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Larkin, Philip Arthurfree

(1922–1985)
  • Anthony Thwaite

Philip Arthur Larkin (1922–1985)

by Humphrey Ocean, 1984

Larkin, Philip Arthur (1922–1985), poet, writer, and librarian, was born at 2 Poultney Road, Radford, Coventry, on 9 August 1922, the only son and younger child of Sydney Larkin (1884–1948), city treasurer of Coventry, who came from Lichfield, and his wife, Eva Emily Day (1886–1977), of Epping. He was educated at King Henry VIII School, Coventry (1930–40), and went up to St John's College, Oxford, in October 1940 to read English language and literature, taking a first-class degree in 1943. Unlike many of his contemporaries during the Second World War, he took the full-length, unbroken degree course, having been rejected for military service because of his bad eyesight.

Childhood influences and youthful friendships

In poems (such as 'Coming' and 'I remember, I remember'), in interviews, and in casual references in his prose, Larkin implies that his childhood was unremarkable, 'a forgotten boredom' (Larkin, Collected Poems, 33), and that his upbringing was of no significance: 'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere' (ibid., 82). But there is a good deal of evidence that this was not so. A brief prose memoir, 'Not the Place's Fault', first published in a small Coventry arts magazine in 1959 and uncollected in his lifetime, is a vivid and acutely remembered account of his early days; and a number of his letters, early and late, to King Henry VIII School friends such as J. B. Sutton and Colin Gunner show a sharp recall of such things as the verbal peculiarities of his schoolmasters.

Larkin was powerfully influenced by his father, a man of strong views on many things: literature, politics, religion, women, and efficiency. Sydney Larkin admired much about the recovery of Germany under the Nazi regime, and took his son on two visits to Germany in 1936 and 1937. Philip loathed these experiences, chiefly (as he recalled them) because of the impenetrable language barriers. But he was always loyal to his father's shaping spirit in literature: the family library introduced him to the English classics, and also to more recent authors: Hardy, Butler, Shaw, and—more radically, in the 1930s—to D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and Katherine Mansfield.

From childhood Larkin was hampered by a disability which lasted until his early thirties: he was a stammerer. But to some extent he compensated for this by becoming a fluent writer. His first contribution to his school magazine, The Coventrian, was published in 1933, when he was eleven. It is an extraordinarily assured, facetious performance for someone so young. Throughout his school years, he made his mark through his wit, and his ability to unite the acceptable and the anarchic.

Oxford gave Larkin greater scope, and brought him new friends. At first he stuck with his King Henry VIII contemporaries, such as James Sutton, who was unexpectedly in Oxford as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, the Slade having been evacuated from London to the Ashmolean Museum. More importantly, and lastingly, there was his friendship with Kingsley Amis, who arrived at St John's to read English at the beginning of Larkin's third term, in April 1941.

Early publications

From the beginning, Larkin and Amis shared tastes, in jazz, films, poetry, fiction, and jokes. They laughed at the pretensions of the leading undergraduate poets of the day (Sidney Keyes, John Heath-Stubbs), at the requirements of the English syllabus, at the dons. They constructed together wild parodies and travesties. Larkin was already beginning to write a series of pastiches of schoolgirl stories, including the Willow Gables fantasy, which became part of his first novel, Jill. For four terms, in 1941–2, Larkin and Amis were an almost inseparable team, until Amis was called up into the army. Their friendship continued in letters, of a highly mannered, often scurrilous kind, throughout Amis's military service and afterwards.

Later at Oxford, Larkin became a close friend of another St John's undergraduate, Bruce Montgomery, already beginning to make a reputation (under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin) as a detective-story writer, and also as a musician. It was Montgomery who introduced Larkin to a new kind of intellectual, bohemian, bon-viveur life. Larkin contributed some passages to Montgomery's early Crispin fiction, and one of Montgomery's first novels is dedicated to him.

Larkin had already made a precocious start as a poet, publishing a poem in the BBC's literary weekly, The Listener, within a few weeks of his arrival at St John's. At Oxford he contributed to such undergraduate journals as Cherwell, and some of his poems were included in the anthologies Oxford Poetry, 1942–43 and, later, Poetry from Oxford in Wartime. But for all his ebullient presence, he was not counted among the most noted university writers.

The poems Larkin had written from the age of sixteen until his final year at Oxford had been marked by a devotion to W. H. Auden. Many of these early Larkin poems are exceptionally precocious; they may be Audenesque pastiches, but they are full of skill and confidence. Then, in the spring of 1943, a visit to the Oxford University English Club by Vernon Watkins supplanted Auden as an influence. Watkins read and talked about W. B. Yeats, and later Larkin several times recalled the impact of this: 'I spent the next three years trying to write like Yeats' (Larkin, Required Writing, 29). It was not a helpful influence, but it was hard to shake off.

Becoming a librarian

Having been awarded his first, and at home in his parents' house in Warwick (the Coventry house was badly damaged in the blitz), Larkin unsuccessfully attempted entry to the civil service. Failing in that, he worked away at his novel Jill. But in November 1943 a letter arrived from the Ministry of Labour, pointing out that his rejection by the civil service should not preclude his search for other war work. Almost precipitately, he applied for the first job that seemed to present itself: urban district librarian in Wellington, Shropshire. He was given the job ('single-handed and untrained'), and began work in December 1943.

Larkin had had no particular bent for librarianship, and always maintained that his entry to the profession was an accident of wartime circumstances. But, for all the bewildering drudgery of the job (he found he had to stoke the boiler as well as stamp the books, make reports to the district council, clear the reading room of derelicts, for long hours on low pay), he became a popular and influential figure. Most importantly, he formed a close relationship with a sixth-former from a local school, Ruth Bowman.

This friendship grew to become Larkin's first engrossing—and characteristically difficult—love affair. There was the discrepancy of ages: Larkin was twenty-one, Ruth only sixteen. Her family was naturally suspicious. But Ruth was deeply influenced by the literary knowledge which Larkin passed on to her, pressing books in her direction. She was flattered by his attentions. For his part, he was both infatuated and frightened: infatuated because of her devotion, frightened of what it might lead to. It was not until May 1945 that they actually became lovers; for a time they seemed destined to marry.

There was a brief engagement, but Larkin allowed it to evaporate, looking for a way of escape. In September 1946 he left Wellington and became an assistant librarian at what was then the University College of Leicester. His first novel, Jill, completed and accepted by the small and suspect Fortune Press, was published in that year. It received no attention; nor had his book of poems, The North Ship, published by the same press a year earlier.

Meanwhile, Larkin had completed a second novel, A Girl in Winter, which was published by Faber and Faber in 1947. This had several positive notices, and it sold 5000 copies within its year of publication. Larkin, in his university library work at Leicester, was recognized by a few as ‘a writer’. Among these was (Margaret) Monica Jones (1922–2001), a young lecturer in the English department, who, without knowing him then at all, had been an Oxford contemporary.

Apart from his parents, and with the exception of the powerful but more marginal Kingsley Amis, Monica Jones was the most consistently important figure in Larkin's life. She was his confidante and frequent—and finally sole—companion, from the late 1940s until his death. What began rather casually in 1946 continued as an association so close and intimate that it became, in the end, almost a marriage.

Becoming a poet

In spite of the small success of A Girl in Winter, which could have given him some credibility as a writer, Larkin had at this time by no means established himself as a poet. Indeed, he still felt himself to be a novelist. It was only later, after repeated struggles with two further novels, never completed, that he gradually discovered his true gift. In late 1947 he submitted a typescript collection of poems, In the Grip of Light, to the literary agent A. P. Watt, who had placed A Girl in Winter with Faber and Faber. This was turned down by several publishers. In March 1948 Sydney Larkin died of cancer. Larkin had the task of trying to settle his widowed mother. Troubled by this, and by his lack of literary success, it seemed to him that his effective life was over.

Already, however, Larkin had begun—at first sporadically—to write the poems which established his reputation: 'Wedding Wind', in 1946, was one of the earliest, and this is one of a handful written during his period in Leicester which, in retrospect, show the growth of his genius. They were, according to Larkin, prompted by his reading of some of Thomas Hardy's poems that year, though 'Wedding Wind' seems to carry something of an earlier admiration of D. H. Lawrence.

Then, after making sure that his mother was settled in Loughborough, in the autumn of 1950 Larkin made a decisive break with his former life, taking up the job of sub-librarian of the Queen's University in Belfast. It was Belfast that saw, as Larkin later acknowledged, his breakthrough as a poet. Within a few months he wrote some of his best and best-known poems. He had little immediate success with them, and fell back on publishing at his own expense 100 copies of a pamphlet, XX Poems, set up by a local printer in 1951. But soon he began to publish some of these poems in such periodicals as The Spectator and in a Fantasy Press pamphlet (1954), and to have them broadcast on the BBC Third Programme. Word began to spread that a new poet was on the scene. The literary editor of The Spectator, J. D. Scott, together with Anthony Hartley, who in the 1950s was poetry editor of the journal, had much to do with this. Scott's anonymous leading article, 'In the Movement', in October 1954, drew attention to what quickly became known as the Movement, and Larkin's name began to be associated with such new writers as Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and Iris Murdoch.

By early 1955 Larkin had put together a collection, initially called Various Poems. At that moment he was approached by George Hartley, who together with his wife, Jean, had for a year been editing a quarterly magazine of poetry, Listen, from a suburb of Hull. Hartley had published some of Larkin's poems in Listen, and was keen to launch himself as a book publisher under a new imprint, the Marvell Press, with a really good volume. His choice was Larkin, to whom Hartley wrote in Belfast.

Librarian of Hull

Coincidentally, Larkin had already accepted the post of librarian at the university library in Hull. Hartley and Larkin between them drew up a list of possible subscribers to the book, which Larkin eventually entitled The Less Deceived. It was published at the end of 1955, by which time Larkin had arrived in Hull, where he was to spend the last thirty years of his life.

Larkin transformed the library, which was small and old-fashioned when he took it over, into one of the best university libraries in Britain: as he put it, he inherited 'a nice little Shetland pony' and made it into 'a frightful Grand National winner' (TES, 19 May 1972). The Less Deceived made his name as a poet, being picked by The Times as one of the books of the year, and rapidly going into several impressions. The Times Literary Supplement referred to Larkin as 'a poet of quite exceptional importance'. Some of the poems included quickly became in their various ways exemplars of excellence: 'Church Going', 'Toads', 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album', 'Deceptions' (a phrase from which became the title of the book), 'At Grass'. They ranged from the easily colloquial and casually humorous to the weightily rhetorical, often within the compass of a single poem.

An established poet

The discovery of Larkin as an important poet almost inevitably meant that he was soon sought out as a reader of his own poems, as well as a critic and lecturer. In most cases, however, he resisted all such approaches. Nevertheless, for a time in the late 1950s he reviewed new books of verse for the Manchester Guardian, and in 1961 he began a longish period of reviewing jazz records for the Daily Telegraph. Jazz had been an important enthusiasm since his teens, and at first he welcomed the opportunity to write about it. But before long he realized, with some pain and some asperity, that his tastes were too narrow to satisfy either himself or a wider (and younger) jazz-loving audience. He did, however, eventually take the initiative in gathering together many of his Daily Telegraph pieces, published by Faber and Faber as All What Jazz in 1970.

Although Larkin was, between the early 1950s and the early 1970s, less costive a poet than he liked to pretend, he was a severe judge of his own work. After The Less Deceived, it was nine years before he published another book of poems: The Whitsun Weddings (1964). This too was published by Faber and Faber, the initiative having been taken by Charles Monteith, an editor in the firm. As long ago as 1955, Monteith, noticing 'Church Going' in The Spectator, had written to Larkin asking whether he would like to offer a collection to what was the most prestigious publisher of poetry in Britain. But Larkin was by then already committed to the Marvell Press. However, his growing fame, and the friendship which he developed with Monteith during the late 1950s and early 1960s, meant that the offer was taken up, though later rather than sooner.

The Whitsun Weddings set the seal on Larkin's reputation. Following its publication in 1964, a first printing of 4000 was soon exhausted and a reprint was ordered shortly after publication. It was a Poetry Book Society choice, and was given an Arts Council award. Larkin received the queen's gold medal for poetry. The book's title-poem had already become one of the talismanic poems of the period, and the book also contained others which were recognized as brilliant, moving, sharply exact moments of truth: 'A Study of Reading Habits', 'Dockery and Son', 'An Arundel Tomb'. The complexities and simplicities of his language registered a precise sensitivity to life and death, loneliness and communion, desire for the impossible and despair at the unattainable, which was recognized as both memorious and memorable.

Although Larkin was never a ready supplier of material to the many literary editors who now clamoured for his attention as reviewer and critic, he allowed himself throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and almost until his death, to write about other writers to whom he felt allegiance: Thomas Hardy, William Barnes, Christina Rossetti, Wilfred Owen, W. H. Auden, Stevie Smith. His juvenile fascination with D. H. Lawrence and with the Powys brothers, as well as with less obvious writers (Henry de Montherlant, Julian Hall, Barbara Pym), was followed in several reviews and articles. Most conspicuously, he was loyal to the work and example of John Betjeman, with whom he formed a mutual admiration society. They probably enjoyed a sense of detachment, in that they escaped both the new ‘swinging’ fashions of Carnaby Street and the 1960s, and the new academic taste for continental literary theory.

Ten years after The Whitsun Weddings appeared the last book of poems to be published in Larkin's lifetime: High Windows. A year earlier, in 1973, Oxford University Press brought out his controversial anthology, The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. Larkin had accepted this commission in 1966. Most of his reading for it was done during a period of two terms, 1970–71, when he was given a visiting fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. Taking leave of absence from the University of Hull, he doggedly read his way through the century's verse in the Bodleian Library, taking photocopies of his material and brooding over it in his rooms in college lodgings in Iffley. When this anthology was eventually published, its critical reception was mixed. Some (such as W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, C. P. Snow) welcomed it as an illuminating collection. Robert Lowell, the leading American poet, saw it as 'a Larkin poem, not the best, but the longest to write' (Encounter, May 1973). Others, such as Donald Davie, pronounced it 'a calamity', which excluded some of the best poets of the period. With all this controversy, the anthology sold extremely well, over 175,000 copies during the next quarter-century.

High Windows (1974) followed in its wake. If 'Church Going' was the acclaimed major poem of The Less Deceived, and 'The Whitsun Weddings' held the same position in the book of that title, 'The Building' was the centre of attention in High Windows. As an authoritative testimony of the ubiquitous power of death, following the same kind of circumstantial, anecdotal, ratiocinative route as the earlier poems in their coming to terms with religion and marriage, 'The Building' made a definitive statement. Other poems in High Windows—the title-poem, 'Annus mirabilis', 'This be the Verse'—showed Larkin's crisp, cutting command of the resonantly colloquial, most immediately in its confrontation with sex. The opening line of 'This be the Verse' ('They fuck you up, your mum and dad') has become part of the common currency of contemporary Britain. A few years after its publication Larkin remarked in a letter that 'I fully expect to hear it recited by a thousand Girl Guides before I die' (Larkin, Selected Letters, 674).

Later years

In the remaining eleven years of his life, Larkin wrote little poetry and published less. His final major published poem was 'Aubade', written, as was so often the case, over a long period, and finally appearing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977. Feeling that his gift as a poet had come to an end, he refused Margaret Thatcher's offer of the poet laureateship after the death of John Betjeman.

But Larkin's literary career had not come to an end. In 1983 he published a gathering of prose pieces (memoirs, interviews, reviews), Required Writing, which was received with great enthusiasm, and won the W. H. Smith award in 1984. Indeed, his last years were marked with many honours, including a multitude of honorary doctorates (from Belfast, 1969; Leicester, 1970; Warwick, 1973; St Andrews, 1974; Sussex, 1974; the New University of Ulster, 1983; and Oxford, 1984). He was made a CBE in 1975, received the A. C. Benson silver medal from the Royal Society of Literature that same year, and the Shakespeare-Preis from the FVS Foundation in Hamburg in 1976: his brief visit to Germany to receive this was one of Larkin's very few forays into dreaded ‘abroad’.

Beginning in the 1960s, Larkin made available his unusual powers as a committee man: he served at various times on the literature panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain, was active in first setting up and then guiding the Arts Council's National Manuscript Collection of Contemporary Writers in conjunction with the British Museum, was chairman for several years of the Poetry Book Society, and as a widely respected librarian was a prominent member of the Standing Conference of National and University Librarians. Having at an early stage taken his library examinations and become an associate of the Library Association in 1949, he was elected an honorary fellow of that association in 1980. In 1977 he rather surprisingly accepted the offer of being the chairman of judges for the Booker prize for fiction, and delivered a notably graceful and witty speech when the prize went to Paul Scott. His old college at Oxford, St John's, made him an honorary fellow in 1973, and he served on the board of the British Library.

In June 1985 Larkin was made a Companion of Honour. That month he was suddenly taken ill after an operation on his oesophagus, and was in intensive care for some time. He was discharged from hospital a month later, and returned to the house in Hull he had bought in 1974, the first house he had ever owned. Four months later he collapsed and was taken into the Nuffield Hospital, Hull, where he died of cancer in the early hours of 2 December 1985. His funeral was at St Mary the Virgin, Cottingham, just outside Hull, and he was buried close by at the municipal cemetery on 9 December.

The obituaries, articles, radio and television programmes that followed were unprecedented for a late twentieth-century poet. Larkin's memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey on an exceptionally cold St Valentine's day, 14 February 1986. It was attended by many hundreds of admirers who had never known the man but who loved his work. Larkin's literary executors and trustees were faced with a difficult will, drawn up by Larkin in July 1985: some of its clauses were judged 'repugnant' (that is, contradictory) by a queen's counsel acting on behalf of the literary executors. Larkin's voluminous diaries had been destroyed in early December 1985: he had made his wishes clear to Monica Jones as he lay dying. But his other papers remained, including the seven manuscript notebooks of poems drafted between March 1950 and November 1980. (Larkin had presented his first notebook, covering the period October 1944 to March 1950, to the British Library in 1965.) Monica Jones, living with Larkin in Hull at the time of his death, and having been appointed by him as both trustee and literary executor, appointed his two further literary executors to edit and write three books. In 1988 Larkin's Collected Poems (edited by Anthony Thwaite) was published. There followed Selected Letters, 1940–1985, also edited by Thwaite, in 1992. In 1993 Andrew Motion published his Philip Larkin: a Writer's Life. All were widely and sometimes controversially reviewed. Some attacked the books and the editing and writing, some Larkin himself as someone perceived to have an overblown reputation: some attacked both. In 2010 a selection of Larkin's letters to Monica Jones was published as Letters to Monica, edited by Thwaite.

Larkin was a very private but also sometimes surprisingly a convivial, witty, entertaining, and genial man. Against his public remarks and phrases in private letters which might suggest a loathing of women, children, foreigners, and several other categories of human being, there has to be set a number of very close friendships with women (including not only those already mentioned but also Winifred Arnott, Patsy Strang, Judy Egerton, Maeve Brennan, and Jean Hartley) and with a significant minority of children, foreigners, and left-wing intellectuals.

Physically, Larkin was tall, strongly built, imposing in his presence, heavily bespectacled, but also gradually burdened with a sense of being prematurely bald, overweight, increasingly deaf, and reminded day by day of what he memorably called 'age, and then the only end of age' (Larkin, Collected Poems, 153). But he never lost his love of his favoured type of jazz; or of the game of cricket, his election to the Marylebone Cricket Club being one of his most coveted honours. He was a keen photographer, and many of the images of himself were recorded, singly or with others, with his own delayed-action camera.

Sources

  • A. Motion, Philip Larkin: a writer's life (1993)
  • A. Thwaite, The selected letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985 (1992)
  • P. Larkin, Collected poems, ed. A. Thwaite (1988)
  • A. Thwaite, ed., Larkin at sixty (1982)
  • P. Larkin, ‘Not the place's fault’, Umbrella (1959)
  • P. Larkin, Required writing (1983)
  • P. Larkin, All what jazz (1970)
  • personal knowledge (2004)

Archives

  • BL, notebook number 1
  • BL, notebook of draft poems, Add. MS 52619
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp.
  • Bodl. Oxf., notes and MSS
  • U. Hull, papers
  • U. Hull, poems and family MSS
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., corresp. and papers, incl. MSS and workbooks; additional papers
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., MSS and administrative files
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Robert Conquest
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Winifred Dawson
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Bruce Montgomery
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Barbara Pym
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Monica Jones
  • Hunt. L., letters to Kingsley Amis
  • NL Wales, letters to Dannie Abse
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., letters to Harry Chambers
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., corresp. with Colin Gunner
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., corresp. with Brenda E. Moon
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., letters to Philip Norton-Smith
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., letters to James Ballard Sutton
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., letters to Ted Tarling
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., letters to Anthony Thwaite
  • U. Leeds, corresp. with London Magazine
  • University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, McFarlin Library, letters to Patricia Avis

Film

  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L.

Sound

  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., several recordings: Larkin reading, and in interviews

Likenesses

  • H. Morgan, charcoal drawing, 1979, U. Hull
  • H. Ocean, oils, 1984, NPG [see illus.]
  • photographs, repro. in Motion, Philip Larkin
  • photographs, repro. in Thwaite, ed., Larkin at sixty
  • photographs, repro. in Thwaite, ed., Selected letters, 1940–1985

Wealth at Death

£297,787: probate, 14 July 1986, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]