Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.’
So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life
– In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.
I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
In my view, the brilliance of Larkin is bound up in his effortless ability to turn rhymes that read as almost conversational. This subtle skill has — at least in my reading — two effects, the first of which is that Larkin’s poetry has an inviting quality; not only do you want to repeatedly return to some of his best work, you also find yourself quoting it, or silently reflecting on it, in moments that are otherwise utterly mundane. Larkin wrote about money, relationships, society, and family in ways as accessible as those topics are themselves familiar to all of us. Towards the end of his life, Larkin said that he liked to think that people in pubs would talk about his poems, and I’ll say that although I don’t currently have any friends who are interested in both poetry and pubs, if I did, Larkin would probably be the first name dropped in our hypothetical discussions.
The second quality of Larkin’s that I always find myself admiring is — and this may surprise devotees of his — the fearlessness with which he writes. It’s not easy to identify, much less write about, the shortcomings of one’s character, the wounds in one’s psyche. Yet Larkin never seems to flinch in revealing these elements of his personality. As Lawrence Durrell quipped, “It’s unthinkable not to love – you’d have a severe nervous breakdown. Or you’d have to be Philip Larkin.” And Larkin was certainly a distinctly neurotic and isolated person. But his cold eye on the world is always counterbalanced by the warming, heartening quality of his voice, as if he’s enjoining us to share in his view while also softly nudging us to reflect that we are comparatively well-adjusted and connected. There’s a reason why Larkin called his most-beloved collection of poetry High Windows: he stands remote, secluded and single, separated from the human universe by a pane of glass. There’s a reason why he’s looking down at the mad world of “Money”.
To note: “bank your screw” refers to the money earned at a day job that one then saves. The “shave” referenced is the third stanza is the final shave that an undertaker gives a corpse in the casket.