In his 1941 poem At the Grave of Henry James, W. H. Auden expressed his hope that writers would be judged not by their lives, but by their works:
All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;Because there are many whose worksAre in better taste than their lives; because there is no endTo the vanity of our calling: make intercessionFor the treason of all clerks.
In a recent review in Harpers (subscription required), Giles Harvey addresses just this questionhow to understand the writers work in relation to the writers lifeby considering the case of Philip Larkin. Larkin is probably the most celebrated British poet of the post-World War II era; as his posthumously published letters have made clear, hes also probably the nastiest. His letters are sprinkled with casual (and not so casual) misogyny, with racial insensitivity, with snobbery, with self-pity, with a grouchiness that borders on the pathological. Harvey quotes several particularly nasty bits, but the worstworst because the simplest and most symptomaticis this throwaway: all women are stupid beings. And theres lots more where that came from. (Which is a shame for all the obvious reasons, but also because, if you can ignore the foul bitswhich of course you cantLarkins letters are a remarkable read.)
Its always disheartening to hear that a writer you admire was such a lout. But, as Harvey points out, any reader of Larkins poetry shouldnt be all that surprised to learn of the poets personal littleness. After all, the poems themselves are full of self-reproach, bitterness, and the occasional indecency. Larkins This Be the Verse opens with a famous stanza in which all child rearing, no matter how well intentioned, is seen as abusive and disfiguring: 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. The same poem closes with this misanthropic thought: Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf. / Get out as early as you can, / And dont have any kids yourself. Is it shocking, then, to learn that Larkin was himself miserable, or that he didnt have any kids?What, though, are we to make of someone like Charles Dickens? In her new biography of the beloved author, Claire Tomalin faces up to the fact that, to look back to Auden, Dickenss works were often in better taste than his life. While novels like The Pickwick Papers seem animated by a generosity of spirit, Dickenss life too often expressed pettiness, even cruelty. After 21 years of marriage, Dickens kicked his wife out of the house and began an intense relationshipto what extent romantic, we cant be surewith a young actress. He could be an indifferent father, and he had a habit of showing more affection to those who were dead (such as his wifes sister) than to those who were living.What should we do with such information? We cant ignore the biography or pretend that it wont affect, in some way, our reading of the work. I, for one, cant read Dickenss idealized portraits of self-sacrificing women without thinking of how he sacrificed his own wife to his late-in-life passion. Colm Toibin, whose 2004 novel The Master centers on Henry James and imagines an erotically charged (but ultimately unconsummated) love scene between James and his friend Oliver Wendell Holmes, has this to say about the relationship between life and work: Despite our best efforts to pretend it doesnt matter, it matters enormously when we think about Jamess life and even his art whether he died a virgin or whether he took his pleasures when they offered themselves.But we cant let the life overshadow the work, either. Dickenss work still is animated by a generosity of spirit, even if his life sometimes wasnt; Larkin is still a great poet, even if he was a wretched person. Perhaps its best to end with another passage from Auden, this time from his elegy to W. B. Yeats:
You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;The parish of rich women, physical decay,Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,For poetry makes nothing happen: it survivesIn the valley of its saying where executivesWould never want to tamper; it flows southFrom ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survivesA way of happening, a mouth.
Auden acknowledges that the psychic costs of living in revolution-torn Ireland helped make Yeats the poet he was: without mad Ireland, there is no Yeats, or at least not the Yeats we know. But this link between life and work doesnt explain away the work. Art remains always a gift, something that, as Auden writes, can persuade us to rejoice no matter the givers faults.