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 Philip Larkin: his maiden voyage on The North Ship (1945)


From the Nonfiction page in this issue:

Richard Bradford: The Importance of Elsewhere - Philip Larkin's Photographs

Published by Frances Lincoln, hardback 5th November 2015

'Elegantly written and cogently argued ...His book is founded on a deep respect for, and love of, his subject's curious greatness' Paul Bailey reviews Richard Bradford's earlier Larkin biography First Boredom, Then Fear in The Independent. The most widely read British poet of the twentieth century, Philip Larkin was also a keen amateur photographer and through his life he made images of the people, places and things that meant most to him. Publishing ahead of the thirtieth anniversary of the poet's death in December 2015, The Importance of Elsewhere gathers the best of Larkin's photographic work, divided into short thematic chapters arranged in chronological order. Written by Richard Bradford, the acclaimed author of the Larkin biography First Boredom, Then Fear, the book shows how Larkin, as an individual, as a writer and indeed as a photographer, developed an acute sensitivity to all aspects of the world around him, from his love of open uninhabited landscapes and empty churches to his mixed feelings about crowds. There are also fascinating portraits of those people who were closest to Larkin, including his lovers, his mother and his literary peers. The book beautifully reproduces more than 200 images from the Larkin archive at Hull: the majority have never previously been seen in print. A substantial foreword by Mark Haworth-Booth, formerly curator of photography at the V&A, explores what it meant to be a serious amateur photographer of Larkin's generation. Together with Larkin's literary works and his letters, these images make up the third, so far unseen, constituent of the material upon which our future perceptions of him will be based.


I saw three ships go sailing by,

Over the sea, the lifting sea,

And the wind rose in the morning sky,

And one was rigged for a long journey ...

Those are the opening lines of the title poem of Philip Larkin’s first-ever published volume of poetry The North Ship. The ‘long journey’ (it is a long poem) takes a northward course, deep into the Arctic Circle where at 75 degrees north it encounters a blizzard:

                ...Suddenly clouds of snow

                Begin assaulting the air,

                As falling, as tangled,

                As a girl's thick hair.


                Some see a flock of swans,

                Some a fleet of ships,

                Or a spread winding-sheet,

                But the snow touches my lips ...

Larkin was only 23 and newly graduated from Oxford University when this slim first book of his adolescent poems was published in 1945. The book sank without trace at the time. But why? Surely the above extract from the title poem illustrates powerful, vivid, sensual writing and imagery - even though the words are simple.

Larkin’s first book The North Ship: negative reaction

The accepted view of The North Ship seems to be that the book deservedly sank without trace at the time, and that it would have stayed forgotten forever, had Larkin not subsequently found fame and success in his later career as a poet. When his volumes entitled The Less Deceived (1955) and The Whitsun Weddings (1964) established Larkin as a premier force in post-war British poetry, his maiden book The North Ship was reissued and was much pored over. Generally the verdict was to dismiss the book; indeed, almost to deride it, as did the poet Gavin Ewart who wrote: “It's good to know that Larkin could write so badly - there's hope for us all!”

The poet Alan Brownjohn wrote a short Writers and their Work critique of Larkin for the Longman Press in 1975. He mooted that the poems in The North Ship were too tentative and solitary. “The impression is that of a poet struggling sensitively to pit some private experiences of exhilaration and release, or some recurrent images of purity and vitality in nature, against the dullness of ordinary, solitary existence and the prevailing sense of death.”

Larkin’s first book The North Ship: positive reaction

After the reissue of The North Ship in 1965 the poet Elizabeth Jennings wrote in The Spectator: “It's good to know that Larkin could write so well, even when still so young.”

I am firmly in agreement with her.  For whenever I pick up and start to read The North Ship a feeling of enjoyment settles over me.

It is a paradox, I am sure, to say that in one sense the page-turning of this first-ever Larkin poetry book has a dreamy, calming and hypnotic effect upon me, and yet at the same time there is a distinctly crisp, pressing-my-hand-on-a-frosty-snowflake type of feeling that I get.

I conclude that these opposite types of impressions can only stem from the power of Larkin's words and images. Here is his poem The Horns of the Morning:

The horns of the morning

Are blowing, are shining,

The meadows are bright

   With the coldest dew;

The dawn reassembles,

Like the clash of gold cymbals 

The sky spreads its vans out

   The sun hangs in view.


Here, where no love is,

All that was hopeless

And kept me from sleeping

  Is frail and unsure;

For never so brilliant

Neither so silent

Nor so unearthly, has

Earth grown before.

The poem is vivid and contemplative, without being forceful. There is nothing ambitious about the word-choices or the imagery, but the reader is engaged - the reader readily sees and feels the scene, and is drawn into the moment.

There is a similar simplicity - but more sensual - in the poem entitled I Put My Mouth. Here are its opening lines:

I put my mouth

Close to running water:

Flow north, flow south,

It will not matter,

It is not love you will find ...

There more examples of light, lyrical poems that seem to waft up from the page. At times, I fancy that I can almost hear a flute playing. And yet there is a harshness that underlies the basic gentility of the tone: a harshness that eventually manifests itself as a definite counterpoint.

The title poem The North Ship seems never to be highlighted, indeed never mentioned at all by Larkin commentators and critics nowadays. But to me it is one of the most enjoyable and effective poems in the book. Cleverly conceived and neatly executed, it is a narrative tale in five separate sections.

All Catches Alight is poem on the very first page of The North Ship collection. It goes without saying that it is a very good idea for an author and a publisher to make sure that the first poem in any book is a good one if not the best one in the collection. Every time that I pick-up and re-read The North Ship book I am instantly magnetised by the first poem. Here is the first of its four verses:

All catches alight

At the spread of spring:

Birds crazed with flight

Branches that fling

Leaves up to the light -

Every one thing, 

Shape, colour and voice,

Cries out, Rejoice!

A drum taps, a wintry drum.

It is an early glimpse of the Larkin who later became famous - or infamous - for the abundant pessimism in his poems. Never would Larkin allow us in one of his poems to wallow in unrestrained joy or hope: always there came the jarring intrusion of cold reality.

Westminster Abbey

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985) missed out on being appointed Poet Laureate in 1984 when the post became vacant. He was an obvious and popular candidate, but he declared himself to be too old and tired to be worthy of consideration. And now in the year 2015, thirty years after Larkin’s death, it has been announced that he is to have an inscribed memorial stone at Westminster Abbey.

The year 2015 also marks a longer anniversary: the publication of Philip Larkin’s first ever book of poems, seventy years ago in 1945. Yes I know that some of the poetry in The North Ship does not match the substantial body of great work that Larkin produced when he was older. But please don’t ignore the book altogether: there are several flashes of brilliance in it, from the budding young poet of Coventry and Oxford in wartime. I declare that the log-book of the maiden voyage of The North Ship is well worth being preserved and enjoyed.

Jerry Dowlen

November 2015

Illustration (by Russell Davies in 1972): Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. Larkin stood aside to allow Hughes to be offered the post of Poet Laureate in 1984. The two famous poets were each featured in one-hour documentaries shown on BBC television in October 2015 as part of National Poetry Day, now in its 21st year.  



Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its eighteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.