“Dockery and Son” was written by the English poet Philip Larkin, and is part of his highly celebrated collection The Whitsun Weddings. The poem is an interior monologue, and follows a very similar structure to that of his poem “Church Going”: it starts with mundane detail and transmogrifies into a profound reflection on the state of Larkin’s life, or indeed life itself. “Dockery and Son” is an autobiographical poem, and it is an account of his visit to his old Oxford College and his subsequent journey home. It follows a basic ABABCDCD rhyme scheme, and is written in iambic pentameter; there are occasional lines that do not follow the same metre (“Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.”) and this manipulation allows the poem to be read in a languid, meditative way. The reader is immediately struck by the title of the poem, “Dockery and Son”, which suggests business and commerce, a particularly melancholy outlook on life. This theme, and indeed the theme of life and death, is central to the poem.
The first stanza begins with the Dean addressing Larkin in direct speech. This is a technique also seen in Larkin’s poem “Mr Bleaney”, in which the landlady addresses Larkin himself; the use of direct speech dramatizes the poem and engages us into dialogue which meanders into his own thought pattern. The word “junior” in the first line implies that age will be a recurring theme in the poem, and indeed this is supported by the reference to “his son” in the second line. Larkin uses the phrases “keep in touch with”, “used to” and “remember” to emphasize the time that has passed since he was at college, and the irretrievable nature of the past. He ends the stanza with a colon, and the second stanza begins with the word “Locked”. This use of enjambment gives the reader a certain expectancy that is suddenly deflated with the first word. This emphatic placement also highlights the fact that Larkin’s past is lost forever, and that he is therefore unable to relive it. This technique is also seen in “Church Going” when Larkin writes: “Or will he be my representative, / Bored, uninformed…” The emphatic placement of this word at the start of the stanza helps to stress his boredom.
In the second stanza of “Dockery and Son”, Larkin gives us a number of pastoral and picturesque images (“The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.” and “Canal and clouds and colleges subside.”) This sudden burst of imagery from Larkin is also seen in his poem “The Whitsun Weddings”, which also takes place on a train, allowing him to reflect and observe. He writes: “The river’s level drifting breadth began.” This method helps the poem to seem more immediate, and it makes the reader feel as if they too are on the train, passing by these occasional bucolic glimpses of nature; they can also be seen as relief from his intense pattern of thought. The languid tempo of the line “Canal and clouds and colleges subside,” created by Larkin’s use of alliteration and polysyndeton again supports the poem’s meditative tone. Words like “known” and “subside” suggest age and passing of time, and this nostalgia for the past is also seen in his poem “MCMXIV”; Larkin’s use of Roman numerals in the title immediately indicates not only grandeur but also age. Larkin refers to himself as “ignored”, and this implies that he feels cut off and separated from society. This is also seen in his poem “Ambulances”, when he employs the word “unreachable”, suggesting detachment from the outside. He then begins to compare himself to Dockery, just as he compares himself to Mr Bleaney.
In the third stanza, Larkin, in the middle of his languid, meditative state, falls asleep on the train, and he writes:
“Well, it just shows
How much… How little… Yawning, I suppose
I fell asleep…”
Before he falls asleep, Larkin sees beautiful, pastoral sights; when he wakes up, however, he is presented with “the fumes / and furnace-glares of Sheffield,” where he eats “an awful pie”. This antithesis of beautiful landscape and grotty industrialised sights suggest that Larkin, in falling asleep, missed out on the best parts of the journey. This train journey could indeed be a metaphor for his life, which would imply that Larkin lived his earlier and most valuable years in a disconnected state; he could be lamenting the time that he has lost, and this is emphasized by his use of ellipsis. Larkin then describes “the ranged / joining and parting lines.” He uses symbolism to compare his life to Dockery’s. The lines of the track represent the journey of life, and the number of diverging directions one can take.
In the fourth stanza, Larkin makes use of enjambment again, and indeed the words “Unhindered moon” serve to accentuate the fact that time cannot be stopped or slowed down. This is supported by the words: “how much had gone of life.” He then continues to compare himself to Dockery, writing: “To have no son, no wife, / No house or land still seemed quite natural.” This idea of having nothing is also seen in “Mr Bleaney” when Larkin writes: “And at his age having no more to show / than one hired box…” In comparing himself to Dockery, Larkin believes that he has done nothing with his life, and registers this idea of waste with “only a numbness”. He has noticed the huge lacuna in his life, and regrets that he hasn’t experienced the typical stages of human existence. Larkin uses the phrase “taken stock”, which again reinforces the idea that life is like a business or an enterprise, a rather depressing idea typical of Larkin. However, he then realises that he has not wasted his life, and he writes: “No, that’s not the difference…” This change of thought pattern is also seen in his poem “Toads” (and indeed “Toads Revisited”) when he writes, following a full stop: “Ah, were I courageous enough…”
In the fifth stanza, Larkin then realises that he himself is in a better position than Dockery, and indeed he writes:
Convinced he [Dockery] was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.”
Larkin has an extremely offensive stance against the idea of family; he never got married, nor did he have any children. He strongly agreed with Cryril Connolly’s famous quotation: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” Larkin’s use of direct questions (“Why did he think adding meant increase?” and “Where do these / innate assumptions come from?”) is also seen in “Church Going”, and it creates a sense of surprise, and adds to the force of his words. Larkin then goes on to explain that we do not have children because it is what we “want to do” or because it is what “we think truest”, but rather because it is normal, and then becomes a habit. This again emphasizes his isolation from society (like in “Mr Bleaney”), but this theme is also seen in his poem “Toads”, in which he explains that nobody wants to work, but that they do it for stability and because it is the norm. This time, however, Larkin is ironically avoiding stability and the norm by not conforming to orthodox stereotypes and expectations.
In the final stanza, Larkin concludes his meditative reflections. His repetition of “nothing” again emphasizes his lack of a family, and indeed repetition for emphasis is used in a number of his poems. For example in “MCMXIV” Larkin repeats the word “never” to support the main theme of the poem, just as he does in “Dockery and Son”. He then writes: “Life is first boredom, then fear.” This is one of Larkin’s many aphorisms, and indeed it encompasses the main theme of the poem. He concludes with the somewhat melancholy thought that death (or indeed “the only end of age”) is inevitable, and that there is nothing we can do to prevent it. He also accentuates the fact that this is the same for everybody, whatever they do with their lives (“Whether or not we use it…”) The final stanza, in a way, makes the preceding stanzas seem rather trivial in that the events of life are of no importance, because we all die anyway. The tension of life and death is prominent throughout the poem, and he uses various words and phrases (“Death-suited”, “With Cartwright who was killed?” and “gone of life”) to stress the tension. Death is also the main theme in his poem “Ambulances”, and indeed he uses various words and phrases (including “come to rest” and “loss”) to remind the reader of its inevitability. Larkin seems to be far more concerned about his death than what he has done with his life, and this sudden change of thought is similar to the one seen in “Faith Healing”, when the women are hit with a sudden sense of realisation and emptiness. The poem, like so many other Larkin poems, is an account of a personal experience that has been made into a universal contemplation of life. The final lines of the poem evoke pathos in the reader, and we feel sympathetic for Larkin, and indeed the sad, transient nature of humanity. Larkin once said in a letter to Monica Jones: “I feel the only thing you can do about life is to preserve it, by art if you’re an artist, by children if you’re not.” This seems to summarise the overall impression that the poem leaves on the reader.