Motion on... Larkin

Updated Tuesday, 9th September 2008
Poet Laureate Andrew Motion shares his enthusiasm for the poet Philip Larkin.

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Andrew Motion

About Philip Larkin

Philp Larkin Larkin was born in Coventry on 9th August 1922 to Sydney and Eva Larkin. He showed an early talent for writing when he attended King Henry VIII School and contributed regularly to the school magazine.

In 1940, he attended St Johns College and soon after his first poem 'Ultimatum' was published in the national weekly. He graduated with first class honours in English (1943). For the first few months after graduating Larkin devoted most of his time to his first novel, 'Jill'.

In 1945, his own book 'The North Ship' came out with most of his poems included, his novel Jill came out a year later. His second novel was published in 1947.

From 1st October 1950 Larkin was Sub-Librarian at Queen's University, Belfast where he continued to write poetry in his spare time. 1964 saw his next collection 'The Whitsun Weddings' – this was widely acclaimed and in 1965 he received the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry. During his later years he received numerous honorary doctorates including CBE in 1975 and one from Oxford University (1984).

His most highly prized honour was the order of the companion of honour in June 1985. He died shortly after from cancer on 2nd December 1985 aged 63.

The Large Cool Store

The large cool store selling cheap clothes
Set out in simple sizes plainly
(Knitwear, Summer Casuals, Hose,
In browns and greys, maroon and navy)
Conjures the weekday world of those

Who leave at dawn low terraced houses
Timed for factory, yard and site.
But past the heaps of shirts and trousers
Spread the stands of Modes For Night:
Machine-embroidered, thin as blouses,

Lemon, sapphire, moss-green, rose
Bri-Nylon Baby-Dolls and shorties
Flounce in clusters. To suppose
They share that world, to think their sort is
Matched by something in it, shows

How separate and unearthly love is,
Or women are, or what they do,
Or in our young unreal wishes
Seem to be: synthetic, new,
And natureless in ecstasies.

(18th June 1961 'The Whitsun Weddings')

Andrew Motion's thoughts

Clothes on rack Andrew, who has written an extensive biography of Larkin’s work, feels that in his own lyric way this poet always runs an argument past us in his poems. 'The Large Cool Store' is about what Larkin sees as drab houses, drab colours, drab lives and drab people during the week trying to change by night into something they are not.

This poem was written in the heyday of the department store – the argument is whether the shoppers are deluding themselves when they buy something from what would today be Marks and Spencers – something colourful for the weekend or days off, or are they going beyond the limits which society sets for them?

 

Clothes on rack During the first verse Larkin opens the argument with a very detailed account of drab lives and circumscribed existence. You wonder if he is sympathetic towards these people or if he is, in his best interest, patronising them.

There is a sense of contradiction in the middle of the poem in that what lies furthest from us - for instance the brightly coloured shop – is somehow going to tell us how the poem will end. By the end of the poem you are left with several unresolved questions – who are the 'our' of "young unreal wishes"? Are they all young people or are they young men? Andrew's instinct is to say that they are young men.

 

Take it further

Philip Larkin: a writer's life
Andrew Motion, Faber

Collected Poems
edited by Anthony Thwaite, Marvell/Faber

Selected Letters
edied by Anthony Thwaite, Faber

The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse

chosen by Philip Larkin, Clarendon Press

Philip Larkin: a bibliography, 1933-1976, Faber

The Philip Larkin Society

Larkin's poems

Larkin biography

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