James Booth’s new biography of Philip Larkin is not very exciting, perhaps because Booth has the sense to leave the exciting writing to Larkin. But it is very welcome. If you believe that Larkin (1922-85) wrote some of the best English-language poems of modern times, then it has been a trial to see his questionable track record as an everyday human being get in the way of his reputation as an artist.
The obfuscation happened in a hurry, only a few short years after Larkin’s death. His pair of distinguished literary executors, Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion, served him faithfully with a selection of his letters (edited by Thwaite) and a biography (written by Motion). Unfortunately for Larkin’s image — which had been fairly staid until then, the poet having lived a quiet and mostly provincial life as a university librarian — it became evident that he had indulged himself in racist and sexist language. It had not occurred to the executors that they might have prefaced their respective volumes with a health warning in capital letters pointing out what should have been obvious: that Larkin talked that way only in his private life; that he believed his letters to be part of his private life, too; and that in his public life he was courteous and charming to anyone he met, of whatever gender or racial background.
Plainly they hadn’t thought it necessary. It shouldn’t have been. But there were dunces waiting, who relished the chance to diminish him. A depressing number of British literary figures averred that it was no longer necessary to read Larkin’s small body of work (he produced barely a hundred pages of poetry), and a few were dumb enough to say that it had never been any good in the first place.
This reversal of estimation was too wild to stick. There were too many people — on both sides of the Atlantic, and anywhere else English is read and spoken — who simply loved Larkin’s poems. In the last two decades that opinion has managed to reassert itself: an encouraging example of error wearing out its welcome. The chief virtue of Booth’s new book, then, is not to advance a new opinion, but to sensibly demonstrate why the original remains the opinion that matters.
Booth — a colleague of Larkin’s for 17 years at the University of Hull and literary adviser to the Philip Larkin Society — is an excellent guide to just why a Larkin poem can merit being called great. He points out its features with the proud care of a well-suited senior BMW executive taking a turn in the salesroom. Sometimes he overdoes the enthusiasm. Discussing the mighty poem “The Whitsun Weddings,” for instance, in which the narrator’s train encounters wedding party after wedding party along its journey to London — “A dozen marriages got under way” — he notes the “unmistakable sexual implication” in the imagery (“there swelled / A sense of falling”). If the sexual implication were really unmistakable it wouldn’t be worth any special notice. Speaking for myself, however, I can only say that it’s so mistakable it never occurred to me. In those last lines of the poem Larkin isn’t talking about sex, he’s talking, with incomparable eloquence, about the present day flying onward to become the future.
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