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Church Going | Study Guide

Philip Larkin

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Philip Larkin | Biography


Early Life and Education

Philip Arthur Larkin was born on August 9, 1922, in Coventry, England. He attended Coventry's King Henry VIII School and wrote for and later edited its magazine, the Coventrian. He attended university at St. John's College, Oxford, graduating in 1943 with a degree in English. At Oxford he notably befriended British author Kingsley Amis (1922–95). Although World War II (1939–45) raged in Europe for most of his university years, Larkin was unable to fight because of his poor vision.

Librarian and Writer

While at Oxford, Larkin continued to write, publishing the poem "Ultimatum" (1940) in the BBC's magazine The Listener and three additional poems in the collection Oxford Poetry 1942–1943 (1943). After graduation, he took a position as librarian in Wellington, Shropshire, but continued to write in addition to his library duties—a routine that continued through much of his life. In 1945, 10 of his poems appeared in Poetry from Oxford in Wartime, and he published his first volume of poetry, titled The North Ship. In 1946 he published a novel, Jill, informed by his own life experiences as a young man attending Oxford. That year he also became the assistant librarian at the University College of Leicester. He published another novel, A Girl in Winter, in 1947. Unlike Jill and The North Ship, the second novel sold reasonably well and received some critical attention.

In 1950 he took a library position at Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland. Determined to work as a poet rather than a novelist, in 1951 he privately published the small volume XX Poems. Several additional poems were published in the journal The Spectator. Within a few years, Larkin had a growing reputation as a poet. He was approached by the editor of Listen, a magazine in which he'd published some poems, who wanted to launch a new press—starting with a volume of Larkin's poetry, The Less Deceived (1955). This volume, which contains the poem "Church Going," remains regarded as Larkin's breakout collection. Critics also view the manuscript as a representative work of the Movement, a group of English poets who sought an unpretentious but formal style rooted in rationality and English identity. In 1955 Larkin also became a librarian at the University of Hull.

Larkin was not a prolific writer. It was nearly a decade before another volume would appear—The Whitsun Weddings (1964). Published by England's foremost poetry press, the collection cemented Larkin's reputation and received several awards. In 1965 Larkin received the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. Over the years he also wrote reviews of jazz recordings for the Daily Telegraph, publishing them in book form as All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961–1968 (1970). He also edited an anthology of poetry, The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse (1973), which sold well but was controversial for excluding notable poets that Larkin didn't appreciate. In 1974 he published his final volume of poems, High Windows.

Death and Legacy

Larkin received many honors and awards during his lifetime. He was awarded the German Shakespeare-Preis in 1976. He was also made a commander of the British Empire and received the A. C. Benson silver medal from the Royal Society of Literature in 1975. His prose collection Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955–1982 (1984) won the W.H. Smith award in 1984. He was made a Companion of Honor in 1985. He also chaired the Booker prize committee in 1977. He was offered the honor of becoming poet laureate in 1984, but Larkin did not accept. As he had made clear when refusing a prestigious professorship at Oxford in 1968, Larkin felt himself ill-suited to the public eye.

Larkin died of cancer on December 2, 1985. He remains an essential figure of British poetry in the 20th century and is credited with making poetry accessible to a wider audience. His poems regularly appear in anthologies and collections.

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