Philip Larkin: Context (AO3)

Context comes under AO3 in the Edexcel A Level English Literature specification.

For the Poetry questions, context this section includes a variety of points: the poet’s personal background; historical context, and context surrounding the literary genre.

On Larkin, himself

  • Larkin was never married; however, throughout his life, he had several relationships with women (even married ones!).
  • He openly named Thomas Hardy as one of his literary influence, and attempted to disassociate himself with Modernists such as Elliot, Pound etc
  • Due to his personal views of distaste towards fame, Larkin avoided a public literary life.
  • Throughout his life, he only worked as a librarian (after graduating with a 1st from Oxford) at university libraries – Hull, Queen’s Belfast…
  • He was a fan of Jazz, and later on in his career, in 1961, he became a jazz critic for the Daily Telegraph.

(You’re not marked on AO5 for Larkin; however, it might be interesting to embed as part of your argument in your essay.)

  • “casual, habitual racist, and an easy misogynist” – Lisa Jardine, a feminist critic – she has works on Othello too.
  • “the worst that anyone has discovered about Larkin are some crass letters and a taste for porn softer than what passes for mainstream entertainment” – John Osborne
  • “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket” – Eric Homberger
  • “He was condemned as a misogynist and racist, but Philip Larkin’s poetry reveals a world illuminated by unexpected lights.” – Andrew Motion

The Movement

  • Writers in “The Movement” group can be identified by their English character, often carrying an empirical tone, as poets from other regions of the UK were not actively involved. Although considered a literary group, members of The Movement saw themselves more as an actual movement, with each writer sharing a common purpose.
  • Their intention was to redirect the course of English poetry away from the neo-Romantic Symbolist and Imagistic poetry of William Butler Yeats and Dylan Thomas.
  • The Movement poets were considered anti-romantic, but Larkin and Hughes featured romantic elements. Good poetry, to The Movement group, meant simple, sensuous content and traditional, conventional and dignified form.
  • The Movement’s importance is its worldview that took into account Britain’s reduced dominance in world politics as the British Empire was collapsing. Thus, through the medium of poetry, the group attempted to displayed the value of British poetry over the new Modernist movement.
  • The Movement sparked the divisions among different types of British poetry. Their poems were nostalgic for the earlier Britain and filled with pastoral images of the decaying way of life as Britain moved farther from the rural and more towards the urban.

The Less Deceived (1955)

  • The “The Less Deceived” volume of poems by Larkin had its title adapted from Hamlet by Shakespeare: Ophelia: “I was the more deceived.”
  • Ophelia says this after Hamlet says that he no longer loves her, during one of his soliloquies. The quote suggests a true love and deep feelings, which Ophelia believes are not reciprocated.
  • It is ironic that Larkin use such a classic image of the Ophelia/Hamlet love saga as it represents how the most gifted movement poet ‘thought it necessary to step back from the technical adventures of modernism’.
  • However, Larkin turns this around as, in actual fact, he wanted us to be ‘less deceived’ by the realities of life.
  • Larkin described his poems as “sad-eyed realism” and also, “clear-eyed” as his works offers a realistic depiction of life. Through his exploration of modern attitudes to work, leisure, love and death, he was able to do this.
  • In this volume, and across his works in general, the predicament of human life, disappointment and disillusionment are recurring motifs in his agnostic and philosophical explorations – in his poetry.

Historical

  • The Less Deceived was published in 1955.
  • This period of reconstruction in a post-war England heavily influence Larkin’s work.
  • Something which personally affected Larkin was conscription. He was excluded from conscription over medical issues (poor eye-site) and allowed to continue his full course at University.
  • A considerable number of the population had lost their faith in God, following the events of the war, and Larkin’s personal agnostic views are mirrored in his poems.
  • The death of the British Empire saw the beginning of the new Welfare State. The change from a glorious past of an Empire was felt by many as a lost glory because the Welfare State was austere and mediocre with its domestic presence.
  • The Welfare State, which was so hardly fought for during the war itself, was never fully implemented and constant disagreements over funding and diverted taxation funds did not allow Bevan to implement all of Beveridge’s insistences and as such, the Welfare State was never as influential as it should have been and the British public knew it.

Context on Specific Poems

  • “I Remember, I Remember” = captures the coldness of Larkin’s hometown of Coventry
  • “Toads” = Larkin lamented the working middle class work ethic
  • “Lines on Young Lady’s Photograph Album” and “Maiden Name” = Winifred Arnott
  • At Grass! = Based on a film of the same name, which Larkin was moved by.
  • “Going” = It is about death, and , according to Andrew Motion, is the kind of poem for which Larkin “is so often regarded as an unrelievedly pessimistic poet”.
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