‘Absences’ by Philip Larkin is a ten-line poem that is divided into three stanzas. The first contains six lines, the second three, and the final is just one single line. These lines follow a particular rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABABCBCDCE. There are a few half-rhymes in the text, such as between lines six and eight. There is a similarity in the consonant sounds of these words, but not enough for it to be a full rhyme. The same can be said for the final line of the text.
In regards to meter, the structure of the lines is interesting. The first line, the entire second stanza, and the final line contain ten syllables. Then, lines two through five of the first stanza contain eleven, and line six contains nine. There is no pattern, but they are all very similar in length. The regularity of the ten-syllable lines is also connected to the more peaceful moments of the poem. As one might expect, the eleven syllable lines are the most dangerous seeming in which the sea is twisting and turning in unexpected ways.
Summary of Absences
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the sea moves in a rainstorm. While the rain “patters,” the sea rages. It collapses and rises, and then all of a sudden falls like a wall. All this occurs free of obstruction. There are no ships or shorelines there to stop its movements.
The next section speaks of the sky. It is somewhat more peaceful, but still enjoys the freedom of the sea. The clouds start to clear at the end of the second stanza and then Larkin throws in the final line which complicates the entire poem. The speaker describes the “attics” of his life that are “cleared” of him. Absence becomes an important part of the text and one that can be explored in a number of different ways.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Absences
Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,
In the first stanza of ‘Absences’ the speaker begins by describing a powerful seascape. The moment of these lines, and the images they depict, have a great deal of movement. Larkin jumps from adjective to adjective, trying to capture the grandiose, limitlessness of the sea. It is raining in the speaker’s world, but doesn’t seem to be pouring. It is described as “patter[ing]” on the sea. This could seem gentle only in comparison to what the sea itself is doing.
Larkin personifies the sea with a simple word, “sighs.” It moves purposefully, “tilt[ing]” and “sigh[ing]” as it wants. As the rain might land on a solid surface elsewhere, it lands on the “Fast-running floors” of the sea. There is nothing steady about the seascape. Even on a calm day, nothing is still, and this does not seem to be a clear, easy day at sea.
That being said, there is no evidence that the speaker is on the sea itself. There are no words that indicate a boat or ship, nor the efforts of someone swimming. The sea is included in the poem, like the sky, as a metaphor for something larger. This is the most difficult part of the poem, especially when the final line is taken into consideration.
In the second line, the speaker also refers to the “hollows” of the sea. These are the open spaces between waves that appear cave-like, entryways into the larger form. But, in a moment, everything changes and a wave hits, making a “Tower suddenly.” The spray bursts into the air.
A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
Where there are no ships and no shallows.
The third line of ‘Absences’ leads into the fourth. A reader already knows that something different is going to happen than has thus far. With the use of “contrariwise” the reader is prepared for the sea to do something surprising. The next wave that the speaker describes “drops like a wall.” It falls without warning, solidly landing on the larger body of water. There is nothing to stop it, it is a powerful and maybe dangerous movement. There is another right after the first that does the same.
When considering the larger metaphor of this text as part of the speaker’s life one can see a pattern here. Perhaps, Larkin envisioned the movements of the sea (and later the sky) as part of this speaker’s (or his own) mental state. The walls falling one after another could speak to a succession of mental topplings, or something more pleasant.
There are a number of other possible interpretations of the text. This is due to the fact that the language is focused primarily on the emotions associated with the images. The next lines change the tone significantly. They speak to a different way of being, one that feels free. It is also interesting to consider the text as a metaphor for life itself. Especially when one gets to the second half of the poems and the theme of “absence” is fully (although vaguely) introduced.
The speaker goes on to describe the “Wilting and scrambling.” The sea is in constant motion. It recovers from these wall-like impacts and seeks out more movement, unrestrained, and without a singular purpose. It is able to move freely as there are “no ships and no shallows.” There is nothing for it to run up on and alter its course. The only movements it makes are those made naturally without push back from obstructions. It is free to fall and rise and play as much as it wants.
The poem changes in line seven and moves away from the sea, but not the natural landscape. It moves on to look at the sky which is similar to the sea in its movements. There is no shore in the air above the sea and therefore it has something of the freedom the sea does. Its movements are not so obviously powerful, but there is a storm blowing. The wind goes wherever it chooses. The area is “Riddled” or filled by it.
He goes on to refer to the clouds. They move much more gently than the sea does. They “trail” through the sky like “lit-up galleries.” This seems to suggest that the sun is penetrating the scene somewhat. In the last line of this stanza the speaker adds that the clouds “shift to giant ribbing.” They move into a pattern that is rib-like, lining the sky. Then, they very simple “sift away.” With the addition of these last two words, peace comes over the seen. The clouds are gone, something has been cleared.
It is the final line of ‘Absences’ that makes it much more complicated than one might expect. There is no single interpretation of what this line means. The speaker refers to himself in the first person for the first time, saying, “Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!”
One can assume that since the clouds have just sifted away in the sky, that that is connected to the clearing of the speaker in the last line. This would make the sky and anything above the water an “attic.” Now, with the clouds or perhaps the speaker, gone, there are “absences.” The exclamation marks used in these two phrases also add something. They show a passion behind the words, they are meaningful interjections into the larger narrative.