Philip Larkin Biography


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...

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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...

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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.