beatrix Potter figurines, two plates bearing the slogan ‘Prepare to Meet Thy God.’ There were cigarette cards, a flamboyant handkerchief, a pair of Monica Jones’s flashy sunglasses and an entirely predictable saucer-souvenir. Bizarrely, there was also the lawnmower that featured in the poem ‘The Mower’, with a cuddly toy hedgehog poised for illustrative purposes beneath its blades. The explanatory notes were in Comic Sans, which Larkin would have either loathed or appreciated in an ironic way, I’m not sure which.

I finished my day at the Hull History Centre, a lovely light airy building with an atmosphere of quiet purposefulness. Its display included an early draft of ‘Love Songs in Age’, some of Larkin’s letters, and journals from holidays he took with Monica Jones in the 1960s and 70s. (On the day I visited, the page on display bore Monica’s waspish comments about their fellow guests, whom she pronounced ‘incredibly common’). As I made notes, one of the centre staff was leading a workshop on researching family history. A woman was showing her son faded photographs of long-dead relatives from copies of old local newspapers; people were sharing discoveries and giving advice, passing things on. I thought of the line in ‘Ambulances’ about ‘the unique random blend / Of families and fashions’, of the connections between the generations in ‘To the Sea’, and about the sense of unity in variety that Larkin’s greatest poems call to mind: a feeling that beyond the curmudgeonly stereotype, his writing bears witness to the uniqueness of individuals, their sorest insecurities and the fragility of their hopes. It seemed appropriate, somehow.

  1. Notes
    Ian Stewart, ‘Philip Larkin: An Examiner’s Perspective’, About Larkin, 21 (Summer 2006), 5-8, p. 5.
  2. Philip Larkin, ‘The Pleasure Principle’, in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 80-82, pp. 80-81.
  3. Lisa Jardine, ‘Saxon Violence’, Guardian, 8 December 1992, section 2, p. 4
  4. Bryan Appleyard, ‘The Dreary Laureate of our Provincialism’, Independent, 18 March 1993, p. 27. Appleyard referred to Larkin in a recent article as ‘superbly second rank’ (‘Poetry and the English Imagination’, The Liberal, 8 August 2010, available online at
  5. Stewart, ‘Philip Larkin: An Examiner’s Perspective’, p. 5.
  6. Richard Palmer, Such Deliberate Disguises: The Art of Philip Larkin (London: Continuum, 2008), xviii.
  7. Richard Palmer, ‘Helping the Old, Too, As They Ought’, About Larkin, 21 (Summer 2006), 18-21, p. 21.
  8. Andrew Swarbrick, ‘Larkin in the Sixth Form’, in Larkin with Poetry, ed. by Michael Baron (Leicester: English Association, 1997), 71-6, p. 72.
  9. Andrew Motion, ‘Philip Larkin and Symbolism’, in New Casebooks: Philip Larkin, ed. by Stephen Regan (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1997), 32-54, p. 52.  This essay originally appeared in Motion’s book Philip Larkin (London and New York: Methuen, 1982).
  10. Swarbrick, ‘Larkin in the Sixth Form’, p. 72.
  11. ‘An Interview with John Haffenden’, in Philip Larkin, Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews, 1952-1985, ed. by Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), 47-61, p. 59.
  12. Swarbrick, ‘Larkin in the Sixth Form’, pp. 72, 75.
  13. Palmer, Such Deliberate Disguises, p. 72.
  14. Roman Jakobson, quoted in Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), p. 2.
  15. Andrew Swarbrick offers a detailed analysis of the structure of ‘Wires’ in Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 92-4.
  16. Stewart, ‘Philip Larkin: An Examiner’s Perspective’, p. 5.

© The English Association 2011 [The Use of English 62.2 Spring 2011]



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