Philip Larkin at 100
Philip Larkin, in full Philip Arthur Larkin, (born August 9, 1922, Coventry, Warwickshire, England—died December 2, 1985, Kingston upon Hull).
Larkin was educated at the University of Oxford on a scholarship, an experience that provided material for his first novel, Jill (1946; rev. ed. 1964).
His first book of poetry, The North Ship, was published at his own expense in 1945.
Another novel, A Girl in Winter, followed in 1947. He became well known with The Less Deceived (1955).
Larkin became librarian at the University of Hull in Yorkshire in 1955 and was jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph (1961–71), from which occupation were gleaned the essays in All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961–68 (1970). The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974) are his later volumes of poetry. He edited the Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973). Required Writing (1982) is a collection of miscellaneous essays.
He wrote sparingly; in spite of that he became almost a household name, a rare fit for a poet. Yet his ‘Selected Letters’, containing vulgar outburst against women, minorities, and working-class and published posthumously in 1992, almost obliterated his reputation, labeling him as a misogynist and racist. His reputation was finally restored when 31 years after his death he found a place in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster’s Abbey.
His mother, Eva Emily Larkin nee Day, was a passive woman, who preferred to be taken care of by her dominating husband. Philip was born younger of their two children, having an elder sister named Catherine or Kitty, ten years his senior.
When he was five years old, the family moved to a larger house near Coventry Railway Station. However, he did not seem to have any happy memory about his childhood. Life was cold and uneventful, neither friends nor relatives ever visited their home.
Sometime during his school years, Philip started writing, contributing regularly to the school magazine. He also developed a deep passion for jazz and his father encouraged it by buying him a drum kit and a saxophone. Otherwise engaged, he did poorly in the School Certificate examination in 1938.
Despite his bad results, he was allowed to continue at school. He now started editing the school magazine. In spite of that, he must have taken his studies more seriously because in 1940 he did fairly well in Higher School Certificate, earning distinction in English and History.
In October 1940, as the Second World War was raging through, Philip Larkin entered St John’s College, Oxford, with English. Spared from joining the military service due to bad eyesight, he was able to complete the full course.
A passive and lonely child in his pre-university days, Larkin underwent a great change soon after entering St John’s. Possibly in 1942, he met future novelist and poet, Kingsley Amis and John Wain, with whom he formed a lasting friendship.
They soon formed a group they dubbed ‘The Seven’. They met regularly, reading and discussing each other’s poetry. They also played the jazz and drank a lot. ‘The Movement’, which tried to establish the predominance of English poetry over modernist poetry, would one day be born out of these gatherings.
In June 1943, three of Larkin’s poems, ‘A Stone Church Damaged by a Bomb’, ‘Mythological Introduction’, and ‘I dreamed of an out-thrust arm of land’, were published in Oxford Poetry. Also in the same year, he graduated with a first class honours degree.
in 1946, he discovered the poems of Thomas Hardy and became one of his greatest admirers, learning from him how to use everyday happenings to form the basis of his poems. Later, he acknowledged that the discovery was a turning point in his career.
In 1947, he published his last novel, ‘A Girl in Winter’. Although scholars like John James Osborne found it to be “a harbinger of greatness” he did not publish any more fiction after this, ostensibly for want of inspiration.
In 1949, Larkin completed his studies, becoming an Associate of the Library Association. Thereafter in June 1950, he was appointed sub-librarian at The Queen’s University of Belfast. Taking up the post in September 1950, he once again applied himself to writing poetry.
For the next five years, he had few poems published; most of his works being rejected by established publishers. Undeterred, he published ‘XX Poems’, a small collection of poems, at his own cost in 1951.
In 1954, the Fantasy Press published a pamphlet containing five of his poems. Possibly in the same year, his poems ‘Toads’ and ‘Poetry of Departures’ was published by the Marvel Press in a collection.
Philip Larkin did not get married; but developed relationship with a string of women. First of them was Ruth Bowman, a sixteen year old academically ambitious school girl, whom he met in 1944. They became engaged in 1948; but split shortly after he moved to Belfast in 1950.
He also had long-lasting relationship with Monica Jones, a lecturer in English; Maeve Brennan, his colleague at Hull and Betty Mackereth, his secretary at Hull. Among them, Monica Jones was the main beneficiary of his will.
In 1985, Philip Larkin was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. Although he underwent a surgery on 11 June 1985, his cancer was found to have spread and become inoperable.
On 28 November, 1985, he collapsed and was readmitted to the hospital in Hull. While there he asked Monica Jones and Betty Mackereth to destroy his diary. Betty tore up the diaries page by page before burning them to ashes.
He breathed his last on 2 December, 1985 at the age of 63. He was buried at the Cottingham municipal cemetery near Hull. The white headstone at his grave, located on left hand side of the cemetery, simply reads “Philip Larkin 1922–1985 Writer”.
Thirty-one years after his death, Larkin was awarded a memorial in Westminster Abbey’s ‘Poets’ Corner’, with his ledger stone being unveiled on December 2, 2016.
Larkin and Kingsley Amis always signed off their letters to each other with the word ‘bum’. Larkin and Amis met at the University of Oxford in the early 1940s, and became firm friends, united by their sense of humour as well as their literary ambitions (not to mention their dislike of the medieval literature they were made to study, and their hatred of J. R. R. Tolkien’s lectures on the subject). Amis wanted to be a poet but ended up being a Philip Larkin 1961novelist (launching a successful career with his 1954 novel Lucky Jim, whose hero is loosely based on Larkin himself), while Larkin, conversely, dreamed of being a great novelist but ended up as a poet. Larkin himself defined the distinction between the novelist and the poet as follows: ‘If you tell a novelist, “Life’s not like that”, he has to do something about it. The poet simply replies, “No, but I am.”‘ He also memorably said, ‘The notion of expressing sentiments in short lines having similar sounds at their ends seems as remote as mangoes on the moon.’
Philip Larkin was a huge Beatrix Potter fan. This may come as a surprise, given Larkin’s lugubriousness, but he and long-term girlfriend Monica Jones shared an intense fondness for Beatrix Potter’s tales of Peter Rabbit, Flopsy Bunny, and Mrs Tiggywinkle. And, much as Larkin would sign off his letters to Kingsley Amis with ‘bum’, he would frequently address Monica, in his letters to her, as ‘Bun’ – a reference to Beatrix Potter’s bunnies. Larkin would also often illustrate his letters to Monica, as well as the manuscripts for his poems, with drawings of bunny rabbits. He also, of course, wrote a memorable poem about the rabbits killed in the 1950s in order to control the population in Britain. You can read ‘Myxomatosis’ here.
Larkin used to mow the lawn wearing a D. H. Lawrence T-shirt. This surprising fact from Larkin’s life appeals to us here: because of the connection between two major twentieth-century writers, because the image of Larkin wearing a T-shirt of any kind seems odd. Larkin bought the T-shirt when he opened an exhibition about Lawrence’s life and work at Nottingham University in 1980. Lawrence’s depictions of mining communities would help to inspire Larkin’s poem ‘The Explosion’. And, on the topic of mowing the lawn, Larkin would write about this in his late poem ‘The Mower’, about his accidental killing of a hedgehog; Larkin the Lawrence-clad grass-cutter would also, of course, write a poem called ‘Cut Grass’.