The poems Talking in Bed and Afternoons written by Larkin, and Balloons and The Applicant written by Plath, present human relationships in different ways. Plath’s Balloons focuses on personal experiences and happiness and is written from her own point of view. The Applicant mocks the relationship that is expected by society between a husband and wife, and criticises the role of a woman within a marriage. In Larkin’s Talking in Bed, he expresses ideas about how time can affect and change a relationship between two people, and similarly in Afternoons he looks at what has altered in a husband’s and wife’s world since they have been together. Larkin and Plath both discuss romantic relationships, Larkin speaks from a pessimistic point of view, and Plath in a similar tone in The Applicant. However Plath’s Balloons looks at a different kind of relationship entirely, the one she has with her children.
Talking in Bed by Larkin shows how a relationship can change over time, and how people can grow apart emotionally, even if they are together physically. The poem opens with ‘Talking in bed ought to be easiest’, displaying Larkin’s cynical outlook on the relationship. The use of the auxiliary verb ‘ought’ shows that talking in bed isn’t easy, even though it should be, which is shown by the line ‘yet more and more time passes silently’. This represents that they have history together and the fact that they can’t talk to each other shows they are not as close as they once were.
The use of the word ’emblem’ symbolises the relationship between two people which is shown by the act of lying in bed together. It may also refer to what is supposed to be ideal, which is being together, however this is overshadowed by the ordinary and mundane life that they lead, therefore ’emblem’ is ironic as Larkin is actually describing the opposite of this idea. Opposition is used in the first stanza with the words ‘lying’ and ‘honest’, to intensify the two extremes of communication. The word ‘lying’ is ambiguous as Larkin may be referring to the couple lying in bed together, as well as lying to each other. The conjunction ‘yet’ shows that this doesn’t matter and the past is irrelevant because they now find it hard to do something as simple as talk in bed, which is shown by ‘more and more time passes silently’. The repetition of the adjective ‘more’ emphasises that it’s becoming harder to break the silence and the adverb ‘silently’ emphasises how the passing of time has led to the conversation ending. In this poem Larkin is conveying how people may not notice time passing, but how time can have a damaging effect on a relationship between two people that were once close.
Larkin uses words with negative connotations such as ‘unrest’, ‘difficult’ and ‘isolation’ to show the damaging feelings in a relationship, and contradicts the idea of what a relationship is supposed to be about. Words such as ‘isolation’ are emotive and Larkin uses feelings that can be felt universally. Each stanza is 4 lines long and 10 syllables long representing the repetitive nature of the relationship and giving the poem its rhythm. Larkin uses end stopped lines in the first stanza to represent that he is bound by the relationship.
However, Plath’s Balloons expresses the happy relationship she has with her children and the feelings she has towards them, as opposed to Larkin’s Talking in Bed, which shows the deterioration of a bad relationship. Larkin speaks in the third person from a non-specific perspective whereas Plath uses the first person as she is directly involved in the event occurring in Balloons. Whereas Larkin is pessimistic towards the future of the relationship, Plath is optimistic about her family and the future. Plath refers to her children directly and is involved in the events of the poem, whereas in Talking in Bed, Larkin is objective and removed from the poem. The line ‘Such queer moons we live with instead of dead furniture’ shows Plath’s happiness in making a home for her children that is filled with things they enjoy. Opposition is also used with the words ‘live’ and ‘dead’ showing Plath’s desire for her children to live a happy life. The poem is filled with references to wild and domesticated animals such as ‘cat’, ‘fish’ and ‘peacock’, which have connotations of freedom, innocence and the need to be loved and cared for, which connotates Plath’s feelings on the life she wants to provide for her children.
In the first stanza of Balloons, Plath creates imagery as the balloons are personified by being referred to as ‘they’ and as being ‘soul animals’. Plath’s personification of the balloons gives them life, personality, and a spiritual existence. This image of the balloons is a manifestation of the ‘soul’ which is linked with being ‘good’ which is how Plath sees her children. The use of onomatopoeia appeals to the senses, childish words such as ‘shriek’ and ‘pop’ which add a comical tone, adding a sense of positivity and a celebratory tone to the relationship she is describing. Here Plath expresses the relationship with herself and her children, and how an age difference can effect and change your feelings and behaviour. The colours and shapes used such as ‘moons’, ‘oval’ and ‘red’ and ‘blue’ create imagery which appeals to our sense of sight and imagination. Words which are connected to texture are used such as ‘straw’ and ‘silk’ which appeal to our sense of touch. The poem is from her point of view, and she is very much involved in the life depicted. Uncharacteristically for Plath, she uses words which celebrate the senses and the feeling of being alive, a feeling of happiness which is due to her childrens presence.
Plath uses enjambment to link the six stanzas together, to express her continuous happiness at her relationship with her children and the feelings they inspire such as ‘delight’. Larkin also uses enjambment to link the last two stanzas of Talking in Bed together. However, this has a different effect as it represents the feelings of being trapped and confined within a relationship, which is ironic as in these last two stanzas he talks about being free, through use of pathetic fallacy. ‘The winds incomplete unrest/ Builds and disperses clouds in the sky.’ This represents feelings of destress and the want to say things and express emotions that people can’t, then the moment passes and it’s too late to mention.
The line ‘and dark towns heap up on the horizon’ shows that these feelings have been building over time. The ‘horizon’ represents the future and hope for the relationship, however the ‘dark towns’ problematise that future. This section of the poem presents images that are threatening and suggests that for the outside world their relationship has no meaning, shown by the line ‘None of this cares for us.’ This is ironic as Larkin is arguing that most relationships are like the one he is describing, shown through use of the inclusive pronouns ‘this’ and ‘us’. The final stanza shows that these circumstances are not changing. ‘It becomes still more difficult to find, Words at once true and kind, Or not untrue and not unkind.’ The use of the word ‘still’ shows that things are not improving. The antonyms ‘true’, ‘untrue’ and ‘kind’ and ‘unkind’ are juxtaposed with each other to represent the feelings of emptiness. If the words are neither true nor untrue, therefore they are nothing, and meaningless.
While Larkin uses nature to create imagery, Plath uses artificial objects to create images of falsity in The Applicant. The poem critiques a stereotypical idea of a man’s ideal wife from Plath’s feminist point of view. The items mentioned in the first stanza such as ‘a glass eye, false teeth or a crutch, A brace or a hook, Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch’ are all artificial and show that the man would have to have something missing physically or emotionally in order to need a wife to compensate for that weakness. Through use of lexical choices Plath deconstructs and therefore monstrocises the ‘wife’ figure. She is arguing that men are weak and cannot function properly without women.
Throughout the poem the woman is further dehumanised and objectified by the use of the pronoun ‘it’, showing that she is not a person but an object. This idea is intensified in the seventh stanza due to repetition, ‘it can sew, it can cook, it can talk, talk, talk’. The repetition of the word ‘talk’ suggests that men feel women talk too much, and should just be looked at instead of being spoken to. Therefore, from a feminist poet, this is ironic. This is intensified by the woman being called a ‘living doll’ meaning that she is for a man to play with as ‘Living doll’ also has sexual connotations. The poem does not discuss marriage being based on love, and sexual connotations are also seen in the first stanza, ‘Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch’. The woman is fetished and the notion of love is removed. The idea of the artificial items may relate to the whole idea of marriage being false. Plath has presented women from a limited male perspective as something that is only useful to provide for and satisfy a man.
Similarly in Larkin’s Afternoons, he discusses marriage, however, the tone of the poem is bleak, as Larkin is reflecting on what used to be, and how it has changed over time, which is similar to Talking in Bed. Afternoons opens with the suggestion of time passing, of the summer drawing to a close, which is shown by the line ‘the leaves fall in ones in twos’. The use of the words ‘ones’ and ‘twos’ show that the fading of the summer which is a barely noticeable event which is a metaphor for the lives people lead slowly hanging and being predictable, which is linked to the natural cycle of nature and time. These words may also be suggesting death and the fact that people will either die having been alone or in a couple. These words also suggest that it doesn’t matter if you are alone or in a couple, death is inevitable and will eventually bring life to an end. Words with negative connotations are used such as the afternoons being described as ‘hollows’. This suggests that the husbands and wives don’t feel fulfilled by their marriage which is similar to Plath’s idea of artificial marriage in The Applicant.
Afternoons shows what marriage has become after time, whereas Plath’s The Applicant discusses what marriage is likely to become, in terms of the stereotypes created by society. The title The Applicant refers to a man who is applying to get a wife. The poem opens with the interrogative ‘First are you our sort of person?’ This shows that the man is being interviewed to select if he is eligible for a wife, playing with the idea that a wife will make up for any men’s deficiencies. The rest of the first stanza continues in this interrogative style, as he is taking part in an interview. The use of the metonym ‘hand’ in the line ‘Empty? Empty?. Here is a hand’ shows how the part of a woman which represents her as a whole is the part of her which can give or provide something to a man, as opposed to saying ‘Here is a heart’, which would suggest love within the marriage. The line ‘To bring teacups and roll away headaches’ is a derogatory stereotype of a woman and the things she is expected to do for a man. ‘It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof/ Against fire and bombs through the roof’. This is an image of strength, however, it sounds like a disclaimer as if the woman is a product that can be bought in order to make a man’s life easier. This is a negative image as it suggests that a man can treat a woman however he likes and she will take it because she is ‘shatterproof’.
As in Plath’s Balloons and Larkin’s Talking in Bed, the scene of the poem is ordinary. In Afternoons the poem is set in a play area in a public place, which shows how ‘young mothers assemble’. The verb ‘assemble’ suggests a response to an order, and may represent how the same event occurs at the same place every day. The use of the words ‘free’ and ‘children’ suggest that freedom is no longer something the adults possess as their own lives have been taken over by their children. This is also implied by the line ‘Their beauty has thickened’, ‘their’ being the children’s beauty and how it is leading to the adults being pushed ‘to the side of their own lives’. The adults are no longer young and beautiful, however, the children are and they have replaced them.
The lines ‘And the albums, lettered/Our wedding, lying/Near the television’ shows how the images of marriage can just be for show, as the wedding album is placed near the television and what people view on TV is what we want to see and not necessarily a true picture of a person’s life. Afternoons shows how life changes from being young and in a relationship to being older and married. Larkin’s techniques and language show that growing older can make you look back on things that once were, and the realisation of knowing it is going to come to an end, yet other people still have time to experience their own relationships.
Both poets explore the emotions linked to relationships from different perspectives. Unlike Larkin, Plath shows her optimistic attitude in Balloons, and how time passing will allow the relationship with her children to grow and develop, rather than decay. Larkin’s pessimism is shown in both Talking in Bed and Afteroons, where he explores the idea that human and romantic relationships will always come to an end, and once they begin all they can do is decay. However Plath’s cynical attitude to romantic relationships in The Applicant is similar to Larkin’s, which may be due to her marriage to Ted Hughes influencing her writing. Although Plath is more comfortable, writing from her own point of view rather than using Larkin’s style of a non specific narrator, it is clear both poets write about different yet similar kinds of relationships based on their own personal experience.