Philip Arthur Larkin has been called the best poet laureate England never had, for after John Betjeman’s death in 1984, a 30 percent plurality of 120 poets surveyed by The Times of London favored Larkin’s appointment to the post. Having not issued a book of poetry in the previous ten years and having written barely one hundred pages of mature verse in his lifetime, Larkin expressed his terror at the prospect of having to write ceremonial verse. Consequently Ted Hughes was appointed.
Larkin was the son of Sydney and Eva Emily (Day) Larkin. His father was city treasurer of Coventry. Larkin claimed that his childhood was so boring that a biography of him would have to begin when he was twenty-one or even thirty-one, for he spent much of his youth reading, often a book a day, to the neglect of schoolwork, and playing board games. He later attended the University of Oxford, where he met Kingsley Amis in the spring of 1941, beginning a close friendship that spanned the rest of his life.
Larkin’s first book of poems, The North Ship, written when he was a student, displays Symbolist-inspired verse and the clear influence of William Butler Yeats. Despite its early schoolboy romanticism, the volume establishes a central theme of everyday reality as a foothold for the spirit. Larkin’s Oxford experiences are also the basis for his novel Jill, in which a young student creates a fantasy girl whom he describes to his friends, only to meet her real-life counterpart with sad results. The novel explores a modern dilemma as Larkin sees it: the frustration of romantic fantasies versus the disappointment of self-knowledge. Jill was followed by A Girl in Winter, an extended prose poem in which his librarian heroine, Katherine Lind, also weighs the sad alternatives—the deception of romance and the dissatisfaction of life without it. The wartime settings of both books contribute to their themes of psychological isolation. Larkin also began a third novel, which he never completed.
Upon taking his degree and failing his military induction physical for World War II, Larkin worked in the Shropshire public library and the university...
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