Philip Larkin was born on 9 August 1922, in Coventry. He had a sister, Kitty, who was ten years older. His father, Sydney Larkin, was Coventry's City Corporation Treasurer and a highly cultured man who appeared to have had an equal measure of interest in American Jazz music and Adolf Hitler. Philip shared the fascination for Jazz and also for the Fuhrer as well. He had as normal an English childhood as possible, but he tried to dress up the ordinary by describing his early life in a poem as 'a forgotten boredom'.
A shy, solitary person, with a stammer that he was never able to entirely conquer, Larkin did not enjoy his school years at the King Henry VIII Grammar School in Coventry. It was here that his writing talent surfaced. In his last year, he co-edited and wrote for the school paper, 'The Coventrian', and around the same time had his first poem 'Ultimatum' published in a national weekly magazine 'The Listener'. In 1940, with the Second World War raging, all the young men of Philip's age were expected to enlist and fight for their country. However, his bad eyesight exempted him from the war, and he was able to go on to study English at St. John's College, Oxford.
It was at Oxford that he really blossomed, both as a writer and as a social personality. He had three poems published in 'Oxford Poetry' and made friends with aspiring literary figures like Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Bruce Montgomery, and Alan Ross amongst others. Kingsley Amis, who probably had the most influence over Larkin in the development of his writing, was to remain a lifelong friend and correspondent. With these friends, Larkin was able to overcome his basic shyness and stammer, and reveal himself to be a witty and sharp individual.
After graduating with a First Class Honors Degree in 1943, Larkin found himself unemployed. The army didn't want him, and he had been too busy with literary pursuits so far to have given much thought to career options.
He lived with his parents for some time, but was determined not to extend his stay. He sent out applications to every job available, and soon landed work as Librarian of the Wellington Public Library in Shropshire. It turned out to be a good professional choice for him―he was surrounded by books, the atmosphere was tranquil, and he had time to continue with his own writing. He remained in Shropshire for 3 years, and then moved to work as an assistant librarian at the University College of Leicester Library in 1946.
By this time, he had some of his poems published in the 'Poetry from Oxford in Wartime' anthology, had them republished in his own volume of poetry 'The North Ship', and soon had two novels 'Jill' and 'A Girl in Winter' published as well. A third novel was abandoned midway. They say that the success of Kingsley Amis's novel 'Lucky Jim' may have wrecked his confidence in his own writing abilities, which lead him to turn to poetry.
In 1950, Larkin moved to Belfast to take up a post at the Queen's University Library. Five years later, in 1955, he moved to his final post at the Brynmor Jones library at the University of Hull.
It was in Belfast that he wrote the poems that would be eventually collected in the volume 'The Less Deceived' in 1955. Two other volumes, 'The Whitsun Weddings' and 'High Windows', appeared in 1964 and 1974 respectively.
These three poetry volumes really established Larkin's reputation as one of the leading English Poets of his day. For 'The Whitsun Weddings', he was given the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.
Around this time, Larkin's intense liking for Jazz led to an assignment of writing Jazz music reviews for the Daily Telegraph. These were afterwards published together as 'All What Jazz: A Record Diary'. He also wrote numerous essays that were later published as 'Required Writing: miscellaneous pieces 1955-1982'.
The 'Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse', a volume of poetry edited by Larkin, achieved critical acclaim in 1973. His 'Required Writing' was given the W. H. Smith Literary Award in 1984, and by this time he had also been the recipient of the CBE, the German Shakespeare-Pries, and the Library Association Honorary Fellowship.
For all his public achievements, Larkin insisted on remaining a very private person. This gave rise to myths about solitary and reclusive quirks. In reality, he had many close friends and he was a very efficient Librarian, a job that required him to oversee a large staff of over 100 employees and have daily contact with numerous people.
As for marriage, he was of the opinion that two could live as one, so he never married. Three main women in his life remained loyal to him until the end.
Philip Larkin died of esophageal cancer on 2 December, 1985. He was 63. As per his wish, his secretary and former lover burned all of his personal diaries.
"People say I'm very negative, and I suppose I am, but the impulse for producing a poem is never negative; the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done."