This be the curse: Philip Larkin’s big problem

Philip Larkin’s big problem

12 March 2022

9:00 AM

12 March 2022

9:00 AM

In matters of sex, Philip Larkin was late getting away. On his 23rd birthday, he wrote defeatedly to Kingsley Amis: ‘I really do not think it likely I shall ever get into the same bed as anyone again because it is so much trouble, almost as much trouble as standing for parliament.’ His 2014 biographer, James Booth, adds that Larkin was ‘still effectively a virgin… [and] Amis was puzzled that his friend failed to follow through his pursuit of sexual satisfaction’.

There is no join-the-dots explanation for what Larkin called the ‘sex-fear and auto-erotic fantasies’ that beset him all his life. But in the centenary of his birth, it’s time to bring in the anatomical peculiarity incarnating his trouble with sexual fulfilment: his penis.

I’ve been hearing of Larkin’s penis at intervals for much of my adult life. The first time was 30 years ago; the most recent this week. In all cases, my informants had it from his first biographer, Andrew Motion, who had been told by Larkin’s tailor that the poet’s penis was abnormally large, obliging him to alter the cut of his trouser legs. As a friend of Larkin’s, Motion was also able to confirm this rumour from an adjacent stall of a men’s urinal.

Motion doesn’t mention the penis in his excellent and otherwise comprehensive A Writer’s Life (1993). Nor does Booth, in his also excellent Life, Art and Love (2014), though it seems improbable that he didn’t know about it if I do. Is it because penis size is the last taboo? Or was it thought to be a prurient sideshow, a distraction unsuitable to the findings of literary biography? I propose instead that this piece of information is so acutely relevant to Larkin’s life and work that it should be enshrined in Coles Notes, handed out to secondary school children as part of their poetry pack. Perhaps a statue in Poets’ Corner. Because once the sniggering stopped, students would find it a useful resource in more than one way. Firstly, it brings light into corners of the poetry that are otherwise obscure. Secondly, it challenges the harmful and false belief, much promoted in online pornography, that a very large penis is what makes a boy popular with the girls.

For a lot of men, this accident of genetics is a life-ruining affliction. Larkin fell into this category. There was a side to him that always remained shy and maidenly, wanting to be coaxed from his shell, not unlike the ‘exceptionally nervous and rather feminine’ protagonist of his novel Jill. For such a disposition to be fastened to an enormous penis, with its implication of sexual rapacity, its threat of painful or impossible intercourse and its raised likelihood of malfunction, is, I submit, to inherit a constant source of that hesitancy, guilt and fear we find in his poetry and his love life. Indeed, the only Larkin oeuvre to fly conspicuously free of these obstructions was the lesbian schoolgirl pornography he wrote in youth under the sobriquet Brunette Colman. Trouble at Willow Gables flowed from him in reams: once he got rid of the cumbersome penis, all the fun of the erotic fair was his to enjoy.

The mark of Larkin’s struggle with his anatomy is all over his work. It’s implicit in his understanding of sexual relations, which he often imagines from the woman’s side as something to be feared and dreaded, and from the man’s as an awkward, brutal failure. His 1950 poem ‘Deceptions’ is typical, and would be the starting point for my imaginary classroom. It has an epigraph from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, citing a young prostitute who was drugged and raped as a child of 16. The poem inhabits her feelings on waking:

Even so distant, I can taste the grief
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp…
…all the unhurried day
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.

And not just her mind, you might add. Then the focus of his attention shifts, with equal emotional conviction, to the disappointment of the rapist:

…stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic.

That sexual contentment didn’t come easily for Larkin was more than a function of his missing the 1960s. His abiding sense of masculine grossness, his alertness to failure on the one hand and damage on the other haunts his sexual imagination:

Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

‘Ripping times’ are also expected in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, that poetic documentary of an English summer afternoon as seen from a slow and stopping train between Hull and King’s Cross. At each station, wedding guests assemble to wave off newly married couples. For Larkin they divide into two classes: the brutish and the fearful. There are ‘fathers with broad belts under their suits’. And then there are girls who, panicked by the thought of the wedding night and ‘gripping their handbags tighter/ stared at a religious wounding’. We might wonder, in passing, how Larkin knows the belts are broad, if they are under the suits. But it’s the girls that engage our concern, dainty and friable in their sherbet-coloured nylon, tense with an alarm that has always seemed excessive – unless you understand the personal associations.

This, as my imaginary students will be told, is one of Larkin’s more optimistic productions. All the drama of sex-fear is happening outside the window, while he, safe in his seat, bowls frictionlessly towards a receptive London ‘spread out in the heat’, in a train that gradually transforms, as trains can, into a giant phallus. By the sixth verse it has started ‘shuffling gouts of steam’ – a curious word in the context, usually referring to splashes of liquid. At London it slithers through the mossy sides of a tunnel to its destination.

And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

A sexual consummation which even a 16-year-old could not fail to notice. A consummation conveyed through the toothless old metaphors of trains and rain, somehow made new and poignant and almost sensually tangible.

‘The Whitsun Weddings’ isn’t Larkin’s only poem of sexual fulfilment, but it is a counterpoint to a body of work more notable for a sense of impasse: the shock of a locked door in ‘Dockery and Son’, the ‘standing chill/ That slows each impulse down to indecision’ in ‘Aubade’, the failure of a promised intimacy in ‘Talking in Bed’, where the poet can find no words for his companion that are ‘at once both true and kind/ Or not untrue and not unkind’. No rain falls in ‘Talking in Bed’, but it tries to – a celestial failure to perform, or complete, that mirrors the one in the bed.

Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky.

The last poem on this starter reading list would be one Larkin never published, but where all these phallic tropes come together most explicitly: the masturbation poem ‘Best Society’. The society is his own company. He begins: ‘Viciously, then, I lock my door.’

The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
Ushers in the evening rain. Once more
Uncontradicting solitude
Supports me on its giant palm,
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.

It’s all here: the gathering rain, the accommodatingly giant palm, the door locking him in, not out; and then the timid secret organ that, unfurled, shows features of hermaphroditism, a nature both male and female. But the important word here is ‘uncontradicting’. The unavoidable implication being that he experienced more companionable types of sex as a blockage or a rebuke. There’s a dick pun in ‘contradiction’, of the kind we now know Larkin liked to coin in his smuttier hours, to the enduring dismay of his admirers. Nevertheless, to be clear of contradiction was something Larkin seldom achieved, in poetry or in life. Even his will contained self-contradictory clauses, each cancelling the other. Advance and retreat, offer and retract was all one impulse to him. If this peculiarly Larkinian sensibility had a germ in the size of his penis, is it still too embarrassing to contemplate, 100 years after his birth?

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