Larkin’s speakers do something similar to that of Betjeman’s speakers, minus the thrill. In one of Larkin’s most celebrated poems, ‘High Windows’ (1967), the ageing speaker imposes his own lust onto a younger man:
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
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives —
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side…
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life…
In another poem of equal fame, ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (1967), Larkin’s speaker makes some wry and oft-quoted remarks on the liberalisation of attitudes towards sex and sexuality: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,” he says, “Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” But the key phrase in this opening quintet, far less frequently quoted, appears in the third line when the speaker makes the self-deprecating confession — in parentheses — that sexual intercourse in 1963 was, after all, “rather late for me.” “Up to then,” he adds by way of explanation, “there’d only been / A sort of bargaining, / A wrangle for the ring, / A shame that started at sixteen / And spread to everything” — and a shame that remains very much in force.
For Larkin, it seems, the heyday of his optimism came during his more vigorous years in the early- to mid-1940s, years that his speaker reflects upon fondly but without true nostalgia in ‘Wild Oats’ (1962). Thinking back over his youthful dalliances, his striving for a sensual connection despite his personal insecurities, he proceeds to reveal something of his ongoing lust for the object of his desire from those days. “About twenty years ago,” he begins, “Two girls came in where I worked — / A bosomy English rose / And her friend in specs I could talk to.” He strikes up a connection with the “friend in specs” and begins a romance that will last for seven years, during which time, he says, “I believe / I met beautiful twice. She was trying / Both times (so I thought) not to laugh” — not to laugh, that is, at him. He goes on to chronicle the demise of his relationship, with he and his lover “Parting, after about five / Rehearsals” on the grounds that he is “too selfish, withdrawn / And easily bored to love.” “Well,” he muses, “useful to get that learnt,” before he confesses, almost as an aside some twenty years after the fact, “In my wallet are still two snaps, / Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.” That’s lasciviousness without joy, energetic lust without urgency or passion. Time and again, Larkin responds to the prospect of a sexual relationship — even just the hint of a prospect, his own or someone else’s — with a wink-wink nudge-nudge, and then a forlorn sigh. His speakers are moved to fantasy by the same sort of urges as Betjeman’s speakers, but they don’t have the stamina to entertain the fantasy, or to elaborate on it, in the way that Betjeman’s do.
The reason they don’t have the stamina is basically because they’re atheists of a particularly fatalistic pedigree. These men look upon life as, in the final analysis, a vast miasma of missteps and mistakes, missed opportunities and misused time, each instance of which is a sin worse than the one before it because the sum total of remaining life is continually dwindling. In a strange way, then, their behaviour in the world is as conservative as that of Betjeman’s speakers. The real difference between the two sets of speakers is that the melancholic passivity of Larkin’s speakers owes less to a sense of insecurity than to world-weary exhaustion and a feeling of futility. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the elegiac yet embittered ‘The Life With a Hole In It’ (1974):
When I throw back my head and howl
People (women mostly) say
But you’ve always done what you want,
You always get your own way
— A perfectly vile and foul
Inversion of all that’s been.
What the old ratbags mean
Is I’ve never done what I don’t.
So the shit in the shuttered chateau
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and birds
Is far off as ever, but so
Is that spectacled schoolteaching sod
(Six kids, and the wife in pod,
And her parents coming to stay) …
Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you’ll get. Blocked,
They strain round a hollow stasis
Of havings-to, fear, faces.
Days sift down it constantly. Years.
The pessimism takes other forms, manifesting sometimes as near-paralysis, as in the haunting ‘Aubade’ (1977), and sometimes as gallows humour, as in ‘Born Yesterday’ (1954). Mostly, though, it comes from the speaker dwelling patiently if ruefully alongside his subjects — those who lust and those who are lusted after — and then resigning himself to the state of “Uncontradicting solitude” in which, in ‘Best Society,’ “there cautiously / Unfolds, emerges, what I am.”