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Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth review – judge the poems, not poet


An enthusiastic but judicious corrective to previous biographies of the ‘Hermit of Hull’

This is now the third biography of Larkin. So far, they seem to be coming out at the same rate as his volumes of poetry did: that is, about once a decade. For a man whose life was quiet even by the standards English writers are said to set, this is quite something. The lesson here is that even a dull life will fascinate if the work is interesting or good enough, or if there is a question of adjustments to be made to the reputation.

When his letters and the first biography, by Andrew Motion, were published, more than 20 years ago, Larkin was revealed as someone given to poisonous racist utterance in private, and as a collector of pornography. The image of the gloomy ‘Hermit of Hull’ became tarnished; at the time it seemed irreparably so. But there were still the poems, and for all that academics such as Lisa Jardine said, in effect, that they weren’t that good anyway, a lot of people felt otherwise, with good reason, and the dust has settled.

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