Apparently Philip Larkin was racist, sexist, imperialist and … what else? … oh yes, Very Right Wing, according to Paul Farley (“born into a working-class Liverpool family”) and Kate Clanchy a.k.a. Royal (“born into a middle-class Edinburgh family” but not sounding much like it as she brightly recognises the “characteristic smell of buttoned cushion-cloth” when the pair investigate a 1950s carriage in the Didcot Railway Centre). They are exploring for BBC Radio 3[1] the poetry of Philip Larkin (“Children of the Whitsun Weddings”), often rather well. At one moment Tom Paulin, who, like Terry Eagleton, is one of the few remaining, poetically plausible, exponents of the politics of my generation, says he regards it as perfectly possible to admire the poetry of someone with whose political beliefs he disagrees.


Leaving aside for a moment the utter unconsciousness of mediocrity of our two poets, chucking around these categorical bricks[2] as if the house of the long Blair-Brown era of mediocrity were not already crashing resoundingly down all around us; and leaving aside, too, the insincerity of Paulin, who means in fact that he wants to admire the poetry of people he finds utterly repugnant (it would not occur to me that some ideological mesh should obstruct my liking the poetry of Pablo Neruda), let us pause and have a look at what is going on here.


Larkin has never been a particular enthusiasm of mine. He has been a bit of a football between UK-style anti-modernism or neo-formalism and US-style Whitmanesque freedom (some converting with encroaching age from extremely free verse to Larkinism, like JG, who claims not to “understand” the former any longer, presumably including his own, excited earlier work). But when his excellence is pointed out to me, or I notice it (I bought but scarcely read his Collected Poems), I admire it.


And here’s the thing. I can admire the verse without liking the person; I can love the person (Betjeman) without admiring the ─ yes ─ verse. But the idea that you can morally separate the writings from the writer and his or her character seems to me to be a mistake ─ and one highly characteristic of the Western aesthetic tradition. We may not know anything about the author (but the attitudes spring forth in the poem); we may agree to overlook resolutely the biography (because the biography is often a welcome diversion from the works themselves); we may, in all insincerity, force ourselves to like or dislike an author’s aroma (or conceal the fact, and call ourselves critics).


But the real reason for reading Neruda or Larkin or Auden is not that they were brilliant political analysts, but that they were fine poets. There is a whole genre of poetry written by people known for other reasons (John-Paul II, Margaret Mead, Richard Wagner, Harold Wilson’s wife) which would otherwise be forgotten. In most respects the aristocratic views of Yeats or Rilke or the anti-Semitic views of DH Lawrence, the xenophobia of Larkin or the fellow-travelling views of Picasso or Neruda were entirely unoriginal, indeed conventional. As Auden later said, “We wrote about things we knew very little about.” Our authors were period-bound and in their general views and their ability to blunder mistakenly through life they were just like all the rest of us.


But somehow we exempt their work, with which we want to stay connected, which itself connects to a node or two of the great upper world with which we wish to remain connected. This work, which we are free to love, hate or admire, bodies forth the person in ways that are permanent; though it, too, remains ultimately period-bound and subject to the condescension of posterity.


[1] Sun 24th May 2009.



[2] The war engines of the left, though everywhere derelict and defeated, still emit the colourless and odourless gas of political correctness.