‘I Remember, I Remember’ by Philip Larkin is a seven stanza poem divided up into sets of five lines, or quintains. The poem concludes with one final line, separated from the preceding quintains. Larkin wrote this piece after a 1954 visit to his birthplace of Coventry, England.
There is not one consistent pattern of rhyme in this piece. But Larkin has chosen to couple up lines and utilize alliteration to make connections. Moments of rhyme appear in the second and third stanzas with the endings, “sign” and “mine,” and “boots” and “roots.” They also appear in the final stanza with “Hell” and “well,” which is an interesting and comic pairing. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of I Remember, I Remember
The poem begins with the speaker and his friend arriving, briefly, in Coventry. They are on their way somewhere else and are stopped at the platform. The speaker looks around, hoping to see something he recognizes, but doesn’t. This fact does not surprise him as Coventry was never really a home to him.
The rest of the poem is devoted to describing things that didn’t happen to the speaker. He has in his mind an idealized version of what childhood should be. He also knows his childhood did not match up with his own experience. The speaker did not have close family friends, spend happy hours in the garden or have his written work recognized by someone of marginal importance.
These factors add up to an unhappy childhood that the speaker’s friend questions him about. The poem concludes with the speaker saying it wasn’t Coventry’s fault he was unhappy as he would’ve been unhappy anywhere.
Analysis of I Remember, I Remember
The first stanza of this piece starts midway through a trip. The speaker is passing through his hometown of Coventry via a “different line.” This is likely a reference to the train line he is traveling on. The tracks diverges in someway from that which is his usual choice. On this “different” path, and after the unexpected arrival at home, the speaker gains a new perspective. It has clearly been a while since he visited and his initial thoughts are mixed.
The season is cold, the year has just started and the glimpses the speaker gets of Coventry are brief. The train only stops long enough for the old passengers to disembark and the new to climb onboard. In the third line he refers to “We.” He is not traveling alone but with a friend who has little knowledge of the area. At first the speaker seems excited by his sudden and unexpected arrival in his hometown. He says a loud, ‘“Why, Coventry!’” Then goes on to tell his friend that he was “born here.”
In the brief moments the speaker has to look out upon what should be a familiar landscape, he “squinnied for a sign.” He is looking for something recognizable. A place-name or some evidence that he could navigate the streets. His searching serves a double purpose. He also hopes to see something that confirms to him that “the town had been his.
The speaker does not feel an instinctual connection to Coventry and is looking for the city to provide it for him. In the moments he is able to look out the window, nothing is made clear. He is unable to determine “Which side was which.” If he were to disembark he’d have no idea which way to go. The speaker poses a question of his listener. He wonders it where those “cycle-crates” are now, if that is where he and his family used to depart for “hols” or holiday vacations.
At this point the train whistle blows and they are moving again. His glimpse of his home is over and the speaker is returned to the train car. The friend looks at him and smilies. He asks if that previous town was ‘where you “have your roots”?’ This phrase is in double quotes to signify that it is a cliché. It’s a phrase used over and over that the speaker’s friend is chose to humorously continue the conversation.
The speaker has a reply in mind for his friend but keeps it to himself. He doesn’t see Coventry as being where he “has his roots.” Rather, it is where his “childhood was unspent.” From this line it is clear that his youth was not a pleasant one. The speaker doesn’t have good memories of his family and the times they spent in the city. He wants to say all this out-loud, but doesn’t. The speaker concludes by informing the reader, that it is a city where he “started” and that is all.
By the time the train has made progress away from the station at Coventry, the speaker has brought to mind memories of his home. As one might expect they are not entirely happy. He recalls the layout of their garden and how it was not a place of invention or imagination for him. These are aspects of childhood he thinks he should’ve participated in. They were not a part of his life.
As he contemplates what he could tell his friend about Coventry, or what he would like to remember, there are no suitable moments. Larkin’s speaker did not enjoy the days of his youth as he thinks he should’ve. There was always something missing.
In these lines the speaker describes a family he did not visit to find some childhood happiness. Their “farm,” which did not really exist for him, should’ve been a place he “ran to when [he] got depressed.” The speaker imagines in other people’s lives, there are moments like this. When one can take comfort in another, more hospitable home.
He describes the boys who would’ve lived there as being “all biceps” and the girls as “all chest.” They would’ve owned a “Ford” car and their “farm” could’ve provided him with a place he could “Really” be himself. Once again this line is in quotes in order to bring light to the phrase. The speaker knows it is a cliché.
The final line from the fifth stanza is cleared up in the sixth. He imagines there would be moments where he was within the woods, trembling, alongside a girl. The two would have some sort of sexual relationship and he would be afraid. The woman on the other hand, she would “Lay back” and became to him “‘a burning mist.”’
In contrast to these moments of fear and pleasure, there should’ve been the office. In “those offices” the speaker’s “doggerel” or comic verse, was not set in “blunt ten-point.” He did not receive the recognition he thinks he should’ve in his youth. Others might’ve have their words read “By a distinguished cousin of the mayor.” The speaker did not get this honor.
In the final stanza, and last hanging line of the poem, the speaker’s non-story about his childhood comes to a conclusion. In an ideal world the “distinguished cousin” would’ve called his father and told him of the promise the young boy had.
The speaker’s thoughts are now interrupted by his friend who reads the expression off his face. The friend states that it looks as if Larkin’s speaker “wished the place in Hell.” While this might be the case, the speaker replies that it was not really the “place’s fault.” He did not have the childhood he wanted.
The final concluding line is very cynical. It is spoken as if to throw off the hopes he had for his youth and convince himself that the ideal childhood happens no where.