Thursday, December 2, 2010

Philip Arthur Larkin (1922-1985): His Life and Works

Birth; Parentage; the Period of Childhood

Philip Arthur Larkin was born on the 9th August, 1922 in Coventry. His father, Sydney Larkin, was the Treasurer of the City Corporation of Coventry, and his mother Eva was the daughter of a First Class Excise Officer. Larkin was the second child of Sydney and Eva, the first having been a daughter named Catherine (or Kitty) who was about ten years old at the time of Larkin’s birth.
Larkin was given the name of Philip after the famous Renaissance poet Philip Sidney, and he was given the name Arthur after his mother’s brother. Although his parents were very fond of Larkin and lavished all their love and affection on him, yet in later years he spoke about his childhood in very disparaging terms. For instance, on one occasion he remarked that his biography could begin when he was twenty-one years old, meaning thereby that nothing remarkable had happened during the first twenty-one years of his existence. Then, in one of his poems he described his childhood as “a forgotten boredom”. Actually he had an inborn tendency to speak about himself in depreciatory terms; and this tendency persisted throughout his life. As a child he suffered from a slight stammer, and this stammer also persisted throughout his life, though in a considerably diminished form.

At a Grammar School; and Later at Oxford University

Larkin studied at King Henry VIII Grammar School in Coventry. His school-days, according to him, were almost completely uneventful. However, he made a friendship with a school-fellow by the name of Jim Sutton who subsequently became a distinguished painter. Larkin passed his final school examination with distinction in the subjects of history and English. Then in 1940 he proceeded to Oxford University from where he graduated in 1943, getting a first class. At Oxford he had attended St. John’s College where he made friends with Kingsley Amis who later became famous as a poet just as Larkin himself did. At Oxford, he also made friends with John Wain, Alan Ross, and others. But it was his association with Kingsley Amis which helped him to understand and define his own literary aims and ambitions. Besides, the social and political atmosphere of Oxford University encouraged him to develop a pragmatic approach to life and to literature.

Jobs Held; and then Librarianship at the University of Hull

After getting his degree from Oxford University, Larkin found himself at a loss about what career to adopt. World War II was at this time at its height; and, according to the laws of the land, he was required to enlist in the army. But having failed in the medical examination, he had to look for a job. He submitted applications for a number of jobs almost at random; and, late in 1943, he was appointed the librarian at a public library in Wellington (in Shropshire) where he worked for the next three years. Then he took up a job in the library of the University College at Leicester. In 1950, he was appointed the sub-librarian at Queen’s University, Belfast (in Northern Ireland). Finally, in 1954, he was appointed the librarian at the University of Hull, and there he remained till his death.

Writings and Publications

Larkin started writing poems when he was just fifteen but it was after he had graduated from the university and taken up his first job that he began to write (both poetry and prose) in right earnest A number of poems by him were published in anthologies. But he first came into the limelight as a novelist. His first novel had the title of Jill, and it was published in 1946. His next novel was entitled A Girl in Winter which was published in 1947. Then he began to work on a third novel which, however, he could not complete and which was, therefore, abandoned. Giving up novel-writing altogether, he devoted himself to poetry and successively published four major volumes of poems. The first major volume of his poems, entitled “The North Ship ” appeared in 1945; the second was entitled “The Less Deceived”, and it appeared in 1955; the third appeared in 1964 under the title of “The Whitsun Weddings”; and the fourth and final volume appeared in l974 under the title of “High Windows.”


With the publication of his second volume of poems, namely “The Less Deceived”, Larkin became well-known for his poetic gift. Then “The Whitsun Weddings” brought him greater renown. And with the publication of “High Windows”, he was recognized as one of the leading British poets of the time. Many honours were conferred upon him in recognition of his poetic eminence. For instance, in 1965 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry; and he received honorary doctorates from several British universities. On the death of the poet-laureate, John Betjeman, he was offered the poet-laureateship which, however, he declined; and the Thonour then went to Kingsely Amis.

Personal Habits; and the Women in His Life

Larkin was a man of retiring habits, and somewhat unsociable by temperament. He shunned publicity; and he even disliked travel because he wanted to preserve his privacy. He did not like holidays either, and is reported as having said: “As I get older I grow increasingly impatient of holidays; they seem a wholly feminine conception, based on an impotent dislike of everyday life.” He certainly had a weakness for women, though it did hot come into the open for a very long time. He took pleasure in looking at pornographic pictures; and for a long time he was a hard drinker. He developed a strong liking for a woman by the name of Ruth Bowman, and even got engaged to her, though the engagement came to nothing. Then he became very intimate with two other women, Maeve Brennan and Monica Jones, and wanted to choose one of them to be his wife. However, he was not the marrying kind of man; and in the end married neither of them. His general outlook on life was very gloomy and bleak; and his poetry is deeply coloured by this pessimistic outlook. When he attained the age of sixty, Anthony Thwaite brought out a book in which various persons paid their tributes to him. But one of the contributors, Alan Bennett, thus commented upon his gloomy outlook on life: “Apparently he is sixty, but when was he anything else? He has made a habit of being sixty; he has made a profession of it. Like Lady Dumbleton he has been sixty for the last twenty-five years. On his own admission there was never a boy Larkin, no young lad Philip, let alone Phil, ever.”

Illness and Death

Larkin had a major breakdown in his health in the middle years of his life, and had to undergo extensive medical tests to find out what was wrong with him. He remained in hospital for a time, but subsequently recovered almost completely from whatever malady he had been suffering from. Then in the year 1984 he developed a serious ailment, most probably cancer, and died on the 2nd December, 1985.



1. “The North Ship” (1945)

2. “The Less Deceived” (1955)

3. “The Whitsun Weddings” (1964)

4. “High Windows” (1974)

Note. In 1988, Anthony Thwaite brought out the “Collected Poems” of Philip Larkin, including in that book, all the poems which had been published in the above four volumes, and also some poems which had never been published before.


1. .Jill (1946)

2. A Girl in Winter (1947)

Miscellaneous Prose

1. All What Jazz,- A Record Diary (1970)

2. Required Writing (mi)

3. A Lifted Study-Storehouse (1987)

4. Edited (with Bonamy Dobree and Louis MacNeice), New Poems: A Pen Anthology (1958)

5. Edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973)

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