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Larkin

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry on 9th August, 1922 to Eva and Sydney Larkin. Coming from a Conservative background, he studied at Oxford, worked in Belfast as a librarian for a time (the furthest the disliker of travel went abroad), and eventually settled in Hull, where he worked to his death as a librarian.

He published a number of collections of poetry and two novels, but was too conscious of his poetry to consider himself 'poet'. In a Who's Who interview once, he gave his occupation as "librarian".

Larkin drove a literature movement creatively known as 'The Movement'. It was a response to the highly introspective work of the disillusioned Modernists, and aimed to convey the nitty-gritty of 'real' life. Because of this, much of what Larkin observed influenced his poetry. A train journey from Hull to London forms the basis for 'The Whitsun Weddings' and trains influence a number of others. His work is characterised by its movement between the particular to the general. Other features, like direct speech are common, as they augment the narrative style contained in many of his works.

Larkin disliked all forms of Modernism: literature, art and jazz. He was a great lover of jazz, but was deeply shocked, when he decided to take up a third career as a jazz critic, to find that modern jazz was not the jazz he loved. Only when he realised it was shaped by the Modernism movement could he accept the change, though he still didn't like it. Jazz shapes a few of the poems in The Whitsun Weddings, like 'For Sidney Bechet' and the brief moment of union in 'Reference Back' is caused by jazz.

While he never married, he had three main separate relationships over his life. His first lover, Monica Jones was a lecturer and provided much of Larkin's 'intellectual stimulus'. Maeve Brennan, a strict Catholic and his sub-librarian at Hull, refused to enter into a relationship for many years without marriage, though eventually conceded and provided an 'intense enthusiasm'. While the other two women knew about each other's existence, though they never met until they were at his deathbed, they didn't know of a third with whom Larkin had an affair, until she too appeared at his deathbed: Betty Mackereth, his secretary.

Cyril Connolly once wrote, "The pram in the hallway is the enemy of art." Larkin believed in these words, fearing that if his attention were ever split between his poetry and children, he would not be able to continue writing. Perhaps for this reason, he never married, though he did once get engaged to Ruth Bowman - his first girlfriend.

As time passed, Larkin's work grew darker and more preoccupied by death. His final poem, 'Aubade' was published in 1977. After this, and his mother's death, he wrote no more poetry. He died from cancer on 2nd December, 1985, at 63 years old.

The poems we'll analyse here will be largely from The Whitsun Weddings collection (unless there are other appropriate ones for background knowledge). If you read The Whitsun Weddings from the beginning to the end, you'll never find two similar emotions side by side, something Larkin intended. However, there is a journey through the collection, from a beginning of sorts in 'Here', to 'The Whitsun Weddings', and then towards the past in 'MCMXIV' and to the point of death in 'Dockery and Son' and finally to what endures death over time in 'An Arundel Tomb'.

Though each poem has its own narrative and biographic significance, the poems develop a number of themes in their journey, and the main ones are:

  • Death and morality - found in almost every poem.
  • Love, relationships and bachelorhood.
  • Innocence and deception - from advertising, consumerism, beliefs about love, work, religion...
  • The passage of time, which often links all the above.

Click on a link to the left to read about each poem!

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