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On this day in history in 1985, died Philip Larkin.
Larkin was a librarian and a poet, who wrote anti-romantic verse in line with the accepted wisdom of the Fifties and Sixties, and refused the position of Poet Laureate in the same vein.
Philip Arthur Larkin was born on 9th August 1922 at Coventry, the son of respectable middle class parents, Sydney and Eva Larkin. He was educated at King Henry VIII School, Coventry, and St. John's College, Oxford, where he became a friend of Kingsley Amis. After leaving Oxford, Larkin began a career as a librarian. In 1943, he was employed as a municipal librarian at Wellington, Shropshire. In 1946, he was appointed assistant librarian at University College, Leicester and in 1955, Larkin became librarian at the Hull University, where he remained until his death.
Larkin’s library duties were not onerous and allowed him sufficient time for leisure writing. His first book of poetry, The North Ship, was published in 1945, his first novel, Jill, based on his Oxford experiences came out in 1946, and another novel, A Girl in Winter, followed in 1947. None of these early works were well received, but Larkin’s work on the re-evaluation of the poetical works of Thomas Hardy, attracted some attention. Larkin alluded to Hardy’s poetry as ‘a much neglected subject’, a comment taken up by Kingsley Amis, who visited Larkin at Leicester, and gathered from him considerable material on the wearisome academic life, which he later used for his novel Lucky Jim.
Larkin aroused some attention with the publication in 1955 of The Less Deceived, a volume of verse whose title suggests a reaction against the immoderate emotionalism of the poetry of the 1930s and 1940s. The Whitsun Weddings, published in 1964 and High Windows, in 1974, shows the influence of Thomas Hardy in antique word choice and colloquial usage. Larkin is known for the fluid structure of verse form, the romantic fatalism of the content, and the imagery of the contemporary artefacts packed into the verse. He is often criticised for the prurient nature of his work, but his sexual allusions, more often than not, are subtly worked into a seemingly banal context.
As an example of Larkin’s best work, read The Whitsun Weddings, which contains some of the finest imagery in modern verse. After describing the multitude of weddings as ‘happy funeral’ and ‘religious wounding’, the train on which the couples travel, ‘the travelling coincidence’, is insinuated as the male sexual organ, which ‘swelled’, then after ‘a sense of ‘falling’ becomes ‘like an arrow-shower’, descending upon its target. It was this form of imagery which made Larkin’s reputation, but unfortunately, he is often remembered for his more trite expressions, such as ‘sexual intercourse was invented in 1963, a bit too late for me’.
In 1985, Larkin was offered the post of Poet Laureate, but declined because he said that his poetic muse had abandoned him. He died, aged 63, on 2nd December 1985, and is buried in Cottingham, near his home in Hull. [Cottingham Municipal Cemetery, Eppleworth Road, Cottingham, Yorkshire, HU16 5YF]
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