Philip Larkin, the Impossible Man

How the most exasperating of poets met his match

By Christopher Hitchens

Image credit: Philip Larkin Estate

In May 1941, Philip Larkin was the treasurer of the Oxford University English Club and in that capacity had to take the visiting speaker George Orwell out to dinner after he had addressed the membership on the subject of “Literature and Totalitarianism.” Larkin’s main recollection: “We took Dylan Thomas to the Randolph and George Orwell to the not-so-good hotel. I suppose it was my first essay in practical criticism.”

Nudged and intrigued by this potential meeting of minds, I once attempted a comparison and contrast between Larkin and Orwell, as exemplars of a certain style of “Englishness.” Both men had an abiding love for the English countryside and a haunting fear of its obliteration at the hands of “developers.” (Here I would cite Larkin’s poem “Going, Going” and Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air.) Both were openly scornful of Christianity but maintained a profound respect for the scripture and the Anglican liturgy, as well as for the masterpieces of English ecclesiastical architecture. (See Larkin’s poem “Church Going” and the same Orwell novel, as well as numberless letters and reviews.) They each cherished the famous English affection for animals and were revolted by any instances of human cruelty to them. (Here consult Larkin’s poem “Myxomatosis,” about the extermination of the country’s rabbit population, as well as at least one Orwell work that’s too obvious to require mentioning.)

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