If, My Darling

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December 2004

Nomination: If, My Darling [23 May 1950. From XX Poems and The Less Deceived]

It’s the sheer virtuosity of the visual imagery in ‘If, My Darling’ that hits you immediately. With Alice we fall into a grey and claustrophobic world that assaults us through the senses, both visually and aurally, but which also confronts our moral sensibilities. It wasn’t just the un-Larkinlike literary allusion that caught me – and as a lifelong Alice enthusiast it could have sufficed – but the lively use of language which creates such a memorable impression.

The world that Larkin creates is reminiscent in its eventual mood of Orwell’s 1984, though on a domestic, even a homely canvas, and without the same bottomless feeling of hopelessness (interestingly Orwell also drew on Alice, for instance in his notion of ‘doublespeak’, meaning to hold and accept two contradictory beliefs simultaneously). Like Winston in 1984 Larkin’s subject is bombarded by an ‘incessant recital intoned by reality’ and encounters a world ‘double-yolked with meaning and meaning’s rebuttal’ (viz. ‘War is Peace’, ‘Freedom is Slavery’, ‘Ignorance is Strength’). But Larkin takes us there more gently, through a ‘not-world’ of brocaded Edwardian comfort in which we casually espy the White Rabbit’s neat little gloves before nibbling the cake and sipping the potion. And when we arrive at the ‘unwholesome floor’, it is to reflect, albeit with disquiet, on how the world is unpicked, rather than to be cowed and overwhelmed by the encounter.

I guess it’s the sheer unvarnished honesty that I most bring away from this poem. Do we not all harbour such unspoken, unexpressed hypocrisies? Is not Larkin’s challenge a fresh version of ‘he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone’? It was this honesty that shaped Larkin’s honouring of his Faustian bargain to achieve what Yeats called ‘perfection …of the work’ – at the expense of his life. And it is largely for this ruthlessly open and courageous self-awareness that people return to his poems.

‘If, My Darling’ had a special place in Larkin’s affections: he liked it ‘very much’. Talking to John Haffenden in 1980 Larkin pointed out that it ‘was the first poem that made Kingsley [Amis] think I was some good’. And he expressed surprise that it hadn’t been included in more anthologies. It is certainly a poem that Larkin put forward several times when asked to suggest items for collections: so it was among those offered for a broadcast by John Wain in 1953, sent to the magazine Shenandoah the following year, suggested to Donald Hall for a proposed anthology two years later, and so on. I’m sure others will share this view of this quirky, funny poem.

Jim Bryant

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