Hobsbaum was born into a Polish Jewish family in London, and brought up in Bradford, in Yorkshire. He read English at Downing College, Cambridge, where he was taught and heavily influenced by F. R. Leavis. At Cambridge he took over the editing of the magazine delta from Peter Redgrove. After Cambridge, he worked as a school teacher in London from 1955 to 1959, when he moved to Sheffield to study for a PhD under William Empson. In 1962 he took up an academic position at Queen's University, Belfast, and moved again in 1966, to take up a post in the University of Glasgow. He was awarded a personal chair in 1985, and retired from the University in 1997; he remained in Glasgow until his death in 2005.
Hobsbaum's most direct impact on literature was as the animating force behind The Group, a sequence of writing workshops in Cambridge, London, Belfast and Glasgow, in turn. Although there was some slight overlap in personnel with The Movement, the various incarnations of the Group had a more concrete existence and a more practical focus.
The Cambridge Group was initially concerned with the oral performance of poetry, but soon turned into an exercise in practical criticism and mutual support for a network of poets. This Group relocated to London when Hobsbaum moved there in 1955, becoming The Group, and continuing until 1965, chaired by Edward Lucie-Smith after Hobsbaum's departure for Sheffield.
In Belfast (1962–1966), Hobsbaum organised a new weekly discussion group, which became known as The Belfast Group and included the emerging authors John Bond, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker and Bernard MacLaverty.
In Glasgow, Hobsbaum became once again the nucleus of a group of new and distinctive authors, including Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Aonghas MacNeacail and Jeff Torrington. This group continued to meet until 1975, and unlike the previous groups developed a more pronounced focus on prose than on poetry. As an encore, Hobsbaum was instrumental in setting up, in 1995, the successful MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.
Though he was a poet as well, it was as a critic that Hobsbaum was best known. And though as one of his obituarists noted, "[h]e was famously not a man who felt a pressing need to endear himself to students", he was a charismatic teacher, and fiercely committed to those with a commitment to literature. The dedication of Alasdair Gray's The Book of Prefaces is "to Philip Hobsbaum poet, critic and servant of servants of art". Seamus Heaney also dedicated the poem "Blackberry-Picking" (from Death of a Naturalist, 1966) to Philip Hobsbaum.
A Group Anthology (Oxford UP, 1963), edited with Edward Lucie-Smith
The Place's Fault, and other poems (Macmillan, 1964)
Snapshots (Belfast: Festival Publications, 1967)
In Retreat and Other Poems (Macmillan, 1966)
Coming Out Fighting (Macmillan, 1969)
Women and Animals (Macmillan, 1972)
The Pattern of Poetry (1962)
Criticism, and other academic writing
Ten Elizabethan Poets (Longmans, 1969), editor
A Theory of Communication (Macmillan, 1970), in US as Theory of Criticism (Indiana UP, 1970)
A Reader's Guide To Charles Dickens (Thames and Hudson, 1972)
Tradition and Experiment in English Poetry (Macmillan, 1979)
A Reader's Guide to D H Lawrence (Thames and Hudson, 1981)
Essentials Of Literary Criticism (Thames and Hudson, 1983)
A Reader's Guide to Robert Lowell (Thames and Hudson, 1988)
William Wordsworth: Selected Poetry and Prose (Routledge, 1989), editor
Channels of Communication: Papers from the Conference of Higher Education Teachers of English (Dept Eng Lit, University of Glasgow, 1992), edited by Hobsbaum, Paddy Lyons, and Jim McGhee
Metre, Rhythm And Verse Form (Routledge, 1996)
Entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for Peter Alexander, William Burnaby, Richard Thomas Church, Everard Guilpin, Alfred Noyes, (James) Stewart Parker, and William Stewart Rose (2004).
In 2002, the Scottish-American poetry magazine The Dark Horse printed an interview with him, in which he discussed his biography and work.
Hobsbaum/Group correspondence archive at University of Texas at Austin