a restless reader’s miscellaneous musings on literature, history and more
Friday, August 9, 2019
Philip Larkin — going on beyond the melancholy
It’s the birthday of English poet Philip Larkin (1922) (books by this author), born in Coventry, England, and best known for his clipped, spare poems that explored post-war England. Larkin’s father was a city treasurer and a Nazi enthusiast; his mother was pathologically anxious, and she homeschooled Larkin until he was eight years old. Larkin had poor eyesight and a stammer that persisted into adulthood. He sought refuge in books and wrote stories every night.
At Oxford, he studied literature and found his footing with friends like Kingsley Amis and John Wain, with whom he drank and stayed up late at night, talking about books and listening to jazz records. After graduating from Oxford, he was turned away from military service because of his eyesight, so he joined the staff at a small public library in Shropshire and completed two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). He also published his first collection of poetry, The North Ship (1945), which received good reviews. Larkin tried to write another novel, but he simply couldn’t finish it. He said, “I didn’t choose poetry; poetry chose me.”
Philip Larkin spent more than 30 years as a librarian at the University of Hull. He was intensely private, rode a bicycle to work five days a week, 45 weeks a year, and published only four short volumes of poetry in his lifetime, fewer than 100 pages total. His collections include The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The WhitsunWeddings (1964), and The High Windows (1974).
Larkin never married and lived alone, cultivating a curmudgeonly, glum persona. He once said: “I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any — after all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think? Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”
Larkin never traveled to America and never gave readings of his poems, though he did consent to recording them once, an experience he regretted. He said a poem “represents the mastering, even if just for a moment, of the pessimism and the melancholy, and enables you, you the poet, and you, the reader, to go on.” (Source: The Writer’s Almanac)