Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin (1922-1986) was one of England's leading poets to emerge after World War II.

Philip Larkin was born August 9, 1922, the son of Sydney and Eva Emily Larkin. He spent his early years in Coventry, an industrial city in central England (heavily bombed during World War II). Larkin grew up during the 1930s and 1940s, which were marked by severe economic depression followed by the war. He attended the King Henry VIII School in Coventry, then went on to Oxford, from which he graduated in 1943 while the war was still in progress. A sensitive and introspective youth, his pre-university memories were of loneliness and passivity. His poem "I Remember, I Remember" recaptured the coldness of Larkin's Coventry: "'I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said./ 'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere."'

At Oxford, however, things began to look up. Larkin formed strong friendships with other young men, fellow students in St. John's College. Foremost among these were novelists-poets Kingsley Amis and John Wain, leaders of the "Angry Young Men," whose later fiction embodied some of the strong social protest held in check until the end of the war. Paradoxically, it was their conservatist tendencies in poetry which bound Larkin, most quiet of the three, to the others in an aesthetic which became known as "The Movement." The embodiment of this poetic manifesto was an anthology, New Lines (1956), edited by Robert Conquest. Other young poets, such as Thom Gunn and D. J. Enright, joined Larkin, Amis, and Wain here; the emphasis was on irony, precise description, specificity of detail— counteraction to the wartime poetry which this younger generation saw as emotionally overblown and technically sloppy.

Larkin, meanwhile, had other irons in the fire. Although he lamented the middle class work ethic ("Toads": "What should I let the toad work/squat on my life?"), he was never content with just one job. After Oxford he began a career as university librarian and served in this capacity in a number of institutions, including the University of Hull. Related to this expertise was valuable work Larkin performed as chairman of the National Manuscripts Collection of the Contemporary Writers Committee, 1972-1979.

Earlier, Larkin seems to have been in conflict over his main writing outlet—should it be fiction or poetry? His first novel, Jill, was published in 1946 (revised, 1964); A Girl in Winter appeared in 1947. Both novels are sensitive mood evocations of young people in wartime, judged by the critic M. L. Rosenthal to "illuminate the particular attitude of weary, tolerant irony" characteristic also of Larkin's poetry.

It was as a poet, however, that this writer was most striking, surpassed in his own land today only by Laureate Ted Hughes. The poems of Larkin's earliest period were collected in The North Ship (1945). This was followed by an international success, the volume entitled The Less Deceived, which appeared a decade later (reissued, 1960). Writing about these pieces, the American poet-critic Robert Lowell noted, "It's a homely, sophisticated language that mixes description with a personal voice. No post-war poetry has so caught the moment, and caught it without straining after ephemera." This volume contains two of Larkin's most admired poems, "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" and "Church Going." Both are personal monologues, musing nostalgically on the poet's favorite theme: loss—of time, of the certainty of religious belief; for, as Larkin wrote elsewhere (commenting on imaginative literature in general), "Happiness writes white." "Church Going" begins in a characteristically modest, understated way: "Once I am sure there's nothing going on/I step inside, letting the door thud shut./ … Hatless, I take off/My cycle-clips in awkward reverence."

The Whitsun Weddings, another collection of poems, appeared in 1964. Here, in "Send No Money," Larkin describes himself as an observer, not an active participant in life. Acute, witty observation is a hallmark of Larkin's later volume of poetry, High Windows (1974). The personal, reticently confessional voice is ever-present, a bit more open here in the aftermath of a generation of sexual revolution: "Sexual intercourse began/ … (Though just too late for me)/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles' first LP" ("Annus Mirabilis"). The deep-seated pessimism is almost always redeemed and transmuted by Larkin wit: "Man hands on misery to man./It deepens like a coastal shelf./Get out as early as you can,/And don't have any kids yourself. ("This Be The Verse").

Happily, despite this literary gloom, Larkin's later life seems to have been blessed with warm personal relationships as well as mounting professional acclaim. With another writer, Lord David Cecil, Larkin was centrally responsible for the resurrection of the novelist Barbara Pym's career. After she had been unable for years to get a publisher for her seventh novel, Pym was named by the two men one of the most under-rated 20th-century novelists (in response to a Times Literary Supplement questionnaire, 1977). Pym, rediscovered, published three more novels; she and Larkin remained friends until her death in 1980. Recognition of Larkin's concern for his profession was officially demonstrated by membership on the Literary Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain (1980-1982). Foreign honors included election to the America Academy of Arts and Sciences (1975).

Two other interests of this writer deserve mention: Larkin was jazz correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, 1961-1971; he also edited the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse (1973), in which the poetry selected clearly emphasizes Larkin's "Movement" beliefs.

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Further Reading on Philip Larkin

Larkin's jazz criticism is collected in the book of essays All What Jazz (1970). The poet commenting on his own work is revealed in his introduction to the revised North Ship (1966). An example of the structural linguistic approach to Larkin's poetry (by J. McH. Sinclair) is to be found in Essays on Style and Language (1966), edited by Roger Fowler. M. L. Rosenthal provides a detailed analysis of Larkin's poetry in his The New Poets (1967).