Philip Larkin

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The Englishness of Philip Arthur Larkin’s poetry is decidedly provincial; his England does not revolve around London, and in fact, there is a marked suspicion of the capital and the cosmopolitan urbanity it represents. From his diction to the frequency with which his speakers are seated in cars or trains traveling through the countryside, his poems reflect the provincialism of his life. Larkin was born August 9, 1922, in Coventry, where his father served as city treasurer throughout his childhood. He described his childhood as a bore and not worth mentioning, suggesting that no biography of him need begin before he turned twenty-one. Although he was not a particularly good student at the King Henry VII School in Coventry, he matriculated at St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1940, hoping to get in a year of school before he was called into the military. As it eventually turned out, he failed his army physical and stayed in college, graduating with first-class honors in 1943. His time at Oxford had a profound effect on the youthful Larkin; in the introduction to Jill, he suggests that the war radically diminished the students’ grand view of themselves, and this sense of reduced importance stuck with him in his poetry. Perhaps even more crucial to his development, though, were his friendships with budding writers Bruce Montgomery (Edmund Crispin) and Kingsley Amis. The Amis-Larkin friendship seems to have influenced both men, and their early writings share many attitudes and themes.

While at the university, Larkin published poems in the undergraduate magazines and in the anthology Poetry in Wartime (1942). (He had had one poem published in the Listener in 1940.) Fortune Press took notice and asked him to submit a collection; he did, and The North Ship was published in 1945. The poetry in that collection is heavily influenced by Yeats’s work, to which he was introduced by the poet Vernon Watkins, who read and lectured at the English Club at Oxford and with whom Larkin subsequently developed a friendship.

After graduation, Larkin took a post as librarian in Wellington, Shropshire. He claimed that while there he began to read Thomas Hardy’s poetry seriously, which allowed him to throw off the Yeatsian influence. He subsequently worked as a librarian in Leicester, in Belfast, and, after 1955, as head librarian at the University of Hull. His attitudes toward his work vacillated, and that ambivalence is displayed in his poems, particularly in “Toads” and “Toads Revisited.” Nevertheless, he remained at his position as librarian and eschewed the life of poet-celebrity. He died in Hull of cancer on December 2, 1985.

Sources for Further Study

Booth, James. Philip Larkin: The Poet’s Plight. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Offers readers insight into the themes of Larkin’s poetry and the histories behind them.

_______, ed. New Larkins for Old: Critical Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A collection of essays on Larkin’s work by established commentators and younger critics. Individual essays examine Larkin’s novels and poetry in the light of psychoanalytical, postmodern, and postcolonial theories.

Bradford, Richard. First Boredom, Then Fear: The Life of Philip Larkin. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 2005. A biography of Larkin that delves into his youth, romances, and career as a poet.

Castronovo, David. Blokes: The Bad Boys of English Literature. New York: Continuum, 2009. Discusses the poets Larkin, Kinsley Amis, John Osborne, and Kenneth Tynan. Examines socialism and radicalism in their works.

Leader, Zachary, ed. The Movement Reconsidered: Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie, and Their Contemporaries . New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. This work on the Movement...

(This entire section contains 813 words.)

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poets sheds light on their views and poetry. Contains three essays on Larkin.

Motion, Andrew. Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. This short work provides an introduction to the man and his work. The book offers thematic and literary-historical overviews, although only one chapter on the poems themselves.

Osborne, John. Larkin, Ideology and Critical Violence: A Case of Wrongful Conviction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Osborne sees Larkin as a poet of undecidability, part of the transition to postmodernist indeterminacy.

Palmer, Richard. Such Deliberate Disguises: The Art of Philip Larkin. New York: Continuum, 2008. Palmer examines the poetry of Larkin at length.

Rossen, Janice. Philip Larkin: His Life’s Work. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. This intelligent and highly readable overview traces Larkin’s development through the first two books, then looks at his lyric impulse, his firmly rooted Englishness, his sexual ambivalence, his use of vulgarity, and his struggle with mortality. The study ties in the poetry with the novels, jazz criticism, and literary criticism to develop a total view of the context of the poetry.

Stojkovic, Tijana. Unnoticed in the Casual Light of Day: Philip Larkin and the Plain Style. New York: Routledge, 2006. This comprehensive linguistic and historical study of plain style poetry examines Larkin’s poetry from that framework.


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Philip Arthur Larkin was born in Coventry, England, on August 9, 1922, the son of Sydney and Eva Emily Day Larkin. His bookish father was city treasurer. Larkin tended to dismiss his Coventry childhood as uneventful but recalled that during the 1930’s he “wrote ceaselessly,” both prose and verse, while attending King Henry VIII School. As a youth, he kept booklets of his writings—a practice he followed throughout his life, later using typescripts—and published poems in his school magazine, The Coventrian. At St. John’s College, Oxford, he earned the B.A. with distinction in English literature (1943) and then the M.A. (1947). He failed his physical for military service in World War II. Close friends at Oxford encouraged his literary efforts, and in his mid-twenties he published the novels Jill (1946, 1964) and A Girl in Winter (1947). Though Larkin at first wanted to be a novelist and much later said he found novels “richer, broader, deeper, more enjoyable than poems,” poetry proved to be his real vocation. Influenced by the English poet W. H. Auden and, after 1943, by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Larkin published verses at Oxford and brought out The North Ship (1945, 1966), poems that revealed a solitary persona and gained little notice. Larkin later “disowned” the book but allowed its reissue.

Larkin’s poems from the late 1940’s were the first in his new, representative voice—“less poetic,” he said, and “freer of the late Mr. W. B. Yeats also.” From 1949 onward, his notebook texts show careful, laborious revision, sometimes extending over months or years. Alternating scarce and fruitful periods were the norm throughout the poet’s life.

In 1951, Larkin, by then a gainfully employed librarian, had one hundred copies of a volume titled XX Poems printed in Belfast and circulated privately, with little effect. Pressed in 1943 by the Ministry of Labour to find employment, Larkin had found his first job at the public library in Wellington, Shropshire, where, in his reading of the English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, he found ironic and sober views compatible with his own. Larkin worked at academic libraries in Leicester and Belfast before taking over in 1955 as librarian at the University of Hull, England, a growing institution that thereafter demanded much of his professional energy. Larkin’s reclusive and unassuming lifestyle earned for him the epithet the “Hermit of Hull.” As his fame grew, he consistently shunned the limelight by giving few readings, interviews, or lectures.

In Larkin’s The Less Deceived (1955), his now-familiar poetic personality emerged. Thrusting Larkin into prominence among critics and a growing readership, the book brought numerous formal recognitions—the Queen’s Gold Medal (1965), other awards, and offers of honorary degrees and fellowships. Behind Larkin’s apparently sudden emergence in his thirties as a major poet lay more than a decade of serious effort. The Whitsun Weddings (1964) confirmed and broadened his reputation. The title poem, begun in May, 1957, like others in the book combines social observation with a strong personal voice. (The poet’s reading of this widely acclaimed poem on radio in 1973 was a “first and last” concession to public demand that his voice emerge from hiding.)

From his youth onward, Larkin was a jazz buff. Features he wrote for the London Daily Telegraph were collected as All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961-1968 (1970).

As editor of The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), Larkin took on a large, prestigious task that had been Yeats’s before him. The results led some to charge that Larkin had inordinately favored traditional forms and minor poets. “At any rate,” he said, “I made a readable book. I made twentieth-century poetry sound nice.”

In the year that Larkin moved from his “high windows” flat to another residence in Hull that was to be his last, his final volume, High Windows (1974), appeared. Photographs from mid-life onward show Larkin bald, with heavy dark-rimmed glasses, inscrutable and impish. He traveled little and never married. After 1974, he made only eight poems public, including slight occasional pieces. An interview in The Paris Review appeared in 1982. Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955-1982 (1983) assembled prose pieces that add to an understanding of his career.

The year before his death, Larkin refused the offer of the laureateship, Britain’s highest honor for poets, reportedly on the grounds that he found his previous decade too unproductive of poetry to make him worthy. Larkin, a smoker, died in Hull, England, on December 2, 1985, after surgery for throat cancer. His Collected Poems (1988) was a surprise best seller in England.


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Though an Oxford graduate and university librarian, Philip Larkin is not “academic.” Acclaimed by scholars and general readers alike, Larkin is a principal English poet of the post-World War II era. Formally conservative, his poems nonetheless adapt colloquial talk and explore contemporary life. His persona’s voice is sad, ironic, balanced, wise, witty, stoic, and capable of surprise. Missing access to the fulfillments of love or faith that others may have, the poet/voyeur looks out wistfully onto the world—but not far into the heavens. Critical discussion of Larkin after 1955 as a part of The Movement in English literature acknowledges his pragmatic rejection of the excesses of both Romanticism and modern experimentation.