Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life
Philip Larkin was one of the greatest and most popular English poets of the twentieth century, and also one of the most private. Living in towns “where only salesmen and relations come”, refusing to read or lecture before an audience, he was by the end of his life affectionately known as “the hermit of Hull”. At sixty he promised that as soon as he saw “the Grim Reaper coming up the path” he would burn all his personal papers. Instead, be left behind him an archival treasure trove, a cache of letters, journals, and papers that reveal a man who, from very early on, made art, especially poetry, his aspiration and believed himself destined for fame.
Larkin’s friend and fellow poet Andrew Motion has drawn deeply from this rich lode of previously unknown and unpublished material and from conversations with those who knew Larkin best, to give us an intimate and detailed portrait—the first, and undoubtedly the definitive, biography of this great poet. Even before he was twenty, Larkin formed close friendships with other aspiring writers, painters, and musicians. He found family life constraining and repressive, and much of his adult life was a seesaw between his strong sensual appetite and need for affection and the fear of entrapment and encroachment on his writing life that love and marriage represented. Over and over in the course of his life, Larkin would find himself holding lovers—sometimes, to his dismay or bemusement, more than one at a time—at arm’s length, retreating into an intermittent misogyny in his struggle to focus his emotional life in his work. Though shy and to some forbidding, this lifelong librarian had a strong talent for friendship and a sharp, ribald wit.
Andrew Motion’s engrossing portrait shows us a complex and contradictory man of genius, warts and all, in the throes of creating poetry of greatness.