Geoffrey Hill on Larkin

thGeoffrey Hill’s valedictory lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry is powerful final plea to maintain standards in literature. His hectoring, pungently oratorical style has to be heard to be believed. He is irreplaceable. Listen to it here:  Oxford lecture


It is about Charles Williams as critic and Larkin as a very uneven poet in his view. Charles Williams, visionary poet and friend of CS Lewis and Tolkien, whose fascinating biography by Grevel Lindop was published recently, was opposed to pedestrian and conversational poetry. No doubt the decades since his death 1945 would have been unbearable to him. His views are summed up in a phrase of 21 words that Hill extracted from his critical writings, to the effect that modern poets often make us cover as much ground in expressing their thoughts as we would ourselves in thinking them. In other words they lack the pungent compression that is the hallmark of great poetry. Hill then seizes on Larkin’s famous ‘Churchgoing’ as a example of weak pedestrian writing, marred by his use of the historical present tense. To my mind there is nothing wrong with relaxed, conversational poetry if it is done so well that you feel you are in the company of a fascinating companion as they explore their thoughts. This is exactly what you get with Larkin. More interesting was Hill’s recommendation of a small selection of shorter, more distilled poems by Larkin. They are not amongst his best known. Look up these compressed lyricss with one word titles and you will find a different Larkin, equally as poignant as the one who wrote Witsun weddings: Water, Going, Days, Solar. And the incomparable ‘Wants’:

Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:

However the sky grows dark with invitation cards…







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