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Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was an English librarian, poet, and novelist. Larkin's poems are similar in tone, and his writing style has elements that are easily recognisable. Larkin's poems are usually gloomy and pessimistic, often dealing with the ordinary: love, marriage, death, and the passage of time. Larkin's poems are bitter and melancholy in their tone, perhaps a reflection of his own personal life and experiences. Let's take a look at Larkin's life and death, poetry, and books.

Philip Larkin: biography

Larkin was born to parents Sydney and Eva in Coventry on 9 August 1922. He attended King Henry VIII Junior School, followed by St John's College, Oxford University. Throughout his life, Larkin worked in various libraries, the last of these in 1955 when he became a librarian at the University of Hull. Larkin was well known for his poetry, in which Larkin explored ordinary themes in an often pessimistic and gloomy tone.

Philip Larkin: cause of death

Larkin died of cancer on 2 December 1985. Larkin is buried in Cottingham (England), in the Cottingham Municipal Cemetery.

Philip Larkin: poems

Philip Larkin: 'An Arundel Tomb'

Written in 1956, Larkin's 'An Arundel Tomb' is inspired by the 14th-century effigy of a medieval countess and earl which Larkin visited in Chichester Cathedral, Sussex. The effigy is of the two holding hands, which had a profound impact on Larkin.

One thing that particularly inspired him about the effigy was the idea that love lasts longer than death, and we see this sense of awe in the speaker's initial reaction to the effigy in the poem. However, the speaker then goes on to question the reasons behind the earl and countess having been marbleised in this way

Was it a search for fame? Was it to reflect tradition? Could they really have imagined that their statue would have lasted this long? Towards the end of the poem, the speaker decides that the effigy is in fact a true reflection of the love between the earl and countess.

Time has transfigured them into

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be

Their final blazon, and to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love. (l.37-42)

Philip Larkin: 'At Grass'

Larkin's 'At Grass', written in 1950, starts with the speaker observing two animals who are on a field. At first the speaker struggles to see that they are horses, but we soon come to discover that they are, more specifically, former racehorses. These racehorses are no longer in their prime, nor do they carry the same glory or fame that they once held. To anyone else observing them - they are just regular horses in a field.

The phrase 'at grass' means having been put aside, which is how the speaker views these forgotten horses. The speaker of the poem also notes that the racehorses do not seem at all fazed by this change, instead, they are simply enjoying being horses. It is through this, perhaps, that Larkin hints at the idea that we as humans should also learn how to let go, and in return live simpler, happier lives.

Do memories plague their ears like flies?

They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.

Summer by summer all stole away,

The starting-gates, the crowd and cries -

All but the unmolesting meadows.

Almanacked, their names live; they

Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,

Or gallop for what must be joy (l.19-26)

Philip Larkin: 'The Whitsun Weddings'

Published in 1964 as the title poem of Larkin's collection of poems, 'The Whitsun Weddings' describes the journey taken by the speaker from Kingston-upon-Hull to London. The speaker observes others who are with them on the train, and in particular, focuses on a newlywed couple.

The speaker contemplates this couple and the commitment they have made to each other, reflecting on ideas of love and marriage. Finally, the speaker arrives at their destination, and the journey from the rural east of England to urban London concludes with a final farewell.

The women shared

The secret like a happy funeral;

While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared

At a religious wounding. Free at last,

And loaded with the sum of all they saw,

We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.

Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast

Long shadows over major roads, and for

Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say

I nearly died,

A dozen marriages got under way. (l.52-63)

Philip Larkin: 'Wild Oats'

Larkin's 'Wild Oats' was written in 1962 and can be seen as a reflection on Larkin's own personal life. The work is about the speaker's relationship with two different women, Ruth Bowman and Jane Exall. The title of the poem, 'Wild Oats', is a common euphemism for the sexual freedoms that men are encouraged to explore in their lives.

Many men are roused from young adulthood to have sexual relations with as many women as they want, while women are often looked down upon should they do they same. In 'Wild Oats', the speaker struggles with fidelity and comes to regret his commitment by the end of the poem.

Parting, after about five

Rehearsals, was an agreement

That I was too selfish, withdrawn,

And easily bored to love.

Well, useful to get that learnt.

In my wallet are still two snaps

Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.

Unlucky charms, perhaps. (l.17-24)

Philip Larkin: 'Talking in Bed'

Written in 1960, Larkin's 'Talking in Bed' is about, well, exactly what the title implies. The poem explores the relationship between two lovers who are lying down together in bed, but who cannot talk to each other as easily as they ought to be able to. There is a sense of loneliness and isolation in the poem, as the speaker contemplates what has led the couple to this point in their relationship.

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,

Lying together there goes back so far,

An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently. (l.1-4)

Philip Larkin: themes

ThemeExplanation
Love Larkin often questions love and holds a deep scepticism towards it. Not only this, but Philip Larkin also questions how long love can truly last.
DeathOften in his poems, Larkin explores the inevitability of death. In addition, Philip Larkin explores the inevitability of loss, whether this be the loss of others, or of one's self.
TimeLarkin explores the passage of time in many of his poems. In particular, Philip Larkin delves into reflections upon the past, the choices that we make as humans, and a recognition that things can change over time.
MarriageIn some of his poetry, Larkin explores the institution of marriage. Philip Larkin appears to hold a pessimistic view of marriage, questioning the commitment that people choose to make to one another.

Philip Larkin: books

Philip Larkin: Jill

Larkin's novel Jill, published in 1946, follows the protagonist John Kemp. The novel is set in 1940, in which young, working-class John attends Oxford University. John feels out of place, especially given his own background, and the novel follows his journey through not only education, but also personal growth, and his endeavours into the wider world.

He had thought that once he had found his rooms, he would always have a refuge, a place to retreat and hide in. This was apparently not so" 1 (Ch.1)

Philip Larkin: A Girl in Winter

Published in 1947, Larkin's A Girl in Winter is the tale of protagonist Katherine Lind. Due to war, Katherine Lind finds herself displaced, and becomes an assistant librarian in the town in which she now lives. The coming of age story of a young girl - A Girl in Winter explores themes of love, loneliness, and the loss of innocence.

There was little expression on her face as she closed the door behind her. Indeed, there rarely was ... Yet at other times a faint look of amusement stole into her face, as if with pleasure at the completeness with which she could cover her thoughts. And when she spoke it was with a foreign accent.2 (Ch.2)

Philip Larkin: Key takeaways

  • Larkin was born on 9 August 1922 in Coventry, England.
  • Larkin was an English librarian, poet, and novelist.
  • Throughout his life, Larkin worked in various libraries, the last of which was the library at the University of Hull.
  • Larkin's poems are normally very similar in tone: gloomy and pessimistic, holding bitter and melancholy inflexions.
  • In his poetry, Philip Larkin often dealt with the ordinary, for example, love, marriage, death, and the passage of time.
  • Larkin died of cancer on 2 December 1985.
  • Larkin is buried in Cottingham, in the Cottingham Municipal Cemetery

1. Philip Larkin, Jill, 2005

2. Philip Larkin, A Girl in Winter, 2005

Frequently Asked Questions about Philip Larkin

Among Philip Larkin's most famous poems are 'An Arundel Tomb', 'At Grass', 'The Whitsun Weddings', 'Wild Oat's, and 'Talking in Bed'

Philip Larkin wrote over 200 poems

The tone in this poem is relaxed and informal

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry (England)

Philip Larkin was often considered anti-romantic; his poems are usually gloomy and pessimistic, holding bitter and melancholy inflexions 

Final Philip Larkin Quiz

Question

When was Philip Larkin born?

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Answer

Philip Larkin was born on 9 August 1922. 

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Question

Where was Philip Larkin born?

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Answer

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry, England.

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Question

Who was Philip Larkin?

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Answer

Philip Larkin was an English librarian, poet, and novelist 

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Question

What is Philip Larkin's most famous poem?  

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Answer

Among Philip Larkin's most famous poems are 'An Arundel Tomb', 'At Grass', 'The Whitsun Weddings', 'Wild Oats', and 'Talking in Bed' 

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Question

What was Philip Larkin's contribution to poetry?


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Answer

Philip Larkin wrote over 200 poems 

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What kind of poet was Philip Larkin? 

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Answer

Philip Larkin was often considered anti-romantic; his poems are usually gloomy and pessimistic, holding bitter and melancholy inflexions  

Show question

Question

Which of Philip Larkin's poems are the following lines taken from?


Time has transfigured them into    

Untruth. The stone fidelity 

They hardly meant has come to be    

Their final blazon, and to prove    

Our almost-instinct almost true:    

What will survive of us is love. (l.37-42)

Show answer

Answer

'An Arundel Tomb'

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Question

Which of Philip Larkin's poems are the following lines taken from?


Do memories plague their ears like flies? 

They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows. 

Summer by summer all stole away, 

The starting-gates, the crowd and cries - 

All but the unmolesting meadows. 

Almanacked, their names live; they 


Have slipped their names, and stand at ease, 

Or gallop for what must be joy (l.19-26)


Show answer

Answer

'At Grass'

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Question

Which of Philip Larkin's poems are the following lines taken from?


The women shared 

The secret like a happy funeral; 

While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared    

At a religious wounding. Free at last, 

And loaded with the sum of all they saw, 

We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.    

Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast    

Long shadows over major roads, and for 

Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem 


Just long enough to settle hats and say 

I nearly died, 

A dozen marriages got under way. (l.52-63)


Show answer

Answer

'The Whitsun Weddings'

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Question

Which of Philip Larkin's poems are the following lines taken from?


Parting, after about five 

Rehearsals, was an agreement    

That I was too selfish, withdrawn,    

And easily bored to love. 

Well, useful to get that learnt.    

In my wallet are still two snaps 

Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.    

Unlucky charms, perhaps. (l.17-24)


Show answer

Answer

'Wild Oats'

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Question

Which of Philip Larkin's poems are the following lines taken from?


Talking in bed ought to be easiest, 

Lying together there goes back so far, 

An emblem of two people being honest. 

Yet more and more time passes silently. (l.1-4)


Show answer

Answer

'Talking in Bed'

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Question

When did Philip Larkin die?

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Answer

Philip Larkin died on 2 December 1985 

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How did Philip Larkin die?

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Answer

Philip Larkin died of cancer

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Where is Philip Larkin buried?

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Answer

Larkin is buried in Cottingham (England), in the Cottingham Municipal Cemetry

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Question

From which of Philip Larkin's novels is the following quote taken?


'There was little expression on her face as she closed the door behind her. Indeed, there rarely was ... Yet at other times a faint look of amusement stole into her face, as if with pleasure at the completeness with which she could cover her thoughts. And when she spoke it was with a foreign accent'

Show answer

Answer

A Girl in Winter

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Question

From which of Philip Larkin's novels is the following quote taken?


'He had thought that once he had found his rooms, he would always have a refuge, a place to retreat and hide in. This was apparently not so'


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Answer

Jill

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Question

When was 'Wild Oats' written?

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Answer

1962.

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What are two important themes in 'Wild Oats'?

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Answer

Love and gender.

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How can the tone of 'Wild Oats' be described?

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Answer

Conversational, casual, and nonchalant.

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What form is 'Wild Oats' in?

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Answer

Free verse.

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What two poetic devices are found in 'Wild Oats'?

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Answer

Enjambment and metaphor.

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What is an important image in 'Wild Oats'?

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Answer

The image of the English rose.

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Can you remember the names of the two women that 'Wild Oats' is thought to be about?

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Answer

Jane Exall and Ruth Bowman.

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Why is the tone of 'Wild Oats' important?

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Answer

The tone is very casual and nonchalant which shows how little importance the narrator is placing on his romantic relationships.

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Can you remember the definition of an octave?

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Answer

An octave is a stanza or poem that has eight lines.

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What is the only thing that the narrator notes about his fiancé's appearance?

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Answer

That she wears 'specs'.

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Question

Who wrote 'The Whitsun Weddings'?

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Answer

Philip Larkin

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What is the name of the collection that 'The Whitsun Weddings' appears in?

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Answer

The Whitsun Weddings

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In which decade was 'The Whitsun Weddings' published?

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Answer

1940s

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What does the word 'Whitsun' mean?

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Answer

Whitsun or Whitsunday refers to Pentecost, a Christian holiday on the seventh Sunday after Easter. 

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What is special about the poem's rhyme scheme?

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Answer

It is similar to that used by the Romantic poet John Keats in his odes. 

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Romanticism focused on celebrating nature, spirituality, and the emotions and the imagination of the individual. 

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Answer

True 

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When someone criticises something or someone else in a way that is funny or mocking, it is...

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Answer

Paradoxical

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In 'The Whitsun Weddings' the speaker describes a train journey they took from Hull and ending in _____.


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Answer

London

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_____ is when one line of poetry flows into the next.

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Answer

Imagery

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_____ is description that appeals to the senses.

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Answer

Imagery

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_____ is when two things are placed close to each other in order to draw a contrast between them.

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Answer

Imagery

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What is satirised in 'The Whitsun Weddings'?

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Answer

Marriage

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What year was 'At Grass' written?

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Answer

1950.

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What form is 'At Grass' in?

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Answer

Elegy.

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What is the metre of 'At Grass'?

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Answer

Iambic tetrameter.

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What rhyme scheme is 'At Grass' in?

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Answer

ABCABC.

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What are the key themes in 'At Grass'?

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Answer

Ageing, nostalgia, freedom, death.

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How can the tone of 'At Grass' be described?

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Answer

Melancholy, nostalgic, accepting.

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What does the phrase 'at grass' mean?

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Answer

It refers to when someone is retiring or leaving work due to their age.

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What kind of imagery is frequently found in 'At Grass'?

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Answer

Natural.

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How does Larkin show horses as better off than humans?

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They do not feel nostalgic or dwell on the past.

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What is an elegy?

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Answer

A poem that reflects on death and mortality. It is often written for a person who has passed, but it can also be more generally focused on the topics of loss and death.

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How many iambic feet are there in iambic tetrameter?

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Answer

Four.

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What function does enjambment serve in 'At Grass'?

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Answer

It emphasises the activity and excitement of the world the racehorses were once part of.

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