‘If, my darling’ by Philip Larkin is an eight stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, or tercets. These tercets do not follow one specific pattern of rhyme but that does not mean they lack unity. There are some instances of end rhyme, such as with “recital” and “rebuttal” in stanza seven. As well as moments in which Larkin makes use of assonance, or vowel rhyme, and consonance, or consonant rhyme.
One example of assonance occurs at the end of the first two lines. The words “decide” and “eyes” are not perfect rhymes, but the repetition of the ‘e’ sound connects them. Consonance is clearly present in lines one and three of the the fourth stanza with the words “glove” and “grave.”
Another technique that Larkin makes use of is anaphora. This is another kind of repetition, this time at the beginning of lines. Examples are present in stanzas three and six. Often times this kind of repetition is used to emphasize a particular way of speaking. In this case, the use and reuse of “Nor” in stanza three helps the reader to understand the setting and the ways the speaker’s own life is unlike Alice’s in Wonderland.
The words “no” and “nor” are repeated six times in stanzas two and three. This constant use of negation adds to the overall tone used by the speaker. He does not convey any amount of confidence in his own inner life or feel that is able to share the version of himself he keeps inside his head.
Summary of If, my darling
Philip Larkin presents an interesting picture of life from the outside and the inside in ‘If, my darling.’ The poem begins with the speaker wondering what his “darling” would see inside his own mind. It doesn’t take him long to come to the conclusion that she would not have a thrilling experience like Alice did when she went to Wonderland. Instead, his love would be confronted with a dark, sparse interior that is unstable and foul. It would be lacking in all the things that make it homey and contrast with her “floating skirt” she wore for the journey.
The poem concludes with the speaker deciding that his lover would be inundated with all the emotions which plague him day in and day out. His own judgments, thoughts, and negative life experiences would coalesce into a shrill shriek that would change her view of him, and the world in general.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of If, my darling
If my darling were once to decide
But to jump, like Alice, with floating skirt into my head,
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by setting out the metaphorical events that bring forth the rest of the poem. He imagines a set of circumstances in which his “darling,” or lover, is able to,
[…] jump, like Alice, with floating skirt into [his] head,
This magical event shows his “darling’s” desire to get to know him better. Rather than depending on his eyes for access to his soul, she goes a step further and enters into his mind. These lines are a clear reference to Lewis Carol’s masterpiece, Alice in Wonderland. But in this version of events, Alice is the speaker’s lover and the world she enters into is the exact opposite of Wonderland.
She would find no table and chairs,
No undisturbed embers;
Larkin’s speaker continues on to list out, in this stanza and the next, all the things that “Alice” is not going to be able to find. First, there would be a complete lack of furniture. There is nowhere to have tea or spend time together. His mind is so far a barren room. This initial impression is emphasized by the additional note that the “sideboards” are not “mahogany” or “claw-footed.” What does exist in his head is not fancy. He has the most basic of everything.
The tantalus would not be filled, nor the fender-seat cosy,
Nor the butler bibulous, the housemaids lazy:
The third stanza is similar to the second in that the speaker lists out things that one cannot find in his mind. There is a distinct lack of joy there. The “tantalus” or liquor decanter, is not full. No one is expected, and even if someone did show up there would be nothing available to drink.
There is a “fender-seat” in the room but it isn’t “cosy.” This is a kind of old-fashioned seating that wraps around the edges of the hearth. Therefore the lack of a “cosy” interior is likely a reference to the fact that no fire burns in the fireplace.
There are shelves in his mind-world but they are not,
[…] stuffed with small-printed books for the Sabbath.
Lastly he adds that his household servants do not have any of the characteristics of characters in a work of light-hearted fiction. The butler is not drunk and the housemaids are not lazy. Everything is very normal, in the most formal of ways.
She would find herself looped with the creep of varying light,
Loitering like bullies, about to coagulate;
If his lover were to enter into his head she would find “herself looped with the creep of varying light.” The only thing that is of interest moving in his mind is the light. It would loop around her slowly and constantly. This is somewhat of a malevolent force in the speaker’s mind. It is related to his own internal thoughts and opinions about himself. This is how he thinks, and now his “darling” is metaphorically being exposed to it.
It is more than clear at this point that he does not really want her to know that there are coagulating, stringy, and “infected circles” moving through his mind “like bullies.” This speaks to deep unhappiness that seems to be integral to his sense of being.
Delusions that shrink to the size of a woman’s glove,
The unwholesome floor, as it might be the skin of a grave,
He continues to expand his mind and the impact it has on his own, and maybe now his lover’s, everyday life. There are “Delusions” in his mind that shrink and grow inside him, from the size of a woman’s glove to then oozing “inclusively outwards.”
Another aspect of his world that one might notice is the “unwholesome floor.” His foundation is a mess. It appears as the “skin of a grave.” It’s a thin, unstable level that keeps one only slightly above something that is surely even less appealing below.
From which ascends an adhesive sense of betrayal,
A swill-tub of finer feelings. But most of all
He continues this line of thought in the fifth stanza by stating that out of the floor comes,
[…] an adhesive sense of betrayal.
It is something that he has not been able to shake. It rises, sticks, and remains with him. The next phrases are images that are meant to repent the emotions associated with the unending presence of betrayal. He must deal with the destruction or debasement of beauty, the constancy of money, and the general “swill-tube” of all the unhealthy emotions society evokes.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
She’d be stopping her ears against the incessant recital
Each one double-yolked with meaning and meaning’s rebuttal:For the skirl of that bulletin unpicks the world like a knot,
Might knock my darling off her unpriceable pivot.
Above all else, the speaker states, his lover would take note of the “skirl.” She would want to stop up, or plug her ears against its shrill sound. It carries with it the sounds of “reality” and “technical terms.” All of these also carry “meaning and meaning’s rebuttal.” These are the conflicts of his life, physical and mental. The frustrations, regrets, and hopeless goals all come together and blast his “darling” mental visitor.
The speaker knows that if she saw the reality of his mind she would be knocked off “her unpriceable pivot.” Her world would shake in a way she could never have expected. This is why he does not want to let her that deep into his mind. The emotional and physical image he presents in everyday life is nothing like the chaos going on inside his head.