By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Trying to create a ‘top ten’ definitive list of Philip Larkin’s best poems is impossible, not least because each Larkin fan will come up with a slightly different list.
However, we’ve tried our best to bring together some of Larkin’s most classic poems here. Whether you’re a devoted fan of the great man’s work, or seeking an introduction to a handful of his best poems, you should find something of interest here. (If you’re a fan of Larkin, you might also like our pick of W. H. Auden’s best poems – Auden was a big influence on early Larkin.)
We’ve provided the year of composition for each poem rather than the date of publication; given that all but one of the poems in the list appeared in one of just three volumes of poetry (published in 1955, 1964, and 1974), and Larkin sometimes kept a poem for several years before publishing it, we figured that knowing when he wrote it (or, more accurately, finished it) is more useful than knowing when it first appeared in print.
Links to online copies of the poems are given for each poem in the list. All poems are taken from the indispensable The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, which we’d thoroughly recommend. We’ve compiled some fun facts about Philip Larkin’s life here.
10. ‘Deceptions‘ (1950).
An early masterpiece written when Larkin was still in his twenties, ‘Deceptions’ was included in Larkin’s first major volume of poetry, The Less Deceived (1955); the poem also provided the volume with its title (an inversion of Ophelia’s ‘the more deceived’ from Hamlet).
It takes as its epigraph, and inspiration, a real-life case of a young girl drugged and raped by a man, a story that is recounted in Mayhew’s Victorian book London Labour and the London Poor.
Larkin addresses the girl – now long dead, of course – and tries to understand how she must have felt, famously comparing her mind to a ‘drawer of knives’, lying open. (Margaret Thatcher, when she met Larkin, reportedly expressed a fondness for this poem, recalling only that it was the one in which that girl’s ‘mind was full of knives’.)
9. ‘Church Going‘ (1954).
A meditation on the role of the church in a secular age, written by a poet who described himself as an ‘Anglican agnostic’, ‘Church Going’ is one of Larkin’s most popular poems from The Less Deceived, and a great secular poem about churches. In the poem, the speaker of the poem visits a church on one of his bicycle rides and stops to have a look inside – though he isn’t sure why he stopped.
The title carries a double meaning: both going to church (if only to look around, rather than to worship there), and the going or disappearing of churches, and the Church, from British life.
8. ‘Mr Bleaney‘ (1955).
This poem is about a man who rents a rather small and downmarket room in a house and muses upon the life of the previous occupant, Mr Bleaney. It shows Larkin’s excellent use of syntax: the last two stanzas constitute one long sentence, culminating in a simple three-word statement.
We particularly like the image of the speaker stuffing cotton-wool in his ears to drown out the sound of his (most likely half-deaf) landlady’s television set in the living room below.
7. ‘Afternoons‘ (1959).
‘Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth’, Larkin once remarked. This poem, something of a ‘wild card’ in this selection, is one of our favourites.
It perfectly captures the unsatisfactoriness of postwar Britain and the age of austerity, through its depiction of young mothers at the local park pushing their children on slides and swings.
But it also turns into something more timeless: a musing upon the way that one generation soon succeeds another, and (as in many of Larkin’s poems) everyone grows old, ultimately reaching ‘the only end of age’ (as he puts it in another poem, ‘Dockery and Son’).
As the commenter on one website which quotes the poem puts it, ‘This poem is epic man’. Not in the Homeric sense perhaps, but we echo the sentiment. It’s also one of Larkin’s rare unrhymed poems (see his meditation on religion, ‘Water’, for another).
6. ‘Aubade‘ (1977).
Perhaps Larkin’s last great poem. Larkin completed ‘Aubade’ in November 1977, and the poem was published in the Times Literary Supplement on 23 December – ruining quite a few Christmas dinners, as Larkin himself predicted.
He had begun the poem in 1974, the year that his final collection High Windows appeared, but he laid it aside and returned to it three years later, in the summer of 1977.
But it was the death of Larkin’s mother, in November of that year, that seems to have inspired him to finish the poem. Yet the poem is about Larkin’s death first and foremost, and offers a stark and harrowing vision of human mortality.
In summary, ‘Aubade’ is about the poet waking at four in the morning to ‘soundless dark’ and being gripped by the terror of his own death which, with the dawning of a new day, is ‘a whole day nearer now’. He cannot say how, where, or when he will die, but that doesn’t stop him from contemplating his own demise – a horrifying thought.
Published in the Times Literary Supplement two days before Christmas Day 1977, it is a moving and openly terrified meditation on the prospect of death, that ‘sure extinction that we travel to’. We include ‘Aubade’ in our pick of the finest morning poems.
5. ‘Toads‘ (1955).
One of the gems in The Less Deceived, ‘Toads’ is one of Larkin’s meditations (or perhaps invectives) on the subject of work. When asked years later by an interviewer (Larkin only gave interviews very reluctantly, though he did appear on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs) how he came up with the comparison between work and the toad, Larkin gave the Wildean reply, ‘Sheer genius’.
4. ‘The Whitsun Weddings‘ (1964).
The title poem of Larkin’s third major volume of poems, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is a long poem in Larkin terms. It describes a train journey from Hull down to London on Whitsun weekend.
The speaker (probably Larkin himself, or a close approximation) watches all the newlywed couples who join the train as it stops at various stations, and muses upon the futures of the married couples whose lives at this moment are so filled with happiness and excitement. (See ‘Afternoons’ above for a contrast, where the wedding albums of nondescript families are found ‘lying near the television’ – ‘lying’, as so often in Larkin’s poetry, is a piece of wordplay loaded with truth.)
Does the arrow-shower that becomes rain at the end of the poem represent Cupid’s dart turning into the miserableness of married life? Or should the rain here be seen as a positive, life-giving force? Given that it’s Larkin we’re talking about here, we’re inclined to believe it’s the former, but Larkin deftly leaves the image ambiguous. We’ve discussed this, and other curious aspects of the poem, in our analysis of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’.
3. ‘This Be The Verse‘ (1971).
Written in 1971, this is another of Larkin’s most famous poems. Its opening line is probably the best-known in all of poetry – but don’t recite it too loudly in your local library.
Our parents wreck our lives, perhaps unintentionally, because they pass on their own failings to us (since we inherit their genes) and, through the way they raise us, they inspire more failings within us.
Larkin then says, in defence of parents everywhere, that this wasn’t their fault: they, too, were damaged by their upbringing by their parents, who spent their lives being either emotionally buttoned-up or, when they did show any emotion, arguing and creating a fraught home life for their children. He concludes by saying that this is the way of humankind: we pass on our own miseries to our children, and they pass on theirs to their children’s children, and so on.
You can read our analysis of ‘This Be The Verse’ here.
2. ‘An Arundel Tomb‘ (1956).
Musing upon the effigies of a medieval earl and countess buried side by side, this poem is a tender meditation on love from one of poetry’s most famous bachelors (Larkin was a bachelor in so far as he never married; he did, however, have relationships with several women – simultaneously, in fact). Like many of Larkin’s poems it takes the form of an internal debate in which the poet discusses two sides of a particular situation, prompted by the witnessing of some event or moment (here, the visit to the Arundel tomb of the title).
The inspiration for ‘An Arundel Tomb’ came during a New Year holiday in early 1956, when Larkin visited Chichester Cathedral with his long-term partner, Monica Jones. Inspired by the stone effigy of the medieval earl and countess found in the cathedral, Larkin wrote a poem about love and our attitudes to love.
The identities of the figures in the real Arundel tomb are the fourteenth-century Richard FitzAlan and Eleanor of Lancaster, who are actually buried in Lewes Priory. So although Larkin calls the effigies a ‘tomb’, they are technically a ‘memorial’ because the bodies are buried elsewhere. But let’s face it, ‘An Arundel Tomb’ sounds better than ‘An Arundel Memorial’.
You can read our analysis of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ here.
1. ‘MCMXIV‘ (1960).
One of Larkin’s most famous poems, ‘MCMXIV’ has as its title the year 1914 in Roman numerals. Larkin contrasts the pre-WWI world with the world that followed soon after. Its final line is often quoted, but its ambiguous penultimate line, about the marriages lasting a little while longer (because the husbands would shortly be killed in the War or because people stayed married longer back then?), is often overlooked.
One final note: compiling this list was a huge pleasure but also a rather painful act of literary selection. This is because it’s extremely difficult to choose just ten of the best Philip Larkin poems, as the man wrote so many classics. So please feel free to register your displeasure and/or shock that we haven’t included ‘High Windows’, ‘Ambulances’, ‘Here’, ‘The Trees’, ‘Going, Going’, or ‘The Explosion’. We could go on. In all honesty, we don’t think any two Larkin fans’ top ten lists of his best poems would look the same.
But as we say, that’s because he left behind a whole raft of great poems, not just a few. And our final recommendation is to get hold of the Collected Poems from your bookshop or local library and start reading all of it. Go on. It won’t take that long. He didn’t leave that many poems, but what he did leave were plenty of classics. If you don’t own it already, treat yourself to a copy of Philip Larkin: Collected Poems. Well worth it, for the price of lunch.
If you enjoyed this pick of the best Larkin poems, check out our pick of the best poems by John Betjeman and seven of the greatest Dylan Thomas poems. You might also enjoy our short introduction to English poetry, told through 8 short poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.