Philip Arthur Larkin (August 9, 1922 – December 2, 1985) was an English poet, novelist and jazz critic. His poetry, marked by understatement, the use of plain (and at times vulgar) language and bitter unsentimentality, brought about a significant change in the British aesthetic, and Larkin was for a time associated with British literature's "The Movement". Larkin, who once famously remarked that depredation was for him what daffodils were for Wordsworth, was one of the most important voices in moving British poetry towards a plainspoken, naturalness of language. Staunchly anti-modern and a committed conservative all his life, Larkin articulated his stance towards art and poetry as the desire to "use language in the way we all use it."
Larkin was born to Sydney and Eva Larkin in Coventry, a provincial city in the Midlands. He was educated at King Henry VIII School in Coventry and St. John's College, Oxford. In late 1943, soon after graduating from Oxford he was appointed to the position of librarian at Wellington, Shropshire. In 1946, he became assistant librarian at the University College, Leicester; in March 1955, he became librarian at the University of Hull. He remained in this position until his death.
He never married, preferring to share his life with a number of women – Monica Jones, Maeve Brennan and Betty Mackereth. Monica Jones was a fellow lecturer, Maeve Brennan was a library assistant who was also a strict Roman Catholic, and Betty Mackereth was his secretary. In 1985, he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and died shortly thereafter.
During his life, Larkin's poetry would be tied up inexorably with the poetry of 'The Movement', a group whose name was coined by J. D. Scott, literary editor of The Spectator, in 1954 to describe a group of writers including Kingsley Amis, Larkin, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, and Robert Conquest. The Movement was essentially English in character; poets in Scotland and Wales were not generally included.
Essentially, The Movement was a reaction against the extreme Romanticism of the previous identifiable major movement in British poetry, the New Apocalyptics (which overlapped with the Scottish Renaissance). Whereas the New Apocalypsists, inspired by the later poetry of William Butler Yeats and Dylan Thomas, had been irrational, deliberately incoherent, and “outrageous” or “controversial,” The Movement poets tended towards anti-romanticism (almost constituting a form of neo-classicism), rationality, and sobriety. John Press described The Movement as "a general retreat from direct comment or involvement in any political or social doctrine."
The Movement produced two anthologies: Poets of the 1950s (1955) (editor D. J. Enright, published in Japan) and New Lines (1956). Conquest, who edited the New Lines anthology, described the connection between the poets as "little more than a negative determination to avoid bad principles." These "bad principles" are usually described as excess, both in terms of theme and stylistic devices. The polemic introduction to New Lines targeted in particular the 1940s poets, the generation of Dylan Thomas and George Barker—though not by name. A second New Lines anthology appeared in 1963, by which time The Movement seemed to some a spent force, in terms of fashion; the 'underground' in the shape of more American-influenced, free verse poetry having come to the fore. Ironically, interest in "The Movement" renewed in the early nineties, primarily in America, with the rise of a new interest in formalism and increased public interest in Larkin's poetry.
Larkin's early work shows the influence of Yeats, but later in life he would turn away from Yeats, feeling the older poet to be too austere and mystical, and too far-removed from the everyday. It was around this time that Larkin discovered the much-neglected poetry of English novelist Thomas Hardy. Like Hardy, Larkin is well known in his poetry for his use of the colloquial mixed occasionally with the antique, his masterful command of rhyme, enjambment and meter, and the highly structured nature of his poems, which, somehow, never seem to sound structured at all. Also like Hardy, Larkin was known for the morbidity of his verses: old age, death, the failure of love, and the slow decay of the world were persistent themes. However, Larkin brought a unique element to this dark palette: humor. Perhaps more than anything else, Larkin is remembered as one of the most surprisingly and insightfully funny poets of his generation.
Larkin's first book, The North Ship, published in 1945 at his own expense, reflects his early infatuation with Yeats through such verses as:
Only this have I understood: Time is the echo Of an axe Within a wood.
The poems, many of them mysterious and covered in dense metaphors of nature, are considered to be Larkin's most minor work; however, in a few of these early poems, one glimpses the beginnings of what would be Larkin's mature style.
The Less Deceived, published in 1955, marked Larkin as an up-and-coming poet. The title itself makes clear Larkin's newfound disillusionment with Yeats and modernism in general. The poems, in sharp contrast to those found in The North Ship, are not almost aggressively quotidian, taking up such ordinary (and, for Larkin, often depressing) topics as looking at a book of old photographs, a couple arguing in bed, or a graduate student pestering Larkin for an interview.
The publication of The Whitsun Weddings in 1964 confirmed his reputation. The title poem is a masterful depiction of England seen from a train one Whitsunday. In 1972, Larkin wrote the oft-quoted “Going, Going,” a poem which reveals his increasing streak of romantic fatalism in his view of England in his later years—prophesizing a complete destruction of the countryside and of a certain idealized idea of national togetherness and identity. The poem ends with the doom-laden statement “I just think it will happen, soon.”
High Windows, Larkin’s last book, was released in 1974; for some critics it represents a falling-off from his previous two books, yet it contains a number of his most-loved pieces, including “This Be The Verse,” “The Explosion,” the title poem, and “The Old Fools.” A quotation from the latter showcases Larkin's mature, cynical humor as well as his often surprising (if not bitter) insight:
What do they think has happened, the old fools, To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools, And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose, They could alter things back to when they danced all night, Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September? Or do they fancy there's really been no change, And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight, Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange; Why aren't they screaming?
Besides poetry, Larkin published two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), as well as several essays. Larkin was also a major contributor to the re-evaluation of the poetry of Thomas Hardy, which had been ignored in comparison to his work as a novelist. Hardy received the longest selection in Larkin's idiosyncratic and controversial anthology, The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973). Larkin was a notable critic of modernism in contemporary art and literature; his scepticism is at its most nuanced and illuminating in Required Writing, a collection of his book-reviews and essays; it is at its most enflamed and polemical in his introduction to his collected jazz reviews, All What Jazz.
On the death of John Betjeman, Larkin was offered the post of Poet Laureate but declined, feeling that his poetic muse had permanently deserted him. However, he remains one of Britain's most popular poets. Two of his poems, “This Be The Verse” and “An Arundel Tomb,” are featured in the "Nation's Top 100 Poems" as voted for by television viewers. Larkin's posthumous reputation has taken a hit with the publication of Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life (1993) and an edition of his letters (1992), which revealed his obsessions with pornography, his racism, his increasingly extreme shift to the political right wing, and his habitual venom and spleen. These revelations have been dismissed by Martin Amis, author and critic, who argues that the letters in particular show nothing more than a tendency for Larkin to tailor his words according to the recipient, rather than representing Larkin's true opinions. Nevertheless, media interest in Larkin has increased in the 21st century. The Larkin Society was formed in 1995, ten years after the poet's death. Its president is one of Larkin's literary executors, Anthony Thwaite.
Larkin's influence on contemporary poets only continues to grow, as many poets, moving away from the formlessness and (at times) over-complexity of the American modernists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, have favored Larkin's advocacy of writing poems that, while deeply nuanced, are capable of being understood by a common audience. Moreover, Larkin's persistence in using rhyme and meter in a time when formal poetry had almost become extinct has become appealing to many young writers who, in response to the overwhelming predominance of free verse, have moved towards poets like Larkin, Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Robert Frost, who demonstrate an ability to sound fresh to modern ears while retaining the traditional structure of poetry. Larkin's importance to the English canon should only increase as time goes on.
Books about Larkin
All links retrieved March 22, 2019.
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