‘Deceptions’ by Philip Larkin is a two stanza poem that is made up of one set of nine lines and another set of eight. Although the two stanzas vary, they both follow rhyme schemes. The first conforms to a pattern of, ABACDCEDE while the second changes to, ABACABAC.
In regards to the meter, the pattern is scattered. The lines vary from around six syllables, up to twelve and thirteen. That being said, on the page, the majority of the lines appear to be around the same length. This gives the poem an overall unity that is somewhat soothing in the face of the subject matter addressed.
Summary of Deceptions
The poem begins with Larkin utilizing a passage from Henry Mayhew’s work, London Labour and the London Poor. The selection comes from a young woman who was raped. She tells of her distress after the attack was over. This creates a setting for the poem and informs a reader before the text even begins that the events depicted will be graphic, or at least emotionally straining.
In the first stanza, he describes how the woman’s grief was forced upon her. It is something the speaker is able to “taste” now and is doing his best to convey. He also describes the sights and sounds around London that might’ve made their way into the room where the woman was raped. The world was going on without her.
In the second stanza, he spends time discussing the issue that plague the rapist. He thought that by attacking this woman that his desire would be sated. He was deceived, as the title suggests. His deception is said to be worse than that suffered by the woman. This implies that the woman was tricked into the situation in which she was attacked.
You can read the full poem here.
“Of course I was drugged, and so heavily I did not regain
consciousness until the next morning. I was horrified to
discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable,
and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt.”
—Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor
Larkin chose to begin the piece with a fairly long epigraph. It comes from the work, London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew. Mayhew was a Victorian journalist who dedicated himself to observing and documenting the plight of the poorest members of society, specifically in London. This passage comes straight from a young woman who was raped.
It is a straightforward and shocking depiction of the aftermath of a brutal attack. Particularly, the woman speaks about how she perceived herself afterward. She thought she was “ruined” and was “inconsolable.” In the last line, she even expresses a desire to be killed. The crime lasts for much longer than the initial attack.
It was Larkin’s goal, by using Mayhew’s reported story, to bring the terrible events that normally go unnoticed, and certainly unreported, into the light.
Analysis of Deceptions
Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Where bridal London bows the other way,
In the first stanza of ‘Deceptions’ the speaker begins by using his senses to draw a reader closer to the scene of the attack mentioned in the epigraph. He is “distant” from the location of the event, as well as the time it happened. Even so, he can “taste the grief.” His empathy is so strong, thanks to Mayhew’s reporting, that it is like he’s there.
Larkin makes use of his speaker’s senses in order to paint the scene as clearly as possible. He is unable to know the woman’s pain personally, but he does his best, as a fellow human being, to imagine and convey that pain. One of the most important senses he makes use of in this stanza is taste. He speaks of her grief as tasting “Bitter and sharp.” The rapist forced this grief on the woman and, not without sexual connotations, made her “gulp.” The grief became part of this young woman. She carried it away from that bed and into the rest of her life.
When she was being raped, the rest of the world was carrying on. Larkin’s speaker notes how the sun came occasionally into the room, warming it in bits. Then there was the sound of the “wheels along the street outside.” He describes the sounds they made as “Worry.” This likely connects to the bouncing and rattling they make as they hit the cobblestones.
In the next line, he adds that “bridal London bows the other way” while the young girl was being raped, and after. She is no longer going to be a part of the “bridal” tradition. As she quoted saying in the epigraph, society is now going to see her as “ruined.” Her chance at a good life is likely over.
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.
In the next four lines, the speaker explains the woman’s state of mind now that she is trying to move on from the attack. There is a light that penetrates her life, and the streets she walks on. It is “tall and wide” and has kept her scars from healing. The whole world is looking in on her and prying her for information until her “Shame” is driven out of hiding.
One of Larkin’s most interesting similes is in the next line. He describes her mind as being “open like a drawer knives.” It sits open all day long, ready to be picked and prodded by anyone who wants to dig in. At the same time, the drawer contains something dangerous, knives. It is not a safe place to be reaching one’s hand into. This speaks to the woman’s state of mind in the days, months, and years after her rape. It has endlessly disrupted her life.
Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
In the first four lines of the second stanza, the speaker begins by describing the woman’s physical state. She has spent years in the “Slums” and those years have “buried” her. She is trapped beneath the layers of decrepitude and now, her own history as well. The next line is also striking. The speaker states that he would not “dare / Console” her, even if he could. He feels separation from this woman that is not completely resolved. This persists even after he comes to understand her attack better.
The next lines begin the portion of the poem that has come under the greatest criticism from readers and scholars alike. Larkin, or perhaps only the speaker he is utilizing, dismisses the woman’s experience. He states that there is nothing to “be said / Except that suffering is exact.” He puts the blame not on the man who raped her, but on the desire he felt.
The “readings” the rapist took of life, his moral/spiritual opinion of what is right or wrong, was thrown off by his desire.
For you would hardly care
To burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic.
In the second half of the stanza, the speaker turns to the rapist’s situation. He describes how the woman was “less deceived” than her attacker. He was under the impression that by raping her he could enter into “fulfillment’s desolate attic.” This would lead to some kind of satisfaction. It became clear to the man after he raped the young woman that his ascension to grander pleasures was not going to occur. He was “deceived” by his own desire.