This is a poem written in response to the introduction of the Myxomatosis disease to the wild rabbit population of Britain within the 1950s. The poem describes the events of Larkin killing a rabbit with a stick upon encountering its paralyzed body. He puts the animal out of its misery instead of letting it slowly die of the disease.
The poem consists of one stanza of 9 lines. While the poem does not have a consistent rhyme scheme, some instances of end rhyme occur (‘suppurate’ + ‘wait’). The poem covers two perspectives, one of the rabbit gripped in the jaws of fever, and the other is the poet observing the animal.
Myxomatosis is the name of a disease fatal to European rabbits caused by the myxoma virus. The virus is transmitted through insects and direct contract. It leaves the infected rabbit in a state of paralysis, hypothermia and liable to respiratory failure. The disease was introduced into Britain in 1953 to control the wild rabbit population. Incredibly fatal and effective, it was reported that up to 99% of the rabbit population was wiped out. Larkin writes Myxomatosis in 1954 in response to the introduction of the disease.
The full poem can be read here.
Caught in the center of a soundless field
You seem to ask.
Larkin begins Myxomatosis by writing from the perspective of the rabbit. It is ‘caught’ by something it doesn’t understand, paralyzed in a ‘soundless field’. The first word of the poem, ‘caught’, reflects the rabbit’s notion of being trapped, with the disease seeping through its body and paralyzing it. By beginning the poem through the perspective of the rabbit, Larkin forces the reader to experience the panic first hand. This builds compassion and makes the brutality of the disease more evident.
The employment of ‘soundless’ to describe the ‘field’ brings an eery and desolate tone to the poem. The stillness of the paralyzed rabbit and the unmoving scenery creates a solemn atmosphere. A horrible stagnancy characterizes the poem, began in line one and continued right until the last word.
Larkin further explores the symptoms of the rabbit, describing the ‘hot’ hours passing. Here, ‘hot’ is used as a reflection of the rabbit’s fever, with Larkin projecting the slow pain the rabbit experiences onto the reader.
The tone within the first four lines of Myxomatosis can be summarised in a word: helpless. The use of ‘inexplicable’ reflects the rabbit’s lack of understanding, not knowing what form of trap it has been caught in. Following this, the double employment of the question mark conveys the soft ignorance of the rabbit, the quick succession of questions reflecting its lack of understanding. The helpless uncertainty of the rabbit leads the reader to feel empathy, with Larkin painting the realities of Myxomatosis in a raw light. The sobering helplessness of the rabbit is melancholic, trapped in the jaws of disease.
I make a sharp reply,
Coming in the arguable center of the poem, Larkin uses the word ’sharp’ to describe his killing of the rabbit. While at first this seems brutal, the swift nature in which he takes the rabbit’s life is actually a service. The sudden nature of the act contrasts against the slow agony of fever, deciding to end its life in order to spare it from pain. There is an empathetic connection between the poet and animal, with the link of ‘ask’ and ‘reply’ linking the two perspectives.
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
We then return to the poet’s own perspective, ‘I’, to explore the disgust he holds for the disease. Larkin makes his anger at Myxomatosis clear through his word choice when describing the symptoms of the disease. ‘Suppurate’ draws upon connotations of festering and rotting, a disgusting and piteous image of the rabbit decaying in boiling fever. Larkin does not hold back in slating the disease, stating his disdain for the barbarism of the virus.
The interesting balance of perspectives between the solemn poet and the unknowing rabbit leads the poem to have a dualistic nature. This variance in knowledge allows the reader to emphasize with the rabbit, taking pity on its soft ignorance.
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
By using the conditional tense, Larkin once again dives into the perspective of the dying creature. He imagines what it ‘may’ have been thinking during its last moments. This speculation, post-death, is a reflection of the compassion Larkin holds for the animal – still sorrowful even after it has been put out of its misery.
The final image of the poem of one of solemn desperation. Paralysis is a symptom of Myxomatosis, and the ‘still[ness]’ of the rabbit is a reflection of the hold the disease had.
By finishing the poem with the word ‘wait’, Larkin draws the reader’s focus once again on the sense of desperation. The inability to move but the blind hope that the rabbit will be freed from its ‘trap’ is a somber final image, one that leaves a lasting mark as the poem concludes. Moreover, the final word is elevated further through the employment of the rhyme of ‘suppurate’ + ‘wait’. This linking the process of waiting and the slow festering of the fever further compounds the bitter fate of the rabbit. I believe what Larkin finds worst about the disease is the slowness, a fearful grip of fever as the animal lies dying. Indeed, if Larkin had not come along, the death would have been a long and arduous process. While Larkin has put the animal out of the misery, he mourns its passing.
About Philip Larkin
Born in 1922 in Coventry, Philip Larkin was an English poet and novelist. His most notable poetic works are the two collections, The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). He received many prizes, among which was the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. More can be read about Philip Larkin here.