When I was young, I often heard it said that if Shakespeare were alive, he’d be writing for TV. Today, perhaps people think he’d be on Twitter, or Instagram or TikTok. He wouldn’t, though, because if he was on social media, he wouldn’t be Shakespeare.
There are two important things about William Shakespeare. The first is that he left an unparalleled body of plays and poetry. The second, is that we know almost nothing about him. A vast academic industry exists to explicate the first and speculate about the second, but without significantly altering either. These two things—I hesitate to call them facts—are connected and mutually supportive. It is because we know so little about the man that the art is an inexhaustible source for reinterpretation. If we knew what Shakespeare thought about women, or Jews, or Africans (or about madness, power or property) our understanding of his texts would be diminished. As it is, we have only words and stories: we decide what they mean, and in doing so we keep them alive.
Philip Larkin has not been so lucky. Since his death in 1985, almost everything he wrote has found its way into print—unpublished poems, letters and stories, even photographs. There have been biographies and memoirs, critical studies, articles and plays. A recent exhibition displayed his shoes and pyjamas for public enlightenment. The result of all this posthumous house clearance is the exposure of much that seems unpleasant, shameful and nasty in Larkin’s character. He asked his literary executors ‘to look after my interest and my good name’, but it’s hard to believe they did that. Larkin’s friends did respect his wishes and passed many volumes of his diary through Hull University Library’s shredder, unread, as he asked.
Today, Larkin’s reputation is so overgrown with brambles that saying anything about him requires a lot of preliminary clearing, at least judging by some of the articles published to mark the centenary of his birth. Even so, my appreciation of Larkin’s poetry has grown over the years and many of his lines sit quietly in my memory. His voice, so distinctive despite its seemingly conversational tone, is unforgettable—and it is often not saying what it seems to be saying. These poems are not like his unpublished writings, even if they originate in similar distress. They are works of art, some greater than others, but works of art. He knew the difference, and chose to publish only what he believed in—a fraction of what he wrote. Larkin’s Collected Poems make up a slim volume because he was an honest judge of his own work. Nothing subsequently unearthed from his notebooks and letters was carelessly discarded; nor does it do much to enhance appreciation of what he did publish.
Larkin was a complex man but his complexities concern those who knew him. For the rest of us, there is little value or purpose in going beyond the poems he offered. That was the best of him.
If we are to be judged, let it at least be for our best selves. Shakespeare makes Hamlet ask, ‘Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?’
There are plenty waiting, whip in hand, to teach Philip Larkin a lesson—and if not Larkin, there is a wide choice of other targets, living and dead, for righteous correction on social media. Alternatively, we can ask if it really is our place to throw the first stone, drop it and settle instead for reading Philip Larkin’s poetry and trying to meet another human being, in all their faults and glory, where they are at their best.
Philip Larkin by Godfrey Argent bromide print, 1968 © National Portrait Gallery, London