Philip Hensher

The intense Englishness of Philip Larkin

His lyric power will survive the assaults on his reputation

Larkin and wicker rabbit, 1962 (photo: The estate of Philip Larkin)

The English language has a curious feature, called the phrasal verb. It consists of a plain verb plus a preposition; to go up, to get over, to find out. They are quite often more vivid than their simple synonyms – to ascend, to recover, to discover. New ones are constantly being thought up; they are also totally irrational – get on with or get off with? Most serious writers spend a lot of time thinking about them.

One day, the story goes, the poet Philip Larkin was challenged by his secretary at work. She had discovered a cache of pornography in his office cupboard. ‘But what’s it for?’ she asked. Larkin considered. ‘To wank’ – he paused – ‘to wank to, or with, or at.

It’s the centenary of Philip Larkin’s birth. This is often the moment when a poet of large reputation is decisively discarded – you have to think of what the 1790s started to think of Pope, born in 1688, or the Bloomsbury group of Tennyson, born in 1809. Larkin has certainly been assaulted quite strenuously lately. The curious thing is that his popularity doesn’t, in fact, seem to have declined very much. The assaults and the downgrading are coming not from ordinary readers, who don’t mind him a bit, but from the gatekeepers of reputation and the official makers of exam syllabuses.

A great deal of noise was recently made about the decision of an exam board to drop Larkin, along with Keats, Wilfred Owen and other previously established classic poets. Instead, various impeccably diverse poets were to be introduced, some of whom were fairly good. I’m not convinced that presence on a syllabus means anything much – I don’t suppose the Earl of Rochester has been much studied in school, and yet he goes on. All the same, it reflects a determination on the part of official authorities to remove a poet from the official record, as far as they control it.

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