Philip Larkin was born and grew up in Coventry, Warwickshire. His father, a right-wing individual who introduced him to the work of the leading contemporary poets, rose to become the Coventry City treasurer. Philip was educated at home by his mother and much older sister until the age of eight when he started at King Henry VIII junior school, moving up to the senior school three years later. He did not do well in his School Certificate examination but was allowed to stay on into the sixth form to study English and History. He was successful in gaining entrance to St John’s College, Oxford in 1940, obtaining a 1st class honours degree three years later. At university he met Kingsley Amis who became a lifelong friend and later dedicated his successful novel Lucky Jim to him.
Declared unfit for military service on account of his poor eyesight, he commenced a career as a librarian which he was to pursue for the rest of his life. He worked first in Wellington, Shropshire, then at University College, Leicester and in 1950 at Queen’s University, Belfast. In 1955 he became the librarian at the University of Hull where he was to remain for the next thirty years. He is credited with greatly expanding and modernising it.
He had started to write poetry while still at Oxford and in 1945 published his first collection of poems, The North Ship. He also wrote two novellas under a pseudonym, followed soon after by two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). He published a second volume of poems in 1955, The Less Deceived, but it was The Whitsun Weddings, a collection of 32 poems published in 1964, which established his reputation. His last volume of poetry, High Windows, was published in 1974. He was awarded a Visiting Fellowship at all Souls College, Oxford and a few years later became an honorary Fellow of St John’s College. He had declined an OBE in 1968 and also turned down the offer of the post of poet laureate after John Betjeman’s death in 1984 because he had stopped writing poetry several years earlier.
In addition to writing poetry and novels, he edited The Oxford Book of English Verse in 1973 and published a collection of his book reviews and essays in 1982 under the heading Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982. He also worked as the jazz critic for the Daily Telegraph from 1961-1971 described in his All What Jazz 1961-1968. His personal life was somewhat unusual. He had a long-term relationship with Monica Jones, a lecturer whom he had met in Leicester University in the 1940’s but this did not preclude him from simultaneously having relationships with several other women. He was an introspective man who shied away from publicity and never appeared to court fame.
Philip Larkin is without doubt regarded as one of the greatest British poets of the 20th Century. His poetry is frequently autobiographical and rooted in personal experiences. He writes in a clear, reflective tone and does not mince his words (viz “They fuck you up your mum and dad” from his poem This Be the Verse). A mood of bleakness and discontent pervades much of his poetry, mirroring the dreariness of post-war England and the spiritual impoverishment of the modern age. He died in Hull of oesophageal cancer and is commemorated by a green plaque on The Avenues, Kingston-on Hull.