Dry-Point by Philip Larkin

‘Dry-Point’ by Philip Larkin is a three stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains four, the second: eight and the third: four lines. The text does not follow a specific pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The lines also vary greatly in length with the shortest at three words and the longest at nine. 

Larkin uses the line lengths to his advantage. One of the best examples is in line three of the third stanza. Here he only used the words, “Bestial, intent, real.” These three descriptors of lust are separated from the rest of the poem. This increases their impact especially when they are  flanked by two longer lines. 

A similar effect occurs in the third line of the first stanza. Here Larkin uses a dash to end the phrase, “Burst it as fast as we can—.” This leaves the reader with a momentary cliff hanger that is then resolved, unsatisfactorily in the fourth line. The bubble may have popped but it quickly reforms again. 

The most important image used by Larkin in the text is that of a bubble. It is utilized to symbolize the pinnacle of one’s sexual longing. In the first lines he describes how all the irritating and unrelenting emotions associated with desire form a bubble. It is both fragile and beautiful. It has very little control over where it goes, moving with the winds or at one’s whim. This connects directly to the way the speaker feels he has no control over his own desire. Even though he knows it will ultimately lead to disappointment, he still can’t resist the urge to have sex. You can read the full poem here.


Summary of Dry-Point

‘Dry-Point’ by Philip Larkin speaks on the complexities of sexual encounters and the primal way humans are controlled by desire. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing sex as something that is both an irritant and a constant. There is no escaping it. One is forced to endure it in cycles and as frustration grows, a “bubble” appears. This bubble represents the rapid way in which emotions can change, as well as their delicate nature. 

The speaker goes on to describe how the bubble grows around himself and his listener. Together they become enclosed in it. Trapped with one another in a strange prison of love and lust. The only thing they can do is give into their “Bestial” intent. 

In the next lines he states that whenever he has sex, it always seems as if it is leading somewhere great, but that’s never the case. He always ends up disappointed and looking at a “sad scape,” or poor emotional landscape. His bad memories of the encounters only last so long. Then he is ready to throw off the “irritant” once more. 

The poem concludes with the speaker thinking about a bright, bare room that has been burnt clean and emptied by the sun. This place contrasts with the dark “ashen hills” of the previous stanza. It is to this “padlocked” room the speaker would like to travel. Unfortunately for him, and for all of humanity represented by his plight, there is no way into this utopia. 


Analysis of Dry-Point

Stanza One 

In the first lines of this piece the speaker begins by describing a bubble. As stated above Larkin uses the bubble in this piece to represent the power sex and love have over one’s life. The delicate nature of the image resembles the careful balance one must strike within relationships.The speaker describes sex as something that is both an “irritant” and “time-honoured.” It that stretches beyond the normal boundaries of time and as it grows in strength it forms a “bubble” at the “tip.” 

The speaker then refers to himself and another as “we.” He knows that sex makes most people restless with desire, the same is true for himself and his listener. It makes one want to “Burst” the sexual bubble as soon as possible. Then, once that has been completed, the whole cycle starts over again. It is the frustrating repetitiveness of desire and satisfaction that plays itself out in the next lines.  


Stanza Two 

The second stanza begins with the bubble inflating again. This time its grows so large in size that it engulfs the collective “we.” This a metaphor for the way that desire can take over someone’s life. It becomes so consuming that it is a real “struggle to get out” of the cycle. Every emotion one experiences is at its height. Actions are “Bestial” and one acts with a specific “intent” to satisfy their urges. 

The next lines express the trouble the speaker has when trying to balance a proper life. He does not want to live in a world filled with “ashen hills!” And “shrunken lakes!” These are the things he encounters after sex, the resulting emotions and actions have resolved themselves and he is left with this wasteland. Although these landscapes of emotion are difficult to look at, there is no way for him to “turn from” them. 


Stanza Three 

In the next set of lines the speaker describes the opposite side. In another moment, during which he is at a distance from sex. This is the other part of the repetitive cycle mentioned in the first stanza. The struggle begins anew for happiness, even though the speaker knows the results will be disappointing. 

In the distance he can see a “sunscrubbed room.” It is bare of absolutely everything, as if bleached by the sun. The room is also inaccessible to the speaker. It is “padlocked” and self-contained with no way in. It is likely that Larkin wanted to use this room to depict the idealized utopia it might seem sex will lead to. And just as the speaker mentioned before, it is impossible to reach. 

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  • Avatar Robert Dugmore says:

    Thank you for explaining so clearly. I think ‘Birmingham magic’ may refer to a wedding or engagement ring, or something of that sort, as Birmingham (the UK city) has a famous jewellery Quarter where couples often go to buy a ring and the city was/is known in the UK for such items, certainly in Larkin’s time. Thanks again, Robert (Birmingham, UK).

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      ohh interesting! Had no idea about that.

    • Avatar jeremy smith says:

      Birmingham used to be associated with cheaply-made trinkets in the Victorian day, mass-produced and brightly-coloured. Factories there used production-line techniques to make stuff that looked nice but didn’t last

      • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

        This provides great context. Thank you.

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