Philip Arthur Larkin was born in Coventry on 9 August 1922, the
only son and younger child of Sydney and Eva Larkin. His father was
City Treasurer of Coventry from 1922 to 1944, and died from cancer
in 1948 at the age of 63. His mother lived to be 91 and died on 17
November 1977. The family lived in Coventry between 1922 and 1940.
Larkin attended King Henry VIII School there between 1930 and 1940.
His early talent as a writer was shown in his regular contributions
to The Coventrian, the school magazine, of which he was joint
editor between 1939 and 1940.
In October 1940 Larkin went to St John's College, Oxford. He
failed his army medical as a result of poor eyesight and so was
able to complete his degree uninterrupted, graduating with First
Class Honours in English in 1943. His close friends at Oxford
included Kingsley Amis and Bruce Montgomery, and many of them
shared his passion for jazz music. Strongly influenced by, amongst
others, Auden, Lawrence and Yeats, Larkin's literary talent
developed rapidly. His first poem to be published in a national
weekly was 'Ultimatum' in The Listener, 28 November 1940.
In June 1943 three of his poems were included in Oxford
Poetry 1942-43 .
For the first few months after graduating Larkin lived with his
parents in their new Warwick home, spending much of his time on his
first novel, Jill . Two attempts to get into the Civil
Service failed and he eventually applied for, and was appointed to,
the post of Librarian at Wellington in Shropshire in November 1943.
Despite a full-time job and part-time study to qualify as a
professional librarian, he continued to write and publish. Ten
poems were included in Poetry from Oxford in Wartime in
February 1945. All of these were then included in his own The
North Ship later that year. Jill finally appeared a
year later, but, like The North Ship, attracted little
public comment. His second novel, A Girl in Winter, was
completed in May 1945 and published in February 1947, this time
attracting several favourable reviews.
Larkin took up a post as Assistant Librarian at the then
University College of Leicester in September 1946, where he was in
charge of the issue desk and periodicals. He completed his course
of professional studies and became an Associate of the Library
Association in 1949. From 1 October 1950 he was Sub-Librarian at
Queen's University, Belfast, where his duties involved the
supervision of 18 staff. Belfast saw a resurgence of his poetic
activity after the rejection of his second poetry collection,
In the Grip of Light, in 1948. He had a small collection,
XX Poems, privately printed in an edition of 100 copies in
1951 and the Fantasy Press published a pamphlet containing five of
his poems in 1954. Other poems were published in various magazines.
'Toads' and 'Poetry of departures' appeared in
Listenissued by the Marvell Press of Hessle near Hull. By
coincidence, Larkin's next book, largely comprising the poems from
XX Poems and the Fantasy Press pamphlet, was being
prepared by the Marvell Press when he was appointed Librarian to
the University of Hull, where he commenced work on 21 March 1955.
The Marvell Press book, initially called 'Various Poems' was
published as The Less Deceived in October of that year,
establishing him thereafter in the front rank of modern British
The Library at Hull inherited by Larkin contained 120,000
volumes and employed just 11 staff housed in an assortment of badly
designed buildings. Larkin, greatly aided for many years by the
support of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor (later Sir) Brynmor
Jones, and the boom in British higher education of the late 1950s
and 1960s, presided over its transformation during the next two
decades. A new purpose-built Library was opened in two stages in
1960 and 1970, and by 1985 there were over 750,000 items in stock,
a computerised catalogue and circulation system, and over 80
In 1964 his next poetry collection, The Whitsun
Weddings, was again widely acclaimed and in 1965 he received
the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. Larkin's continuing interest in
jazz was reflected in his monthly record reviews for The Daily
Telegraph between 1961 and 1971. A collection of these reviews
entitled All What Jazz: a record diary 1961-1968 was
published in 1970. Larkin also prepared the Oxford Book of
Twentieth Century English Verse, issued in 1973 and completed
after he had held a visiting fellowship at All Souls College,
Oxford for two terms in 1970-71.
The last collection of his own poetry, High Windows ,
appeared in 1974, and consolidated his reputation. However, his
poetic output by this time had practically ceased. 'Aubade', his
last great poem, appeared in the Times Literary Supplement
in December 1977. To colleagues, Larkin wryly referred to The
Brynmor Jones Library, 1929-1979: a short account as his 'last
book'. However, Required Writing: miscellaneous pieces
1955-1982, a collection of essays and reviews, was published
in November 1983. A best-seller, it won the W.H. Smith Literary
Award for 1984.
The numerous other awards received during his later years
included many honorary doctorates culminating in one from Oxford
University in 1984. He received the CBE in 1975 and the German
Shakespeare-Preis in 1976. He was Chairman of the Booker Prize
Panel in 1977, was made Companion of Literature in 1978, and from
1980 to 1982 served on the Literature Panel of the Arts Council.
The Library Association made him an Honorary Fellow in 1980 and the
University of Hull made him a Professor in 1982. In 1984 he was
elected to the Board of the British Library, but declined to
succeed Sir John Betjeman as Poet Laureate, being unwilling to
accept the level of media attention associated with the
His last and most highly prized honour was the Order of the
Companion of Honour in June 1985, which, sadly, he was unable to
receive personally owing to the onset of his terminal illness. He
died of cancer on 2 December 1985 aged 63. His Collected
Poems, which also included many of his previously unpublished
pieces, was published in October 1988 and became an immediate
best-seller. The publication of his Selected Letters in
October 1992 was the literary event of the year.
Details of Philip Larkin related
collections held at the History Centre and a select further reading list are also available.
See also the Philip Larkin page on The Poetry
Archive which includes a number of his poems.