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(1922-1985). A scabrous, resentful, and anti-sentimental poet. He declined to be Poet Laureate in 1984 (I think they picked Ted Hughes then). Larkin attended St. John's College, Oxford, where he was friends with Kingsley Amis.

Major books of poetry include The North Ship (1945) and The Whitsun Weddings (1964). Also, Collected Poems, published in 1989. His monthly record reviews for The Daily Telegraph between 1961 and 1971 were published in a collection entitled All What Jazz: a record diary 1961-1968. He won the Order of the Companion of Honour in June of 1985 - his most prized.

Deeply anti-social and a great lover (and published critic) of
American jazz, Larkin never married and conducted an uneventful
life as a librarian in the provincial city of Hull, where he
died in 1985.

- quote from the Academy of American Poets website

During his life, Phillip Larkin was celebrated as England's greatest living poet. When he died his diaries were found to contain many anti-semitic remarks, which was a minor scandal in the literary world at the time. Since then, many Larkin biographers have defended him, saying that it wasn't that he didn't like Jews specifically: he hated everyone equally.

Philip Larkin is also a major character in 'Knights Of The Morningstar', a book in the Quantum Leap series, based on the highly successful television show (Donald P. Bellisario) dealing with Dr. Samuel Beckett being lost in the past and bouncing from body to body and time to time, fixing whatever went wrong in their lives.

The book details how Dr Beckett 'leaped' into Philip Larkin, a particle physicist who wanted to be a writer of historical fiction, and get the girl (his publisher).

The main point which distinguishes Larkin from the other people which Beckett 'leaped' into, is that Larkin had a direct effect on Project Quantum Leap, with his invention of the 'Larkin Capacitor', an electronic component which resembled in some form a golden Morning Star.

The book which Larkin makes his appearance in is also distinguished from the others by the presence of Alia, the 'dark' Leaper who is Dr. Beckett's Enemy. Written by Melanie Rawn, pub. 1994 by Boxtree Limited.

Larkin is fascinated by Time and Change. Discuss using two or three poems.

Philip Larkin is very much obsessed with death, and the transience of life- how finite it is, and how brief the journey is between birth and death. In his poetry, he attempts to put his thoughts regarding life, death, time and change, to reflect his Mind on paper. Some of the better reflections, I thought, can be found in his poems The Trees, Annus Mirabilis and The Old Fools.

In ‘The Trees’, Larkin discusses the apparent resurrection of trees, and, in doing this, looks at the aging and death of humans, as a species. The first two lines of the second stanza say, ‘is it that they are born again/When we grow old? No, they die, too.’ Here he mentions the renewal of a trees foliage year after year, the way a tree appears to die, and become reborn as a new tree with the coming of the new year- they ‘begin afresh’. Trees live, just the same as all other things that live, and that life eventually ends for them, just the same as all other things that live- they live only once and die only once, but it seems (with the obvious exception of evergreens) that yearly they die, and yearly they are reborn. It’s their ‘yearly trick of looking new’. What Larkin wanted to know was, why haven’t humans, who are at the top of the evolutionary ladder, managed to find a way to go through the cycle of life yearly as trees had done for aeons before them, and not simply build oneself up and break oneself back down again once over the course of their life?

In ‘Annus Mirabilis’, Larkin explores a different kind of change over time- the change of society’s values. The Annus Mirabilis in question here is 1963, where ‘sexual intercourse began’, ‘Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP’, the miraculous year where youth culture really showed the world it was here, and to get used to it. Before the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll, there really was no youth culture, and people dressed like their parents, listened to their parents’ music, ate and slept like their parents and generally were expected to mirror their parents. Then, almost out of nowhere, in the 1950s, came a White man who sang the Blues and swung his hips obscenely. Today every hip-hop video has wall-to-wall honeys in metallic bikinis shaking their tail-feathers all about, but to the conservative ‘50’s, it just wasn’t on, for a young man to swing his hips in that way. Suddenly, it felt like youths were liberated- not only in music, but in sex, as well. The ‘60’s were the time of Sexual Revolution. The Pill was invented in 1959, and prior to this time people would marry at 16, just for the sake of sex. Now that contraception was available, people felt they could have all the sex they wanted- it was the time of free love. And nobody had to marry so early any longer. The ‘60’s was basically the decade of revolution. With the Beatles came boys with long hair who made songs about acid trips, and took music to strange new places. And then there was the Chatterley Ban. A man named D.H. Lawrence wrote a book called Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The writing has been described as mediocre, and nothing much to get into a fuss about (I haven’t read it yet, though I plan to, but I trust this person’s opinion), but the ‘graphic sexual content’ of it got the publishers, Penguin, taken to court. People wanted the books taken off the shelves, burned, and the writer crucified. Penguin subsequently won the case, which blazed a trail for all other writers, who began to take advantage of this freedom of expression. True, there was pornography before Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but this book got erotic literature and films into the mainstream. The general feeling in the 1960’s was one of emancipation, liberation, and freedom. The great mass social shift, the revolution, is described in the poem as ‘up till then there’d only been::::/a shame that started at sixteen’, ‘then all at once, the quarrel sank:/everyone felt the same’.

The third kind of change Larkin explores in his poetry is the gradual, but also (paradoxically) very dramatic shift to old age. He explores this in the Old Fools. The Old Fools is about senile dementia, and begins rather cruelly. When Larkin wrote this, he would have known all about dementia, with an 89-year-old mother to look after (I don’t think he did look after her, but he would have at least visited her, on the occasion, out of a sense of duty). Larkin describes it as a ‘hideous inverted childhood’, that after the human body and sensibilia have been built up gradually from conception to birth to about age 35, from total dependence to major dependence to independence, the body begins to break down to a thing totally dependant on others for its survival, in no control of itself (‘when your mouth hangs open and drools/ and you keep on pissing yourself’)- it’s life, only inverted. After a point, Larkin tries to be sympathetic with the old and senile- perhaps he realises that that’s where he’s headed. The thing that strikes Larkin most about Old Age is that it comes along so gradually that it can’t be noticed by the affected party- this is what he’s really afraid of. ‘Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines-/how can they ignore it?’ ‘why aren’t they screaming?’. Luckily for Larkin, he didn’t have to go through what he feared most, he was given a free ticket out of it by some unseen God a little early, in the form of cancer of the throat. But Larkin tried to dismiss his fear as irrational, realising that it had to, necessarily, happen to all of us- all of us unfortunate enough to live to that age. The poem ends with the chilling few words, ‘we shall find out’, and find out we shall. This line is rather like the line from another of his poems, ‘Ambulances’, where he writes ‘all streets, in time, are visited’.

Larkin had many fears. A fear of eternal nothingness, which is a depressing thought, even more so than the threat of Hell, which at least promises existence; a fear of old age and senility; and a fear of death. But Larkin was also a minor philosopher, and had no time for fears. In his poetry he tried to explain to himself the various oddities of human existence.

Node your homework

My first encounter with Philip Larkin was as a fresher in October 1974. As university librarian it was Larkin's annual duty to give an introductory lecture to the year's fresh intake. I recall seeing this tall, portly man with bottle-top glasses in a bank manager's suit. Not at all how I imagined a poet should look. (My Dad had told me about Larkin when I first announced I'd chosen to go to Hull University, otherwise I'm sure I'd have taken no notice at all.) To this audience of several hundred 18-year olds - more interested in eyeing each other for fanciableness than listening to some bloke in a suit - Larkin declared with a plummy, resonant voice and measured delivery, as if it was a line from Shakespeare, "...educated people should know three things: what words mean, where places are and when things happened".

My first encounter with his poetry was several months later. It was a vacation and I was at home with Mum and Dad, younger sister and brother. Larkin was to be featured in a TV documentary and the whole family gathered expectantly round the set at the appointed time. Then the first stanza was read "They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you." Cue acute, embarrassed silence. My Mum, I think, said "Well I don't think much of this" and without another word the TV was switched off. We didn't discuss this (in fact I don't think we ever discussed it). It was some years later that I got to know (and love) Larkin's poetry and to reflect on the idiot producer who chose to start that TV programme with arguably his worst poem, just for the shock value of the word fuck on the BBC (this was 1975). It's not that I'm prudish about the sentiment expressed, it's just not a good poem.

Fast forward about six years. I've accepted a junior lecturing post while finishing off my PhD, and find myself a member of the science faculty board. As librarian Larkin is an ex-officio member and I recall him contributing his opinions to the board's debates. I've long forgotten the subject of those debates but I vividly recall the manner of Larkin's contributions. He would stand, as if addressing parliament, and speak what I can only describe as perfect English. His articulation, diction and metre was actor-perfect. If you had written down exactly what he said, and punctuation would have been easy for he paused in commas and semi-colons, you would get perfect prose; each word exactly the right word, each phrase perfectly turned. I was, at the time, going out with a girl who worked in the library and she told me Larkin's memoranda were the same: each a miniature essay, a perfectly formed construction of letters.

I never knew Larkin. Nobody did. He was a distant, unapproachable man and, by all accounts, not at all likeable. The closest he and I came to conversation was exchanging nods across the lunchtime staff common-room bar. I find it satisfyingly ironic therefore that a man so apparently detached and unemotional should have written what is, for me, the finest love poem of the 20th Century: An Arundel Tomb (1).

The poem starts: Side by side, their faces blurred, the earl and countess lie in stone, and then in the second verse the beautiful observation: Such plainness of the pre-baroque hardly involves the eye, until it meets his left-hand gauntlet, still clasped empty in the other; and one sees, with a sharp tender shock, his hand withdrawn, holding her hand. I love the words sharp tender shock; then in the next verse: Such faithfulness in effigy... A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace.

In the fifth verse Larkin constructs a spine tingling evocation of the long passage of time: Rigidly they persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths of time. Snow fell, undated. Light each summer thronged the glass. A bright litter of birdcalls strewed the same bone-riddled ground. And then the remarkable conclusion of the poem: 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.

Forgive me for removing the line breaks in these extracts from the poem. In doing so I want to illustrate my observation that, in Larkin's writing, there is little distance between prose and poetry. When reading his poems I've reflected often on why it is that a man with such an apparently effortless ability to produce perfect English published so little, and agonised so much over his writing. I now realise that he didn't have a problem with writing, but with life. "The object of writing," Larkin once said, "is to show life as it is, and if you don't see it like that you're in trouble, not life."


(1) from The Whitsun Weddings, Faber and Faber, 1964. For the full text of An Arundel Tomb see here, and for a YouTube clip of Larkin himself commenting on the poem, then reading it, here.

To hear Larkin reading a number of his poems visit the excellent poetry archive at,


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