Philip Larkin’s Myxomatosis and the Problem of Empathy

Michael D. Shulman


Philip Larkin's well-known poem Myxomatosis records the poet's disturbing encounter with a rabbit dying of a disfiguring viral illness introduced into the wild as a measure of pest control. The poet's response to this experience reveals the complex nature of empathy, which has been described in the psychological literature as eliciting behavior far removed from the tenderness we associate with sympathy and the ministrations of medical professionals.

Full Text:



Booth, James. Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth. London:Bloomsbury, 2014.

Vendler H. Why aren’t they screaming? London Review of Books. 2014;36(Nov 6):18-22.

Motion, A. Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux,1993, p 459.

Villafuerte R, Castro F, Ramirez E, Cotilla I et al. Large-scale assessment of myxomatosis prevalence in European wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) 60 years after first outbreak in Spain. Research Vet Sci. 2017;114:281–286.

Chaproniere DM & Andrewes CH. Cultivation of rabbit myxoma and fibroma viruses in non-susceptible hosts. Virology. 1957;4:351-365.

Bartrip PWJ. Twentieth Century British History. 2008;19(1):83–105.

Bloom P. Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. Random House, 2017.

de Waal, F. Our Inner Ape:A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We are Who We Are. 2005. NY: The Berkley Publishing Group, p 184.

  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Munk School of Global Affairs, and Mount Sinai Hospital.

Canada Council for the Arts
Munk School of Global Affairs
Mount Sinai Hospital