Two poems by Philip Larkin

Philip-Larkin-Quotes-3Firstly, an apology. I promised to post a couple of Larkin poems here that aren’t included in the selection I gave you in class. I’m sorry not to have posted them before now.

So, without more ado, here they are. First of all, ‘Talking in Bed’:

                                         Talking in Bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

There’s a VERY close reading of the poem online, here, for anyone who is interested.

The second poem, ‘Aubade’ is one of Larkin’s last, published in 1977 in the Times Literary Supplement.  An aubade is a dawn love-song, often from sung from a door or a window as a lover leaves his (or, more rarely, her) sleeping beloved. We find them in Chaucer and in John Donne (for example, ‘The Sun Rising‘). Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ plays on our expectations of the genre. The critic A.N. Wilson describes ‘Aubade’ as the one poem written in his lifetime of ‘unquestionable greatness’. You can read his essay, which in fact is critical of Larkin’s aesthetic, here, but first read Larkin’s poem:


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.


The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.


This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.


And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.


Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
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14 Responses to Two poems by Philip Larkin

  1. Larkin’s poems also focus on the concept of love, as the poem “Talking in Bed”which is a story about a failing relationship between two people isolated from each other and who find it difficult to communicate. The first thing I noticed about this poem was the title “Talking in Bed”, suggesting that the closeness of being together in the bed (a place of intimacy) should make it easy to talk “Talking in bed ought to be easiest” . However, this couple seems to have trouble communicating “Lying together there goes far back” , as they do not say a word to each other. Only what remains is an emblem “An emblem of two people being honest” – which signifies cruel present reality. This suggests the title and the whole poem is ironic. The word lying “Lying together there goes back so far” is ambiguous as it could mean both “sleeping/lying in bed together” or “telling lies over a period of time”. Larkin obviously does not believe that love could last forever and can be a disappointment.

  2. b20902819 says:

    This is one of those scarce moments that I realize I really like a poet I am assigned to read. I do not even need to read his poems closely, when I just take a look at the poem the words that draw my eye are enough for me to like the poems. I like the less decorated language, the gloomy state of mind and the sincerity in Larkin’s poems. I am sure what I am telling now applies for several other people, I was really tired of reading poems about wars, women, a monarch, flowers and then poems about war again, and I am glad that now we are reading about something that we all feel and think from time to time, we feel desperate, lonely or weary of life. Larkin is right, not all of us go ecstatic when we see some colorful plant popped out of the ground but we all familiar with that sense of emptiness and despair, and unfortunately yes, we sometimes have to realize that pretending like it does not exist, avoiding or trying not to be too conscious of it does not change the fact that death does exist for everyone, and every second its coming closer.
    (No, I have not gone all black and suicidal, but I sometimes like to remind myself what Larkin also likes to remember and it actually makes me feel more thankful, desirous or unconcerned, depending on the situation I am in)

  3. unalemre29 says:

    I would like to dwell on “Talking on bed”. As anyone would easily notice, Larkin’s darkening obsession with what I might call despair and the fear of death are the key points in the poem. Another thing catching my attention is the similarity between his poetry and those of romantics. The similarity goes beyond the use of simple language and it goes deeper and deeper as Wordsworth would try to find the enlightenment in wisdom. In Larkin, we see the realization of mortality or of the temporary nature of things with a dark tone. By dark tone, I mean Larkin’s use of nature working against him or humanity, more specifically: “And dark towns heap up on the horizon /None of this cares for us”. His way of reaching wisdom comes from the bitter realization that all of us would die one day and “more and more time passes silently”, thus quickening the end of our lives. My interpretation of Larkin as a poet is shaped by the idea that Larkin has brought Romanticism further, he shows some similarities with the Romantics in some instances, yet his way of reaching or catching the glimpse of wisdom is the revelation of his experience of certain things and that of coming to terms with the idea that we are mortal. Simple joys of life are temporary and easy to experience whereas these do not make anything better in our lives because time always works against us.

  4. metanoeia says:

    Thanks for two very interesting responses. Buke, I’m especially glad that Larkin has captured your imagination! I agree that there is something very appealing about Larkin’s down-to-earth, self-consciously deflationary, anti-poetic attitude. We’ll talk more about Larkin in tomorrow’s class (today’s, in fact!) but to whet your appetite, here’s another of Larkin’s shorter, more amusing poems:

    A Study of Reading Habits

    When getting my nose in a book
    Cured most things short of school,
    It was worth ruining my eyes
    To know I could still keep cool,
    And deal out the old right hook
    To dirty dogs twice my size.

    Later, with inch-thick specs,
    Evil was just my lark:
    Me and my coat and fangs
    Had ripping times in the dark.
    The women I clubbed with sex!
    I broke them up like meringues.

    Don’t read much now: the dude
    Who lets the girl down before
    The hero arrives, the chap
    Who’s yellow and keeps the store
    Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
    Books are a load of crap.

    • b20902819 says:

      Larkin reminds me of Sylvia Plath, although her language is far more complex (and although she is a little.. extreme in such issues like death, needless to say :p) I wonder if it is true that she committed suicide in the very same house where Yeats did! I am almost obsessed with her prose and verse. I wish she could be one of our “assigned” poets because :

      The night is only a sort of carbon paper,
      Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
      Letting in the light, peephole after peephole —
      A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.
      Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus
      He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness
      Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.

      Over and over the old, granular movie
      Exposes embarrassments–the mizzling days
      Of childhood and adolescence, sticky with dreams,
      Parental faces on tall stalks, alternately stern and tearful,
      A garden of buggy rose that made him cry.
      His forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks.
      Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars.

      He is immune to pills: red, purple, blue —
      How they lit the tedium of the protracted evening!
      Those sugary planets whose influence won for him
      A life baptized in no-life for a while,
      And the sweet, drugged waking of a forgetful baby.
      Now the pills are worn-out and silly, like classical gods.
      Their poppy-sleepy colors do him no good.

      His head is a little interior of grey mirrors.
      Each gesture flees immediately down an alley
      Of diminishing perspectives, and its significance
      Drains like water out the hole at the far end.
      He lives without privacy in a lidless room,
      The bald slots of his eyes stiffened wide-open
      On the incessant heat-lightning flicker of situations.

      Nightlong, in the granite yard, invisible cats
      Have been howling like women, or damaged instruments.
      Already he can feel daylight, his white disease,
      Creeping up with her hatful of trivial repetitions.
      The city is a map of cheerful twitters now,
      And everywhere people, eyes mica-silver and blank,
      Are riding to work in rows, as if recently brainwashed.

      • b20902819 says:

        oh AND I guess Auden agrees with me too although he sounds a little sarcastic: From The Orators:

        Sylvia Plath—lonely in her flat
        And me—lonely librarian at Hull
        Mulling about the stacks—doing deskwork
        She and I—had something in common

        We both believed—in “Pwetry”
        As Kingsley used to call it—but there
        Just wasn’t enough good poetry
        To go around—so I quit writing

        Plath, of course—was good at it
        In a Yankish way—carrying around her
        Rohget’s Thesaurus—but until Sheg Shay
        Got into the balmy stunt—nothing to say

        Plath began saying—more or less
        That she thought—madness would pay
        And found out—she could do it well
        But then she—fell face down into it

  5. unalemre29 says:

    After reading “Aubade”, I would be impossible not to talk about it. Besides Larkin’s recurring theme “mortality” and or “death as the incurable disease”, I would like to talk about these two lines: “The sky is white as clay, with no sun/ Work has to be done”. I would very much liken these lines to the Islamic proverb: “Care about secular issues as if you would never die, pray/work for the after life as if you would die tomorrow”. The relation with the lines I quoted and the proverb is the utmost realization of the aim of our creation in this world. We are here in this world, or were sent to this world by a power we do not see or touch, but a power some of us believe we feel, as I do. Although Larkin clearly dwells on the fear of death, he does not avoid the simplicity of our lives. I mean, we will die sooner or later, be lost in memory and be in the situation of “Not to be here /Not to be anywhere” yet there are things to be done, most of us cannot stay idle, caring for nothing, doing nothing but being the slave of sloth. This world is too tricky for us to believe in the seduction of secular issues, nor we can escape death/oblivion. We can neither be “brave” nor “courageous”, these qualities are not strong enough to let us “off the grave”. Larking’s wisdom, I believe he has that quality at least, is again realistic and dark at the same time as it is so in “Talking on Bed”. His wisdom only cannot beat the fear of death, therefore his verse seems dark and pessimistic to a certain extent.

  6. nimetpoyraz20900260 says:

    I also would like to talk about “Talking in Bed”, since I like it more. When compared to Larkin’s other poems, this poem is shorter; however, Larkin conceals many significant, intriguing and general themes in it. Larkin describes two people who have difficulty in going on their relationship. Since we can easily find our own lives and relationships in his description, his themes can be thought as general themes. I think, while he is describing the relationship between two people, he uses also the image of natural elements. For example, in the second stanza, Larkin affirms, “Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest / Builds and disperses clouds in the sky” We can understand from these lines that in order to show the unstable relationship between two people, Larkin uses the image of clouds which are both gathered and divided by the wind outside. The division and gathering of the clouds may refer to the division and gathering of these two people who Larkin talks about. Moreover, the negativity of Larkin’s themes reminds me of Ronald Draper’s words about Larkin. Draper states, “He is thought of as a gloomy, despondent, negative poet. Yet this is only one half of Larkin.” Draper thinks that Larkin shows his negativity and hopelessness in his poetry. On the other hand, in the following of this statement, Draper also says that Larkin’s other half is a positive poet. However, in “Talking in Bed”, we can see only negative half of Larkin, since he uses negative and despondent themes such as isolation, despair of love, a broken relationship and lack of communication.

  7. 20801343l says:

    When I looked at Larkin’s poems in general, I realized that he is a poet of reality in the sense that the real world is never far away in his works, and it is commonly at the center of his thematic concerns. He is a dramatic poet in a way that he creates centres of consciousness. He also connects his art with the example of Lawrence, Hardy, the Romantics. His poetry can be said to be traditional in its maintenance of this strong capacity for alertness to the familiar world. For example in his poems “Aubade” and “Talking in Bed”, the voice of human feeling is very evident. Larkin appreciates the emotion of sadness as the basic emotion which connects the reader compassionately with other human beings. As a poet, Larkin invites the reader to the emotional assessment of attitudes. Larkin’s established personality is arguably a depressed one and it is clear that depression is the main theme in many of his poems.

  8. ie20902343 says:

    Although they are isolated from the outside world completely, the persona states that “It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.” I think these lines suggest the troubles that the persona has. Although there is no other distraction from the outside world, the persona proves us that there is a communication barrier with his lover, or partner perhaps. Because of guilt, or a hidden truth, the persona finds it difficult to be honest in the bed, which is supposed to be the only place where they can be ‘honest’. As his conscience is troubled, he uses double negative when he tries to say ‘true’ and ‘kind’. In this poem Larkin shows that although bedroom is supposed to be an intimate place for lovers or partners, he still feels alone. He’s not only isolated from the society, but also from the intimacy of his partner.

  9. 20801870ss says:

    I would like to talk about Larkin’s “Talking in Bed” since it attracts my attention a lot rather than “Aubade”. The poem is a lyrical poem that is associated with emotions and feelings. The poet’s own or subjective feelings of isolation and alienation is thoroughly written in the poem. His emotions are not baseless and the poet tries to understand the gap between appareance and reality and the absence of love and intimacy. In that sense, one can say that the theme of the poem is the failure of love in which the couple feels disconnected to each other. The poet concentrates on “marriage bed” as metaphor which connects couple. So, it reminds me John Donne’s “Flea” which is an a kind of insect mingling the couple’s blood in itself. That is to say, there is always a bond or an object to connect the couple so the marriage bed represents their private association. However, in the poem, the marriage is not the one as it is supposed to be. The couple feels detached or disconnected with each other so the marriage bed is a kind of paradox in this poem. The second stanza of the poem shows that the marriage is not going well, there is always ups and downs. For example, in the seventh line, “dark towns” represents the couple’s unending problems, conflicts and loneliness they feel. The nature seems as if it reflects the situation of the couple but the poem does not say any word why they are unhappy or what happened to the couple. I think it is just a warning or experience the poet is exposed to. Moreover, he seems he does not want to be like that couple and does not approve of this situation. There is no need to stay in silent if you are unhappy according to him. Briefly, although the marriage bed is a connection between the couple not to be talked openly, sometimes it is related to the gap between the couples.

  10. n20900754 says:

    In the poem “Talking in Bed”, we see the isolation of the couples from each other in the modern world. While the speaker says that the bed is the very place the two people can get closest, he suggests that he and his partner are alienated from each other. Here, the speaker reveals the difficulty of being honest and intimate at the same time in this modern age. While honesty is supposed to bring unity and peace, here, it causes their relationship to fail. Thus, since this couple cannot be honest to each other, they remain silent in order to protect their intimacy. However, the silence alienates them more from each other and finally leads them to loneliness in themselves although they lie in the bed together. We also sense that this silence does not only alineate them from each other, but also from the outer world.

  11. nimetpoyraz20900260 says:

    In addition to “Talking in Bed”, I also want to talk about “Aubade”, since I loved it’s expressions about death. In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker clearly shows his fear of death by saying,”the dread /Of dying, and being dead”. Though in daylight he works and cannot realize the idea of death, at night darkness brings death into his mind. In order to get rid of thinking about the time and the place of his death, the speaker gets drunk at nights. I mostly like the descriptions he uses in order to define death. He says, “The sure extinction that we travel to /And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,/ Not to be anywhere,/ And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true”. In these lines we can see how the poet describes death. ‘The sure extinction’ and ‘not to be anywhere’ are the most striking definitions of death for me in this poem. When the death comes, it becomes the most terrible and truest thing according to the speaker. He does not want to die before achieving his goals in life. Since he is not a religious man, he does not want to be deceived by religious doctrines, and he does not want to believe after life, so he continues to fear of death. He shows that he is fear of losing his ability to see, hear, feel, think, touch and love, and this reveals that this speaker loves life. Though in the first four stanzas, the poet talks about his pessimism and negativity because of the idea of death, in the last stanza his tone changes and he begins to talk about life and hope. When the light comes, his hope also comes. He says, “Have always known, know that we can’t escape,/ Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go”. The expression of ‘one side will have to go’ refers to life and hope. Though Larkin is a pessimistic and gloomy poet, he employs the theme of death in both positive and negative way in this poem. In his book, “Philip Larkin and English Poetry”, Terry Whalen suggests, “in Larkin’s poetry the sharp recognition of failure and death is not a signal of despair, even if the poet often comes close to such a form of fatigue”.(28) As we see, death does not always mean despair in Larkin’s poetry. He also refers to hope in his poems.

  12. 20804215k says:

    On ‘Talking in Bed’
    The speaker of the poem mainly highlights alienation that modernity brings along with, which even penetrates into love affairs. A couple who has difficulty in getting along well with one another is described in the poem. The speaker criticizes that at the moments when a couple has a chance to share their own ideas or anything explicityly, which is actualized in their bed, the couple cannot share anything at all. The couple cannot achieve unity in their private life. I think that the alienation of the couple can be associated with individualism which has come along with modernity. It is emphasized through the poem that people are getting lonelier as they grow to be more self oriented, a result of modernity, they get lonelier. Even those having a relationship cannot achieve sharing, which is a product of modernity and emperialism.

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