Philip Larkin is often best known for his less than cheery observations. It was he after all who penned the line ‘Life is slow dying’ in his poem Nothing to be Said, and in Dockery and Son he observes: ‘Life is first boredom, then fear’. Too much Larkin could have you reaching for the hemlock, but beneath his pessimism and acerbic wit, he can write some beautiful stuff too. Alas, Afternoons sees him in less than chipper humour, casting a cynical eye on suburban life. Never the most paternal, he says of his contemporary in Dockery and Son: ‘Why did he think that adding meant increase?/To me it was dilution.’ Afternoons, and its dreary depiction of domestic life, would seem to sum up this sentiment. This poem was published in Larkin’s anthology ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. You can read the whole poem here
Structure and Form
The poem is set out in three unrhymed stanzas of eight lines each. Larkin was known for his concise and succinct writing and this poem is no exception.
The maudlin opening line ‘Summer is fading’ indicates that the changing of the seasons may be a metaphor for the progression of life. And here, it suggests that the passing of summer mirrors the youthful flourish of the young mothers which is fading too. This is the start of autumn, thus the leaves ‘fall in ones and twos’ but the implication is that soon they will shed all their leaves as winter beckons.
Although the recreation ground is ‘new’, Larkin counters this by describing the ‘hollows’ of the afternoons, implying that there is a sadness, even an emptiness to these lives.
Young mothers assemble
At swing and sandpit
Setting free their children.
Even the choice of the word ‘assemble’ suggests that there is something regimented about their existence, there is a gloominess to home life, hence they are ‘setting free’ their children from the confines of the house. The sibilant ‘s’ sounds almost gain momentum here, signifying the children running off to play.
Although not a parent himself, Larkin could be said to be quite perceptive here, as afternoons with very young children can, indeed drag, in that hinterland between late afternoon and dinner-time. He seems to capture that weariness here.
In the second stanza there is an even more unromantic depiction of married life, since the couples do not stand together but the men linger behind ‘at intervals’. Larkin has quite the gift for seeing the glass half empty. He seems to be making a social comment about the men being in ‘skilled trades’, hence making the assumption that they are not interested in cultural or intellectual pursuits.
After the Second World War new housing developments were designed but the Speaker soon takes the shine off these as he notes them as being merely ‘an estateful of washing’. These young couples are suddenly shackled to a life of domestic drudgery. Marriage has lost its lustre, or would certainly seem to since the once cherished wedding album is now ‘lying’, abandoned by the television. Even the fact that the words ‘Our Wedding’ are italicised seems to gently mock the institution.
Before them, the wind
Is ruining their courting places
The final lines of this stanza suggest that their romance has faded. Children and the monotony of daily life has gradually taken the sheen off these relationships, just as the wind physically disturbs their former meeting places.
The repetition implies that the next generation are doomed to follow the same relentlessly dull fate of their parents, as the third stanza opens:
That are still courting-places
(But the lovers are still at school),
The fact that the next generation are already ‘courting’ despite being so young shows that they will indeed follow the same pattern as their parents. The parenthesis employed in the second line suggests an inevitability to the pattern. Larkin cleverly uses enjambement to show this unbroken cycle, thus the structure of the poem perfectly mirrors its content.
The poet captures the single-minded pursuit of the children who are ‘so intent on/ finding more unripe acorns’ which shows their innocence. However, as any parent knows, it can be a lengthily affair waiting until the children deem their task to be complete.
The word ‘expect’ implies obligation and shows that the young mothers are now slaves to their new families. Even the children’s beauty has ‘thickened’, which seems an odd choice of word but implies their weightiness and how they will forever root their mothers to this spot and this space.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives
To me the final lines suggest that the young people are merely cogs in the great machine of life. They have married: the women have fulfilled their role which is to reproduce, and the men have their occupations in their different trades which keep the economy turning. They have done their duties, yet still young, there is time to contemplate the void, as they wonder what it is all for.
About Phillip Larkin
Phillip Larkin was born in Coventry and spent much of his life working as a librarian both here and in Queen’s University Belfast. Larkin never married, although he had several long-term relationships. He seemed almost vehemently opposed to the idea of having children, perhaps because he viewed his own childhood as being exceptionally dull. Although he himself seems disinterested in the idea of these institutions, a theme of much of his poetry is a sadness at the erosion of old values. Post war Britain saw a change in fortunes. After the initial austerity, production began to increase again and thus so did prosperity, and new-fangled technologies began appearing in every house. Larkin seemed to view the arrival of television as the nail in the coffin of art and culture, as a new ‘pop’ culture was streamed into every living room. His distain for the television is gently alluded to in stanza two of Afternoons. In December 2016 a memorial stone was laid in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the life of Philip Larkin and his contribution to English Literature.