‘Skin’ by Philip Larkin is a short three-stanza free verse poem that dives into the topic of valuing one’s skin because it is a massive part of a person’s identity. This poem points out how society has set a standard for what a person’s skin should be like ignoring the beauty in letting it age naturally without any type of shame associated with it. Larkin expresses the loyalty our skin has for us whilst we choose to celebrate fleeting fashion trends over the companionship of the most important part of our identity: our skin. You can read the full poem here.
Obedient daily dress,
You cannot always keep
Anger, amusement, sleep;
Those few forbidding signs
The first stanza of Larkin’s poem introduces skin almost as though it was a person or rather, a child that is being spoken to because of the reprimanding tone. The poem is written in the second person so that the readers can truly feel like they themselves are being spoken to and relate better to the concept of their own skin. Line one introduces Larkin’s concept of what role skin actually plays in an individual’s life and even daily routine. He states that it is an “Obedient daily dress” , this translates to skin being a permanent part of your identity and how you express yourself and it is obedient in the sense that your skin will take whatever conditions you throw its way. ‘Skin’ goes through a lot on a daily basis from lotions and masks to the weather conditions and it is obedient by literally staying with you through everything.
Lines two and three are a basic reality check that your skin will age. Just as the rest of your body ages, so will your skin, this statement is important because it is a reminder that no matter how you treat your skin and how it looks it will in fact be aging. It is a companion of yours from birth and a very strong part of your identity. Lines four to six discuss the wisdom that your unique skin carries. “You must learn your lines” is reminding the skin that it will be exposed to many things and it has to adapt and accept it as a new addition to its being. Lines on the skin are also influenced by “anger, amusement, sleep” which Larkin points out in line five of this stanza; He points out these things specifically because they directly influence a person’s skin by adding lines to your face when you are angry or amused and relaxing those lines whilst you are sleeping. The last line of this stanza claims that these lines are sinister because they are a constant reminder of your mortality. The first stanza really dives into looking at the reality of a person and how much of your existence and identity is linked to your skin.
Of the continuous coarse
Sand-laden wind, time;
Carrying a soiled name.
Parch then; be roughened; sag;
The second stanza of this poem is a smooth continuation of the first stanza. The idea that this stanza is starting within linked to the claim that the lines of an individual’s skin are sinister. Larkin uses this stanza to explain why. Lines seven and eight states that the reason why these lines on the skin are so unwelcomed is that they are a physical reminder of fleeting time. Time is slipping through the fingers of every individual and the lines on every person’s skin are a rude awakening of the fact of each person’s fragile mortality. Line nine proceeds to advice being given to skin, that it “must thicken”. Thick skin symbolizes strength gained through every trial that has crossed paths and wisdom that has been attained from experiencing the realities of life. It is significant that the skin is asked to thicken because it suggests that things are about to get harder or perhaps the narrator has learned from experience that one should be prepared for the unexpected. It is easier to handle the struggles of life when you have prepared yourself for the worst; it becomes more taxing on an individual when they have to suffer through something they never considered could happen to them. “Work loose/ into an old bag” is mentioned in lines nine and ten and is referring to the fact that as you age and you acquire this tough skin but physically the skin will begin to sag from working so hard and aging.
Line eleven is interesting because Larkin is pointing out the fact that this aged skin carries a “soiled name” in society, highlighting the fact that society considers this thick and experienced skin as ugly. If a person’s skin is displaying signs of aging (which by the way is natural and should be celebrated as it most often signifies maturity and valuable life experiences) they are quickly encouraged to try and fix it because otherwise, it implies weakness and an image of being unkempt. Larkin is simply pointing out how ridiculous for us to expect the skin to carry the burdens of our lives and hide its natural aging process simultaneously. The last line is concluding the stanza with the narrator giving permission to the skin to gracefully grow old, dry out, and sag because that is its natural reaction to time. No one should be hostile towards a natural process of the body because it continues to stand as a strong part of every individual’s identity and image of themselves.
And pardon me, that
Till the fashion changes.
The third and final stanza of this poem starts off by asking for forgiveness. This is important for the reason that it is highlighting the narrator’s appreciation for the skin that he owns. The specific reason that he presents for being apologetic is that he did not appreciate his skin. Lines fourteen to sixteen discuss that skin is not worn by people intentionally. The narrator specifically directs this towards himself when he says even when his skin was “new” he did not “wear” it to celebrate it which he regrets. Skin is a part of an individual’s existence, story and identity should be celebrated at every phase of its life even if only for the reason that it has been a companion since birth, constantly enduring the reality of life with you at a level of intimacy no other person or thing can match. Keeping that in mind it is understandable to claim that skin has every right to be looked after and celebrated for its companionship.
The final idea that this poem concludes with is very thought-provoking. Larkin is bringing to the readers’ attention that people spend so much time, money, energy on their clothing because it is a means of expressing their identity. People pay so much attention to clothing because of the importance of the reality that the style represents the person who is wearing it. As a result clothing and fashion is celebrated and given so much importance by society. The last line points out however that fashions and styles change and always will, yet they are still celebrated over the natural skin that has been a companion to us since birth. This is a very significant point because it pushes the reader to reexamine their personal relationship with their skin. Why is it that our skin is not appreciated for helping us build our personal image of ourselves? Why is it that the only attention our skin gets is to point out what is wrong with it and to cover its natural aging process. Larkin is expressing the importance and appreciation one should give to their bodies and their skin because you are entitled to be unapologetically yourself.