AT LEAST TWICE IN JULIAN Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending, Barnes’s humdrum narrator Tony Webster makes passing reference to “the poet.” “And as the poet pointed out,” Webster remarks at one point, “there is a difference between addition and increase,” and, at another, “there were certain implicit trade-offs, some based on whim, others on promise and commitment — up to what the poet called ‘a wrangle for a ring.’”
Who is this anonymous, authoritative “poet” that Barnes invokes? Novelists of old would have reserved the non-specific title for Shakespeare, Milton, or Homer. But we (if we’re English, anyway) would be likely to know who Barnes means immediately, and not just because we recognise the words. This being a 21st century English novel, it can only be Philip Larkin.
That Larkin would become part of the nation’s literary heritage was by no means inevitable, or even predictable. Not long after his death in 1985, Larkin began to have a posthumous public relations crisis. This peaked nearly twenty years ago, around the time of Andrew Motion’s biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, when it seemed as if Larkin’s legacy was about to be derailed by charges of racism, sexism, and general disturbance of the peace. The biography, the selected letters, and the first collected poems edited by Anthony Thwaite — where Larkin’s poems were arranged chronologically, previously unseen verse rubbing shoulders with the canonical works — showed a man who was quick to arrive at his wit’s end, possessed of social and political views based almost entirely on private anger and resentment. (And those are the ones we know about; in what may have been a close call for his reputation, Larkin’s diaries were destroyed after his death.) The charming first stanza of “How to Win the Next Election,” a poem sent privately to friends through letters, goes like this:
Prison for Strikers,
Bring back the cat,
Kick out the niggers,
How about that?
Distaste and contempt from the press and the literary establishment duly followed. It became de rigueur to patronise and dismiss the man who, the year before he died, would have been named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom if he hadn’t turned the role down. Commentators and critics leapt to pour scorn on the once-beloved bard of Hull. While it couldn’t be said that they were dishonest in their criticism of the verse — we can’t all like it — righteous outrage over his political opinions encouraged Larkin’s new enemies to put some additional force into their walloping haymakers. Under ordinary circumstances you’d have to set fire to A.N. Wilson’s shirt to provoke him, but even that regal mainstay of the English book pages took to calling Larkin “a petty-bourgeois fascist” and “the old friend I never liked.”
Martin Amis has claimed that Larkin was simply the victim of political correctness — a man with the wrong ideas at the wrong place at the wrong time — but it is possible the poet was due for a temporary dip in his stock. After famous writers die, there’s often a powerful urge to dismiss them for a while; we stash their reputations away for safekeeping, leaving them to age and, hopefully, mature. When our writers are fr...read more