Can an interesting biography be written about such a man as Philip Larkin? He spent his working life as a librarian. He published four slim volumes of poetry, two short novels, and a fair number of critical essays and reviews. He seldom traveled and spent little time in London or, after his graduation, at Oxford or other major intellectual centers. He once facetiously described his hobby as “resting.” He never married and fathered no children. He lived quietly and unostentatiously in peripheral, if not provincial, academic communities such as University College, Leicester; Queen’s University, Belfast; and the University of Hull. He parried the questions of the curious with platitudes and assurances of his consummate dullness.
Yet Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin makes absorbing reading through most of its five hundred pages. Motion has succeeded by accepting the challenge implicit in Larkin’s friend Monica Jones’s observation that his was “a writer’s life.” What matters about Larkin is what went on inside a complex and conflict-ridden man who could capture the tensions of his being in witty, meditative, formally shaped lyrics. To complement the advantages of knowing Larkin well for the last nine years of the poet’s life and of being himself a practicing poet, Motion has sounded out the recollections of dozens of other friends and associates and mined the extensive collection of Larkin manuscripts in the Hull University Library. The result is a detailed narrative of Larkin’s exterior life and an exploration of his interior life with an eye toward explaining the processes by which he transmuted the raw material of his feelings and attitudes into distinguished verse.
Larkin was full of contradictions. He uttered many unkind and cynical remarks about people; in his behavior he was often considerate of others. Melancholy and pessimistic, he could charm people with his humor and conviviality. Convinced of the mediocrity of his parents’ life together, he railed against marriage as an institution designed to cripple the emotions and creative impulses. His mother, whom Sydney Larkin had married for her intelligence but who subsequently turned into a dull and submissive household functionary; infuriated Philip, but he both loved her and visited her faithfully throughout her long widowhood. Misogyny gripped him from an early age, but he inspired the devotion of several intelligent women.
Motion offers the poet’s relationships with women in great detail. Young Philip had little contact with girls. He went to a boys-only school near home, and the family’s standoffish ways (the neighborhood consensus had it that the Larkins considered themselves better than anyone else) precluded many social contacts. His only sister was ten years older, an adult by the time Philip began school. His shyness and ungainliness-he was tall, thin, awkward; he stammered and wore thick glasses—contributed to his slowness in developing intersexual relationships. He blundered through a few college dates, typically complaining about how much time, effort, and money had to be expended for the sexual favors that in his mind constituted the only benefits to be gained from association with women. This unhealthy attitude, fortunately later modified, never disappeared entirely. The coarse language and cynicism for which a handful of his later poems are notorious abound in his letters to young male friends.
Exempted from military service because of his weak eyesight, Larkin spent the years from 1940 to 1943 at St. John’s College, Oxford, where, surrounded by precocious literary friends such as Kingsley Amis, Bruce Montgomery, and John Wain, he too longed to be a writer. He projected himself a novelist, but his self-absorption yielded more verse than prose. Although some of his poems found their way into anthologies of Oxford poetry during his undergraduate years, it took him some years to realize that he was principally a poet. His 1945 collection The North Shipmanifests his ambivalent and immature sexual attitudes as well as intermittent flashes of the wit and precise phrasing that would grace his later work.
Larkin was forced into his choice of career by his stammer, which precluded teaching, and by his distaste for the other professions. He applied successfully for a position as public librarian in the small town of Wellington in Shropshire. He would remain an effective and conscientious librarian for the rest of his life. In the library he met a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl named Ruth Bowman, the first woman with whom he developed a significant relationship. Their affair persisted through his one year in Wellington and fitfully through four subsequent years in the first of his three academic libraries, University College, Leicester.
At Leicester, Larkin met Monica Jones, a young English instructor, who became his second lover. It was characteristic of Larkin that this new interest did not entirely supplant the prior one....