Philip Arthur Larkin was born on 9 August, 1922 in Coventry. His father, Sydney Larkin, was the Treasurer of the City Corporation of Coventry, and his mother Eva was the daughter of a First Class Excise Officer. Larkin was the second child of Sydney and Eva, the first having been a daughter named Catherine (or Kitty) who was about ten years old at the time of Larkin’s birth. Larkin was given the name of Philip after the famous Renaissance poet Philip Sidney, and he was given the name Arthur after his mother’s brother.
As a child Larkin suffered from a slight stammer, and this stammer also persisted throughout his life, though in a considerably diminished form.
Larkin studied at King Henry VIII Grammar School in Coventry. His schooldays, according to him, were almost completely uneventful. However, he had a friend by the name of Jim Sutton, who subsequently became a distinguished painter. Larkin passed his final school examination with distinction in the subjects of history and English. Then in 1940 he proceeded to Oxford University from where he graduated in 1943, getting a first class. At Oxford he had attended St. John’s College where he made friends with Kingsley Amis who later became famous as a poet just as Larkin himself did. Besides, the social and political atmosphere of Oxford University encouraged him to develop a pragmatic approach to life and to literature.
After getting his degree from Oxford University, Larkin found himself at a loss about what career to adopt. World War II was at this time at its height; and, according to the laws of the land, he was required to enlist in the army. But having failed in the medical examination, he had to look for a job. He submitted applications for a number of jobs almost at random; and, late in 1943, he was appointed librarian at a public library in Wellington (in Shropshire) where he worked for the next three years. Then he took up a job in the library of the University College at Leicester. In 1950, he was appointed sub-librarian at Queen’s University, Belfast (in Northern Ireland). Finally, in 1954, he was appointed librarian at the University of Hull, and there he remained till death.
Larkin started writing poems when he was just fifteen but it was after he had graduated from the university and taken up his first job that he began to write (both poetry and prose) in right earnest. A number of poems by him were published in anthologies. But he first came into the limelight as a novelist. His first novel had the title Jill, and it was published in 1946. His next novel was entitled A Girl in Winter which was published in 1947. Then he began to work on a third novel which, however,he could not complete and which was, therefore, abandoned. Giving up novel-writing altogether, he devoted himself to poetry and successively published four major volumes of poems. The first major volume of his poems, entitled “The North Ship” appeared in 1945; the second was entitled “The Less Deceived”, and it appeared in 1955; the third appeared in 1964 under the title of “The Whitsun Weddings”; and the fourth and final volume appeared in 1974 under the title of “High Windows.”
With the publication of his second volume of poems, namely “The Less Deceived”, Larkin became well-known for his poetic gift. Then “The Whitsun Weddings” brought him greater renown. And with the publication of “High Windows”, he was recognized as one of the leading British poets of the time. Many honours were conferred upon him in recognition of his poetic eminence. For instance,in 1965 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry; and he received honorary doctorates from several British universities. On the death of the existing poet laureate, he was offered the poet-laureateship which, however, he declined; and the honour then went to Kingsely Amis.
Illness and Death
Larkin had a major breakdown in his health in the middle years of his life, and had to undergo extensive medical tests to find out what was wrong with him, He remained in hospital for a time, but subsequently recovered. Then in the year 1984 he developed a serious ailment, most probably cancer, and died on the 2nd December, 1985.