Philip Larkin Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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).


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 Literary Award (1984).


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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....

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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?