Tuesday, 10 November 2015

"Next, Please" - A Brief Analysis of Larkin's Poem

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

Ever since I studied Philip Larkin, this has been one of my all-time favourite poems. Though it is not particularly well-known, it is completely typical of Larkin: an idiosyncratic pessimism about life, coupled with a fearful vision of death. Larkin, throughout his life, was terrified of dying (he defined death as “the sure extinction that we travel to” in his poem “Aubade”), but he was also incredibly cynical about life, denying the existence of both love (in poems like “Love Songs in Age” and “An Arundel Tomb”) and religion (“Church Going” and “Faith Healing”). His poetry focuses on those facts of life about which we are all afraid, examining the human condition and what it means to be alive – this is what makes him such a great poet.

I love this poem for a number of reasons, not just because it expresses emotions that I have felt all too often, but because it expresses those emotions so skillfully. All of us are guilty of relying too much on future happiness. However, when those long-expected moments of anticipated joy arrive, they never seem to fulfill our desires. As Larkin says, “Something is always approaching,” and yet “they leave us holding wretched stalks / Of disappointment,” a beautiful image suggesting something that has begun to grow but has withered unexpectedly. Those moments either pass too quickly, or, because they have been so long awaited, they do not add up to the ideal we imagined. Every day, in one way or another, we “burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic” (from Larkin’s poem “Deceptions”).

However, what I love most about this poem is the metaphor it employs to express this idea – the approaching boats, “The sparkling armada of promises…” The image of standing on a shore and looking out to sea is usually a positive one, though Larkin brilliantly inverts that optimistic idea to express his undeniably cynical impression of life. His description of the ship’s details – “Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked, / Each rope distinct, / Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits / Arching our way,” – represents the way in which we meditate for far too long on the future, thinking about the exact intricacies (“Each rope”) of what is to come, rather than living and enjoying the present.

These ideas are reminiscent of Hardy’s poem “The Self Unseeing” which describes how “Everything glowed like a gleam; / Yet we were looking away!” The image of the “golden tits” perhaps suggests Larkin’s own frustration at his failed love affairs (of which he had many, though he never married) and how his relationships never turned out as he hoped they would. Again, Hardy repeatedly reflected on how the reality of our partners and lovers is never what we anticipate – Tess is not the pure virgin that Angel so desires, and Eustacia is not the schoolmaster’s wife that Clym wanted her to be. Hardy was one of Larkin’s favorite writers, and the similarities are clear. Similarly, Carson McCullers’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” portrays humanity’s innate tendency to idolize unjustly not just future events, but also people in our lives.

Larkin then uses the metaphor of a merchant ship, which will “unload / All good into our lives, all we are owed / For waiting so devoutly and so long. / But we are wrong…” Like in “Love Songs in Age,” where love never fulfills its promises “to satisfy,” so the future is never as bright as it seems. Indeed, the only guarantee of the future is death, described eerily as a “black-/Sailed unfamiliar” that is “seeking us”. Larkin put a huge amount of emphasis on the unknowable aspects of death and its inimitable emptiness, explaining the fearful final lines: “A huge and birdless silence. In her wake / No waters breed or break.”

Unless you have read other poems by Larkin, the word “birdless” may seem somewhat unusual. Larkin frequently portrays nature as one of the few positive aspects of life – in “Solar” he praises the selflessness of the sun and in “The Trees” he admires nature’s ability to renew itself perpetually – and so the word “birdless” reinforces a sense of undeniable pessimism, removing all positivity. Unlike nature, we cannot renew ourselves – as in “Aubade”, death is simply a “total emptiness for ever”. Indeed, the frequent use of enjambment in the poem (except in the second stanza, when lots of punctuation is used), the shortened final lines of each stanza and the strong rhyme scheme, help to create a sense of constant movement towards the final lines and towards death itself.

And so, this is why “Next, Please” is one of my favorite poems – it is carefully crafted and it directly addresses life’s biggest concerns. Larkin is a brilliant poet, and if you are interested in reading any more of his poetry I recommend “Aubade”, “Love Songs in Age”, and “Counting”, all of which I will be writing about soon. Thanks for reading!