Michael Dirda of the New Criterion takes a fresh look at mid-century British poet Philip Larkin. Dirda finds much to admire in Larkin’s writing and personality, including his awareness of the growth of secularism and hedonism in the culture at large, his daring rejection of literary modernism (which had reigned supreme in his young career when the likes of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot were at the height of their influence), and his pragmatic, generally down-the-middle politics:
In his later years Larkin was berated for being conservative, though his true political platform was simple human kindness and decency. “I identify,” he said, “the Right with certain virtues and the Left with certain vices. . . . Thrift, hard work, reverence, desire to preserve—those are the virtues . . . and on the other hand, idleness, greed, and treason.”
Still, Dirda thinks Larkin may not have been quite everything his postmortem admirers crack him up to be, and wonders whether he can truly be called a “great poet”–or merely an author of some truly outstanding poems like Church Going and Annus Mirabilis:
Since [his death], however, his reputation has risen and continues to rise. There may have been a slight blip when Larkin’s private life was first revealed, but posterity is concerned with art, not morals. As Auden observed of Yeats: “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.” Larkin may have been lustful, vulgar in his correspondence with friends, casually racist, stingy, and deceptive with the women he loved and two-timed. But he was a man of his age, and not very different from you or me, except that he could write “The Whitsun Weddings” and we can’t. A recent article inThe Times proposed a list of “the 50 Best British Writers since 1945”: Larkin was number one, George Orwell was second.
Read Dirda’s entire piece here.