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A familiar list of thematic interests and concerns appears in Larkin criticism with wearying regularity. Time, death, chance and choice: these are the very stuff of Larkin’s poetry, we are told. Larkin’s detractors point to the narrowness of this range of themes, while admirers praise his distinctive treatment of these fundamentally poetic concerns. Anthony Thwaite is among those who define Larkin’s greatness as a writer according to his handling of a traditional and perennial subject matter: ‘His themes — love, change, disenchantment, the mystery and inexplicableness of the past’s survival and death’s finality — are unshakably major’ (Thwaite, 1970, p.54). John Wain echoes these sentiments when he writes of Larkin that ‘we shall hardly get a grip on his poetry unless we succeed in bringing into relief its principal themes’. ‘One of these’, he tells us, is ‘the act of choosing’ and another is ‘the effect of time in individual lives’ (Wain, 1976, pp.98, 100). For both critics it would seem that history — whether as ‘the past’ or as ‘time’ — is to be regarded as just one more theme. The unfortunate effect of this view of history as subject matter is its tendency to ignore the extent to which Larkin’s poetry is itself a product of history. Thematic criticism approaches the ideas of an author or text in terms of ‘universal relevance’, thereby giving little consideration to the often complex relationships between ‘ideas’ and particular phases of social and cultural change. Thematic criticism, then, not only leads to a reductive reading of the poems by concentrating on a monotonous range of topics, it also responds to ideas in a patently unhistorical way.
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