- The Hughes/Larkin Phenomenon:Poetic Authenticity in Postwar English Poetry
In a letter to Faber editor Charles Monteith, dated March 2, 1978, Philip Larkin presented two quatrains. The first was his contribution to the Queen's Jubilee, to be inscribed in stone outside the Faber & Faber offices in Queen Square. With a characteristically dismissive and self-deprecating air—"I'm no good at this lapidary lark"—Larkin relinquishes the following lines for "first British chiselling rights":
In times when nothing stoodBut worsened, or grew strange,There was one constant good:She did not change.(Selected Letters 581)
Then appears the second quatrain: a parody of Ted Hughes, who also was asked to contribute a short poem for inscription alongside Larkin's. "I'm sure Ted will do better," Larkin quips:
The sky split apart in maliceStars rattled like pans on a shelfCrow shat on Buckingham PalaceGod pissed Himself—
What may seem mere clowning on Larkin's part constitutes a rhetorically charged moment, and one that represents handily the binary structure Hughes and Larkin had come to occupy at the forefront of contemporary British poetry. In addition to having a laugh at Hughes's expense, as he does routinely in Selected Letters, Larkin makes use of Hughes as a kind of straw man, contextualizing his [End Page 111] own verse within an antithetical relation and arguing covertly for its superiority.1 While the "Larkin" quatrain, through a kind of poetic humility, properly honors the Crown, the "Hughes" quatrain dishonors it in the vilest of ways, leaving the nation in a state of chaos and disgrace. Fearing genuinely, perhaps, that his own lines are inadequate, Larkin fortifies them by showing what they are not: restraint and simplicity, in this case, become virtues alongside the "silliness" offered by Hughes, thus allowing Larkin's real argument—that he is the best man for the job—to safely emerge. There is a sense of propriety behind Larkin's waggishness, and a suggestion that as a representative of royalist England, Hughes will surely make a mess of things.
Larkin's mock delivery of Hughes's contribution along with his own not only betrays the competitiveness and insecurity that Hughes brought out in Larkin but is indicative of the mutually substantiating role their poetry played. Larkin's parody, after all, is not so much an imitation as a conscious distortion, containing more of Larkin himself than his perceived rival; Hughes's actual contribution—"A Soul is a Wheel. / A Nation's a Soul / With a Crown at the hub / To keep it whole"—aligns the two poets more closely than perhaps Larkin would have wished, demonstrating their equal willingness and ability to generate the kind of conservative verse required of the occasion, and their shared sense, as Thomas Osborne has argued, of a connection between poetry and sovereignty as "an ultimate authority that gives . . . a nation its uniqueness, integrity and identity" (61).2 Hughes's Crow poems, however, are ventures in free verse, not rhyming quatrains, and it is Larkin, not Hughes, who is known for his four-letter words. The effect of Larkin's parody is to see Hughes Larkinized—to witness the "joke" that becomes of Hughes's poetry when subjected to Larkin's voice, to the formal properties of the quatrain (Larkin effectively trivializes the "Hughes" quatrain with feminine rhyme), and to the [End Page 112] ceremonial occasion at hand. Even while implying that he does not belong alongside Hughes as Faber has envisioned, Larkin facilitates a symmetrical relationship between the two poets, subjecting each to the same formal structure and rhetorical situation and thereby encouraging his reader to "see" them as an oppositional binary. One might even say that Larkin uses Hughes to communicate a feeling of indifference toward the whole endeavor, or to check, as he often does within his poems, the unbridled sentimentalism of his "other" voice.
Whatever his particular intentions may be, Larkin is clearly not content with the first quatrain alone: he requires something more, something beyond his own lines, in order to feel comfortable handing them over. Indeed, Faber's request presents Larkin with a unique set of challenges, for not only...