Philip Larkin

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Although Philip Larkin is thought of today primarily as a poet, his first literary successes were novels: Jill (1946, 1964) and A Girl in Winter (1947). The two were widely acclaimed for their accomplished style, accurate dialogue, and subtle characterization. Jill was valued highly for its intimate look at wartime Oxford. The protagonist in each is an outsider who encounters great difficulty in attempting to fit into society, and the two novels explore themes of loneliness and alienation to which Larkin returns time and again in his later poetry. Larkin wrote comparatively little about literature and granted few interviews. His literary essays were collected into Required Writings: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955-1982 (1984). He also wrote extensively on jazz, chiefly in his reviews for the Daily Telegraph, and a number of those pieces appear in the volume All What Jazz: A Record Diary, 1961-1968 (1970). His opinions of jazz works are frequently instructive for the reader who wishes to understand his views on poetry, particularly his comments on what he saw as the “modernist” jazz of Charlie Parker, which, like all modernism, concentrates on technique while violating the truth of human existence. True to his precepts, Larkin eschewed, throughout his career, technical fireworks in favor of a poetic that reflects the language of the people. He edited New Poems, 1958, with Louis MacNeice and Bonamy Dobrée, and he was chosen to compile The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973).


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Few poets succeeded as Philip Larkin did in winning a large audience and critical respect for such a small body of poetry, and indeed his success may be attributable in part to the rate at which he wrote poems. Because he brought out, according to his own estimate, only three to five poems a year, he could give each one the meticulous attention required to build extremely tight, masterful verse. As a result, each of his slim volumes contains numerous poems that immediately catch the reader’s attention for their precise yet colloquial diction.

His chief contribution to British poetry may well be his sustained determination to work in conventional forms and colloquial, even vulgar and coarse, language. In this attempt, as in his ironic self-deprecation and his gloomy outlook, he resembles Robert Frost. Also like Frost, he worked consciously against the modernist poetics of Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and their heirs, the poetics of disjunction and image. Most of Larkin’s poetry demonstrates a distrust of symbolic and metaphorical language, and a reliance instead on discursive verse. His insistence on plain language reflects a belief in the importance of tradition, a faith in the people who remain in touch with the land, and a suspicion of modern society, urban development, and technological advancement. Larkin stands as the chief example among his contemporaries of the line of counter-modernist poetry running not from William Butler Yeats and the Symbolists but from Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling, for both of whom he had great admiration.

Larkin’s popularity also results, in part, from his speaking not only as one of the people but for them as well. For all its bleakness and irony, or perhaps because of it, his poetry represents the attitudes of a segment of the British population that found itself with greatly diminished expectations following World War II; institutions were losing their traditional value and function, and the problems of empire (the crowning achievements of those institutions) were rushing home to roost. His poetry represents a search for meaning within the bewildering complexity of the twentieth century. His awards include the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (1965), the Russell Loines Award (1974), and the W. H. Smith...

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Literary Award (1984).


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Can an interesting biography be written about such a man as Philip Larkin? He spent his working life as a librarian. He published four slim volumes of poetry, two short novels, and a fair number of critical essays and reviews. He seldom traveled and spent little time in London or, after his graduation, at Oxford or other major intellectual centers. He once facetiously described his hobby as “resting.” He never married and fathered no children. He lived quietly and unostentatiously in peripheral, if not provincial, academic communities such as University College, Leicester; Queen’s University, Belfast; and the University of Hull. He parried the questions of the curious with platitudes and assurances of his consummate dullness.

Yet Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin makes absorbing reading through most of its five hundred pages. Motion has succeeded by accepting the challenge implicit in Larkin’s friend Monica Jones’s observation that his was “a writer’s life.” What matters about Larkin is what went on inside a complex and conflict-ridden man who could capture the tensions of his being in witty, meditative, formally shaped lyrics. To complement the advantages of knowing Larkin well for the last nine years of the poet’s life and of being himself a practicing poet, Motion has sounded out the recollections of dozens of other friends and associates and mined the extensive collection of Larkin manuscripts in the Hull University Library. The result is a detailed narrative of Larkin’s exterior life and an exploration of his interior life with an eye toward explaining the processes by which he transmuted the raw material of his feelings and attitudes into distinguished verse.

Larkin was full of contradictions. He uttered many unkind and cynical remarks about people; in his behavior he was often considerate of others. Melancholy and pessimistic, he could charm people with his humor and conviviality. Convinced of the mediocrity of his parents’ life together, he railed against marriage as an institution designed to cripple the emotions and creative impulses. His mother, whom Sydney Larkin had married for her intelligence but who subsequently turned into a dull and submissive household functionary; infuriated Philip, but he both loved her and visited her faithfully throughout her long widowhood. Misogyny gripped him from an early age, but he inspired the devotion of several intelligent women.

Motion offers the poet’s relationships with women in great detail. Young Philip had little contact with girls. He went to a boys-only school near home, and the family’s standoffish ways (the neighborhood consensus had it that the Larkins considered themselves better than anyone else) precluded many social contacts. His only sister was ten years older, an adult by the time Philip began school. His shyness and ungainliness-he was tall, thin, awkward; he stammered and wore thick glasses—contributed to his slowness in developing intersexual relationships. He blundered through a few college dates, typically complaining about how much time, effort, and money had to be expended for the sexual favors that in his mind constituted the only benefits to be gained from association with women. This unhealthy attitude, fortunately later modified, never disappeared entirely. The coarse language and cynicism for which a handful of his later poems are notorious abound in his letters to young male friends.

Exempted from military service because of his weak eyesight, Larkin spent the years from 1940 to 1943 at St. John’s College, Oxford, where, surrounded by precocious literary friends such as Kingsley Amis, Bruce Montgomery, and John Wain, he too longed to be a writer. He projected himself a novelist, but his self-absorption yielded more verse than prose. Although some of his poems found their way into anthologies of Oxford poetry during his undergraduate years, it took him some years to realize that he was principally a poet. His 1945 collection The North Shipmanifests his ambivalent and immature sexual attitudes as well as intermittent flashes of the wit and precise phrasing that would grace his later work.

Larkin was forced into his choice of career by his stammer, which precluded teaching, and by his distaste for the other professions. He applied successfully for a position as public librarian in the small town of Wellington in Shropshire. He would remain an effective and conscientious librarian for the rest of his life. In the library he met a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl named Ruth Bowman, the first woman with whom he developed a significant relationship. Their affair persisted through his one year in Wellington and fitfully through four subsequent years in the first of his three academic libraries, University College, Leicester.

At Leicester, Larkin met Monica Jones, a young English instructor, who became his second lover. It was characteristic of Larkin that this new interest did not entirely supplant the prior one. His playing off of Ruth, who sought marriage, against Monica gave him the satisfaction of having both a younger admirer whose career he could guide and a more sophisticated and intellectually challenging companion of his own age. More important for Larkin, this pattern of dual lovers (to be repeated later) assisted him in avoiding commitments. Motion argues that this trait, hardly admirable in itself, generated in Larkin the tension from which some of his most distinctive poems emerged. Several such poems written at Leicester, “Deceptions,” “Dry Point,” and “If, My Darling” among them, would find their way into his next collection. Although Sydney Larkin’s influence on his son was not always benign, he had introduced him early to most of the major modern writers. William Butler Yeats and Thomas Hardy contended as major influences on the young man’s poetry, with the ironic and plain-spoken Hardy eventually the more important one. T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden loomed large for most young writers of Larkin’s generation, but Larkin developed an aversion to Eliot’s theory of poetic tradition and his “culture-mongering,” which he saw as disrupting the bond between poetry and a general reading audience more appreciative of authentic personal experience than of copious literary allusion. During his years as academic sublibrarian in Belfast, Larkin completed the poems for The Less Deceived (1955), which established him as an important poet.

In the year of this triumph he was also appointed librarian at the growing University of Hull. Remaining there throughout the final thirty years of his life, he turned the facility into a major university library. Meanwhile, his 1964 collection, The Whitsun Weddings, earned him a place in the top rank of English poets. Well before the publication of his last collection,High Windows (1974), honors poured in, but Larkin’s melancholy temperament was proof against all success. His affair with Monica continued via letters and occasional get-togethers, and he struck up affairs with first one, then another, of the female staff at Hull. If Motion can be faulted for laboring his treatment of these convoluted relationships, complete with frequent extracts from Larkin’s often pathetically self-serving letters to the indignant Monica, the biographer’s aim is to show how profoundly the poet’s creativity depended on maintaining a precarious equilibrium between an essentially solitary lifestyle and the satisfaction of his sexual and emotional needs. His secretary at Hull, with whom he began his final fling only after she had worked years for him, told the biographer that she thought of herself as Larkin’s “Catherine Parr,” a remark that implies both her thorough familiarity with his less attractive personal qualities and the magnetism that drew people- more often women than men-to him.

He could give little of himself. A poem from The Less Deceived illustrates his typical stance. The speaker, looking through a window at a dance, wonders why he is not in there enjoying “the wonderful feel of girls,” but concludes that it is better for the artist in him to “stay outside.” While Larkin did not always stay outside, he characteristically reserved the right to extricate himself from social and particularly sexual involvement.

Motion’s discussion of the title poem from The Whitsun Weddings calls attention to a much more brilliant expression of this poise between engagement and withdrawal. On a train ride from Hull to London on Whit Saturday, Larkin noticed a series of newlyweds heading toward their honeymoons. “Every time you stopped,” Larkin noted, “fresh emotion climbed aboard.” The institution of the wedding, something he avoided personally like the plague, fascinated the poet in him. The poem is full of details of ordinary life that unforgettably re-create the noisy departures of a dozen freshly united couples and sound at the same time all the ambivalence of an observer who is glad to be single but appreciative of the opportunity to witness and record these spectacles of commitment. Motion demonstrates that no one but Larkin could have achieved both the particular perspective and the poetic control necessary to the composition of this memorable poem.

Larkin also avoided religious commitment, yet in “Church Going” he achieves a similar perspective on the experience of a solitary visit to a church by an unbeliever who is somehow, he knows not how, compelled to “awkward reverence.” The speaker, confessing that he “often” makes such visits, reflects inconclusively on the reasons for his habit and on the significance of churchgoing generally in an increasingly desacralized world. Larkin had been christened in Coventry Cathedral; at his death sixty-three years later he was given a church funeral. In between his status was that of “Anglican agnostic,” to use his own whimsical phrase. He did not reject or scorn Christianity so much as hold it in suspension as one of many subjects on which he could keep poetic watch. He excelled at investigating subjects that he could approach warily, ponder closely, and then retreat from safely.

Contemporary biographers feel obliged to hold their subjects’ blemishes up to scrutiny, and Larkin’s faults are well documented in this biography. Motion shows him to be extremely selfish (and well aware of it), uncharitable in his judgments of others, and “emotionally stingy,” to use Motion’s apt phrase. He often went for months without producing a serious poem of any sort and blamed his laziness on trivial external circumstances such as the noise made by his neighbors. He drank far too much. He had a passion for pornography. Enormously sensitive to the subtle possibilities of standard and colloquial English, he frequently fell back on gutter language in his letters and even in his verse (though it must be conceded that many Larkin aficionados endorse the four- letter words that dot a few of his poems). By and large, though, Motion has created a relatively sympathetic portrait of a man who made himself more unhappy than he made any of his friends and intimates and extracted from that unhappiness poetry of a very high order.

Many readers of this book are likely to complain that the biographer’s repetitious examples of Larkin’s cynicism in early letters to male friends and his feeble self- justification in later ones to female intimates could have profitably been trimmed, but in general Motion has kept to his determination to present “a writer’s life.” He has performed the valuable service of showing that Larkin’s life, contrary to the poet’s own disparaging comments about its significance, illuminates the gestation of dozens of his poems. Such an endeavor is bound to provoke some measure of disagreement from critical readers, but it is apt to be fruitful disagreement, one suspects.

Barbara Pym, whose novels Larkin championed, met the poet only after a long correspondence. After they did meet, Pym confided to her diary that “he is so utterly what he is in his letters and poems.” The truth of this observation is not necessarily apparent at first glance, but Motion’s biography provides the elaboration and qualification necessary to reveal its essential soundness.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. August 22, 1993, XIV, p.3.

London Review of Books. XV, March 25, 1993, p.3.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 25, 1993, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, August 1, 1993, p.7.

The New Yorker. LXIX, July 12, 1993, p.74.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, May 24, 1993, p.73.

Time. CXLII, September 6, 1993, p.69.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 2, 1993, p.3.

The Wall Street Journal. August 19, 1993, p. A8.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, July 25, 1993, p.1.

Discussion Topics

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What did Philip Larkin mean in claiming that he “made twentieth-century poetry sound nice”?

Trace the influence of Thomas Hardy on the form and tone of Larkin’s poetry.

Were Larkin’s trimming of his own canon and his refusal of the laureateship unwise decisions?

Explain and exemplify “colloquial formality” in Larkin’s poems.

Consider the elements in Larkin’s poems that reflect his early desire to become a novelist. How do his poems confirm the wisdom of his avoidance of novel writing?

Poets sometimes succeed by defying expectations. How does Larkin’s “Aubade” defy one’s expectations of a morning poem?

Which poems by Larkin most distinctively reflect The Movement?


Critical Essays