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Larkin was born on August 9, 1922, in Coventry, Warwickshire, England, the youngest child of Sydney Larkin and Eva Emily Day. Sydney Larkin was a successful, self-made man who was outspoken about his love for Nazism as well as his love for literature. The latter undoubtedly had a profound impact on Larkin. His father introduced him to the works of the great modernist writers whom he deeply admired, including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence.
Larkin’s sister Catherine (called Kitty) was ten years his senior, and she and their mother educated Larkin at home until the age of eight. The Larkins were a somewhat peculiar family and never allowed visitors in their home. However, even when Larkin was very young, his parents supported his passions, which included playing jazz music and, of course, writing. Larkin wrote both poetry and prose from a young age. He is said to have produced five novels before he began his university studies, though he destroyed all of them.
Larkin was always interested in school, but he did not do well on his certificate exams at the age of sixteen. Nevertheless, he was allowed to stay at school, and two years later he passed his exams with distinction in English and history. He also passed the entrance exams for St. John’s College at Oxford University, where he began studying English in October 1940. It was the year after the start of World War II, but Larkin failed the military medical examination on account of his poor eyesight and was able to continue studying at college.
Through his tutorial partner, Norman Iles, Larkin met Kingsley Amis, a peer who would also go on to become a great writer. Larkin and Amis remained friends for life, and Amis was a constant supporter of Larkin’s work. Larkin, Amis, and several other friends at Oxford formed a group called ‘‘The Seven,’’ which frequently met to drink, listen to music, and discuss each other’s poetry. While at Oxford, Larkin published a poem for the first time: ‘‘Ultimatum,’’ in the Listener. During this time, he also wrote two novellas under the pseudonym Brunette Coleman. In 1943, Larkin sat for his finals and graduated with a first-class honors degree.
Larkin began working as a librarian at the public library in Wellington, Shropshire, in 1943. It was there that he met his first girlfriend, Ruth Bowman. In 1945, Larkin published his first collection of poems, The North Ship, which was well received. In 1946, he was appointed assistant librarian at University College, Leicester. This was the same year that Larkin published his first novel, Jill. Larkin’s second and last novel, A Girl in Winter, was published in 1947. Shortly after his father’s death from cancer in 1948, he proposed to Ruth. She accepted, but the couple broke it off in 1950, just before Larkin changed jobs, becoming sub-librarian at Queen’s University Belfast. He spent five contented years there, during which he had simultaneous relationships with Monica Jones, a lecturer in English, and Patsy Strang, a woman who was in an open marriage with one of his colleagues.
In 1955, Larkin became university librarian at the University of Hull, where he worked until his death in 1985. It was during this period that Larkin produced his most well-known and acclaimed poetry, despite the fact that the volume of his output was drastically reduced. Following the publication of his 1955 collection The Less Deceived and its favorable reviews in both the Times Literary Supplement and the London Times, critics and general readers alike began to take notice of Larkin’s work. The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974) were Larkin’s last two volumes of poetry. Larkin began writing ‘‘Aubade’’ in 1974 but did not complete it until 1977, when it was published in the Times Literary Supplement. It was one of his last poems to be published and certainly one of the last of note.
Larkin never married or had children, although he did have long-standing relationships with many women. Larkin was with Maeve Brennan from 1961 until their split in 1973, at which time Monica Jones became his primary partner. However, in March 1975, while still dating Jones, Larkin rekindled his relationship with Brennan and shortly after began a secret affair with Betty Mackereth, his secretary of twentyeight years. Larkin’s simultaneous relationships continued until 1978, when he and Jones became monogamous.
On June 11, 1985, Larkin was admitted to a hospital to undergo surgery for esophageal cancer, but it was discovered that his cancer had spread and was inoperable. On November 28 of that year, he collapsed and was readmitted to the hospital. Larkin died four days later, on December 2, 1985, at the age of sixty-three and was buried at the Cottingham municipal cemetery near Hull, England.