Jeffrey Meyers

The Joys of Depression, The Glamour of Gloom:
Bishop and Larkin

Though Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) and Philip Larkin (1922-85) have many personal and poetic qualities in common, none of the many books about them discuss their striking similarities. Both writers had miserable and sickly childhoods. They were well educated: Bishop at Vassar, Larkin at Oxford. They did not marry or have children, and were indifferent to politics. Both poets lived far from the centres of literary power, had a slight output, published infrequently and died in their sixties. Each brought out four volumes of verse, spaced ten years apart, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s.  

Their poetry – precise, delicate and sensitive, formal, sceptical and stoic – was marked by subtle wit, sharp light and clear detail. They wrote about absence, disappointment, sadness and loss, about the wrong choices and the unlived life. Devoured by the wolves of memory and by gnawing disenchantment, they leavened their mournful themes with intelligence, humor and dazzling virtuosity. The finest poems of Bishop and Larkin resemble her description of the careful crustacean in ‘Strayed Crab’: ‘I am dapper and elegant; I move with great precision, cleverly managing all my smaller yellow claws. I believe in the oblique, the indirect approach, and I keep my feelings to myself.’ As she self-reflectively wrote in ‘North Haven,’ her elegy on Robert Lowell,

‘ “Fun”– it always seemed to leave you at a loss.’

Bishop and Larkin each had a weird family background, marked by disorder and early sorrow. Bishop was damaged by her parents’ disappearance, Larkin by their very existence. Both were only children; Bishop was an orphan, born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died when she was eight months old, her mother became permanently insane when Bishop was five, and she was always threatened by the shadow of mental illness. She was shuffled around and cared for by elderly relatives in Nova Scotia and Boston. A sickly child, she suffered from eczema, asthma and St. Vitus dance.  

Larkin would have been better off without parents. His father was a fanatical pro-Nazi, right through the Hitler years and up to the start of the Second World War. His mother was emotionally demanding and kept a tight grip on him until she died at ninety-seven. He had an uneventful and unexciting life. He hid behind thick spectacles during his anxious ‘unspent’ childhood in Coventry, and later worked as a librarian in dreary provincial towns: Leicester, Belfast and mostly in Hull. The latter had a fishy smell and was ‘on the way to nowhere’. But, he noted, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’.

Both poets were physically unattractive, shy and neurotic, solitary and withdrawn. Larkin had an awkward stammer, was goggle-eyed and weak-chinned, tall and bald, bent and prematurely old. In middle age he became increasingly deaf and grossly overweight. Robert Lowell, always keen on Larkin, got Bishop interested in him. After Larkin’s visit to Lowell and Caroline Blackwood in Kent in April 1973, Lowell wittily wrote her that Larkin ‘looked older than T. S. Eliot [born 1888] – six foot one, low-spoken, deathbrooding, a sculptured statue of his poems, he made me feel almost an undergraduate in health’. 

Bishop and Larkin occasionally achieved a modicum of pleasure, but joy rarely penetrated their sad lives.  Prim and demure, fastidious and timorous, they believed, as Larkin wrote, ‘Life is first boredom, then fear’. Depressed and alcoholic, both poets were defeatist, wallowed in dutiful deprivation and had nervous breakdowns.  

Gritting his teeth in puritanical determination to have a miserable time, Larkin had bad parents, bad health, bad digs, bad work, bad holidays and bad sex. His closest friend, Kingsley Amis, seemed to have it all. Handsome, amusing and charismatic, he had a pretty wife, three children and lots of love affairs.

Bishop and Larkin had antithetical attitudes toward travel. She constantly moved around and abroad to enhance her mood and her prospects; he was riveted to one place. She lived in New England, Canada, France, Key West in Florida (‘the state with the prettiest name’), Brazil, New York, San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts (the state with the ugliest name). Temperamentally and geographically remote, she went to Rio for two weeks in 1951 and stayed in Brazil until 1966. She was always responsive to exotic marine and tropical locales, and her poems of seascape, landscape, inscape, escape are the best introduction to Brazil. On one of Larkin’s depressing pseudo-holidays on the Isle of Mull, he wrote, ‘one couldn’t call this spot anything but desolate, or the weather anything but wet’.  He famously said, ‘I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back the same day’. (I actually did this while lecturing on a cruise ship.)

Both poets deviated from conventional sexual behavior. Bishop was an unhappy, closeted lesbian whose Brazilian lover, Lota Soares, committed suicide in 1967. In 1970 she wrote to Lowell about her psychological and sexual problems with her new American lover in Brazil, ‘I have somehow got into the worst situation I have ever had to cope with and I can’t see the way out’. She also had sexual relations with literary celebrities: Aldous Huxley’s widow Laura Archera and Hemingway’s second wife Pauline Pfeiffer.  

A hypochondriac, Larkin was overwhelmed by a sense of failure and feared the approach of death.  Misery poisoned his emotions, but inspired his characteristic blend of humor and despair. Shrinking from life, he saw himself as a physical and social outcast, went in for self-mockery and famously declared, ‘Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth’. Yet he was attractive to women and had a series of unattractive lovers. His long-time companion Monica Jones, a lecturer in English at Leicester, was neurotic and manipulative. His other principal girlfriend, Maeve Brennan, was on his staff (in both senses) at Hull. A Catholic, she adamantly refused to have sexual intercourse before marriage and teasingly confessed, ‘God knows we did everything but’. For two decades, despite considerable tension, Maeve tolerated Monica, who provided Larkin’s sexual outlet, and Monica tolerated Maeve who withheld the final favor. Monica was familiar and annoying; Maeve, though frustrating, offered infinite promise.  Meanwhile, Larkin wrote lesbian-fantasy stories, and liked to masturbate while looking at porn-magazine photos of schoolgirls being whipped.

Bishop’s maritime poems could also describe Larkin’s Hull: ‘The air smells so strong of codfish / it makes one nose run and one’s eyes water . . . the fog, / shifting, salty, thin, / comes closing in . . . The spangled sea below wants me to fall. . . . Enormous turtles, helpless and mild, / die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches.’  Her ‘guilt-disposal’ poems have currents of despair. She writes of the divided heart, ‘the cold hard mouth / of the world . . . shuddering insights, beyond his control . . . one tear, his only possession . . . the unimaginable nightmare / that never before dared last / more than a second.’ Other poems portray recurrent pain and lamentation, the ‘state of controlled panic  . . . the uncontrolled, traditional cries . . . a cry of pain that could have / got loud and worse’.

Bishop’s anthropomorphic animals suggest human agony. The armored but ineffectual armadillo has a ‘piercing cry / and panic, and a weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky!’ ‘The alligator has five distinct calls: / friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning.’ The first three calls are positive, the last two threaten a sexual rival. The moose also expresses morbid despair: ‘A sharp, indrawn breath, / half groan, half acceptance, / that means Life’s like that. / We know it (also death).’

‘Pink Dog’, one of her most sympathetic poems, portrays with a comic tone and bitter irony the cruelty inflicted on unfortunate outcasts in society: the unwanted, rejected, abandoned and destroyed. She writes, ‘Naked and pink, without a single hair. . . you go begging, living by your wits’.  The dog well knows ‘how they deal with beggars. / They take and throw them in the tidal rivers’. Surrealistically, ‘all the beggars / who can afford them now wear life preservers’. The dog has to dress up for carnival and disguise herself in order to survive. The outcast dog, like Charles Baudelaire’s Albatross, symbolizes the outcast poet who is like a prince of the clouds, yet ‘Exiled on the ground, in the midst of jeers, /  His giant wings keep him from walking’.

Bishop’s greatest poem ‘One Art’, repeating four variants of the same word – losing, lost, loss, lose –expresses a dominant theme in modern literature. Her concrete and abstract losses include keys, hours, places and names, become increasingly larger and encompass lost houses, cities, rivers and a whole continent. Finally, as each disaster (repeated four times) gets progressively worse, she suffers her most agonizing loss when Lota Soares dies:

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Larkin’s past also binds him to his losses. One of his most famous pronouncements connects parents to corrosive punishment: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.’ He finds a depressing flat that perfectly suits his mood: ‘Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook / Behind the door, no room for books or bags – / “I’ll take it.”‘ Though a bachelor with no dependents, he bitterly resented being a wage-slave but dutifully soldiered on as a librarian. Contrasting daily toil with the dream of worldly success, he pleads: ‘Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?’ and never allow me to get ‘The fame and the girl and the money.’

Bishop’s ‘Arrival at Santos’ promises a different world and better life, an exploration of a new land and a newborn self. By contrast, Larkin’s ‘Poetry of Departures’ and ‘Arrivals and Departures’ are characteristically despairing and hopeless. He wishes to be alone, but feels alienated and ‘Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home’.  

Like Bishop, Larkin persistently sounds the drum taps of his mournful mood and weakly feels ‘Things are tougher than we are’. Even the trees are depressing: ‘Their greenness is a kind of grief.’ The evening ‘brings no comfort’, the sun ‘is intensely sad’, the landscape offers only ‘Threadbare perspectives, seasonal decrease’. He suffers from ‘An indigestible sterility’ and his mind lies menacingly ‘open like a drawer of knives’.

‘Too selfish, withdrawn, / And easily bored to love’, Larkin refuses to get married and won’t deceive himself ‘to think the lion’s share / Of happiness is found by couples’.  In ‘High Windows’, one of his best poems, he idealizes sex, not love. But he also realizes that he’s missing a vital element in life: ‘When I see a couple of kids / And guess he’s fucking her and she’s / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, / I know this is paradise’. Beyond the high church windows he sees ‘the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless’. The brilliant disconsolate ending echoes both E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, when ‘that farthest distance, though beyond colour, last freed itself from blue’ and Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’: ‘And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’

In ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ the narrator doesn’t quite grasp at first, as the train rushes through station to station from Hull to London – ‘spread out in the sun, / In postal districts packed like squares of wheat’ – that he’s been excluded from the possibility and promise of connubial life. The cunning poem ends with the suggestion, on the ‘hot cushions’ of a train, of sex on the wedding night – defloration, erection, orgasm and detumescence: ‘And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled / A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.’ This sexual shower also suggests Zeus’s seduction of Danae in a shower of gold.

Larkin, obsessed with death, saw the skull beneath the skin and believed ‘Life is slow dying’. Turning over his failures and lack of friends, he foresees a dreary future and pleads, ‘Give me your arm, old toad; / Help me down Cemetery Road’. He grimly but clear-sightedly concludes, ‘At death, you break up: the bits that were you / Start speeding away from each other for ever / With no one to see’.  

Bishop was well aware of her soul mate and in October 1958 wrote Howard Moss, a fellow poet, ‘Yes, I like Philip Larkin, too. Robert Lowell gave me the paper English edition last year’. In 1964 she told the London Times that ‘Larkin’s work pleases her because “everything he writes about is so awful.”‘ That year she also expressed, in a letter to Lowell, her admiration for and shy personal interest: ‘Larkin is one of the few poets I really care about – do you think we’d take to each other at all? – or do you know him? . . . I thought I might see him on my way to Scotland, if I get there. Anyone that sad shouldn’t be too intimidating.’ Bishop and Larkin finally met at a poet’s party in London in July 1964, but the two silent sphinxes did not record their conversation. The next month she wrote Lowell, ‘Larkin’s poetry is a bit too easily  resigned to grimness. . . . I am all for grimness and horrors of every sort.’ But she understood that both of them had to suffer to write their poignant poetry.

Bishop and Larkin offered the same bleak vision as Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, but redeemed their verse with superb technique. She even composed a difficult sestina and villanelle. They wrote little, and stopped writing at the end of their lives. For both, less was more. Their work expressed a kind of melancholic euphoria brightened with bitter comedy. Their dominant themes were guilt, loss and the art of dying.

Jeffrey Meyers has had thirty-three of his fifty-four books translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. He’s recently published Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love (2015) and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes – and a Spy (2018)

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