“My parent’s marriage left me with two convictions: that human beings should not live together and that children should be taken away from their parents at an early age”
One of Larkin’s most famous quotes is “My parent’s marriage left me with two convictions: that human beings should not live together and that children should be taken away from their parents at an early age”. This quote begins to reveal Larkin’s attitudes and opinions which are portrayed throughout his works. Further exploration of Larkin’s use of language, structure and form leads to an interesting insight into his personal beliefs and the beliefs of influential others around him.
Wild Oats is a short poem by Philip Larkin which is principally about failed love. There are actually two loves, one unspoken, and one unsuccessful, also there is a period of 20 years, humour, pathos, and irony. The poem takes the form of a short story in which the persona recalls the meeting of two girls, one of whom is strikingly beautiful, one of whom is less so. He manages to have a long term relationship with the less desirable one which ultimately fails, probably because he always longed for the exterior delights of the prettier one, and still does. This follows Larkin’s ideas of women, and how they are only good for one thing. This can be seen in the quote “I want to screw decent girls without being made to feel a criminal about it”.
The poem consists of three, eight line stanzas and each stanza describes a distinct stage in the story. There is very little in the way of sound effects to hold the poem together, only the bare minimum of rhyme is used and there is no regular metre. Rhyme, when it appears is at the end of alternate lines and is subtle such as, “ago” and “rose” or, “snaps” and “perhaps.” There is no alliteration, no simile, just everyday speech. The result is a conversational piece which comes across as very intimate and personal, almost confessional in style.
In the first stanza, the fact that the poem is a reflection on past events is established in the first line “About twenty years ago” a time scale which gives a clue about the maturity of the persona. There is then an introduction to the two girls with the only metaphor in the poem which is repeated later, his admiration of this girl is by now established; “Bosomy English rose.” The “friend in specs” is tagged on almost as an afterthought, even though it is her that he has a relationship with. The line, “Faces in those days sparked the whole shooting match off” refers to the fact that these events happened in a more innocent era than that in which the verse is actually written. If “Bosomy English rose” had not been present, he would have never embarked on the futile seven year relationship. The enjambment at lines six to seven serves to emphasise this and even seems to hint resentment at the trouble her beautiful face has unintentionally caused him. Again, Larkin is only focusing on the aesthetic aspects of the two women, and not on the personalities, or ‘inner beauty’.
The second stanza records the drawn out relationship with the “friend in specs” Four hundred letters is more than one a week over seven years, and a “ten guinea ring” could only be an engagement ring. This has the appearance of a serious relationship, but there is no marriage, their meetings are “unknown to the clergy” and his ring is returned. Larkin does not like the idea of marriage, and once said “…marriage seems a revolting institution, unless the parties have enough money to keep reasonably distant from each other – imagine sharing a bedroom with a withered old woman!” This quote is typical of Larkin, and clearly displays his views on marriage and how pointless he thinks it is. During the time that the persona is with the “girl in specs”, he “meets beautiful twice” and feels that she finds him ridiculous. Again the use of enjambment at lines fifteen to sixteen emphasise the hurt caused by “Bosomy Rose.”
The final stanza deals firstly with the bitter break up with the second choice. “Five rehearsals” is a concise but telling way of describing the untidy end to this doomed relationship, a turn of phrase which leaves much to the imagination but isn’t hard to picture. He admits his failings and sweeps what must have been a major portion of his life’s experience to one side with the poignant line, “Well, useful to get that learnt.” The irony emphasises his bitterness at the whole, useless episode, which is also reflective of Larkin’s ideas on how women are merely sex objects and how their opinions do not matter. The last three lines refer to “bosomy rose” whose photographs he has presumably carried about in his wallet for twenty years. The “snaps” show her “with fur gloves on”; her hand denied him even in a photograph, as this most effective of insulation freezes him out. The last line, “Unlucky charms, perhaps” is a frank admission that longing for what he could never own has been the reason for his failure in love.
The poem both starts and ends with aesthetic notes on the women he has met, which just shows how shallow the persona’s, or indeed Larkin’s, general ideas about women are.
Afternoons is a rather melancholy poem, about the inevitability of change and the passing of youth. The lives of the young mothers in the poem seem sad and unfulfilled. They are ruled by their demanding children who ‘expect’ to be taken home, and pushed ‘to the side of their own lives’, which suggests that they now live for others and not themselves. The mothers’ lives seem regimented – they ‘assemble’ (a word with a much more formal connotation than ‘meet’) at swing and sandpit, and the landmarks of their lives, ‘at intervals’ behind them, appear predestined. This could be seen as an idea that Larkin has about how married women should live their lives, almost as punishment for choosing to get married in the first place.
Their children are the ones with the energy – they are the ones who must be set free, who play at the alliterating ‘swing and sandpit’, who seize the unripe acorns (this could be seen as a symbol of their impatience to seize the world).
The mothers’ courting-places – symbols of their own youth – are still courting-places, ‘but the lovers are all in school’, signs that a new generation is supplanting them. Indeed, Larkin drains the young mothers’ lives of the romance they must once have had – their wedding albums lie abandoned by the television (which presumably receives more attention than they do), and there is perhaps a bitter pun on the word ‘lying’. For them, there is only ‘an estateful of washing’, a metaphor for their domestic drudgery, and a beauty that is thickening (coarsening, a sign of the end to their youthful good looks).
The title ‘Afternoons’ symbolises the point in their lives that these women have reached: not yet the evening of old age, but no longer the morning of childhood, either. Their ‘summer is fading’, as Larkin puts it, a second symbolic use of time in the poem. Larkin uses a number of images of fading or ending: the end of the day, the end of summer, the falling leaves, the memories of their wedding, the fading of their courting-places, their beauty, control over their own lives. But Larkin contrasts this with images of the new: the newness of the recreation ground (and, by implication, the new estate), the newness of the women as mothers, the newness of the lovers taking over the old courting-places, the unripeness of the acorns.
Newness is an unattractive idea in the poem, a poignant contrast with the lives the women find slipping from them. The afternoons for them are ‘hollows’ – an ambiguous word suggesting both welcome shelter (from either the domestic chores behind them or the approaching evening ahead) and hollowness, emptiness. The poem is full of verbs ending in ‘-ing’, suggesting the gradualness with which this change is creeping over them; for instance, in the final two lines of the poem Larkin is no more specific than to write ‘something’ is pushing them. For them, as for all of us, it is happening without anyone really noticing.