This is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. Each of these octaves follows a specific rhyme scheme. They conform to the pattern of ABABCDCD. The lines of ‘Places, Loved Ones’ are less structured when it comes to meter. They are all relatively the same length, but each stanza follows its own pattern, ranging from four to eight syllables per line.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he has yet to find the person (he thinks) will make him the happiest. The same can be said for a particular place. Whatever situation he is in now, he thinks there’s a better one out there for him.
This is the basis of the poem and the problem that Larkin’s speaker sees with the institution of marriage in general. One will always be searching for something better. The feeling of possibility does not leave, and the speaker does not want it to.
He desires the freedom to love who and where he wants. By the end of the poem though he has come to the conclusion that the best choice is to not look for something better. Instead one should try to be happy with what they have.
You can read the full poem here.
Tone and Theme
The speaker’s tone in this piece changes from beginning to end but throughout he sounds generally skeptical and mistrustful of social customs. From stanza to stanza his words move from resonating as dejected, to empowered and then finally resolved. He expresses a complicated but well thought out opinion on what marriage is and what it can be. It is one of the major themes of this piece, as is a feeling of alienation.
The latter comes through the clearest in the last lines as the speaker tries to find a way to enter into normal social life without continually worrying over the choices he makes. This part of the speaker’s personality is connected to Larkin’s own experiences. He was often on the fringes of society, never fully committing to a relationship.
Analysis of Places, Loved Ones
No, I have never found
The place where I could say
On everything I own
Down to my name;
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins with a negative, “No.” This is a striking way to start a poem as a reader is immediately sucked into the speaker’s pessimistic outlook on life. In particular, the speaker is passing judgment on marriage and the way it transforms one’s life for the negative. He continues on to explain that he has,
[…] never found
The place where [he] could say
This is [his] proper ground
The speaker has been looking, as we all do, for some kind of stability, at least in his own happiness. So far, this state of mind has not come to him. He has not found it in a location, or in a person, as will be revealed in the next lines. The speaker seems somewhat transitory in these lines, as if he is wandering from place to place looking for his life.
The third and fourth lines of the stanza are in italics. This choice was made by Larkin in order to emphasize their importance to the speaker. If he was ever able to say these lines, they’d be said with conviction.
In the next four lines, he explains that his lack of “place” is connected to his lack of “person.” There has yet to be someone in his life “Who has an instant claim” over him. He is seeking an immediate connection that makes him want to discard his whole way of living and give himself over wholeheartedly to another. They would even own his name.
To find such seems to prove
You want no choice in where
Should the town turn dreary,
The girl a dolt.
In the next octave, the speaker admits to the rider that he does not really want to find his “place” or his “person.” He believes that the societally imposed necessity of these decisions is detrimental. The speaker does not want to be tied down to one way of living, in a specific town, with only one person for the rest of his life.
He explains why he thinks this is a bad idea. If one does turn themselves over to someone, in every way including their name, then they are saying that they,
[…] want no choice in where
To build, or whom to love;
Another person, or more broadly, society, dictates who you are and who you will become. He is pushing back against the disappearance of his own personal freedom. The speaker wants to remain an individual who does not feel compelled to blame the boring days of their life on another.
He sees this as very common, the decision to blame the “dreary” town or the dumb girl for the way one’s life has turned out. This might be the case, but it was “your fault” that “you” are stuck in these situations
Yet, having missed them, you’re
Bound, none the less, to act
Uncalled-for to this day
Your person, your place.
In the last eight lines of ‘Places, Loved Ones’, the speaker complicates his already split emotions on the subject of marriage. He knows that if one does not get married, or try to find happiness somewhere, they will be just as unhappy.
He thinks that in reality, people should make the best of the way society is structured. It does no good to dwell on the possibility that there might be someone or someplace better for you. One’s life might not turn out perfectly, but it’s better than not trying at all.
This reveals the speaker’s underlying desire to belong to something. If he thought that he really had a possibility of being happy with someone else, someone he really loved, then he probably wouldn’t have these opinions in the first place. It is his own felt separateness that keeps him from wanting to engage in social practices and customs.