‘Maiden Name’ by Philip Larkin was published in 1955 in Larkin’s collection The Less Decieved. The text is made up of three stanzas that are separated into sets of seven lines. Larkin makes use of a structured rhyme scheme in this text, it follows a pattern of ABBACCA. Each stanza has its own end sounds, but stanzas one, two and three all follow this same pattern.
A few of the rhymes depend heavily on pronunciation, such as “one, “ “ribbon” and “gone” in the second stanza. In regards to meter, each line contains five sets of two beats. This creates an even rhythm to the text, and a feeling of unity and structure as one progresses through the stanzas.
Theme of Maiden Name
The main theme of ‘Maiden Name’ is identity and the loss of identity. Larkin is dealing with the institution of marriage, something that was not uncommon within his work. (See: ‘Lines On a Young Lady’s Photograph Album‘ and ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ ). His own negative opinion of marriage is well-known, and plays out very interestingly within ‘Maiden Name.’ The main character of this piece is, in a way, the reader. Larkin achieves this by writing in second person, using statements such as “How beautiful you were, and near, and young.” This way the reader is pulled into the narrative and is forced to contend, on a more personal level, with the issues Larkin wants to discuss.
This text is considered to be based around a relationship Larkin had with a woman named Winifred Arnott. The two met at Queen’s University in Belfast and became close friends. The intimacy they shared ended when she left the city to move to London and became engaged to another man. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Maiden Name
‘Maiden Name’ by Philip Larkin contains Larkin’s own opinions about marriage and how it consumed the identity of a close friend.
The poem begins with the speaker addressing the listener as “you.” This person has recently gotten married and cast off their maiden name. Now, they go by something different. With the alteration of their name they have severed all ties to the past. The person Larkin knew, the young beautiful girl, is gone. All he has left are the memories.
In the next lines Larkin describes how the listener’s maiden name is lost to her. Everything she used to own with her old name on it has been discarded. As if acting negligently, she has thrown it all away.
The final stanza describes in detail how the speaker takes comfort in her old name. It still exists but now it only represents memories. There, within the past, he is able to commune with the girl he knew before.
Analysis of Maiden Name
In the first lines of ‘Maiden Name’ Larkin addresses one specific listener. This person does not have a name, they are only referred to as “you.” This serves two different purposes. First, it forces the reader into the narrative because it feels as though they are being addressed. Second, it strips even more of the true intended listener’s identity away (likely Winifred Arnott as mentioned above).
Now that this listener is married, her “maiden name” is no longer used. It sits around “disused.” Before she was married, its sounds, which Larkin’s speaker describes as “light,” meant her face, as well as her voice. Her name was the representative of her “variants of grace.” Now though, she is defined by something else entirely. From these lines a reader can assume that the speaker cared about the listener. There is, or perhaps was as the case may be, a closeness to their dynamic.
Now though, everything has changed. She is different than she used to be because she was sucked into the semantics of marriage. She was altered “By law,” and merged with “someone else.” Now she,
[…] cannot be
Semantically the same as that young beauty:
This is interesting to consider when thinking on Larkin’s own ideas about marriage. He saw the woman’s entire identity as taken away with her entry into this institution. Larkin was no longer able to see her as her own independent human being. The person who was young, beautiful and close to him was known by “these two words.” The new human being who is married, is not defined by the same sounds.
Larkin emphasizes the point he was making the last stanza by pointing out all the severed connections that have resulted from the marriage. Now, the “two words,” (aka the name the listener used to go by) sit around her life “applicable to no one.” They are devoid of meaning, containing now only memories. It is clear in these lines that Larkin is irritated and perhaps disappointed in the woman’s choice to get married. As if angry over her negligence, he points out the,
Old lists, old programmes, a school prize or two,
Packets of letters tied with tartan ribbon –
These all used to be hers. At one point they were important because they bore the “two words” that meant her face and her voice. Larkin does not actually believe that her old name is worthless though. He asks her, rhetorically, if her original name is “scentless, weightless,” and “Untruthful” now. The answer is no. In the next lines of ‘Maiden name’ he explains how the words only refer to historical emotion at this point.
Her old name still “means you,” but not the “you” that she is now. The person she was is in the “past.” He continues into the next stanza with the conclusion of his thoughts.
The only connection that still exists between the speaker, the woman and their mutual friends, is their memories. Her old name, “means what we feel now about you then.” The next lines reminisce on how good the past was. She was “beautiful” then and so “near, and young.” Her presence was constant and of an entirely different breed than it is now.
The speaker adds that her memory is so strong that sometimes it is like she is actually still there. She is “vivid” in his mind and in his life as if she,
[…] might still be there among
Those first few days, unfingermarked again.
This is a wish on the speaker’s part. He’d like his own life to reverse to a time before he lost the connection with the listener. When she became “fingermarked,” a word coined by Larkin, she was never his again. This is likely a reference to the way that her new husband has claimed her. It could refer to her actual finger, and the ring it now bears, or the imaginary marks his presence now leaves on her body and memory.
In the last lines of ‘Maiden Name’ the speaker describes the “shelter” her old name has become. He is able to speak it and enter into the memories of the past. It is there that he can find their “faithfulness.” This hints at part of the reason why Larkin might be so angry at the listener for her choices. He feels betrayed.
Due to the fact that her name “shelters our faithfulness” it is able to exist without falling apart. Larkin maintains it with his own emotions and does not allow her “luggage,” marriage, new life, etc, to distort its shape.