Born Yesterday

Philip Larkin

‘Born Yesterday’ by Philip Larkin is a poem about happiness. It explores what true happiness is and how one young woman should look for it.

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.

One literary analyst describes Larkin’s works: ‘Born Yesterday’. She says,  “the topic of happiness—what it is, how to attain and cultivate it—is crucial to his work”. This topic is particularly obvious in ‘Born Yesterday. Larkin seems to hint that he has found a source of true happiness, and that it has nothing to do with beauty, talent, or fame. Therefore, he wishes this young girl to be plain and average, that she might achieve happiness in life.

The fact that Larkin seems to be so obsessed with the theme of happiness, could mean one of two things. Either he has found a source of true happiness, or he has simply found what is not the true source of happiness. Either way, this poem speaks volumes about life and meaning and purpose. While most people seem to think that beauty, money, fame, or intelligence is what makes a person worthwhile, Larkin points out the fallacy of this belief. He does this in a simple, yet profound way. He dedicates this poem to Sally Amis. This is the daughter of Larkin’s lifelong friend. Sally is clearly a child Larkin cares for dearly. Yet, he does not wish her to have all that the world has to offer. Rather, he wishes for her to have a simple happiness, and he believes that she will find that happiness more readily if she is plain in looks and average in intelligence (Wetzsteon).

Born Yesterday by Philip Larkin

Born Yesterday Analysis

Stanza One

Lines 1-10

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

The first part of this poem, reveals to whom these words are spoken. The speaker addresses a girl, and because she is described as a “tightly folded bud” it is likely that she is just a young girl, perhaps a child. The speaker knows that a normal person would look at her, and wish for her to have all the best the world has to offer. They would wish her beautiful and innocent and full of love. The speaker admits that if these things should happen for the young girl, that she would be a very lucky girl indeed. However, luck does not seem to be what the speaker wishes for the child. In fact, he seems to scoff at what all of the others might wish for her. It is natural for one to wish their own child, or a child that is close to them, to be beautiful and talented and perhaps famous. But the speaker here questions that idea. He does not necessarily want this child to be lucky. He seems to want something more meaningful for her than luck. 

Stanza Two

Lines 11-19

But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.

The speaker finally tells the young girl what he does wish for her. He wishes that she may be ordinary, with average talents. He wishes that she would not be ugly, but that she would not be too beautiful either. He does not wish anything “uncustomary” upon her, because he admits that to be so remarkably ugly or untalented would “pull [her] off [her] balance” or would cause her life to be more difficult than it needs to be. He realizes that to be too different would hinder her in life, so he does not wish that upon her. Yet, he does not wish for her to be overly beautiful and talented. He has already admitted that she would be a lucky girl if she ends up beautiful and intelligent, but again he implies that he wants something deeper for this child than fame, fortune, and beauty. He wants something more purposeful than sheer luck. For this reason, he wishes her to have average looks and average talents. 

Lines 20-24

In fact, may you be dull—
Catching of happiness is called.

In the last lines of ‘Born Yesterday, the speaker finally comes around to explaining his reasoning for his wishes. He wishes that she may in herself be dull, so that she might be able to find happiness. It is interesting that the speaker does not believe that she could find happiness if she were the most beautiful and talented among women. This reveals something about the speaker’s beliefs. It reveals that he knows something about human nature. He knows that happiness cannot be found in one’s own perfection. He knows that no person could ever be wholly satisfied in oneself. He does not offer the true source of happiness, but he implies that he has found it himself. He also suggests that a person of plain appearance and talents is more likely to find n

happiness, and this is why he wishes plain looks and average talents for this young girl. Above all, he wants her to have every chance at finding true happiness.

Philip Larkin’s Background

Philip Larkin was born in the 1920s in England and attended Oxford University. Among some other poets of his time, he rejected the traditional form of poetry and opted for poetry that was more personal and individually meaningful. This is clearly shown in this poem, as he is addressing one other person. Though his words have meaning for all people, the reader certainly feels pulled into a private conversation between two people (

One biographer describes him as someone who “hated fame who hated fame and didn’t want to attach himself with public literary life (cite). He is known for his clarity and his quiet and reflective tone. This is evident in this particular poem.

It is ironic, however, that Larkin’s speaker in ‘Born Yesterday’ should wish the young girl to be “dull” and of “average talents” for this is not Larkin’s story. He, in fact, graduated from Oxford with honors and went on to be one of England’s most recognized poets. It is hard to say why someone of such high achievement might wish for another to be dull and average in order to find happiness. Perhaps he believed that those who were less intelligent and achieved than he was for some reason happier. Larkin died of cancer at the age of 63 (Philip Larkin Biography). It is unknown whether he felt he achieved the happiness he speaks of in this poem. He hints in ‘Born Yesterday’ that he has found a source of true happiness, and that it is not found in one’s own appearance or personal talents.

Works Cited:

  • Wetzsteon, Rachel. “CPR – Philip Larkin and Happiness by Rachel Wetzsteon.” CPR – Philip Larkin and Happiness by Rachel Wetzsteon. Contemporary Poetry Review, 2010. Web. 21 July 2016.
  • “Philip Larkin Biography.” – Philip Larkin Childhood, Life & Timeline. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 July 2016.
Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.

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