It had to be, in the end, a common cancer that bore off Philip Larkin. He could hardly have died with a flourish, like Saint-Exupéry, by charging off into the sky on a mission of reconnaissance only to vanish; or like. Hemingway, by blowing out his brains. Nor could he go, like Matthew Arnold, in a burst of joy that stopped his heart in midair while leaping a fence to welcome a granddaughter. No, the dismal ordinariness of life, which Larkin so fondly celebrated, had to bring him down by its own dull strategies.

As a critic, to be sure, he delighted in being a curmudgeon. The gist of his message, given in his introduction to a sheaf of record reviews, All What Jazz, is that art, unless it helps us to enjoy and to endure, is nothing at all. In deliberately cultivating a stance of reaction—blaming Picasso for placing two eyes on the same side of a face, Henry Moore for perforating his...


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