‘Lines On A Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ by Philip Larkin is a nine stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, or quintains. Each of these quintains follows a specific rhyme scheme. They conform to the pattern of ABBAB, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. In regards to rhythm, the lines alternate between iambic and trochaic pentameter. This means that the stress moves from the odd syllables to the even and back again.
Additionally, almost every line contains five sets of ten beats, but this pattern does not hold true for the entire text. The fourth line of every stanza is significantly shorter than those which proceed and follow it. This line is normally somewhere around six to eight syllables long. There are also moments when the lines stretch out to twelve syllables.
The most important image in this piece is that of the photo album itself. Its presence in the room is the basis for the entire text. It gives the speaker access to a world he did not know he could enter into. The book also spawns a whole discussion about the merits of photography and the nature of the past. It is the source of so much, including the basis for their relationship.
Summary of Lines On A Young Lady’s Photograph Album
The poem begins with the speaker describing finally getting access to his lover’s book of photos. She was looking at it, and he became entranced. As he flipped through the pages he got more and more emotional. The speaker came upon a number of photos from her youth, taking note of how she looked and which “chaps” hung around her. He passed a few judgments, but mostly relished in the access he now has to her life.
The poem concludes with the speaker wondering over the power of the past, and feeling torn over the fact that he can’t become a part of his lover’s. Ultimately he comes to the conclusion that the present and the future are much more important than anything that happened previously.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Lines On A Young Lady’s Photograph Album
At last you yielded up the album, which
I choke on such nutritious images.
In the first stanza of ‘Lines On A Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ the speaker begins by directly addressing his intended listener. This person is the “lady” named in the title of the poem. She has finally “yielded” her “album” to him. She opened it, for a reason he doesn’t seem to understand, and dedicated herself to studying it. The temptation of the open “album” was too much for the speaker to take. It sent him “distracted.” He could think of nothing else.
Within the album, he can see all of her “ages.” The photos are sometimes “Matt” and sometimes “glossy.” Every one of them is secured to a quality, black piece of paper. There is so much for the speaker to see within the album that it’s like being in a candy store. He can’t take all the “confectionery” in at one time. The sweets are “too rich.” He is “chok[ing]” on the images as he tries to see them all at one time. He also calls them “nutritious.” He feels as if they are improving him, his body desires more, and is becoming more excited with each page.
My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose —
Beneath a trellis, or in a trilby-hat
His eye moves from image to image, taking in all the different poses his listener is striking. There are ones from her youth in which she’s wearing pigtails. There’s another where she’s holding a cat. These images go from nostalgic to romantic. It is clear that he is idealizing this photos. They are to him perfect moments in this person’s past. This raises the general question of what, and for whom, pictures are taken.
(Faintly disturbing, that, in several ways) —
Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole.
In the next set of five lines, the speaker notes that these images of the listener are testing his control. They “strike” at it, trying (or so it seems to him) to break him down. A few of the older photos draw his attention and provoke a different emotional response.
He sees that there were a number of “disquieting” or disconcerting “chaps” or young men, who stood around her in her youth. He speaks of them as “loll[ing]” as if they are listless and perhaps useless. It is clear many years have passed since then and he has taken their place.
The speaker passes another judgment on these men. He directly tells his listener that the young men were not “quite [her] class.” This is a more complicated, and fancier, way to say that they were below her. She could’ve done much better than them. He clearly thinks of himself as of a better variety of man.
But o, photography! as no art is,
Like washing-lines, and Hall’s-Distemper boards,
In the fourth line, he expresses his distress over the wonders and disappointments inherent to the art of photography. It is an “art” like no other. It can be given so much, but leave equal amounts, if not more, to the imagination.
Photography is easily able to record “dull days” in all their dullness. The art also equally captures “hold-it” poses and fake smiles. It does not hide “blemishes” on the face or messed up clothes. Everything in a photo is wonderfully and terribly as it was when it happened.
But shows a cat as disinclined, and shades
That this is a real girl in a real place,
On the less satisfying side of the equation, photography is also able to obscure the real. Sometimes it shows something to be one way when it definitely wasn’t and isn’t. The speaker gives the example of a “disinclined” cat and a “doubled” chin. In line three the speaker directs his words to the listener’s own chin. In reality, it is not doubled, it is a graceful part of her face.
The final line explains more clearly what it is about these photos that are so endearing to the speaker. They show him the “real girl in a real place.” He is able to get an account of her life he has never had.
In every sense empirically true!
Contract my heart by looking out of date.
He begins the sixth stanza by exclaiming over how “empirically true” the photos make her life seem. There, in his hands, is the evidence of all the events she has told him about and the things he’s learned about her.
The speaker wonders why these images impact his heart so deeply in the following lines. At first, it seems like the whole image is important to him. But that’s not the case. He thinks instead that he feels “lacerate[d]” by the “parks and motors” because the listener is also looking out from the “date.” The past is usually nothing to him, and if anyone else were in these photos, it would remain as nothing.
Yes, true; but in the end, surely, we cry
Our grief, however hard we yowl across
The speaker continues to philosophize on the past and what it means to be a part, but also not a part of it. One is excluded from another’s past moments. But, the past is also separate. Due to its inability to become the present, one is able to move on. It is not going to return with a new agency and “call on us to justify / Our grief.” Whatever happened, happened. One can only react to it in the present.
The gap from eye to page. So I am left
Of this one of you bathing; to condense,
In the eighth stanza, the speaker concludes the thought he began in the seventh. He is experiencing pain over the photo album. He feels himself drawing closer to the listener but at the same time, there are vast gaps from picture to picture and the space between his eye and the page. There is a lot of missing information.
Therefore, the speaker states, he is forced to love what he has. He has to “mourn” over the photos of her as a child, leaning against a fence. He poses questions to his lover’s younger self and considers all the circumstances around each photo.
In short, a past that no one now can share,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by.
In the final stanza of ‘Lines On A Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ the speaker expresses his deepest regret while looking over the photos. After initially pleasing him to no end, they bring him into a solemn state. He knows the past she lived, “no one now can share.” It is locked away from him, or from anyone else she might share her future with.
The photos contain her in the past, but the future holds her as well. She is there, in his future, in the world’s future, and he’s only planning on getting to know her better. She is going to get “clearer as the years go by.”