Philip (Arthur) Larkin 1922–1985
English poet, novelist, essayist, and critic
A major poet of the post-World War II period, Larkin attempted to capture ordinary experience in realistic and rational terms. Larkin's poetry both avoids romanticizing experience and moves away from the abstract, experimental language of Eliot and the modernists. Although Larkin's poetry follows the cadences of everyday "plain speech," it is composed in strict meters and forms. It is executed in the poet's own voice, which can be self-deprecatingly humorous or cynical, thoughtful or softly humorous. To some critics, his poetry, reflective of the life of a near-recluse, seems too grim, "bleak, if not black," but to Clive James, "It made misery beautiful…. the voice was unmistakable."
The son of Eva Day and Sydney Larkin, a city treasurer, Larkin was born in Coventry, England. While he claimed that his childhood was happy, he was extraordinarily shy, due in part to his stammering and near-sightedness, which went unnoticed for a long time. In 1940 he began undergraduate studies at St. John's College at Oxford, where he formed close friendships with Kingsley Amis and John Wain, and wrote and published poems in student literary magazines. It was at Oxford that he finally felt that he was among peers, that he could excel, and he did. After completing his degree in English with high honors, Larkin took a post as librarian in Shropshire, and the two years that followed were so productive for Larkin that he composed his first two volumes of verse and his two novels. In 1955 Larkin moved to Hull to become university librarian at the Brynmor Jones Library. There he established the solitary, private lifestyle for which he became well-known, avoiding participation in literary circles and refusing public appearances. With the publication of The Less Deceived, his critical reputation took seed, and he was honored with many awards in his lifetime. Larkin remained at Hull for thirty years, writing poetry and criticism in the evenings, and travelling little, until he died in 1985 at 63 after surgery for throat cancer. His Collected Poems continue to be a best-seller in Britain; and his popularity, especially since his death, has brought him acclaim as England's "unofficial poet-laureate" and the "poet laureate of the common man."
Before Larkin moved to Hull, he wrote and published The North Ship (1946) and a pamphlet, XX Poems (1951), which
he published himself. The former book is widely considered to reflect the poet's early influences, W. H. Auden and W. B. Yeats; the latter, his emergent mature voice. "I felt for the first time," he said, "that I was speaking for myself." In his next work, The Less Deceived (1955), the poet expressed his lifelong need to expose false ideals and illusions. The Whitsun Weddings (1964) has been said to express the prosperity of Britain's post-war mass culture and is colored by a wide range of tones. In High Windows (1974), the poet, ever cynical and introspective, had now entered middle-age and was poised to look at death, or, as he wrote in the final lines of "High Windows," eternity. After High Windows Larkin wrote no new poetry except for the famous "Aubade." Required Writing (1983) is a compilation of prose written between 1955 and 1982. One who could not "live a day without jazz," Larkin contributed music reviews to the Daily Telegraph, which were collected in All What Jazz (1970). His two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), featuring naive, female protagonists, were for Larkin "oversized poems." Collected Poems (1988) appeared posthumously, edited by fellow "Movement" poet Anthony Thwaite, who decided to include some of Larkin's unpublished verse to demonstrate his editorial ability, his development as an artist, and problems he solved over days, months, or even a decade, in various verses.
Larkin has been viewed largely as a gloomy poet, misanthropic, and pessimistic about human endeavors. Although the author of only four volumes of verse, these, along with his two novels, continue to be reprinted, and Larkin finds British rivals only in Ted Hughes and Dylan Thomas. His accessible style, which often uses concrete images to move to symbolic celebration and expression of freedom, as well as the first-person speaker of many of his poems, have won him his following over the years. He is the "urban modern man, the insular Englishman," as Seamus Heaney remarked in Critical Inquiry, whose "tones are mannerly but not exquisite, well-bred but not mealy-mouthed. If his England and his English are not as deep as Hughes's or as solemn as Hill's, they are nevertheless dearly beloved."