‘Poetry Of Departures’ by Philip Larkin is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. The text does not conform to one specific pattern of rhyme, instead, Larkin varies the rhyme scheme in each stanza, creating a number of moments that are only half, or slant, rhymed.
For example, in the first stanza, lines three and seven, and six and eight are perfect rhyming pairs. Lines one and five, as well as lines two and four, are half-rhymes. This means that only part of the word rhymes with its corresponding line. For example, “hand” and “sound” are consonant rhymes, they correspond due to the similarity in the ‘d’ sound. The same can be said for “epitaph” and “off,” which are connected by their ‘f’ sound.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he is sometimes informed of a man “chuck[ing]” everything he owns away and leaving. He is deeply jealous of this person and believes that everyone else must be too. The man-made an important“move” in his life. It was “audacious” and “purifying.”
The speaker goes on to describe how distasteful he finds his own life. He is surrounded by a bunch of junk he doesn’t care about and wants to get rid of. As much as the speaker might want to embark on the same kind of risky journey, he won’t. The fact that the speaker could abandon his life gives him comfort though. This helps him get through his days and remain focused on what he needs to do.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes and Images
One of the most important themes that are prevalent throughout ‘Poetry of Departures’ is that of chaos or risk versus perfection or stability. The speaker returns time and time again to the pleasure of breaking away from one’s life, taking a risk, and throwing away everything one has so carefully curated. At the same time, he makes sure to emphasize the fact that he is guilty of the same kind of gathering of books and beds that he condemns. He has nothing but “specially-chosen junk” fill-in up a life that should be, in the eyes of the larger society, perfect.
Additionally, one should consider the tension presented by Larkin between what society thinks is appropriate versus what the majority of people desire, and why these two things are different. The entire backing of ‘Poetry of Departures’ is a deeply held need that everyone presumably has to let go of possessions and clear off. At the same time, hardly anyone ever makes this choice.
Analysis of Poetry of Departures
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
This audacious, purifying,
In the first lines of ‘Poetry of Departures’ the speaker begins by referring to a story that “you hear” sometimes. These stories are always conveyed “fifth-hand,” or at a distance. The person you hear it from is not directly connected or known to the person to whom they are referring. The story that is told is spoken of “As epitaph.” This means that the main actions have already happened. An epitaph is a phrase, or short poem, spoken in memory of someone who died.
What is important to note about the “story” around which the poem is based, is that the main character did not die, not in the traditional sense. He did something that everyone desires. The man,
[…] chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
These two lines are as simple as they seem. The voice who tells “you” the story knows that you’re going to be interested. This is due to the fact the idea of doing the same is intriguing to everyone. Someone has left, set their life to the side in an “audacious, purifying, / Elemental move.” The man-made a choice for himself that resides deep within all of humankind, to leave a structured, known life behind.
The epitaph comes back into the scene as the reader and the vaguely referred to “you” do not know what happened to this person after he left. He died a societal death.
And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said
In the next lines, the speaker goes on to elaborate on the fact that everyone,
And have to be there:
The speaker, as well as the voice that tells the story, “fifth-hand,” believes that everyone has that same deeply seeded desire to move on.
In line four of stanza two Larkin transitions to the first person. His speaker admits that he also feels as the rest of the world does, he wants something else for himself. He hates his “room” and everything in it. Things that once seemed worth collecting are now viewed as “specially-chosen junk.” Their worth was quickly reversed and his “perfect” life is now more of a burden than a pleasure.
He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,
The third stanza of ‘Poetry of Departures’ refers again to the unknown man who made the decision to walk “out on the whole crowd.” When the speaker considers this action and making the choice to go through with it, he gets “flushed and stirred.” He is moved deeply, emotionally, just as he would be if a woman took off her dress or a man threatened him. In the second half of the stanza, he considers whether or not he’d be able to do the same. He thinks,
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
That thought is a mantra he maintains in his darkest days. Just the idea that he could leave, if he chose, is enough to help him stay “Sober and industrious.”
Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Books; china; a life
In the final eight lines, the speaker relays his mindset when he remembers that his life is temporary if he wants it to be. He “swagger[s] the nut-strewn roads” and crouches at the front of the ship, “in the “fo’c’sle” or forecastle.
Within the last lines of ‘Poetry of Departures’ Larkin’s speaker reiterates the pointlessness of crafting a “perfect” life. He feels as if one is deliberately stepping backward when they spend time devoted to “an object.”
He lists “Books” and “china” as examples. The phrase “a life” comes next. The speaker sees one’s life, and the curated way it can come together within society as being “Reprehensibly perfect.” One should be ashamed of or at least chastised for, time spent forcibly trying to make a good life.