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About this book

Philip Larkin is widely regarded as one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century. As such, there is a vast amount of literary criticism surrounding his work.

This Readers' Guide provides a comprehensive and accessible overview of the key reactions to Larkin’s poetry. Using a chronological structure, Robert C. Evans charts critical responses to Larkin’s work from his arrival on the British literary scene in the 1950s to the decades after his death. This includes analyses of critical material from around the world, making this an excellent guide for all students of Larkin.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Philip Larkin is widely considered one of the very best English poets of the last 70 years. In fact, he is often mentioned as one of a handful of the best British poets of the twentieth century. And, more and more, he has come to be considered one of the finest writers of poetry in the English language during that same period. Although his first books of verse were largely ignored, the 1955 publication of The Less Deceived brought him growing attention and admiration. His stature as a much-loved but also highly respected poet was solidified in 1964 by the publication of his next collection, The Whitsun Weddings. This book sold remarkably well, indicating that Larkin was not a poet who appealed merely or mainly to academics or to the literary elite; instead, he was a poet who spoke movingly and memorably to numerous ‘regular readers’. In 1974 he published his last collection, High Windows, which was again unusually popular and was greeted with great critical acclaim. By at least the mid-1970s and up until his death in 1985 (as well as thereafter), Larkin was widely regarded as not only the most respected but also the bestloved poet of his times.
Robert C. Evans

Chapter One. Larkin Arrives: The 1950s and 1960s

Abstract
Much of the earliest commentary on Philip Larkin’s poetry compared and contrasted his work with that of various predecessors and contemporaries. Early critics were especially interested in his similarities to – or differences from – important poets of the first half of the twentieth century. These included Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Auden, and Dylan Thomas. Critics also often wanted to ‘place’ Larkin in relation to other writers emerging in the 1950s, including John Wain, Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis, and Ted Hughes (to mention just a few). Larkin was often either praised or censured depending on critics’ personal attitudes towards the kind of writing associated with a loose grouping of writers sometimes called ‘The Movement’. Other issues explored by commentators in the 1950s and 1960s involved whether or not Larkin was ‘developing’ as a poet – that is, whether or not he was evolving in style, themes, and attitudes. Some critics argued that his vision was narrow, his tone monotonous, and his style repetitive. Others disagreed, arguing that all that mattered was his poetry’s consistent excellence and the ways he honestly and even profoundly addressed genuine human concerns. Commentary during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s tended to focus on two of his major collections – The Less Deceived (1955) and The Whitsun Weddings (1964).
Robert C. Evans

Chapter Two. Larkin Rises: The 1970s

Abstract
In the 1970s, Larkin criticism was marked by various key developments. The most important was the appearance of entire books on Larkin. No longer was commentary confined to periodical reviews and academic articles. Instead, publishers now began to see him as meriting fulllength discussion, and some books – published as parts of ongoing series devoted to key authors – implied by their very existence that he was entering the contemporary literary canon. Critics in the 1970s also, by that time, had a tradition of previous criticism to extend, modify, or sometimes challenge. A real and ever-growing dialogue about Larkin was beginning, often involving the best critical minds of the period. Standard topics (such as his style, themes, tone, allusions, and ‘development’) continued to be discussed, but now there was a growing sense of Larkin as a highly (and increasingly) influential figure on the literary scene – one whose tastes (as in his selections for an important anthology of modern poetry published by Oxford University Press) might influence the tastes of many others. In the 1970s, too, Larkin was increasingly compared and contrasted with poets from other countries, including the United States and continental Europe.
Robert C. Evans

Chapter Three. Larkin Triumphant: The 1980s

Abstract
By the beginning of the 1980s, Larkin had become perhaps England’s best-loved poet – the unofficial poet laureate of the nation even though he now felt that his inspiration had largely deserted him and that he would be producing few more, if any, significant poems. Throughout the 1980s, and especially after he passed away in late 1985, Larkin was increasingly celebrated. More and more essays and books appeared, and his premature death at age 63 was widely mourned. By 1988 a good edition collecting many of his best poems (poems already published, previously unpublished, and previously scattered) appeared, so that readers could now see his achievements more completely than ever before. Academic articles and scholarly monographs continued to be published, but they were now joined by an increasing number of collections of essays. By the 1980s, a Larkin critical industry was working full-time. He was now recognised, even more than before, as a key poetic voice of his era.
Robert C. Evans

Chapter Four. Larkin Under Siege: The 1990s

Abstract
By the beginning of the 1990s, Larkin’s literary and public stature was firm and secure. Many now considered him the most significant English poet since the 1950s. The 1988 publication of his Collected Poems (edited by Anthony Thwaite) had only enhanced his reputation and added numerous previously unpublished texts to his oeuvre. His texts were now studied with more and more focus on their precise technical details, and he even began to attract the attention of literary theorists and to figure in debates about different kinds of literary theory. An important survey of previous Larkin criticism appeared, indicating that there was now enough to make a survey needed and worthwhile. In the early 1990s, more texts by and about Larkin – including selected letters and a forthcoming biography – seemed only likely to solidify his standing. In the event, however, just the opposite happened: the letters and biography (published in 1992 and 1993, respectively) revealed aspects of Larkin that badly damaged his reputation as a man and even as a poet. By the mid-1990s it seemed legitimate to wonder if his standing would ever recover.
Robert C. Evans

Chapter Five. Larkin Triumphant Once More: The 2000s

Abstract
By the opening of the new century, Larkin’s critical fortunes were rebounding. The damage done to his reputation in the early 1990s by the publication of the Selected Letters and Andrew Motion’s biography had begun to recede. The Philip Larkin Society had been formed in 1995 and was growing each year, and more and more ‘new’ texts by Larkin – that is, texts that had long existed but had not been previously published or collected into books – began to be studied and printed. These included many of his writings on jazz (2001), much of his unpublished prose fiction (2002), and a collection of the early poems and juvenilia (2005). Larkin continued to be widely read, widely studied, and widely valued by an audience that included not only academics and students but also thousands of ‘regular’ readers as well.
Robert C. Evans

Chapter Six. Newer Approaches to Larkin: The 2010s

Abstract
As the second decade of the twenty-first century began, Larkin studies were stronger than ever. The controversies of the mid-1990s had largely receded, and in 2012 Larkin’s Complete Poems, presented by Archie Burnett in the first true scholarly edition, provided interested readers with thorough, reliable, and fully annotated texts. Larkin’s poems continued to attract critical attention, some of it deliberately at odds with earlier interpretive views. Many previous approaches to Larkin persisted, especially the ever-growing tendency to find him more Modernist, more Symbolist, even more Surrealist than he himself claimed. Critics also continued to study his connections with various earlier writers, especially those from the 1920s and 1930s. History in general was important to critics of the early 2010s, but their interest in historical detail was often combined with close (sometimes very close) attention to precise textual details. Other topics discussed during this period concerned Larkin’s relationships with his audiences, the connections between his early poems and his later works, and the political and psychological dimensions of his writing.
Robert C. Evans
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