Here’s another offering from Philip Larkin, and one of my favourites I must confess. It is one of his least verbose and beguilingly simple at first, but strip it back and you’ll soon see some of Larkin’s trademark themes, life, death, the universe; it’s all in there. It is a short and enigmatic poem, there is no story and no characters, simply a brief contemplation on the meaning of life. The title of the poem is quite simple Days, so you might think oh happy days! (sorry, couldn’t help myself) this one seems easy enough to understand. But no, of course this deals with greater themes. The tone is conversational and the language is accessible which is again typical of Larkin, who wanted to take poetry from the ‘litterati’ and give it back to the masses.
Days was published in The Whitsun Weddings, published by Faber and Faber in 1967, and preceded by his collection The Less Deceived. Larkin is known as one of Britain’s most famous post-war poets, and many of his poems in both these anthologies deal with themes of existential angst and the futility of life. You can read the whole poem here.
Structure and Form
Nothing too complicated, Days is a ten-line poem in two stanzas of six and four lines respectively. It’s almost a mini-sonnet, especially given the volta which occurs at line seven. (There’s no such thing as a mini-sonnet; that’s just some of my typical whimsy. Please ignore and don’t go writing that in an exam paper.) There’s no rhyme scheme to speak of except perhaps if you consider the internal rhyme of the frequently repeated key words such as ‘days’, ‘they’ and ‘time’.
Rhythm, what rhythm?
Yes, it’s tricky to put your finger on the rhythm here. We are familiar with the traditional iambic rhythm, you know ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum, with the emphasis on the second syllable, but I think this is more trochaic, which goes tum-ti tum-ti tum-ti thereby emphasising the first word/syllable. Read it aloud and I’m sure you’ll agree that you stress the first word in each sentence. I feel that this is a poem to be read slowly, enunciating each word, especially since the first stanza is like a parent talking to a child.
The first stanza is composed of short sentences and opens with a question which is answered simplistically, as I said before, as though a parent trying to explore the concept of life to a small child. There is a sense of innocence in both the question and response, with the monosyllabic words chiming gently as though in a nursery rhyme or fable. Repetition is put to good use to make the reply simple and easy to digest, but also implicit is the meaning that days form our existence and thus are by definition repetitive. There is something warm and comforting about the explanation in lines two to six. Unusually for Larkin he states in line five: ‘They are to be happy in’, and we feel a flood of warmth for the speaker as we are unfamiliar with this side of him. There is a cyclical aspect to this stanza as it begins and ends with a question, which goes on to be addressed (but definitely not answered) in the next verse.
The tone changes in the second stanza. The comma after ‘Ah,’ elongates the sound and suggests the speaker uttering a world-weary sigh. He chooses the transitive verb ‘solving’ to show that the experts (the priest and the doctor) are searching for an answer that they have yet to find. The calm and soothing feel of the first stanza is lost and replaced by more urgent tone, for it brings them ‘running over the fields.’ Normally the pastoral image of fields would be peaceful but this is subverted here to show the tranquillity shattered by the men’s haste, as though they are tending to an emergency. This sense is emphasised by the image of the ‘long coats’, an image which could be frightening for a child. We associate the long coats with those in professional employ; but also implicit here is the symbol of ‘men in white coats’ which suggest that if one were to ponder too long on the mysteries of life we could end up in the loony bin. The fact that Larkin chooses the ‘priest and the doctor’ to try and solve the mystery is significant as they signify the age old conflict between science and religion. After the short concise sentences of stanza one this is one long unpunctuated sentence, aside from the comma after the ‘Ah’ and the full stop at the end.
About Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin, 1922-1985 was born in Hull where he spent most of his life other than a sojourn in Belfast where he worked as a librarian in Queen’s University between 1950 and 1955. The good people of Belfast are most proud that he stayed so long, however Larkin himself didn’t seem overly thrilled with them. In a letter to his long term on/off girlfriend Monica Jones he wrote: “The place went to the dogs long ago and now the dogs are coming to it.” The old charmer. You can read more of his observations on the Irish here.