Philip Larkin

‘Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,’ Philip Larkin told The Observer in a 1979 interview. His pessimistic poetry was obsessed with the disappointments of life and the inevitability of death. Larkin could find gloom even in spring, as his famous poem The Whitsun Weddings showed. And yet his plain language and honest style captivated readers during the second half of the 20th century, turning him into one of England’s best-loved writers. Since his death in 1985, the publication of his personal letters has showed him to be, at times, a difficult, misogynistic and even racist man. But his poems express universal feelings of loss, fear and doubt to which many readers continue to relate.

Death

If there is one theme to which Larkin returns again and again, it is mortality. Death is an inescapable presence in his work, casting a shadow over everything else and refusing to be forgotten. We must all face it eventually — so how should we respond to it while we are alive?

Time

Just like death, the passage of time haunts Larkin’s poetry — in fact, the two are inextricably linked together. Time cannot be stopped. And yet Larkin also finds himself preoccupied with the past, and England’s place in a post-war, post-imperial world.

Sadness

Larkin’s poetry was relentlessly gloomy — he frequently referred to life’s frustrations and failures, and the illusion of all its promises. ‘I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any,’ he once said. Was his despair inevitable?

Ordinary lives

Larkin shunned the glamourous fame of the literary elite, and instead retreated to work as a librarian at universities in Leicester and Hull. The poetry he wrote and published in his spare time also drew on the experiences and concerns of ordinary people. Why is normal life so fascinating?

England

A gloomy outlook, dry wit, and nostalgia for the disintegrating traditions of the past: in his poetry Philip Larkin was English through and through. In the 1972 poem Going, Going, he fears that England’s countryside will soon disappear. How do we see England 45 years on?