Is Philip Larkin a great poet? Ask most literate readers and the answer is an enormous yes. But detractors still complain that he is a Johnny One-Note, sour about life and unduly obsessed with “the solving emptiness/ That lies just under all we do.” Poets, these critics might further argue, are supposed to “make it new,” while Larkin preferred to make it Georgian. Despite an occasional obscenity or vulgarism, his poems preserve a quiet tone of genteel courtesy, just what you’d expect from a bachelor librarian who dabbled in verse on the side. When young, even Larkin would sometimes wonder if he wasn’t merely a “Peg’s Paper sonneteer, not Auden but Rupert Brooke.” Later in life, he described himself, only half humorously, as “A. E. Housman without the talent or the scholarship.”

Near his writing desk Larkin kept the dozen poets he most loved: Hardy, Wordsworth,...


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