" . . . the wish to be alone."
Philip Larkin, who died in 1985 at the age of 63, has been commonly regarded as the finest English poet of his time. His reputation is founded not merely on the opinion of professional critics but on his remarkable popularity with readers, including many who rarely look at poetry. As I begin writing this review, I notice that Larkin's Collected Poems is a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, which is decidedly unusual for a book of verse. Anyone attempting to gauge Larkin's achievement must ponder the reasons for his nearly unique popular appeal.
It might be easier to explain if he had engaged in the sort of self-promotion that many poets now accept as a natural adjunct to their calling. In fact, Larkin's poems, once written, had to make their way with very little help from him. He did not give readings, and only rarely agreed to be interviewed. He did not cultivate disciples by teaching at universities on short-term high-paid appointments. Although he did his share of book reviewing, he almost never wrote about contemporary poetry; while maintaining lifelong friendships with a few writers such as Kingsley Amis, Larkin distanced himself from the English literary establishment and its policies and perquisites.
The distance was geographical as well as emotional. Literary activity in Britain...