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Philip Arthur Larkin (1922-1985)

 

English poet, novelist, and critic, a leading figure of 'The Movement,' term coined to describe a group of British poets that coalesced during the 1950s, about the same time as the rise of the 'Angry Young Men'. 'The Movement' poets addressed everyday British life in plain, straightforward language and often in traditional forms. It first attracted attention with the publication of the anthology New Lines, edited by Robert Conquest. Among its writers were Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie and Thom Gunn. Conquest saw the group's work "free from both mystical and logical compulsions and – like modern philosophy – is empirical in its attitude to all that comes." Larkin's best known books were The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974).

"It is not sufficient to say that poetry has lost its audience, and so need no longer consider it: lots of people still read and even buy poetry. More accurately, poetry has lost its old audience, and gained a new one. This has been caused by the consequences of a cunning merger between poet, literary critic and academic critic (three classes now notoriously indistinguishable): it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the poet has gained the happy position wherein he can praise his own poetry in the press and explain it in the class-room, the reader has been bullied into giving up the consumer's power to say 'I don't like this, bring me something different.'" (Larkin in 'The Pleasure Principle', from Required Writing, 1983)

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry. His father, Sydney, was the city treasurer, who admired Hitler. Years later Larkin described his childhood home as "dull, pot-bound and slightly mad..." Sydney bought his son a set of drums and subscribed to the American jazz magazine Down Beat. Larkin was educated at King Henry VIII School where he wrote for the school magazine. At the age of 18 he entered St. John's College, Oxford. He studied English, met Kingsley Amis, listened to jazz, and was known as a bookish dandy. During World War II he was exempted from service because of bad eyes. After graduating he became a librarian, first in the library of an urban district council in Shropshire, later in university libraries in Leicester and Belfast. From 1955 until his death he was the librarian of the Brynmor Jones library at the University of Hull, which he built up a staff of eleven to over 100.

His first sexual experience Larkin had with a young woman, whom he met in Wellington library. He proposed her but eventually they broke up. "Until I began to meet grown-ups on more or less equal terms I fancied myself a kind of Ishmael. The realization that it was not people I disliked but children was for me one of those celebrated moments of revelation, comparable to reading Heackel or Ingersoll in the last century. The knowledge that I should never (except by deliberate act of folly) get mixed with them again more than compensated for having to start earning a living." (Larkin in 'The Savage Seventh,' from Required Writing)

As poet Larkin made his debut with the collection The North Ship (1945), written with short lines and carefully worked-out rhyme schemes. In was published at his own expense and showed the influence of Yeats. It was followed by two novels, Jill  (1946), a coming-of-age story, and A Girl in Winter (1947), after which he abandoned fiction. "I tried very hard to write a third novel for about five years, " he later said. "The ability to do so had just vanished."

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

(from 'Next, Please', 1955)

In The Whitsun Weddings the title-poem describes the poet's journey by train from Hull to London. Whitsun is the seventh Sunday after Easter. In the 1950s, British tax law made the Whitsun weekend a financially advantageous time to be married: "Just long enough to settle hats and say / I nearly died, / A dozen marriages got under way. / They watched the landscape, sitting side by side/." Larkin used the tones and rhythms of ordinary speech, and focused on the urban landscape of the industrial north. "Canals with floatings of industrial froth; / A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped / And rose: and now and then a smell of grass / Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth / Until the next town, new and nondescript, / Approached with acres of dismantled cars."

High Windows includes two substantial poems about ageing, illness and death, 'The Old Fools' and 'The Building'. In these works Larkin explored the mood of post-war England and its bleak views of the future. 'Deprivation is to me what daffodils are to Wordsworth," was Larkin's famous confession. Larkin avoided "big" words, sentimentality and philosophising, his language was plain, his approach was cool and restricted, which led critics to accuse him of lack of emotional involvement.

Larkin feared marriage and family, and never married. "Two can live as stupidly as one," he said. Larkin managed to maintain three long relationships – most of his life Larkin spent with Monica Jones, a professor of English, whom he met when he was 24. In 1974 he bought a house in Hull, which he shared with her. In 1961, Larkin began a relationship with Maeve Brennan, a colleague at Hull library. The third woman was Betty Mackereth, his secretary at Hull University.  Although he had a number of affairs, Larkin did not regard himself as a great lover or a highly-sexed person. "I'm sorry that our lovemaking fizzled out in Devon, as you rightly noticed," he once wrote apologetically to Maeve.

Larkin's mother died in 1977, and after her death he wrote only 11 poems, although he produced a book of essays in 1983. "Life is first boredom, then fear / Whether or not we use it, it goes," Larkin said in 1963. When he was offered the Poet Laureate in 1984, he politely refused and the Laureateship it went to Ted Hughes. During the Christmas season in the same year he had no appetite and he began to wonder if his liver was rebelling against his heavy drinking. He felt that life "has nothing to offer after fifty, and after sixty doesn't bear thinking about." Eventually Larkin underwent surgery for cancer of the oesophagus, and died within a year on December 2, 1985. At his funeral in Westminster Abbey a combo played Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), of whom he had written in 'For Sidney Bechet': "On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City / Is where your speech alone is understood/."

In spite of Larkin's wishes to destroy his papers, manuscripts were saved, but voluminous diaries were burnt. Andrew Motion, one of Larkin's literary executors, published in 1993 a controversial biography of the poet. It revealed the Nazi sympathies and misogyny of Larkin's father and the poet's casual racism and other politically incorrect attitudes. In an interview he once defended himself: "People say I'm very negative, and I suppose I am, but the impulse for producing a poem is never negative; the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done."

Larkin also wrote jazz reviews for The Daily Telegraph between the years 1961 and 1971. Most of his articles were collected in 1970 under the title All What Jazz (rev. ed. in 1985). Larkin was especially fond of jazz musicians who emerged before World War II. He loved Louis Armstrong, Swing and Dixieland, but John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other heroes of modern jazz were for him "ugly on purpose." According to Larkin, the term 'modern' "denotes a quality of irresponsibility peculiar to this century... I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it."

For further reading:  Philip Larkin: A Bibliography by B.C. Bloomfield (1980); Larkin at Sixty ed. by A. Thwaite (1982); Larkin by R. Day (1987); Philip Larkin: The Man and His Work by D. Salwak (1989); Philip Larkin: His Life's Work by J. Rossen (1989); Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life by A. Motion (1993); Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin by A. Swarbrick (1995); Philip Larkin by Warren Hope (1997); Philip Larkin, ed. by Stephen Regan (1997); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Larkin's Blues: Jazz, Popular Music, and Poetry by B.J. Leggett (1999); First Boredom, Then Fear: The Life of Philip Larkin by Richard Bradford (2009)

Selected works:

  • The North Ship, 1945
  • Jill, 1946
  • A Girl in Winter, 1947
  • XX Poems, 1951
  • Poems, 1954
  • The Less Deceived, 1955
  • New Poems, 1958 (ed., with B. Bobrée, L. MacNeice)
  • The Whitsun Weddings, 1964
  • All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961–1971, 1961-1968, 1970 (rev. All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961- 1971, 1985)
  • The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, 1973 (editor)
  • Poetry Supplement, 1974 (editor)
  • High Windows, 1974
  • Femmes damnées, 1978
  • Aubade, 1980
  • Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955–1982, 1955-1982, 1983
  • Collected Poems, 1988 (edited by Anthony Thwaite)
  • Selected Letters, 1992 (edited by Anthony Thwaite)
  • Further Requirements by Philip Larkin, 2001 (edited by  Anthony Thwaite)
  • Trouble at Willow Gables" and Other Fiction 1943–1953, 2002 (edited by James Booth)
  • Letters to Monica, 2010 (edited by Anthony Thwaite)
  • The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, 2012 (edited by Archie Burnett)


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