Skip to main content


The anguish and optimism of Philip Larkin

Larkin: overwhelming bleakness. Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

Philip Larkin’s natural habitat was the humdrum of suburbia, says The Economist. Yet his poems show none of the typical British “evasion and whimsy”. Many begin with bracing immediacy: “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night”; “The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found / A hedgehog jammed up against the blades”. His work grapples “frankly and sometimes devastatingly” with anguish – what he calls “the instantaneous grief of being alone”. But his manner “is less jaundiced than tender”. A newborn child is a “tightly-folded bud”; the sun a “petalled head of flames”. The racism and misogyny revealed in his letters is a “puerility at odds” with his poignant poetry. Yet for all his vitriolic beliefs, few British writers “so skilfully melded wit and pathos”.

That’s why, with the centenary of Larkin’s birth coming up next week, I cannot agree with calls for him to be cancelled, says Wendy Cope in The Daily Telegraph. Yes, he was a “sad, unkind man with unacceptable views”. But his poetry “can still move me to tears”. Sometimes the bleakness is overwhelming: I once hurled a book of his across the room, it depressed me so much. Yet Larkin’s best work was hopeful. Take the lambs in First Sight, learning to walk in winter. Hope surrounds them: “Earth’s immeasurable surprise. / They could not grasp it if they knew / What so soon will wake and grow / Utterly unlike the snow”. This never happened for the depressive Larkin. And yet, remarkably, he could still imagine how it would feel should he ever emerge from the “wretched width of cold”.