Gesualdo was a murderer. So was Caravaggio. Dickens was a misogynist. So was Larkin. These are standard views. Whether or not we agree with them, the question is: when an artist seems less than agreeable, personally, can we still like their art? Of course we can. We can both enjoy and criticise it, the same we would anyone else’s. Yes, it’s interesting to know about the creator of an artwork, but mostly, when assessing its aesthetic value, we want to focus on it, itself.
That’s why it’s welcome news that a stone bearing Philip Larkin’s name will, this week, be added to Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. Regardless of your thoughts about the church, or the ‘establishment’, this is an accepted way of recognising our country’s artistic merit. And Philip Larkin is an undeniable giant of twentieth-century poetry.
Too often the boundaries between artists and their art are artificially blurred. Earlier this year, novelist Lionel Shriver was lambasted for ‘making light of identity’, fuelling a ‘cultural appropriation’ argument that suggests people should only write about what they have experienced, and who they are. Fiction is fiction.
We also remain disappointingly obsessed with pin-holing novelists into bookshelf categories such as ‘gay’ or ‘black’. Good writing is universal; great writers don’t need categorising. Some of those categories are, unsurprisingly, political. And Larkin is often — usually without recourse to a single line of his poetry — thought of as a ‘right-wing poet’, not least because Thatcher liked him. During a weekend in which we’ve been reminded how much more fashionable it is to lionise those on the left — no matter what they’ve done — that this ‘crime’ of Larkin’s has been put aside is refreshing.
Moreover, in a time when all too often the reason we hear about the lives of the dead is in conjunction with adverse accusations — whether those accusations are true or not — it is surely welcome that someone who, during his life, was criticised for his personal choices, has overriden those criticisms in death, through the merit of his artistic output.
What will survive of Larkin is great poetry.