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Mismatch

Philip Larkin, the poet-librarian of Hull University, died December 2, 1985, over 29 years ago.  In the years since Andrew Motion published the first biography (1993), and Anthony Thwaite published both the first complete edition of the poems (1989) and the first collection of letters (1992), a small industry has grown up devoted to the poet.  There are archived collections at Hull, in the British Library, the Bodleian Library, and the Huntington Library.  There is a Philip Larkin society with a journal.  And if James Booth is right, insofar as a poet’s work can be popular these days, Larkin’s poems are very popular.  People are still quoting him, and in a poll of several thousand readers in 2003, “The Whitsun Weddings” was voted the most popular poem of the last 50 years.

This is not an outcome one would have expected 20 years ago.  It represents a small triumph of art over life—in this case, the poet’s own life.  When Motion’s Life and Thwaite’s selection of the letters revealed Larkin’s private life and opinions to the general public for the first time, the result was a howl of condemnation from the keepers of correct opinion.  Here was a man who, in his own words, adored Mrs. Thatcher, objected to the invasion of England by immigrants from the former colonies, and, in a letter to Robert Conquest, expressed his disgust with “the...

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