Arrivals, Departures

Philip Larkin

‘Arrivals, Departures’ by Philip Larkin depicts a narrator who is unable to resist the desire to travel. Whenever he’s faced with the choice to leave or stay, he always chooses the former.

Philip Larkin

Nationality: English

Philip Larkin was an English poet and novelist born in 1922.

He is best known for his poetry collection The Whitsun Weddings, published in 1964.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: The longing for a different kind of life.

Themes: Dreams, Identity

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Frustration, Hope

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

This 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 in ‘Arrivals, Departures.’ The lines conform to a pattern of ABBAC DDCEF FEAAA. Regarding the meter, almost every line sticks to the iambic pentameter pattern. This means that they contain five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed. 

One of the most important elements of this piece is that 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 can 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 feels settled or secure. At any moment, the ship could call and the speaker could leave.

Arrivals, Departures by Philip Larkin

Summary of Arrivals, Departures

‘Arrivals, Departures’ by Philip Larkin speaks on the comings and goings of ships and describes a narrator who is unable to resist the sound of their call, no matter when it comes.

The poem beings with a description of narrow boats arriving at a dock. A traveler 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 own 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.

Arrivals, Departures Analysis

Stanza One

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, occurred without warning and was announced by the sound of a horn.

Stanza Two

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 it is fleshed out over the next lines and within the third stanza. He is concerned with, exactly as the title states, “arrivals and departures.” The ships at the dock present him and the person he is in 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 will enter into the same “wrong” choice they feared. 

Stanza Three

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 and the fleeting presence of happiness and, more importantly, contentment. 

Poetry+ Review Corner

Arrivals, Departures by Philip Larkin

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Philip Larkin

In this poem, Larkin’s speaker describes the comings and goings of ships. The poet makes use of a narrator who is unable to resist the sound of their call, no matter when it comes. Throughout the text the speaker deals with a dilemma, to leave or not to leave. The boats could provide him, and his companion, with the chance to move on, a least for a time. At the end of the poem he makes the decision to go. When he hears the sound of the horns, the speaker and his companion rise and make their way to the dock, repeating the same cycle.
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20th Century

This poem aligns with 20th-century literary themes, including introspection, existential struggle, and questioning societal conventions. The free verse style and colloquial language reflect the modernist movement of this era.
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As a significant figure in English poetry, Larkin's work, including this poem, contributes to a literary tradition that often explores personal, societal, and existential themes. 'Poetry Of Departures' exemplifies the English poetic tradition's focus on introspection and a nuanced exploration of the human psyche.
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The idea of leaving everything behind represents a dream or fantasy within the poem. This aspiration for escape reflects a desire to break free from societal expectations, providing an important contrast to the actual, restrained life of the speaker.
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The poem explores identity through the lens of dissatisfaction and longing. The speaker's discomfort with their ordered life and fascination with an alternative path suggest a deep questioning of self and a desire to redefine their identity.
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Frustration is a prominent emotion in 'Poetry Of Departures,' stemming from the conflict between the speaker's actual life and their longing for something else. This frustration encapsulates the struggle with societal expectations and self-imposed constraints.
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There is a subtle thread of hope in the poem as the speaker contemplates an alternate life. The idea of breaking free offers a glimmer of hope for something different, although this is tempered by the reality of the speaker's situation.
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Being Yourself

The tension between societal norms and personal desires speaks to the challenge of being oneself. The poem portrays the struggle to reconcile true desires with the expectations of conventional living.
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Change is both desired and feared in this poem. The appeal of a new life is enticing but ultimately rejected, as the prospect of change is considered artificial and fraught with uncertainty.
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This poem reflects on the future in terms of potential paths. The contemplation of a different way of living opens a door to an unchosen future, adding depth to the exploration of human desire.
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The poem's examination of life revolves around the tension between order and chaos, stability, and unpredictability. It reveals the dual nature of human existence, where the security of daily life conflicts with the desire for freedom.
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Free Verse

Larkin employs free verse in 'Poetry Of Departures,' allowing for a more conversational and spontaneous expression. This unstructured style mirrors the theme of rebellion and departure, reinforcing the contrast between the speaker's structured life and their free-spirited dreams.
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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