The Less Deceived
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The Less Deceived, first published in 1955, was Philip Larkin's first mature collection of poetry, having been preceded by the derivative North Ship (1945) from The Fortune Press and a privately printed collection. Put out by The Marvell Press, a small operation run by the enterprising and persistent George Hartley in Hessle, East Yorkshire, the book through the depth of its appeal, the formal skill of its verse, and its consistent striking of Larkin's distinctive tone gained wide readership. By the end of 1955 The Less Deceived was recognized as one of the outstanding collections of the year.
The first poem in it, chronologically, to be written was "Going," of February 1946. Its concluding lines, "What is under my hands, / That I cannot feel? / What loads my hands down?", presage the helplessness, the dread of the atrophying of emotion, the despair, and the magnetic terror of death in the poems that follow. These are Larkin's most persistent themes. Throughout the collection, the feeling of diminishment and loss is pervasive, whether in the visit of a cyclist to a church in the volume's best known poem, "Church Going," or in the alienation of the speaker looking at a photograph of a young lady, or in the man in "Toads" beaten by work into an imprisonment he then wills, or even in the "I" who "starts to be happy" when light strikes on the "foreheads" of houses. "Beneath it all," ends the poem "Wants," "desire of oblivion runs." This desire for death simultaneously horrifies and allures.
The poems in The Less Deceived are formalist. Like his admired Thomas Hardy, Larkin invents stanza forms of intricate patterns that become one with the content of the poems. His rigorous adherence to these patterns brings the sadness into sharp relief and gives the emotions their authority. The poet's refusal to publish any but the most perfectly realized poems marked him, from this book onward, as a literary artist of high accomplishment.
With this book Larkin became, albeit unwittingly, a spokesman for his times. Written in a post–World War II England that only half acknowledged its lessening position as a global and economic power, The Less Deceived resonated because it brought forth with disarming candor England's buried sense of itself.