‘Going’ by Philip Larkin is a short ten line poem that is separated into three sets of three lines and one final single line. The lines vary greatly in length and do not maintain any sort of rhyme scheme. There is a similarity in the fact that each tercet is made up of one complete phrase. The only end line punctuation appears at the end of the third line of each stanza.
The poem was originally published in 1955 in Larkin’s book, The Less Deceived. Larkin originally planned to title he work ‘Dying Day.’ This piece of information makes it even clearer that the work is about death.
Interestingly, death is not mentioned by name throughout the ten lines. Instead it is referred to peripherally such as in line three. In this instance Larkin refers to it as that which “lights no lamps.” By the end of the poem one has entered into the unstoppable “evening” and come to the understanding that there is no way to fend off its arrival.
Larkin also wrote a companion piece titled, ‘Coming’ that discusses the emotions centred around the arrival of spring.
Summary of Going
‘Going’ by Philip Larkin speaks on the presence of death in one’s life and its eventual consumption of every living thing.
The poem begins with the speaker taking note of a particularly dark evening in the distance. It is this “Silken” blackness that eventually comes forward and envelops the speaker.
He describes how when one is young death seems like a far off event, maybe even a comfort It is always something to be worried about later. After reaching old age, or simply the point of death, the comfort is no longer there. There is no hope, light, or chance of escaping. One’s connection to the rest of the living world (in the form of a tree) has been severed and one’s own agency taken from them.
Analysis of Going
In the first lines of this piece the speaker begins by stating that in the distance there is an “evening coming in.” It is far off at this point, but still within one’s line of sight. This does not meant it cannot be seen or (at least in theory) understood. It quickly becomes clear that the evening is a symbol for death.
It must traverse “the fields” to get to where the speaker is standing. There is a distance between them, perhaps one that will take a long time to navigate, but death cannot be avoided.
Larkin describes the evening as,
one never seen before,
Even if one was not aware of the metaphor at play here this line is ominous. What exactly, one might ask, does it mean to see an evening “never seen before?” As the line relates to death, this phrase makes perfect sense. When one is finally forced to confront their final death it will be for the first and only time.
In the last line of the first stanza he refers to the night as something which “lights no lamps.” There is no hope to be found in the darkness, it is total and without mercy.
The next three lines begin with another description of what the evening looks like from a distance. It “seems” to be “Silken,” as if it is a vague experience that could possibly bring comfort, like a sheet.
As one ages it becomes clear that this is not the case. Eventually the sheet of death is “drawn up over the knees.” It progresses over the “breast” and consumes one entirely. There is no comfort to be found in the darkness, or as the speaker stated in the first stanza, no light.
The last four lines conclude the poem with a series of questions. There are three in total which seem to interrogate the reader. He is in an entirely different state to that depicted in the first lines.
Where has the tree gone, that locked
Earth to sky?
There used to be a connection in his life between the ground, or solid human life, and the ephemeral afterlife. The tree represented one’s continued presence on the earth and its disappearance is the cutting of a cord signalling one’s impending departure.
In the last lines he refers to a weight on and below his hands. Whatever this is, whether his own life, the entirety of his experiences or just death itself, he is unable to move. His hands, which were the extensions of his own consciousness have become paralyzed.
A reader should take note of the fact that this piece ends with a single line. It is the only stand alone line in the entire poem, meaning that an even greater amount of attention is paid to it. The final question is important:
What loads my hands down?
It gets at the biggest questions one might wonder about death. He is asking what death actually is, how it works and incidentally, how he is supposed to deal with it. There is no answer to this question as at this point his connection to earth has been cut and he is on his own, journeying into the dark evening.