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Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was an English librarian, poet, and novelist. Larkin's poems are similar in tone, and his writing style has elements that are easily recognisable. Larkin's poems are usually gloomy and pessimistic, often dealing with the ordinary: love, marriage, death, and the passage of time. Larkin's poems are bitter and melancholy in their tone, perhaps a reflection of his own personal life and experiences. Let's take a look at Larkin's life and death, poetry, and books.

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Philip Larkin

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Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was an English librarian, poet, and novelist. Larkin's poems are similar in tone, and his writing style has elements that are easily recognisable. Larkin's poems are usually gloomy and pessimistic, often dealing with the ordinary: love, marriage, death, and the passage of time. Larkin's poems are bitter and melancholy in their tone, perhaps a reflection of his own personal life and experiences. Let's take a look at Larkin's life and death, poetry, and books.

Philip Larkin, Statue, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Philip Larkin is an English poet best known for The Whitsun Weddings.

Philip Larkin: biography

Philip Larkin's Biography
Birth:9th August 1922
Death:11th June 1985
Father:Sydney Larkin
Mother:Eva Emily Day
Relationships:Winifred Arnott, Maeve Brennan, Monica Jones, Betty Mackereth
Children:None
Cause of death:Oesophageal cancer
Famous Works:
Nationality:English
Literary Period:Postmodernism

Larkin was born to parents Sydney and Eva Larkin in Coventry on 9 August 1922. He had an older sister, Catherine, who was 10 years older than him. They lived in Radford until Larkin was five when the family moved to a place near Coventry railway station. and Sydney was appointed treasurer of the Coventry City Council. Larkin grew up educated at home by his mother and sister.

Larkin attended King Henry VIII Junior School. He then studied English Literature at St John's College, Oxford University between 1940-1943. Larkin's poor eyesight meant he could not complete his military medical examination. Larkin made lasting friendships at Oxford, including celebrated author Kingsley Amis, and started writing his poetry.

Throughout his life, Larkin worked in various libraries. After Oxford, Larkin worked in various librarian positions in Wellington and the University College, Leicester. He became a sub-librarian at the Queen's University of Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1950. These five years of his life are noted to have been some of the most content years of his life.

Larkin was appointed Librarian at the University of Hull between 1955-1974. Larkin worked to computerise records for the entire library stock. He also published the book of poetry The Less Deceived (1955) at this time. The book received critical acclaim and established him as a leading poet of his generation.

The Whitsun Weddings was published in 1964, which propelled his persona into the public light. A lifelong passion for jazz also saw Larkin become a jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph between 1961 and 1971.

Larkin was well known for his poetry, in which Larkin explored ordinary themes in an often pessimistic and gloomy tone. He became an Honorary Fellow of St John's College and was awarded honorary degrees by Warwick, St Andrews, and Sussex universities in 1974.

Philip Larkin: cause of death

Larkin died of oesophageal cancer on 2 December 1985. Larkin is buried in Cottingham, Hull, in the Cottingham Municipal Cemetery.

In 1992, his letters were published posthumously. The letters revealed his right-wing and racist views, and his obsession with pornography, all of which strongly affected his reputation. Andrew Motion's biography Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life (2018) further explored these views. However, Larkin is still considered a popular poet in the UK to this day

Philip Larkin: poems

The main poems from Philip Larkin's collections include 'An Arundel Tomb', 'At Grass', 'Wild Oats', and 'The Whitsun Weddings'.

Philip Larkin: 'An Arundel Tomb'

Written in 1956, Larkin's 'An Arundel Tomb' is inspired by the 14th-century effigy of a medieval countess and earl which Larkin visited in Chichester Cathedral, Sussex. The effigy is of the two holding hands, which had a profound impact on Larkin.

One thing that particularly inspired him about the effigy was the idea that love lasts longer than death, and we see this sense of awe in the speaker's initial reaction to the effigy in the poem. However, the speaker then goes on to question the reasons behind the earl and countess having been marbleised in this way

Was it a search for fame? Was it to reflect tradition? Could they really have imagined that their statue would have lasted this long? Towards the end of the poem, the speaker decides that the effigy is in fact a true reflection of the love between the earl and countess.

Time has transfigured them into

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be

Their final blazon, and to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love. (l.37-42)

Philip Larkin: 'At Grass'

Larkin's 'At Grass', written in 1950, starts with the speaker observing two animals who are on a field. At first, the speaker struggles to see that they are horses, but we soon come to discover that they are, more specifically, former racehorses. These racehorses are no longer in their prime, nor do they carry the same glory or fame that they once held. To anyone else observing them - they are just regular horses in a field.

The phrase 'at grass' means having been put aside, which is how the speaker views these forgotten horses. The speaker of the poem also notes that the racehorses do not seem at all fazed by this change, instead, they are simply enjoying being horses. It is through this, perhaps, that Larkin hints at the idea that we as humans should also learn how to let go, and in return live simpler happier lives.

Do memories plague their ears like flies?

They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.

Summer by summer all stole away,

The starting-gates, the crowd and cries -

All but the unmolesting meadows.

Almanacked, their names live; they

Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,

Or gallop for what must be joy (l.19-26)

Philip Larkin: 'The Whitsun Weddings'

Published in 1964 as the title poem of Larkin's collection of poems, 'The Whitsun Weddings' describes the journey taken by the speaker from Kingston-upon-Hull to London. The speaker observes others who are with them on the train, and in particular, focuses on a newlywed couple.

The speaker contemplates this couple and the commitment they have made to each other, reflecting on ideas of love and marriage. Finally, the speaker arrives at their destination, and the journey from the rural east of England to urban London concludes with a final farewell.

The women shared

The secret like a happy funeral;

While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared

At a religious wounding. Free at last,

And loaded with the sum of all they saw,

We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.

Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast

Long shadows over major roads, and for

Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say

I nearly died,

A dozen marriages got under way. (l.52-63)

Philip Larkin, Themes in Poems, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The theme of the passage of time is present in poems such as 'The Whitsun Weddings'.

Philip Larkin: 'Wild Oats'

Larkin's 'Wild Oats' was written in 1962 and can be seen as a reflection on Larkin's own personal life. The work is about the speaker's relationship with two different women, Ruth Bowman and Jane Exall. The title of the poem, 'Wild Oats', is a common euphemism for the sexual freedoms that men are encouraged to explore in their lives.

Many men are roused from young adulthood to have sexual relations with as many women as they want, while women are often looked down upon should they do they same. In 'Wild Oats', the speaker struggles with fidelity and comes to regret his commitment by the end of the poem.

Parting, after about five

Rehearsals, was an agreement

That I was too selfish, withdrawn,

And easily bored to love.

Well, useful to get that learnt.

In my wallet are still two snaps

Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.

Unlucky charms, perhaps. (l.17-24)

Philip Larkin: 'Talking in Bed'

Written in 1960, Larkin's 'Talking in Bed' is about, well, exactly what the title implies. The poem explores the relationship between two lovers who are lying down together in bed, but who cannot talk to each other as easily as they ought to be able to.

There is a sense of loneliness and isolation in the poem, as the speaker contemplates what has led the couple to this point in their relationship.

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,

Lying together there goes back so far,

An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently. (l.1-4)

Philip Larkin: themes

The most common themes in Philip Larkin's poems include love, death, time, and marriage.

Themes in Philip Larkin poemsExplanation
Love Larkin often questions love and holds a deep scepticism towards it. Not only this, but Philip Larkin also questions how long love can truly last.
DeathOften in his poems, Larkin explores the inevitability of death. In addition, Philip Larkin explores the inevitability of loss, whether this be the loss of others, or of one's self.
Passage of timeLarkin explores the passage of time in many of his poems. In particular, Philip Larkin delves into reflections upon the past, the choices that we make as humans, and a recognition that things can change over time.
MarriageIn some of his poetry, Larkin explores the institution of marriage. Philip Larkin appears to hold a pessimistic view of marriage, questioning the commitment that people choose to make to one another.

Philip Larkin: books

As well as writing poetry, Philip Larkin wrote fiction and non-fiction texts such as Jill and A Girl in Winter.

Philip Larkin: Jill

Larkin's novel Jill, published in 1946, follows the protagonist John Kemp. The novel is set in 1940, in which young, working-class John attends Oxford University. John feels out of place, especially given his own background, and the novel follows his journey through not only education, but also personal growth, and his endeavours into the wider world.

He had thought that once he had found his rooms, he would always have a refuge, a place to retreat and hide in. This was apparently not so. (Ch.1)

Philip Larkin: A Girl in Winter

Published in 1947, Larkin's A Girl in Winter is the tale of protagonist Katherine Lind. Due to war, Katherine Lind finds herself displaced, and becomes an assistant librarian in the town in which she now lives. The coming of age story of a young girl - A Girl in Winter explores themes of love, loneliness, and the loss of innocence.

There was little expression on her face as she closed the door behind her. Indeed, there rarely was ... Yet at other times a faint look of amusement stole into her face, as if with pleasure at the completeness with which she could cover her thoughts. And when she spoke it was with a foreign accent. (Ch.2)

Philip Larkin: Key takeaways

  • Larkin was born on 9 August 1922 in Coventry, England. In his life, he was an English librarian, poet, and novelist.
  • Throughout his life, Larkin worked in various libraries, the last of which was the library at the University of Hull.
  • Larkin's poems are normally very similar in tone: gloomy and pessimistic, holding bitter and melancholy inflexions.
  • In his poetry, Philip Larkin often dealt with the ordinary, for example, love, marriage, death, and the passage of time.
  • Larkin died of cancer on 2 December 1985, and is buried in Cottingham, in the Cottingham Municipal Cemetery

References

  1. Fig. 1 - Statue of Philip Larkin (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of_Philip_Larkin_-_geograph.org.uk_-_3256198.jpg) by Peter Church (https://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/16649) is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Philip Larkin

Among Philip Larkin's most famous poems are 'An Arundel Tomb', 'At Grass', 'The Whitsun Weddings', 'Wild Oat's, and 'Talking in Bed'

Philip Larkin wrote over 200 poems

The tone in this poem is relaxed and informal

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry (England)

Philip Larkin was often considered anti-romantic; his poems are usually gloomy and pessimistic, holding bitter and melancholy inflexions 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

In which decade was 'The Whitsun Weddings' published?

Romanticism focused on celebrating nature, spirituality, and the emotions and the imagination of the individual. 

When someone criticises something or someone else in a way that is funny or mocking, it is...

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