British Recluse Refused Opportunity to Be Laureate : Poet, Jazz Critic Philip Larkin Dies at 63

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Times Staff Writer

Philip Larkin, whose reclusive life style and limited poetic output earned him the sobriquet “hermit of Hull,” died Monday.

He was 63 and his death was attributed to breathing difficulties after throat surgery. He died in Nuffield Hospital in Hull, a small northeast English town where he led a secluded life as a librarian living in a simple house darkened by drawn shades that protected his cherished books.

At his death his influence was felt far beyond the four slim volumes of poetry, two novels and two collections of essays that comprised his written legacy.


When the post of poet laureate became vacant in 1984 after the death of Sir John Betjeman, 30%--a plurality of the 120 British poets polled by the Times of London--favored Larkin.

But Larkin turned the job down, saying he had published only the four volumes of poetry between 1945 and 1974 and none in the last 10 years.

Woke Up ‘Screaming’

Larkin later told an interviewer he sometimes dreamed about being poet laureate and having to write verses for ceremonial occasions. He would “wake up screaming.”

And of his slim output, he said: “I didn’t give poetry up, it gave me up.”

Despite his limited production he was England’s best-selling poet after Betjeman. When his last volume, “The High Windows,” was published in 1974 it sold 6,000 copies in three weeks.

“High Windows” included the poem “Cut Grass,” illustrative of Larkin’s simple style in which he composed sparse stanzas for ordinary folk:

Cut grass lies frail


Brief is the breath

Mown stalks exhale

Long, long the death.

Jonathan Barker, poetry librarian of the British Arts Council told the Associated Press that “one of the most extraordinary things about him (Larkin) was that his poems held the attention of people who didn’t read much poetry. . . . He wasn’t like those modernists who want the reader to work hard to understand the poem.”

The tall, bespectacled and balding poet was born in Coventry, the son of the city treasurer. He once described his boyhood as an agony “of forgotten boredom.”

His native shyness was further complicated by a stammer that sometimes forced him to communicate by written notes.


As a youngster he became interested in jazz, and his written criticisms for the London Daily Telegraph outnumbered by far his verses. He had been the newspaper’s primary jazz critic for the last decade.

In that role he was taken with the jazz traditionalists much as he was with orthodox poets and much preferred Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Bix Beiderbecke to the progressive musicians of his time whom he found “pinched, unhappy and febrile.”

Yeats an Early Influence

As a young poet he fell under the influence of William Butler Yeats, but abandoned that infatuation after he found he could not adapt his homelike phrasing to the Irish poet’s style. More recently he listed Thomas Hardy, Dylan Thomas and Betjeman among his idols.

Sadness and failure permeated his works, which included “North Ship,” “The Less Deceived” and “The Whitsun Weddings.”

“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” he once said.

A bachelor, Larkin was a librarian all his life in such towns as Shropshire, Leicester and finally Hull, where he had been at the university for 30 years.

“I don’t really notice where I live,” he once said. He also refused to attend the readings or deliver the lectures expected of successful poets.


“I couldn’t bear that,” he said several years ago. “It would embarrass me very much. I don’t want to go around pretending to be me.”