World Literature

Philip Larkin

 

BORN: 1922, Coventry, Warwickshire, England

DIED: 1985, Hull, England

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Poetry, fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The North Ship (1945)

XX Poems (1951)

The Less Deceived (1955)

The Whitsun Weddings (1964)

High Windows (1974)

 

 

Philip Larkin. Larkin, Philip, photograph. Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images.

 

Overview

A major poet of the post-World War II era, Larkin was an eminent member of the group of English writers known as the Movement. Writers associated with the Movement wrote fiction and poetry about ordinary experience in a realistic and rational style, consciously avoiding the idealistic principles of Romanticism and the experimental methods of modernism.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Came of Age during World War II. Larkin was born in 1922, in Coventry, England, to Sydney and Eva Emily Day Larkin. While attending the King Henry VIII School, he began to write poetry, regularly contributing to the school magazine. In 1940, he began his undergraduate studies at Oxford, where he developed close friendships with such writers as Kingsley Amis and John Wain. During this time, he continued to develop his poetic style, writing for student literary magazines and anthologies. After taking his degree in English, Larkin accepted a job as a librarian at the Wellington Public Library in Wellington, England.

At this time, England was a major participant in World War II. One of the primary causes of the war was the rise and territorial ambitions of Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler. In the late 1930s, the government of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain sought to avoid war by appeasing Germany and allowing Germany’s annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia. After Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland in 1939, Britain realized appeasement would not work and declared war on Germany. Winston Churchill soon replaced Chamberlain as prime minister. While Britain and its allies (France, the United States, and Russia) were victorious at the war’s end in 1945, the country had been massively destroyed by German air attacks. More than nine hundred thousand civilian and military deaths came in Britain as a result of the war.

Published First Works. Larkin published his first volume of poetry, The North Ship, in 1945, while working as a librarian. In the next few years, he published his only two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), the latter receiving modest critical acclaim. Larkin seems to have been in conflict over his main writing outlet— should it be fiction or poetry? As Larkin was choosing between literary forms, he took on a new post as a librarian at the University College Library in Leicester in 1946 and remained there until 1950. Larkin then moved to Northern Ireland to become a sublibrarian at the Queen’s University Library in Belfast, where he would work until 1955.

In the postwar period, British society was also evolving. A Labour government was elected after the end of World War II that pledged to carry out a full program of social welfare from birth to death as well as nationalization of industry. This program was not fully completed, though medicine was socialized, other social services were expanded, and several industries were put under public ownership. Conservatives were put in power in 1951 and halted many reforms.

Lauded Poet. Deciding to focus on poetry, Larkin published XX Poems (1951) at his own expense. Although this collection received very little critical notice, critics believed that it was significant to his growth as a poet as he began developing his own distinctive poetic voice. XX Poems was followed by an international success, the volume titled The Less Deceived (1955), which appeared a few years later. It was critically lauded.

Larkin returned to England in 1955 to take a position as a librarian at the Byrnmore Jones Library at the University of Hull. Being a librarian allowed Larkin to combine academia and administration, and he definitely preferred it to the alternatives of teaching or giving readings, the usual ways by which poets are forced to earn their livings. While working at Hull, Larkin continued to produce significant works of poetry. The Whitsun Weddings, another collection of poems, appeared in 1964. In one poem in the collection, ‘‘Send No Money,’’ Larkin describes himself as an observer, not an active participant in life.

Confessional, Observational Poems. Acute, witty observation is a hallmark of Larkin’s later volume of poetry, High Windows (1974). The personal, reticently confessional voice is ever-present, particularly in the aftermath of a generation of sexual revolution in the 1960s, as seen here in ‘‘Annus Mirabilis’’: ‘‘Sexual intercourse began/... (Though just too late for me)/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.’’ But the deep-seated pessimism is almost always redeemed and transmuted by Larkin’s wit, as illustrated in ‘‘This Be the Verse’’: ‘‘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.’’

Importance Recognized. The years following The Whitsun Weddings saw Larkin repeatedly honored as probably the principal living British poet. The BBC feted him with a special ‘‘Larkin at 50’’ broadcast in 1972, and he was asked to edit The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973). Larkin’s next poetry collection appeared in 1974, High Windows.

Between the publication of High Windows and his death from throat cancer in December 1985, he wrote practically no new poems and often complained of the muse having abandoned him. Indeed, his last book published in his lifetime, Required Writing (1983), is a collection of prose pieces written between 1955 and 1982. His final literary triumph came posthumously with the publication of his Collected Poems (1988), which won a critical acclaim and commercial success in England and the United States rarely enjoyed by a book of poetry.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Larkin's famous contemporaries include:

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953): Welsh poet well known for his life of excess and his iconoclastic literary style. His poetry collections include 18 Poems (1934).

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969): Influential American poet and novelist who was part of the Beat generation. His novels include On the Road (1957).

Charles Mingus (1922-1979): American jazz musician and bandleader considered one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. His albums include Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956).

Helen Gurley Brown (1922-): American author and publisher best known for editing Cosmopolitan magazine for more than thirty years.

Paddy Chayefsky (1923-1981): Three-time Academy Award-winning screenplay writer who also wrote for the stage and television. His screenplays include The Americanization of Emily (1964).

Elizabeth II (1926-): Queen of England since 1952.

Ted Hughes (1930-1998): English poet and children's writer who was the British poet laureate from 1984 until his death. His poetry collections include Hawk in the Rain (1957) and Crow (1970).

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

One of the recurring themes in Larkin's poetry, particularly in later years, is the prospect and inevitability of aging and death. Here are some other poems that include this theme:

''Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night'' (1951), a poem by Dylan Thomas. This widely quoted poem was written about the author's dying father.

''The Dance of Death'' (1857), a poem by Charles Baudelaire. This poem uses florid metaphorical language to discuss the approach and effect of death.

''On Hearing of a Death'' (1907), poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. This poem presents thoughts that arrive upon learning of someone else's death.

 

Works in Literary Context

Larkin’s earliest poems, written mostly during the 1930s, reflect the influence of W. H. Auden and W. B. Yeats, though he was also influenced by D. H. Lawrence, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. Yeats’s influence has been noted particularly in the metaphorical language and lush imagery of the lyrics in Larkin’s first volume, The North Ship. Larkin asserted that his reading of Thomas Hardy’s verse inspired him to write with greater austerity and to link experiences and emotions with detailed settings. This breakthrough into a ‘‘mature’’ style, as Larkin termed it, is exemplified in what critics refer to as ‘‘the Larkin line’’—a taut pentameter in which various emotional effects are achieved through the use of common language, subtle rhymes, compound adjectives, and concrete images.

Life-Reflecting Themes. Larkin employed the traditional tools of poetry—rhyme, stanza, and meter—to explore the often uncomfortable or terrifying experiences thrust upon common people in the modern age. He frequently focused on death and the bleakness of contemporary existence, exposing sham and hypocrisy in human behavior, religion, and urban values, and consistently expressing pessimism and futility about human endeavors. Other recurring themes in Larkin’s work include solitude versus community and marriage.

Such themes are examined in The Less Deceived, for example. The title of the collection reflects Larkin’s insistence on the need for exposing and overcoming illusions and false ideals. ‘‘Going,’’ usually considered the first of his mature poems, and ‘‘Aubade,’’ one of Larkin’s greatest works, both present unequivocal statements of his fear of death. Some of Larkin’s marriage poems are celebratory, while others discuss the hardships and compromises of matrimony or, as in ‘‘Dockery and Son,’’ address the circumstances of the poet’s bachelorhood and his singular devotion to his art.

 

Works in Critical Context

In a time when popular reception of poetry was perhaps more tenuous than in any period since the Wordsworthian revolution, Larkin managed to capture a loyal, wide, and growing audience of readers. He has been acclaimed the ‘‘unofficial poet laureate’’ of England and the ‘‘laureate of the common man,’’ as a representative spokesman for the British sensibility since World War II. He emerged as the center, if not the starting point, of most critical debate over postwar British verse.

The revelations of Larkin’s Selected Letters, published in 1992, and of his biography on Andrew Motion that appeared the next year, caused a considerable stir and, at least initially, damaged Larkin’s reputation as a poet. Such hostility was a reaction chiefly to his racist remarks in letters and conversations and to his seemingly heartless and deceitful treatment of women who loved him. As a result, passages and even entire poems that earlier had appeared mildly sexist now were interpreted as being outrightly misogynist, and previously admiring critics were hard-pressed to defend many elements of his private life.

Even so, the debate among readers and critics soon turned to whether the value of at least Larkin’s best poetry really turned on such matters. If many of his admirers were saddened by the revelations, and if certain critics who had never liked Larkin’s work felt vindicated by them, in general the initial shock gave way to a broader discussion of the relationship between literary biography and literary value and, in Larkin’s case, to a renewed acknowledgment of his preeminent position among postwar British poets.

The Less Deceived. The Less Deceived, Larkin’s second collection of poems, contains two of his 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.’’ Writing about the pieces included in the collection, 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 captured the moment, and captured it without straining after ephemera.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Larkin was a prominent member of the Movement, which scorned the literary modernism of such poets as Dylan Thomas, favoring anti-Romanticism, rationality, and sobriety. Read a few poems by Larkin and Thomas. Write an essay discussing the thematic similarities and differences you find in these works. Does Larkin’s poetry fully conform to the tenets of the Movement? Why or why not?

2. Much of Larkin’s poetry was reevaluated in light of certain biographical revelations after his death. Write an informal essay discussing whether you think the biography of a poet should influence how we read his or her works. Does studying the life of a poet help us better understand the literary value of the poet’s works, or does it cloud the reader’s ability to experience the poetry in its own right?

3. After reading a selection of Larkin’s poems, write brief character sketches of some of Larkin’s urban characters, describing the way they think and how their actions relate to their ideas.

4. The prospect and inevitability of aging and death was a recurring theme in Larkin’s work. Write a poem about aging or death that expresses your current perspective on these topics.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Booth, James. Philip Larkin, Writer. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.

Day, Roger. Larkin. Milton Keynes, U.K.: Open University Press, 1987.

Hartley, George, ed. Philip Larkin, 1922-1985: A Tribute. London: Marvell, 1988.

Hartley, Jean.Philip Larkin, the Marvell Press and Me. Manchester, U.K.: Carcanet, 1989.

Kuby, Lolette. An Uncommon Poet for the Common Man. A Study of Philip Larkin’s Poetry. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1974.

Latre, Guido. Locking Earth to the Sky: A Structuralist Approach to Philip Larkin’s Poetry. New York: Peter Lang, 1985.

Martin, Bruce K. Philip Larkin. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Motion, Andrew. Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993.

Regan, Stephen, ed. Philip Larkin. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.

Rossen, Janice. Philip Larkin: His Life’s Work. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

Salwak, Dale, ed. Philip Larkin: The Man and His Work. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

Thwaite, Anthony, ed. Larkin at Sixty. London: Faber & Faber, 1982.

Timms, David. Philip Larkin. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973.

Tolley, A. T. My Proper Ground: A Study of the Work of Philip Larkin and Its Development. Ottawa, Ont.: Carleton University Press, 1991.

Whalen, Terry. Philip Larkin and English Poetry. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986.