Philip Larkin was born in Coventry, England in August of 1922. He was the only son born to parents Sydney and Eva Larkin. Only a few years after Larkin’s birth the family moved from Radford, Coventry to a middle-class home near Coventry railway station. His father worked as the city treasurer for a number of years in the mid-1900s, while his mother was seen to be a continually nervous woman who was very much the passive partner in the relationship. Larkin’s father was known for his adoration of literature, particularly that of Ezra Pound and James Joyce alongside writers like D.H. Lawrence, as well as for his Nazi leanings.
Larkin’s father introduced him to literature at a young age and his formal education was undertaken at home until he reached the age of eight. He had developed a stammer during this time, but that did not stop him from socializing when he was eventually enrolled at Coventry’s King Henry VIII Junior School. Although he was a bright child, Larkin did not do well when he sat for his School Certificate. This turned out to be a blip in an otherwise successful educational career and he went on to earned distinctions in English and History.
It had been Larkin’s intention, with WWII on the horizon, to join the military, but he was unable to pass the army medical due to his poor eyesight. Instead, Larkin entered into university at St. John’s College Oxford in 1940. While enrolled at Oxford, Larkin and a number of his close friends created a group they named, “The Seven.” They met to drink, talk, and read one another’s poetry. Larkin graduated in 1943 with a first-class honours degree. This same year three of Larkin’s poems were published in Oxford Poetry.
After graduation, Larkin moved back in with his parents until he was appointed to a position at the Wellington, Shropshire library. He spent his time studying to become a professional librarian and expanding his writing practice. At the same time, he met his first real love, Ruth Bowman, who was a 16-year-old student.
In 1945, ten of Larkin’s poems were published in Poetry from Oxford in Wartime This publication was followed by two novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter. Larkin’s professional life was developing, as was his relationship with Ruth Bowman. In 1948 he proposed to her and by 1950, he became sub-librarian at The Queen’s University of Belfast. Unfortunately, this advancement in his career signaled the end of his relationship to Ruth and the two went their separate ways that same year.
The following years saw the publication of his collection, XX Poems, as well as the printing of a few individual poems including, “Toads” and “Poetry of Departures.” He became the Librarian at the University of Hull in 1955 and that same year his collection, The Less Deceived, was released. It was this collection that solidified his reputation as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. There was a lull between collections, and his work The Whitsun Weddings, was not released until 1964. After the publication of this volume, Larkin became the subject of an arts program titled, Monitor.
Later Life and Honors
Over the following years, he was offered an OBE, which he declined, and worked to compile an anthology titled The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. Due to the success of this volume he was awarded a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. He became an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College Oxford, and was granted a number of honorary degrees. Larkin was also made a Companion of Literature in 1978 and an Honorary Fellow of the Library Association in 1980. Two years later, the University of Hull granted him a full professorship.
The honors continued to flow in during the final years of his life, including the opportunity to become Poet Laureate, a position he declined. In 1982 he released a collection of his essays titled, Larkin at Sixty. In the middle of 1985, Larkin entered the hospital for a problem with his throat, which turned out to be oesophageal cancer. He went through an unsuccessful operation to remove his esophagus and he died in hospital in December of 1985.
During his life, Larkin was considered to be a straightforward Englishman who took no joy from his fame. After his death, it was discovered that Larkin held some controversially racist and misogynistic positions, but that does not deter the public at large from considering him one of Britain’s best-loved post-war writers. Today, a statue of Larkin can be seen in Kingston upon Hull commemorating the 25th anniversary of his death. Six years later in 2016, a plaque acknowledging his achievement was placed in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.