October 1, 2022

Was Philip Larkin suffocated by his job as a librarian? New research suggests he was pretty dedicated

Named Britain’s greatest post-war writer by The Times in 2008, Philip Larkin remains justly famous as a wry observer of life’s routines, mundaneities and silent emotions. He was a writer who once spoke of poetry as “enriching the everyday.”

Yet much of Larkin’s reputation as a great British poet rests on the widely held assumption that Larkin would have been even greater had it not been for the demands of his day job as a librarian at the University of Hull between 1955 and 1985. In truth, there is much in Larkin’s poems and letters to support the idea that Larkin was a reluctant librarian.

Now, as we celebrate the centenary of Philip Larkin’s birth in 1922, new research at the Larkin Center for Poetry and Creative Writing at the University of Hull reveals Larkin’s dedication to his day job as a librarian at the University of Hull.

The reluctant librarian?

“Work is a kind of void, a void,” Larkin wrote in a published letter to his longtime companion, Monica Jones, shortly after arriving in Hull. “God, people are awful” (May 9, 1955). Nine years later, in the poem Toads Revisited, Larkin finds solace in the calming routines of his daily work. However, he continues to complain to Monica in the early 1960s about the “boring and boring” work dinners he is forced to attend (November 28, 1963).

Larkin’s reputation as a reluctant librarian is today cast in bronze, by Martin Jennings in his statue of Larkin at Hull Paragon station. In it, the poet is seen rushing to a train for London and worrying, in the lines of Pentecost weddings, about being “late” for work.

Yet, although there is evidence to suggest that Larkin found his job as a librarian entertaining and boring, we must beware of taking what he says in his published poems and letters at face value.

Larkin confesses, in an unpublished letter to Monica Jones, which now resides in the Hull University Archives, that “my remarks about myself are not very trustworthy” and “are invariably designed to conceal rather than reveal”. (June 1, 1951).

This suggestion that Larkin’s private letters are not always reliable finds echoes in the words of Larkin’s contemporary, Hull scholar John Saville, whose correspondence with and about Larkin survives in university archives. Writing to the Guardian in a letter published on October 20, 1999, Saville notes the disjunction between the opinions expressed by Larkin in “private letters” and his “courteous and helpful” behavior as a librarian.

Saville draws on his three-decade working relationship with Larkin to argue that Andrew Motion, in his 1993 biography Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, “pays too little attention to Philip’s professional life as a librarian serious and conscientious”.

Library staff photo (October 1957) of the University of Hull. Larkin sits in the middle.
University of Hull, Author provided (no reuse)

New light on Larkin’s “day job”

New research at Hull’s Larkin Center is beginning to corroborate this image of Larkin as a dedicated librarian, drawing on little-known documents from Hull’s University Archives about Larkin at work. These include library committee minutes, records of Larkin’s correspondence as librarian, and interviews with Larkin for the University of Hull student newspaper, The Torchlight.

The Larkin we meet in these archives is quite an energetic figure, posing for staff photos and even contributing a self-portrait for a library staff Christmas party in 1963. He was so proud of the library and its collections that he expresses genuine surprise to the student. library review in a November 1969 issue of The Torchlight.

“I had the impression,” Larkin wrote to the editor of Torchlight, “that the library is the only thing at the University of Hull that its students can claim is better than at any other university our age and our size.”

It would seem that Larkin was quite proud of the Hull Library and in his poetry he expressed the importance and value of these institutions to everyone, particularly in the poem Library Ode:

New eyes every year
Find old books here,
And new books too,
Old eyes are renewed;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting a new coin.

The opinions expressed by Larkin in a poem or collection of letters are therefore not always consistent with the opinions he expresses in other contexts. No poem, archive or collection of letters can give us direct access to Larkin “the man”.

In an interview for Torchlight in February 1961, Larkin was directly asked, “Do you feel like two people?” “Reading your poetry, continues the interviewer, I have the impression that the poet thinks that the librarian is in a rut: does the librarian want to get out of the rut?

Larkin had written to Monica Jones just four years earlier, on January 29, 1957, to confess that he was “playing crazy” as a librarian and “had nothing to show” as a poet. But to the student reporter, Larkin’s response was much more positive about his dual roles as poet and librarian: “I’m not two people for tax purposes. And in fact, the poet is very grateful to the librarian. He keeps them both.