Poor Philip Larkin. At the time of his death in 1985, he held an exalted position as one of the finest and most read poets in England since World War II. His poems, appearing principally in three slim volumes, The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1965), and High Windows (1974) not only gained enormous critical praise but also appealed to the lay reading public. Larkin was an accessible poet; it was not necessary to have a literary background to understand him, and his themes-isolation, loneliness, regret, loss, aging, and death- seemed to touch a responsive chord in the collective consciousness, as if he were saying things that everyone knew to be true but usually were reluctant to acknowledge. No one else wrote poems like his. In 1985, Larkin was named Companion of Honour (he had declined the position of poet laureate) by Queen Elizabeth II, and at his death he was mourned as a lost national treasure.
Since then, however, Larkin’s reputation has taken a nosedive. Part of this results from the inevitable reappraisal that every poet undergoes after death. For Larkin, however, it seems a case of his having done himself in, so to speak. The 1992 publication in England of this selection of more than seven hundred of his letters created something of a literary lynching. Larkin was revealed, or so his detractors said, as a foul-mouthed bigot, a misogynist, a virulent racist, a man whose right-wing political views bordered on fascism and who harbored an irrational prejudice against anything non-English. Well-known English literary hatchet man Tom Paulin led the attack: “This selection stands as a distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals [Paulin had accused Anthony Thwaite, the editor, of excising the most offensive passages] the sewer under the national monument Larkin became.”
Originally the volume of letters was to be published in the United States in January of 1993, but the publishers postponed its appearance for eleven months, fearful that its reception would adversely affect sales of Andrew Motion’s authorized biography of Larkin, which was published in the summer of 1993. Motion’s biography did nothing to rehabilitate Larkin, and in England it set off another cavalry charge aimed not only at the man but also at his poetry. Peter Ackroyd declared that Larkin was “essentially a minor poet who, for purely local and temporary reasons, acquired a large reputation.”
Against this background, then, one turns to these letters to see what kind of monster is revealed therein. Could Larkin really have been as bad as all that? Even if he was, does it matter, since only Percy Bysshe Shelley has ever insisted that poets must also be the best and happiest of men?
The answer to the first question is that if the reader has a propensity to be shocked, there is certainly plenty of material here to shock. The charge of racism is unanswerable. Derogatory references to “niggers” are frequent and grow more ugly the older Larkin gets. This is Larkin commenting on a cricket match between England and the West Indies in 1984: “And as for those black scum kicking up a din on the boundary-a squad of South African police would have sorted them out to my satisfaction.” A year later, and only six weeks before his death, he tells an old friend that he is horrified by the state of the nation, and adds, “In ten years’ time we shall all be cowering under our beds as rampaging hordes of blacks steal anything they can lay their hands on.” Larkin, who rarely traveled abroad, had a similar knee-jerk response to anything foreign. Germans are regularly “Huns,” the French are “frogs,” and “wog” serves for nearly everyone else. On the home front, his prejudices extended to a snobbish dislike of the working classes. Enthusiastically pro-Thatcher, he was in favor of strong measures to curb the power of the trade unions, a major issue in British politics in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, and one on which Larkin was certainly not alone in his views.
Such in brief is the case against Larkin’s political and social opinions. No doubt Larkin would be astonished and amused that anyone should even care about them, since he admitted that he knew nothing about politics and that his opinions were “really no more than gouts of bile.”
Larkin can also be adjudged guilty (if that is the right word) of regularly using foul language, and he seems to have had a particular affection for the anal and the scatological. Most of this verbal embroidery occurs in his exuberant youthful letters to his boyhood friend J. B. Sutton and to the novelist Kingsley Amis, and later to the historian Robert Conquest. The letters to Conquest provide more useful ammunition for those eager to condemn, since they reveal Larkin’s interest in pornography. Larkin reports on his trips to London, during which he would trudge around the Soho district in search of spanking magazines. Sometimes Conquest would send him some. The letters also reveal that about the time Larkin was writing his first novel, Jill (1946), he was also expending...
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