Though the poem is written in 1956, it was published only in his 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings. Strangely for a pessimist like Larkin, it is rather an optimistic poem. Similar to Larkin’s earlier poem ‘Coming’, ‘First Sight’ joyously reassures Shelley’s words “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” in his ‘Ode to the West Wind’.
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Summary of First Sight
‘First Sight’ describes young lambs taking their first steps into the big wide world in the snow. The poem meditates upon the fact that the animals can have no grasp of the world beneath the snow. The poet seems to wait with the lambs and the earth itself, for that ‘immeasurable surprise’ which lies in store for the lambs, when spring comes. The poem presents a vivid description of the grass and flowers beneath the white canopy of winter’s snow. The poem prevalently touches upon innocence, with terms that associated with innocence: lambs, snow, and the new-born.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure
‘First Sight’ is a short lyrical poem of fourteen lines. The lines are equally distributed amongst the two stanzas. The rhyme scheme in the poem is ABABCDD. The rhyme scheme is very regular similar to that of the cyclical nature of life. Each stanza ending in a rhyming couplet draws attention to these lines, emphasizing it as the most important of the poem. The last lines in the two stanzas are very short and blunt. In the first stanza, the ‘wretched width of cold’ seems to present the winter and life as ruthless and never-ending. However, in the second stanza, the final ‘Utterly unlike snow’ juxtaposes this idea with the hope for the lambs, the better things that will be followed by the winter.
Tone and Setting
Larkin’s poems, following Thomas Hardy’s poetic lead, often carry the pessimist tone. But, ‘First Sight’ carries a more optimistic tone than his usual pessimistic tone. The poem is set in winter as background. Larkin completed the poem in early March 1956, the time in which winter gives way to spring. Through the wintry setting, the poet emphasizes on life’s problems and the winter as temporary. The poem reiterates the idea that the world will soon be alive with the sights and sounds of new life.
The ‘First Sight’ by Philip Larkin focuses on the new beginnings of life in harsh environments and survival against all odds as its major theme. Its animal theme, the young lambs entering into the world, with its underlying positive approach, oddly contradicts his themes in ‘This Be The Verse’ or ‘Self’s the Man’. It is also about the passage of time, as winter marks the cold death and the spring of begging of new life in nature. Larkin’s poems present the theme of nature more often. The poet highlights on winter being impermanent for the end of it lays the surprise that cannot be comprehended by the lambs, though it is a cyclic process of nature.
Larkin uses a number of symbols in ‘First Sight’ to express his views: appearance could be deceptive and what we see could be temporary. The poem stands to symbolize winter as a season of death, but that is not the end. There follows a season that paves the way to spring, the season of new beginnings. In the poem ‘First Sight’, what the lambs first meets “a vast unwelcome, know/Nothing but a sunless glare.” The wintry bed of snow covered the grass, flowers, and other beauties of the earth that seems unwelcome to the lambs that first enters the world. This snow-covered earth symbolizes the monotonous and difficult times that people have to undergo as the poet points out in the last line of the first stanza “wretched width of cold”. The spring, the season of new life and rebirth is symbolized in the line “Utterly unlike the snow” of the second stanza. Further, “the lambs” and “the snow” in the poem symbolize to stands for purity and innocence.
The First Sight uses a number of images that contribute to the mood of the poem. Larkin’s use of the words “clouds,” “snow,” and “glare” relate to the color white, which stands for innocence and youth. The lambs “stumbling to and fro” suggest their reckless attitude towards the world around them. Negative imagery used in “wretched width of cold,” “vast unwelcome,” and “sunless glare” describe different experiences of the lambs which represent their anguish in the harsh situation. The ewe’s fleeces soiled by earth in “Her fleeces wetly caked” is a strong negative image. It symbolically describes the harsh life it has to undergo every year, for it is not the young ones even the adult ones too must undergo the same situation even though they are aware of the better life that follows.
Analysis of First Sight
Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
( . . . )
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.
The first stanza of ‘First Sight’ seems to foreshadow that the lambs are going to have horrible lives. For the lambs, the first entry into the world is met with ‘ a vast unwelcome.’ At first, everything seems confusing and they are not aware of their purpose, so they simply ‘ stumbling to and fro’. The word ‘sunless’ indicates unhappiness and pessimism. Also, the lambs do not see anything beyond the snow. The words ‘wretched width’ makes the life of the lambs ruthless and never-ending.
As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
( . . . )
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.
In the second stanza of ‘First Sight,’ the poet juxtaposes the idea present in the first stanza. The poet describes the lambs waiting beside their mother whose “fleeces wetly caked.” All that around them is covered with snow and is waiting for “Earth’s immeasureable surprise.” As the lambs ‘wait’ beside their mother, they are not aware of the spring flowers and the new season, “Hidden round them, waiting too” to burst forth and make everything better. Since the lambs are young and new, they are not aware of what will come in the future. The short last line “Utterly unlike the snow” symbolizes the short wait the lambs have before something better happens. Larkin also personifies the spring flowers in this stanza as he thinks about ‘What will so soon wake and grow.’ He links both the flowers and the lambs, as they stay together hopefully for the winter to be gone.
Philip Larkin wrote a number of poems which has animals as the central theme. Some popularly known are his ‘Myxomatosis’, ‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’, and ‘The Mower.’ To a natural pessimist, this poem is a unique attempt. If one reads ‘First Sight’, they should read ‘Importance of Elsewhere‘ for this poem seems like the pessimistic version. Similarly, as we discuss animal imagery one cannot stop themselves from getting the picture of Ted Hughes. The following poems “Pike”, “The Jaguar”, “Amulet,” and “The Thought-Fox” can be read to understand his writing better.