Brief Interpretations (new)
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Brief Interpretations (new)
'Here' is the opening poem of the Whitsun Weddings: it locates the reader in Larkin's England. Like a helicopter cameraman, he shows us the scenery, moving toward a large town (Hull in Yorkshire where he lived). Larkin catalogues its consumers - 'grim head-scarfed wives' - and commerce - 'electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers' - in one long, critical sentence of 25 lines. Notice how the short sentence 'Here silence stands / Like heat' pulls us up short, slowing the pace as we move beyond the suburbs to countryside and 'isolate villages'. The final view is of life 'out of reach' of society - a landscape solitary but beautiful.
In 'Mr Bleaney', Larkin begins speaking in the voice of an imaginary landlady, telling her new lodger about the old lodger, Mr Bleaney. Mr Bleaney was a long-term tenant and left only when he died. The new lodger finds that he knows all Mr Bleaney's habits - the time he ate, the food he preferred, where he went for Christmas - although he will never meet him. The room is dismal, without many comforts, and Larkin imagines Mr Bleaney's life was just as lonely. He is now in Mr Bleaney's shoes and maybe his life will also be fruitless. In the last stanza, he wonders whether Mr Bleaney deserved more than 'one hired box' - the 'box' refers to the room, but also the coffin in which Mr Bleaney left the house.
This pictures a woman who has kept the musical scores of songs she used to play, perhaps on the piano, and rediscovers them after many years, when she is a widow. As physical objects they have been marked by the passage of time: one is faded by sunlight, the woman's daughter has coloured another in. The words of the songs, though, are fresh 'like a spring-woken tree' and convey a sharp memory of being young and having life and love ahead. The woman cries because love's promise 'to solve, and satisfy' has not been fulfilled in her life.
In the first stanza, women file up to the American faith healer, who asks God to cure them. In the second stanza, these women move on like 'sheep' or 'idiot children' still shaking from their encounter. Their 'tongues blortand 'eyes squeeze grief' phrases which suggest that their bodies act without rational or emotional control. In the third stanza, Larkin repeats the faith healer's question 'what's wrong?' and gives his own answer. The ache which everyone wants to cure but can't is a need to have given, and especially to have received, more love. Larkin implicitly questions whether desire for God's blessing might not be a sublimated craving for parental love - a possibility highlighted by the repetition of the word 'child' by the silver-haired healer.
'Toad' is Larkin's pet word for 'work'. This poem is a sequel to 'Toads' in his earlier collection, The Less Deceived. Larkin describes taking a daytime walk in the park during the week. He meets those who do not have jobs: frail old men ('palsied old step-takers'), hospital outpatients, and vagrants 'deep in the litter baskets'. He concludes that the routine of work actually feels better than belonging to this social group who have 'nowhere to go but indoors'. In an ironical parting couplet, Larkin personifies work as an 'old toad' which will take his arm, making life's journey toward death ('Cemetery Road') easier.
Larkin imagines inventing a religion with rites involving water. Crossing water will be part of the ritual of attending church. Larkin will raise a glass of water, which reflects light, in the east (where the star announcing Christ's birth rises in the Bible). This fantasy raises the possibility that conventional religions may also just be designed to meet an audience's need for ceremony. 'Water', unlike all the poems discussed above, is unrhymed. But notice its strong, chanting metre: three stanzas with 2, 2 and 3 stresses per line; one stanza with a 3, 2, 2, 3 stress pattern.
The central poem in the collection describes a train journey on a hot holiday afternoon. Newly wed couples board at each station. When Larkin realises this, he starts to look out for the wedding parties. As the train moves off, it captures a moment of transition for the families, which stand on the platform, and the dozen marriages, which get under way on life's journey. Larkin is an unmarried, detached observer - depicting the typical family with ruthless humour - yet he is moved by being briefly part of a shared experience, as the train passengers, like an arrow-shower, travel forward together.
Coming after 'The Whitsun Weddings', this poem also considers the topic of marriage. Larkin contrasts his life with that of Arnold who 'married a woman to stop her getting away / Now she's there all day.' Arnold is no longer free: his wife nags him and his salary goes to his children. The view of Arnold's wife is very negative: you may feel that the poem's attitude to women reflects a fear present throughout this collection. Larkin wonders whether bachelor life or marriage is the more selfish social choice.
Larkin remembers his reading habits as a schoolboy. In the first stanza he is leading, through books, the fantasy life of a tough-guy hero, throwing punches at villains. In the second stanza, as he grows older, he is imagining himself as a vampire, acting out erotic violence. In the third stanza, an older Larkin claims that he doesn't read much any more because he identifies himself with 'the dude who lets the girl down' in love stories. 'Books are a load of crap', he suggests - a humorous and ironical retort from a writer.
'Ignorance' cuts to the heart of the collection?s doubtfulness about the future. Larkin comments on how strange it is 'never to be sure / Of what is true or right or real'. This, and the question about death in the last stanza, point to religious doubt - Larkin was an agnostic - but also social uncertainty. The second stanza, which describes ignorance of 'the way things work' (a vague subject) 'their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed' suggests again Larkin as an observer, noting others' instinctive identity and reproduction, but unable to participate without questioning these. The body ('flesh') is predetermined, but the reason for life remains a mystery.
'Wild Oats' contrasts the life one has lived, with the life not chosen. Larkin, in the same self-deprecating voice of 'A Study in Reading Habits', admits his romantic failure: 'I was too selfish...And easily bored to love'. He had a relationship with a girl 'in specs I could talk to', but always hankered after the girl's prettier friend, whom he 'only met twice'. We see the objects associated with the relationship he had which ended - four hundred letters, a ten-guinea ring - and the two photographs of the girl he never dated. Surprisingly it is these snaps which he still carries around: unrealised fantasy outlasts the real affair.
You may feel that this ends the collection on a more hopeful note about love and the passing of time. Larkin describes a mediaeval tomb, of an earl and a countess who are modelled in stone, lying side by side. The pose is formal: the earl is wearing armour - but Larkin is struck by the fact that his left glove is off and he is holding his wife's hand. The poet imagines the 'stationary voyage' of the tomb through the centuries. The mediaeval couple would have been amazed by changes in the hierarchical world they knew - people don't wear armour, or read the Latin inscription. Modern viewers just notice the apparent gesture of intimacy, which the couple may not have intended. But Larkin derives from this a general truth: 'what will survive of us is love'.