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This review is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

LOVE SONG TO LARKIN John Osborne, Larkin, Ideology and Critical Violence: A Case of Wrongful Conviction (Palgrave Macmillan) £50

'Homosexual Pornography Poet PHILIP LARKIN Nazi'. These are the key words under which a Larkin biography was advertised in an eBay auction. They provide a vivid index of the disrepute into which the figure whom Donald Davie once described as 'the best-loved poet of his generation' has fallen in some quarters. Peter Ackroyd, for example, has called him 'a foul-mouthed bigot' and 'a minor poet who for purely local and temporary reasons has acquired a large reputation', while Germaine Greer has judged his poetry 'anti-intellectual, racist, sexist, and rotten with class-consciousness'. In the court of political correctness, Larkin's conviction looks rock-solid. But in this book John Osborne, a deeply knowledgeable lover of Larkin's verse, aims to challenge the verdict.

Osborne has three main lines of defence. The first is that Larkin's conviction is due to mistaken identity, to a fallacious assumption, common to many of his favourable as well as hostile critics, that the lyric 'I' in his poems, unless otherwise indicated, is 'a white, male, middle-class Englishman named Philip Larkin'. Osborne entertainingly highlights, for instance, 'how much more commentators know about the narrator of "The Whitsun Weddings" than the poem does'.

All agree with David Timms that the perceiving subject is 'a man'. From this basic assumption rival exegetes are able to construct an identikit picture: 'he' is a 'bachelor' (Lerner); a 'librarian' (Tolley); a 'poet' (Swarbrick); an 'intellectual' (Regan) reading 'a book' (Whitehead); and a 'passive' representative of the 'middle-class' (Morrison).


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