‘Arrivals, Departures’ by Philip Larkin is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, or quintains. Each of these stanzas follows a distinct rhyme scheme, parts of which connect from quintain to quintain. The lines conform to a pattern of ABBAC DDCEF FEAAA. In regards to the meter, almost every line sticks to the pattern of iambic pentameter. This means that they contain five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
One of the most important elements of this piece is that of repetition. It is physically present in the text but also implied in the narrative. The speaker, and the traveller mentioned in the first stanza, are in a loop. They arrive somewhere, are called back to the ship, and depart again. Especially for the speaker, there does not seem to be any way out of this process. He does not realize he is allowed to stay home and ignore the “call” of the horns.
Within the text itself, repetition is present in the ship’s pleading call. This choice to emphasize the words, “come and choose wrong” shows a bit of the pressure the speaker feels he is under. It also helps to create a somewhat foreboding mood for the text. Larkin has crafted a strange world in which none of the elements feel settled or secure. At any moment the ship could call and the speaker could leave.
Summary of Arrivals, Departures
The poem beings with a description of narrowboats arriving at a dock. A traveller is riding on one of these boats and his arrival is sudden. This contrasts with the timidity of the boats themselves as they navigate the canals. In the next line, the speaker introduces his won dilemma, to leave or not to leave. Whenever the boats arrive he is faced with the same choice. They provide him, and his companion, with the chance to move on, a least for a time.
Larkin’s speaker does not seem able to resist the call of the boats. Even though he is in bed, the speaker and his companion rise and make their way to the dock.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Arrivals, Departures
This town has docks where channel boats come sidling;
His advent blurted to the morning shore.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by placing the poetic setting in a town with docks. This place is filled with docking boats, which Larkin calls “channel boats.” This is likely a reference to the long narrowboats which were crafted to fit through the thin English canals. They are described as “sidling” up to the docks. It is easy to imagine the ships creeping up to the edge of the dock, making tentative and timid movements. Even though the water is tame, they have to be cautious.
Next, Larkin moves the reader’s perspective inside the scene and describes what a traveller sees and feels. Alongside the water, he can see the “water lanes” and the “tall sheds.” There is a bag hitting against “his knees” and the sounds of the “slackened” or shut off, engines are in his ears. Without power, the ships glide through the water and up to the dock. He has arrived at his destination, a place unknown to the reader. He refers to his own “advent” or arrival as being “blurted to the morning shore.” It was sudden, and occurred without warning, and was announced by the sound of a horn.
And we, barely recalled from sleep there, sense
And so we rise. At night again they sound,
In the next five lines, the speaker refers to himself and a companion. It is revealed that he too is present in this scene, rather than acting as an omniscient narrator. The dilemma at the core of this narrative is also made clear in this stanza. He describes how he and another are “recalled from sleep,” but just “barely” at the sound of the ships arriving. The ships are at a “distance,” muting their sounds until they seem to evoke sorrow or grief.
The arrival of the ships presents the speaker with a “dilemma.” It is unclear at first why this would be the case, but over the next lines, and within the third stanza, it is fleshed out. He is concerned with, exactly as the title states, “arrivals and departures.” The ships at the dock present him, and the person he is within the bed, with the opportunity to leave their home, to travel, or even to leave behind everything they know.
The horns call out to him, willing him to make a decision. He fears it will be a wrong one and that fear has become embodied in the sound of the horn. The speaker and his companion are unable to resist the call and they “rise.” One cannot say for sure, but perhaps they are going to enter into the same “wrong” choice they feared.
Calling the traveller now, the outward bound:
Or if, this night, happiness too is going.
In the last five lines, the speaker describes how the horn also called for the “traveller.” The ships are departing and it is time for this person, mentioned in the first stanza, to travel “outward.” It is also possible to consider the speaker as the “traveller.” He too heads for the ship. The call of the ships carries to the speaker and his companion. Together they leave the comfort of their home “never knowing” it is possible to “disregard” the call. Alternatively, they will also never know if they would have been brought more or less happiness by staying.
Within this piece, Larkin is interested in the importance of choices as well as the fleeting presence of happiness and more importantly contentment.