I’ve just wasted three quarters of an hour trying to decide what Philip Larkin meant when he said, famously: Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth. I mean, what does that even mean? Larkin himself didn’t seem to be deprived of much. For thirty years or so he had a good job, admittedly in a grim Northern town (Hull). But then he did choose to stay in the grim Northern town in spite of having a good enough degree (a First from Oxford in Language and Literature) to have taken him anywhere he wanted to go, and the library was part of the University of Hull. And he didn’t seem ill-fed. He had as much booze and as many fags as he wanted and no fewer than three mistresses, who attended at his death-bed in a complicated shift system. It’s not the traditional picture of a poet, starving in a freezing garret and eventually poisoning himself with… arsenic, or whatever.
Arthur Rackham: A Crowned Merman
Larkin was certainly quite glum and dissatisfied, but then that’s English. We don’t do jollity. And he seemed to thrive on it; his best poems came out of it – which is perhaps what he means. Wordsworth’s daffodils were an inner treasure-trove of inspiration, a dancing, golden image to recall in those moments when he was feeling a bit down or there wasn’t a lot else worth thinking about. Golden… treasure… etc. And possibly Larkin, in his gloomy English way, was careful never to become at all happy in case the ability to write poetry deserted him – as indeed it did, later in life. Only then did he allow one of his long-term mistresses to move in with him. After all what did it matter, now that there was nothing for her to distract him from?
I can’t think of one happy poem (at least, not one that’s any good). Can you? But gloom is so fruitful:
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
William Blake: The Sick Rose
Call her once before you go.
Call once yet.
In a voice that she will know:
Children’s voices should be dear
(Call once more) to a mother’s ear;
Children’s voices, wild with pain.
Surely she will come again.
Call her once and come away.
This way, this way!
‘Mother dear, we cannot stay.’
The wild white horses foam and fret.
Matthew Arnold: The Forsaken Merman
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Philip Larkin: This Be The Verse