He wrote this poem in 1962, the period when advertising was growing hugely popular. Larkin explicitly presents his view on consumerism, especially in a consumerist society, like America that promotes consumption. Overall, the poem weighs up the promises that billboard advertisements make to the reality of people’s lives.
Explore Essential Beauty
The poem ‘Essential Beauty’ draws a parallel between the real world and the beautiful world shown in the advertisement. Within the two stanzas, Larkin presents a contrasting view between these two worlds as one sees them. He critically comments on the false hope the advertisements give to the common people. Often the worlds are shown in the advertisements: a well-balanced family, a life of ‘smiles’, ‘how life should be’ are unattainable to the common folks. These billboard advertisements seem to hide the actual world from the view of the people.
‘Essential Beauty’ deals with the gulf between advertising and the real world. The themes dealt with in this poem are; social class, hope, dreams, disillusion, the media, and, the sharp pain of reality. It further focuses on mid-twentieth-century life in England with his usual ideas of love and death.
Form and Structure
‘Essential Beauty’ by Philip Larkin is divided into two stanzas. The thirty-two lines in the poem are perfectly balanced between the two stanzas. Within this short poem, Larkin explores the subject of advertising in the early 60s, beginning with his description of huge billboards on the sides and ends of buildings. Though he doesn’t follow any particular rhyme scheme, both the stanzas do follow the same rhyme scheme as ABACBDDECFEGFHHG.
Larkin uses various idealistic images in the poem. In the first stanza, he depicts the things and the people presented in the advertisements. In contrast, the second stanza portrays the actual world which these posters seem to hide from our view. The images “owe their smiles, their cars…to that small cube” present “how life should be” but that is not what one sees in reality. Especially, the key images ‘silver knife sinks into golden butter’ with the rhyming “gutter” the stark contrast between the real-world and the advertising world is presented. Also, the image of the ‘boy puking his heart out in the gents’ presents juxtaposition in contrast to the cozy life of advertisement with the disgusting real world. Larkin’s choice of images exhibits an ideal life everyone dreams of, but often this perfect life is unattainable for many people.
Literary and Poetic Devices
In ‘Essential Beauty’ Larkin uses poetic techniques such as Repetition, Enjambment, and Alliteration besides his dominant use of Imagery. The Enjambed lines “. . . that face all ways / And block the ends of streets . . .” gives the feeling of movement and a stream of consciousness. Also, the word “Pure” outs repeated emphasis on the contrast between the two worlds, the world of reality and advertising. He distinguishes that life is not like ‘pure crust’ or the ‘giant loaves.’ The alliteration used is also a satirical allusion that comments on the companies that advertise without thinking about the life that exists behind the billboards “companies don’t care as long as they make money.”
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Aligned to cups at bedtime, radiant bars
(Gas or electric), quarter-profile cats
By slippers on warm mats,
Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares
The first stanza with the opening line, “In frames as large as rooms that face all ways/ And block the ends of streets” deliberates on the myths that advertisements create in the viewers’ minds. What one see in the billboards are “Well-balanced families, in fine/ Midsummer weather” which creates an illusion of a stereotypical family. Also, “the deep armchairs/ Aligned to cups at bedtime, radiant bars” to depict an ideal home doesn’t reveal the real world of “rained-on streets and squares” that are hidden by the large billboards. Metaphorically, “giant loaves” pictured in the billboards seem to cover up poverty.
The pictures “silver knife sinks into golden butter,” and “A glass of milk” creates an illusion of the countryside. Symbolically, they appear to cover up the argument of industrialization, which was prominent during that time. Altogether, the large billboards symbolize an essential beauty, but if truth be told, they are in bitter contrast when compared to reality. The picture of the billboard seems to represent a world as it should be than how it is.
They dominate outdoors. Rather, they rise
Serenely to proclaim pure crust, pure foam,
Pure coldness to our live imperfect eyes
No match lit up, nor drag ever brought near,
Who now stands newly clear,
Smiling, and recognising, and going dark.
In the second stanza, Larkin presents the contrasting reality despite the advertisements “dominate outdoors.” Everything projected in the advertisement represents purity or perfectness “pure crust, pure foam,/Pure coldness” but in reality, they are not “As new or washed quite clean.” They are simply the disappointment of the real world, and these advertisements “block the ends of streets with giant loaves.” Underneath these shining advertisements, there is only failure and disappointment. There is also a contrast in color, showing the difference between “the white-clothed ones from tennis-clubs” and the “dark raftered pubs”. Moreover, the “boy puking his heart out in the Gents” and “the pensioner paid A halfpenny more for Granny Graveclothes” comments on how these advertisements encourage people to buy what they do not need. In the end, all these companies care about is making money.
In the final part of the poem, Larkin shifts to a darker theme of death as the “dying smokers sense…that unfocused, she”. During the 1960s, alluring women were often used in the advertisements that sell cigarettes that, created the fantasy that “smoking would attract women”. On the other hand “she” could be a woman who has not allowed herself to the temptation. She is different from the advertising world and the contradiction between the smoker who has given into a consumerist society. Only towards the end, the person realizes his life is “going dark” and gives a recognizing smile.
‘Essential Beauty’ was written when advertising was growing hugely popular as it offered people the chance to achieve their unfulfilled dreams. Many of the things mentioned in the poem represent the popular and the status people would strive to be able to afford. As per the time of publication, the poem is believed to be set in Hull, the severely damaged British city or town during the Second World War, with 95 percent of houses damaged. Rather than rebuilding, the place was covered with billboards to cover up the destruction and to make the people forget the incidents. That is what the poet has explored as the result of a materialistic society and a false hope given by advertisements.
‘Essential Beauty’ can be better understood with the reading of his other best poems ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ and ‘Send No Money’. More than his realistic and pessimistic view, death is a dominant theme of Larkin’s poetry. Some of Larkin’s poems that deals with death are:
- Next, Please – a bleak reflection on life and the inevitability of death.
- Going – speaks on the presence of death in one’s life and its eventual consumption of every living thing.
- Absences – describes the movements of the sea and sky and how they represent a speaker’s life.
- Ambulances – an exploration of the pervading sense of death that occurs in constrained societies.
- Aubade – about the inescapable nature of death and humankind’s moments of despair.