One of the first poems in Larkin’s collection The Whitsun Weddings, ‘Love Songs in Age‘ is a poignant portrayal of hope, nostalgia, and disappointment. It is a reminder of all the hope we have when we are young and how this fails to sustain us as we get older. However, it is also a glittering paean to the power of music and how it can move us, no matter how old we become.
John Betjeman wrote that Larkin was the “unperturbed, unenvious and compassionate poet of doubt, common experience, and the search for truth.” ‘Love Songs in Age,’ with its distanced, yet moving portrait of grief and memory is a perfect example of all of these qualities.
Explore Love Songs In Age
‘Love Songs in Age‘ is about a widow who accidentally rediscovers her old sheet music.
She plays them again, and remembers the hope and promise in them of “that much-mentioned brilliance, love.” When she puts them away, she cries and acknowledges their failure to fix the world, as they promised they would.
You can read the full poem here.
She kept her songs, they kept so little space,
The covers pleased her:
So they had waited, till, in widowhood
She found them, looking for something else, and stood
The subject of ‘Love Songs in Age,’ known simply as “she,” is presented as someone entirely unassuming and ordinary. “She” could be anyone. She keeps her “songs” from when she was young because she likes the covers, which “please her.” In a more practical sense, “they took up so little space.” From this quote in the first line, we get the impression of a person used to putting others first and who is not accustomed to the spotlight. Her sheet music does not use up too much space, and neither does she.
The speaker describes how each piece in turn has been damaged over time. One was “bleached” in the sun, another bears watermarks and one was “mended” during a “tidy fit” and “coloured by her daughter.” These descriptions give us more insight into an ordinary life of a middle-class woman in 1950s England, who has no time to enjoy her favorite songs and hobbies as she has children and a home to look after.
In Line 7, we learn that the rediscovery of her songs is due to widowhood. The rhyme of “widowhood” and “stood” emphasizes her loneliness at that particular moment, before she listens to the songs again. “Stood” is a verb that reinforces the sense of the present in the first stanza, which is about to be transcended in Stanza 2, with the power of music.
Relearning how each frank submissive chord
Had ushered in
That certainty of time laid up in store
As when she played them first. But, even more,
When the music is played, the protagonist is transported from her mundane surroundings by the “relearning” of her treasured songs. They evoke the sense of certainty she felt as a young woman when she “played them first,” and felt as she did then, “the unfailing sense of being young.” There is a sense of potential and hope in the future, a “hidden freshness” and prospect of a long and happy life unfolding before her, “that certainty of time laid up in store.”
The glare of that much-mentionned brilliance, love,
Broke out, to show
Was hard, without lamely admitting how
It had not done so then, and could not now.
In the third stanza, we get to the real allure of the songs, “the glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love”. There is a purity and almost celestial quality to the description of what music can do. It can soar above reality and carry you away with “its bright incipience sailing above.”
We invest deeply in love songs, and here, the widow rediscovers their promise…
to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order.
It’s a simplistic view, but an understandable and relatable one. We all yearn for order in a messy and hostile world.
However, when the music is over, reality sets in again. The songs have to be tidied away and it is with sadness and tears that the speaker is forced to acknowledge they could not solve her problems “then” and certainly could not “now.”
The main themes of ‘Love Songs in Age’ are summed up in the title – love songs and age. The power of music to move us is undeniable, and we live for the “hidden freshness” we get when we hear a song we love. We want to believe that these songs, and art itself, can really make a difference in our lives. It is true that there is genuine power and beauty but this is not possible. It is inevitable that we will get old, be disappointed, and feel loss.
Structure and Form
‘Love Songs in Age‘ is composed of three octaves or eight-line stanzas. The choice of octaves is particularly interesting. In music, an octave is where two notes are played together where one note has a sound-wave frequency twice that of the lower note, for example, playing a “high C” and “low C” together. They have been described as “the basic miracle of music,” and in this poem, it is easy to see the effect of the songs after so many years as a “basic miracle” in itself.
The poem makes frequent use of enjambment to suggest the continuous flow of both music and memory.
Larkin uses iambic feet, or pairs of unstressed/stressed syllables, to convey a sense of melody to the poem, a technique that also emphasizes the keywords in the poem with devastating effect, for example, “That hidden freshness, sung.”
Larkin uses several literary devices in ‘Love Songs in Age.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Oxymoron: occurs when two apparently contradictory terms are placed together, and make a kind of sense, for example, “frank submissive chord.” This captures the contradictory feelings of happiness and loss the music evokes.
- Sibilance: occurs when a poem has many repeated “s” sounds, for example, “its bright incipience sailing above,” conveying a sense of both sadness and melody.
- Iambic feet: These are pairs of unstressed/stressed syllables. Here, they convey a sense of melody to the poem and emphasise the key words in the poem with devastating effect, for example, “That hidden freshness, sung.”
Philip Larkin Background
Born in 1922, Larkin was born in Coventry, England and after graduating from Oxford University, spent much of his life in Hull as a poet, novelist, and librarian. He also had a passion for jazz music and reviewed it for a national newspaper for many years.
Philip Larkin’s poetry is deeply rooted in England, and he is widely respected and admired by both poets and the public. However, his reputation has been marred by clear racism and misogyny in correspondence published after his death.
Although Larkin had well-documented relationships with women and wrote many letters to his mother, there is no clear indication that this poem was based on anyone he knew. It is more likely that the anonymous “she” is a fictional character
The poem ends in profound sadness, but the happiness contained when the notes are played in the second stanza is undeniable. Although life and love don’t last and can let us down, there is still beauty in the world.