Philip Larkin

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Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1,662 words.)