Philip (Arthur) Larkin 1922–1985
English poet, novelist, essayist, and critic
A major poet of the post-World War II period, Larkin attempted to capture ordinary experience in realistic and rational terms. Larkin's poetry both avoids romanticizing experience and moves away from the abstract, experimental language of Eliot and the modernists. Although Larkin's poetry follows the cadences of everyday "plain speech," it is composed in strict meters and forms. It is executed in the poet's own voice, which can be self-deprecatingly humorous or cynical, thoughtful or softly humorous. To some critics, his poetry, reflective of the life of a near-recluse, seems too grim, "bleak, if not black," but to Clive James, "It made misery beautiful…. the voice was unmistakable."
The son of Eva Day and Sydney Larkin, a city treasurer, Larkin was born in Coventry, England. While he claimed that his childhood was happy, he was extraordinarily shy, due in part to his stammering and near-sightedness, which went unnoticed for a long time. In 1940 he began undergraduate studies at St. John's College at Oxford, where he formed close friendships with Kingsley Amis and John Wain, and wrote and published poems in student literary magazines. It was at Oxford that he finally felt that he was among peers, that he could excel, and he did. After completing his degree in English with high honors, Larkin took a post as librarian in Shropshire, and the two years that followed were so productive for Larkin that he composed his first two volumes of verse and his two novels. In 1955 Larkin moved to Hull to become university librarian at the Brynmor Jones Library. There he established the solitary, private lifestyle for which he became well-known, avoiding participation in literary circles and refusing public appearances. With the publication of The Less Deceived, his critical reputation took seed, and he was honored with many awards in his lifetime. Larkin remained at Hull for thirty years, writing poetry and criticism in the evenings, and travelling little, until he died in 1985 at 63 after surgery for throat cancer. His Collected Poems continue to be a best-seller in Britain; and his popularity, especially since his death, has brought him acclaim as England's "unofficial poet-laureate" and the "poet laureate of the common man."
Before Larkin moved to Hull, he wrote and published The North Ship (1946) and a pamphlet, XX Poems (1951), which
he published himself. The former book is widely considered to reflect the poet's early influences, W. H. Auden and W. B. Yeats; the latter, his emergent mature voice. "I felt for the first time," he said, "that I was speaking for myself." In his next work, The Less Deceived (1955), the poet expressed his lifelong need to expose false ideals and illusions. The Whitsun Weddings (1964) has been said to express the prosperity of Britain's post-war mass culture and is colored by a wide range of tones. In High Windows (1974), the poet, ever cynical and introspective, had now entered middle-age and was poised to look at death, or, as he wrote in the final lines of "High Windows," eternity. After High Windows Larkin wrote no new poetry except for the famous "Aubade." Required Writing (1983) is a compilation of prose written between 1955 and 1982. One who could not "live a day without jazz," Larkin contributed music reviews to the Daily Telegraph, which were collected in All What Jazz (1970). His two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), featuring naive, female protagonists, were for Larkin "oversized poems." Collected Poems (1988) appeared posthumously, edited by fellow "Movement" poet Anthony Thwaite, who decided to include some of Larkin's unpublished verse to demonstrate his editorial ability, his development as an artist, and problems he solved over days, months, or even a decade, in various verses.
Larkin has been viewed largely as a gloomy poet, misanthropic, and pessimistic about human endeavors. Although the author of only four volumes of verse, these, along with his two novels, continue to be reprinted, and Larkin finds British rivals only in Ted Hughes and Dylan Thomas. His accessible style, which often uses concrete images to move to symbolic celebration and expression of freedom, as well as the first-person speaker of many of his poems, have won him his following over the years. He is the "urban modern man, the insular Englishman," as Seamus Heaney remarked in Critical Inquiry, whose "tones are mannerly but not exquisite, well-bred but not mealy-mouthed. If his England and his English are not as deep as Hughes's or as solemn as Hill's, they are nevertheless dearly beloved."
The North Ship 1946; revised edition, 1966
XX Poems 1951
The Fantasy Poets No. 21: Philip Larkin 1954
The Less Deceived 1955; revised edition, 1958
The Whitsun Weddings 1964
High Windows 1974
Collected Poems 1988; revised edition, 1989
Other Major Works
Jill (novel) 1946
Girl in Winter (novel) 1947
All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961-71 (essays) 1970; revised edition, 1985
Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (essays) 1983; revised edition, 1984
Selected Letters: 1940-1985 1993
SOURCE: "Four Conversations," in The London Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 6, November, 1964, pp. 71-77.
[In the following interview, Larkin discusses his attitudes towards modernist poetry, as exemplified in a number of his own poems.]
[HAMILTON]: I would like to ask you about your attitude to the so-called 'modernist revolution' in English poetry; how important has it been to you as a poet?
[LARKIN]: Well, granted that one doesn't spend any time at all thinking about oneself in these terms, I would say that I have been most influenced by the poetry that I've enjoyed—and this poetry has not been Eliot or Pound or anybody who is normally regarded as 'modern'—which is a sort of technique word, isn't it? The poetry I've enjoyed has been the kind of poetry you'd associate with me, Hardy pre-eminently, Wilfred Owen, Auden, Christina Rossetti, Williams Barnes; on the whole, people to whom technique seems to matter less than content, people who accept the forms they have inherited but use them to express their own content.
You don't feel in any way guilty about this, I imagine; would you see yourself as rebelliously anti-modern—you have talked about the 'myth-kitty' and so on …
What I do feel a bit rebellious about is that poetry seems to have got into the hands of a critical industry which is concerned with culture in the abstract, and this I do rather lay at the door of Eliot and Pound. I think that Eliot and Pound have something in common with the kind of Americans you used to get around 1910. You know, when Americans began visiting Europe towards the end of the last century, what they used to say about them was that they were keen on culture, laughably keen—you got jokes like 'Elmer, is this Paris or Rome?' 'What day is it?' 'Thursday.' 'Then it's Rome.'—you know the kind of thing. This was linked with the belief that you can order culture whole, that it is a separate item on the menu—this was very typically American, and German too, I suppose, and seems to me to have led to a view of poetry which is almost mechanistic, that every poem must include all previous poems, in the same way that a Ford Zephyr has somewhere in it a Ford T Model—which means that to be any good you've got to have read all previous poems. I can't take this evolutionary view of poetry. One never thinks about other poems except to make sure that one isn't doing something that has been done before—writing a verse play about a young man whose father has died and whose mother has married his uncle, for instance. I think a lot of this 'myth-kitty' business has grown out of that, because first of all you have to be terribly educated, you have to have read everything to know these things, and secondly you've got somehow to work them in to show that you are working them in. But to me the whole of the ancient world, the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little, and I think that using them today not only fills poems full of dead spots but dodges the writer's duty to be original.
You are generally written up as one of the fathers of this so-called Movement; did you have any sense at the time of belonging to a group with any very definite aims?
No sense at all, really. The only other writer I felt I had much in common with was Kingsley Amis, who wasn't really at that time known as a writer—Lucky Jim was published in 1954—but of course we'd been exchanging letters and showing each other work for a long time, and I think we laughed at the same things and agreed largely about what you could and couldn't write about, and so on. But the Movement, if you want to call it that, really began when John Wain succeeded John Lehmann on that B.B.C. programme; John planned six programmes called First Readings including a varied set of contributors—they weren't all Movementeers by any means. It got attacked in a very convenient way, and consequently we became lumped together. Then there was an article in The Spectator actually using the term 'Movement' and Bob Conquest's New Lines in 1956 put us all between the same covers. But it certainly never occurred to me that I had anything in common with Thorn Gunn, or Donald Davie, for instance, or they with each other and in fact I wasn't mentioned at the beginning. The poets of the group were Wain, Gunn, Davie and, funnily enough, Alvarez.
To what extent, though, did you feel consciously in reaction against Thomas, the Apocalypse, and so on?
Well, one had to live through the forties at one's most impressionable time and indeed I could show you, but won't, a lot of poems I wrote that you wouldn't—well, that were very much of the age. I wrote a great many sedulous and worthless Yeats-y poems, and later on far inferior Dylan Thomas poems—I think Dylan Thomas is much more difficult to imitate than Yeats—and this went on for years and years. It wasn't until about 1948 or 9 that I began writing differently, but it wasn't as any conscious reaction. It's just that when you start writing your own stuff other people's manners won't really do for it.
I would like to ask you about reviews of your work; do they bore you, do you find any of them helpful? In general, how do you react to what is said about you?
Well, one can't be other than grateful for the kind things that are said. They make you wish you wrote better. Otherwise one tries to ignore it—critics can hinder but they can't help. One thing I do feel a slight restiveness about is being typed as someone who has carved out for himself a uniquely dreary life, growing older, having to work, and not getting things he wants and so on—is this so different from everyone else? I'd like to know how all these romantic reviewers spend their time—do they kill a lot of dragons, for instance? If other people do have wonderful lives, then I'm glad for them, but I can't help feeling that my miseries are over-done a bit by the critics. They may retort that they are over-done by me, of course.
You usually write in metre, but now and then you have rather freer poems. I wonder if you have any feeling of technical unrest, of being constricted by traditional forms. Do things like syllables, projective verse, for instance, have any interest for you?
I haven't anything very original to say about metre. I've never tried syllablcs; I'm not sure I fully understand them. I think one would have to be very sure of onself to dispense with the help that metre and rhyme give and I doubt really if I could operate without them. I have occasionally, some of my favourite poems have not rhymed or had any metre, but it's rarely been premeditated.
I'd like to ask you about the poem "Church Going," which has been taken fairly generally as a kind of 'representative attitude poem, standing for a whole disheartened, debunking state of mind in post-war England. How do you feel about that poem, do you think that the things that have been said about it are true? How do you feel about its enormous popularity?
In a way I feel what Hardy is supposed to have said about Tess; if I'd known it was going to be so popular I'd have tried to make it better. I think its popularity is somewhat due to extraneous factors—anything about religion tends to go down well; I don't know whether it expresses what people feel. It is of course an entirely secular poem. I was a bit irritated by an American who insisted to me it was a religious poem. It isn't religious at all. Religion surely means that the affairs of this world are under divine superveillance, and so on, and I go to some pains to point out that I don't bother about that kind of thing, that I'm deliberately ignorant of it—'Up at the holy end', for instance. Ah no, it's a great religious poem; he knows better than me—trust the tale and not the teller, and all that stuff.
Of course the poem is about going to church, not religion—I tried to suggest this by the title—and the union of the important stages of human life—birth, marriage and death—that going to church represents; and my own feeling that when they are dispersed into the registry office and the crematorium chapel life will become...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Philip Larkin," in The Survival of Poetry: A Contemporary Survey, Faber and Faber, 1970, pp. 37-55.
[In the following essay, Thwaite weaves Larkin's own commentary on his work into a chronological overview of his corpus.]
There is a certain irony about sitting down to write a critical paper on the poetry of Philip Larkin, when one remembers some remarks of Larkin's about 'poetry as syllabus' and 'the dutiful mob that signs on every September.' Larkin needs no prolegomena, no exegesis: there is no necessary bibliography, no suggested reading, except the poems themselves. In a straightforward Words-worthian sense, he is a man speaking to men...
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SOURCE: "Philip Larkin," in Eight Contemporary Poets, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 69-94.
[In the essay below, Bedient praises Larkin's poetic voice, claiming "[h]is achievement has been the creation of imaginative bareness, a penetrating confession of poverty."]
English poetry has never been so persistently out in the cold as it is with Philip Larkin—a poet who (contrary to Wordsworth's view of the calling) rejoices not more but less than other men in the spirit of life that is in him. Frost is a perennial boy, Hardy a fighter, by comparison. The load of snow, soiled and old, stays on the roof in poem after poem and, rubbing a clear space at the window, Larkin...
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SOURCE: "Style and Language," in An Uncommon Poet for the Common Man: A Study of Philip Larkin 's Poetry, 191 A, pp. 19-42.
[Below, Kuby examines Larkin's place among British poets, specifically his relationship to the modernist school.]
Facets of Larkin's style point to several progenitors. In many ways his differences from the modern tradition resemble Ben Jonson's differences from his own contemporaries. Both tend to avoid extended metaphor, strings of similes, and other rhetorical elaborations which in Jonson's time were called 'conceits', or 'bravery' of language. The poems of both have prose sense and a ready surface intelligibility due, in part, in both cases,...
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SOURCE: "Larkin and His Audience," in The Iowa Review, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Fall, 1977: 117-33.
[Here, Brown focuses on Larkin's "absences, " not solely as symbols from nature, but as referents for his audience.]
Readers of Philip Larkin's poetry keep writing about it, even though they recognize how simple and clear it is, because they also sense that its most distinctive aspect is indefinable, not just in criticism of the poetry but in the poetry itself. Because this aspect of Larkin's poetry seems by its very nature to be inexpressible, it needs speaking of in as many ways as possible, if the very sense of it is not to lapse. It seems that only the obvious can be said...
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SOURCE: A review of Collected Poems, in The American Spectator, Vol. XXII, No. 10, October, 1989, pp. 46-8.
[In the following review of Collected Poems, Brookhiser examines the language and content of Larkin's poems, concluding that "his world looks severly limited."]
The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin, editor, jazz critic, and librarian at the University of Hull, have appeared four years after his death in a volume edited by Anthony Thwaite. The first thing that strikes the reader is the photograph of Larkin on the jacket, which is notable for its aggressive ugliness. Aggressive implies will, and I use the word advisedly. We are not...
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SOURCE: "Songs of a Curmudgeon," in The New York Times Book Review, May 21, 1989, pp. 24-5.
[The following review commends poet Anthony Thwaite for including much of Larkin's unpublished work in Collected Poems, thereby revealing the careful editing and revising Larkin performed, and the deliberation with which he practiced his craft.]
Once, some years ago, when he was asked what he thought about the prospect of becoming Britain's poet laureate, Philip Larkin replied, "I dream about that sometimes—and wake up screaming. With any luck they'll pass me over." They didn't. The story goes that in 1984, by which time he had long been the most admitted poet of his...
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