Authors: Philip Larkin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet


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.{$I[AN]9810001106}{$I[A]Larkin, Philip}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Larkin, Philip}{$I[tim]1922;Larkin, Philip}

Philip Larkin

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 libraries at Leicester and Belfast before moving to Hull in 1955, where he was serving as director of the university library at the time of his death.

Though Larkin’s first books received little critical attention, his privately printed second volume of verse, XX Poems, received the least. Most of the one hundred copies were sent to prominent critics and literary figures, but Larkin did not affix requisite postage, as postal rates had been recently raised, and many of the books were not received. Despite D. J. Enright’s laudatory review, Larkin shied from self-promotion the rest of his life. He became reclusive, was never married, and seldom traveled far from Hull.

In the 1950’s Larkin began to publish poems successfully in British magazines, however, and became the most distinguished figure in The Movement, a loose collection of poets, including Amis, Enright, Donald Davie, and Robert Conquest, dedicated to crafting technically smooth, lucid, understandable verse. In 1954 George Hartley, editor of Listen magazine, issued Larkin’s The Less Deceived on a subscription basis, and its review in The Times spurred sales, for it was reprinted three times in nine months. The volume was originally to be called “Various Poems,” but Larkin took a line from his poem about a disillusioned rapist for the book’s title. Though Larkin claimed to be happy, he believed readers preferred unhappy poems and asserted that “depression is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.”

The Whitsun Weddings was a successful continuation of Larkin’s contemplative blend of undeceived pessimism and wishful optimism. Larkin believed that few poets enhanced their reputations by public appearances, and despite the book’s popularity, he refused to give the lectures expected of an established poet. Larkin’s preoccupation with mortality extends into his last volume, High Windows, which sold six thousand copies in three weeks. Again, his personas imaginatively struggle to transform stultifying reality. A waning sexuality and spiritual impotency are also apparent in much of this verse. His last published poem appeared in 1977. Never prolific, Larkin died of throat cancer eight years later, believing that he had not given up on poetry so much as it had given up on him.

Larkin loved American jazz of the 1920’s and 1930’s, particularly that of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, for it recalled for him the sweetness of a bygone time. A would-be jazz drummer in youth, he became jazz critic for the London Daily Telegraph during the 1960’s. Believing that art should be pleasant and enjoyable, Larkin complained about the shrillness of modern jazz, and his collected reviews in All What Jazz: A Record Diary and Required Writings: Miscellaneous Pieces protest the ugliness of modern art, especially the works of the three “P’s”: Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, and Charlie Parker. Larkin also condemned the works of Henry Moore, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett as exploitations of technique to separate artist from audience.

Larkin considered art and nature to be modern humanity’s alternatives to God, for they offered opportunities to moralize about the human condition. Believing death an extinction for which there was no religious consolation, Larkin uttered humankind’s worst fears and doubts in an ironic fashion, in a sense thereby exorcising them and transcending the perspective of a purely detached observer.

BibliographyBooth, James, ed. New Larkins for Old: Critical Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A collection of essays by established commentators on Larkin’s work and by younger critics. Individual essays examine Larkin’s novels and poetry in the light of psychoanalytical, postmodern, and postcolonial theories.Booth, James. Philip Larkin: The Poet’s Plight. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Offers readers insight into the themes of Larkin’s poetry and the histories behind them.Bradford, Richard. First Boredom, Then Fear: The Life of Philip Larkin. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions, 2005. A biography of Larkin that delves into his youth, romances and career as a poet.Brownjohn, Alan. Philip Larkin. Harlow, England: Longman, 1975. This book (thirty-four pages with select bibliography), the first to deal with all four major volumes, is written with a poet’s sensitivity to Larkin’s verse. It includes a brief biographical section, followed by chronological discussion of the poems and concluding with an examination of the novels. A handy starting point for the student.Day, Roger. Philip Larkin. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1987. This volume’s focused questions and resulting commentary point students toward the important features of the poems and toward confidence in reading the poetry on their own, offering them suggestions for further reading and a select bibliography.Hartley, Jean. Philip Larkin, the Marvell Press, and Me. Manchester, England: Carcanet, 1989. This memoir by the cofounder of the Marvell Press gives interesting insight into its most famous author. While the book deals with Hartley more than Larkin, it shows the exciting period of creative activity leading to and resulting from the publication of a truly important work, The Less Deceived, and it chronicles the lifelong friendship that resulted.Hassan, Salem K. Philip Larkin and His Contemporaries: An Air of Authenticity. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1988. Well researched, this volume places Larkin within the context of his Movement colleagues of the 1950’s: John Wain, Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis, and D. J. Enright. The first part discusses Larkin’s poetry book by book. Part 2 devotes a chapter to careers of his four contemporaries, discussing their work in terms of his. The text also includes a select bibliography of primary and secondary sources, notes, and an index.Motion, Andrew. Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. This short work provides an introduction to the man and his work. The book offers thematic and literary-historical overviews, although only one chapter on the poems themselves.Rossen, Janice. Philip Larkin: His Life’s Work. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. This intelligent and highly readable overview traces Larkin’s development through the first two books, then looks at his lyric impulse, his firmly rooted Englishness, his sexual ambivalence, his use of vulgarity, and his struggle with mortality. The study ties in the poetry with the novels, jazz criticism, and literary criticism to develop a total view of the context of the poetry.
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