This poem may seem ambiguous at first, or even until its end, but it turns out to be a thought-provoking one. Entitled ‘The Building,’ the poem does talk about a building but assumes it is a hospital. While throughout the poem, the poet has not used the term ‘hospital’, the use of certain words like ominous nurses, patient, death, sickness, illness, ambulances, check-ups, and a few more do let us assume that he is talking about a hospital.
However, when we reach the end of the poem, we find Larkin meditating upon ideas of death, illness, religion, and spirituality. Read more poetry from Philip Larkin.
The Building Analysis
Higher than the handsomest hotel
The lucent comb shows up for miles, but see,
At the entrance are not taxis; and in the hall
As well as creepers hangs a frightening smell.
In the opening stanza of the poem, which can be read in full here, we find Larkin sarcastically describing the building, and calling it ‘the handsomest hotel. This comparison of the building by the poet shows that the building, assumed a hospital, is not only the highest but also the most handsome in appearance.
The use of the term ‘handsomest’ in the first verse shows that he is going to define the building in masculine form, but the term ‘building’ indicates its femininity.
Defining the handsomeness of the building, Larkin says that the glass windows shine as if a ‘lucent comb’, but it is enclosed by crisscrossing streets (close-ribbed streets). He says the vehicles arriving at the entrance gate of the building are ‘not taxis,’ rather, they are ambulances. The building suggests medical advancement when the poet says: ‘like a great sigh out of the last century,’ but that sigh could be deceptive as there lingers a ‘frightening smell’ within.
There are paperbacks, and tea at so much a cup,
Like an airport lounge, but those who tamely sit
And faces restless and resigned, although
Every few minutes comes a kind of nurse
After describing the building from the outside, the poet compares its inner condition to ‘an airport lounge’ where people can generally be seen reading paperbacks, drinking tea, ‘ripped mags’ and sitting tamely, awaiting an arrival.
But that arrival isn’t as exciting as traveling and flying. The poet also notices that people have come there for ‘check-ups” in their ‘outdoor clothes’ with ‘half-filled shopping-bags’, which shows that they are here to do other more important things.
However, their faces are still ‘restless’ and ‘resigned’ as if they are about to receive bad news related to their health. The scene becomes more serious when the poet sees nurses coming after every few minutes to ‘fetch someone away.’ All these activities of the nurses make the people more fidgety and ‘curiously neutral.’
To fetch someone away: the rest refit
Cups back to saucers, cough, or glance below
Some old, but most at that vague age that claims
The end of choice, the last of hope; and all
In this part, the poet says that when the people enter this building, they not only lose their individualities but also build up a homogeneous group of patients; some of whom are young, whereas some are old. But they are all faceless numbers, gripped by the fear of sudden ‘abeyance’, and have come to this hospital-like building ‘with the last of hope,’ and ‘with the end of choice’ in their lives.
Here to confess that something has gone wrong.
And these picked out of it; see, as they c1imb
Through this extract, the poet further says that some come to this building to ‘confess that something has gone wrong’ with their health that is, there might have been some problems in their health. It must be an ‘error of a serious sort.’
Thereafter the poet brings a sudden change in his tone and starts talking about the building. He says that with a view to housing this endless number of humans, there has been an expenditure of ‘much money’ for the nurturing of this building, and its staffs work here for ungodly hours. But still, it is morbid.
Stanzas Five and Six
To their appointed levels, how their eyes
Go to each other, guessing; on the way
Traffic; a locked church; short terraced streets
Where kids chalk games, and girls with hair-dos fetch
Here, the poet finds people looking around at one another, and sees them wondering if they will also be ‘wheeled off’ to the endless rooms, from where it is ‘harder to return from.’ In fact, they are afraid of the dark of hospitals from where some come alive, while some come dead. All the people are held with fear that will suppress all their hopes and will make them quiet.
Larkin says the building has so many rooms that it is very hard to guess (not guaranteed) whether one would come safe or not. And no one knows whether, after returning from there, he/she will see them or anyone of them who he had left before getting into the numberless rooms of the building.
Comparing this gloomy and serious atmosphere of the building to the outer world, the poet again changes his tone and says that out of this building, there lies the normal world, where lie streets, pipes, traffic, freedom, a car park, and children playing their games.
On the contrary, the hospital-like building is like a ‘locked church,’ which has no hope of divine intervention. This is, in fact, like a prison where prisoners are kept confined until they complete their imprisonment. Similarly, in a hospital, the patients are kept until they have recovered from their health problems.
Their separates from the cleaners – O world,
To carry life, collapsing only when
Here we find the poet saying that the building takes the people off their identity, and clothes them in ‘washed-to-rags ward clothes’. The whole world is like a ‘touching dream,’ an utterly unreal and false illusion towards which we get easily lulled, ‘but wake up separately.’ The poet, Philip Larkin, says that all its loves and chances are beyond reality. There exists in it ‘conceits’ and ‘self-protecting ignorance’ which is engulfed with unrealism and falsehood, and the realities of death are ‘congealed,’ and its harsh realities are known when brought ‘in these corridors.’
Called to these corridors (for now once more
Old, young; crude facets of the only coin
Larkin further says that some are fortunate enough to escape death, and come out early from this building, but others may have to join the non-discriminatory ‘unseen congregations whose white rows ‘lie set apart.’ When the poet says: “Each gets up and goes At last,” he may mean that one day everybody has to leave this world. The poet, through these lines, gets a little spiritual and religious. But others who are unaware of it may have to join ‘The unseen congregations.’
This place accepts. All know they are going to die.
Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end,
Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes
The coming dark, though crowds each evening try
With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers.
In this concluding stanza, the poet says death is a bitter truth, and we must not be afraid of it. No matter, whether, we offer prayers, flowers, or confess our sins or evil deeds to ‘transcend the thought of dying,’ all our efforts will go ‘wasteful, weak, propitiatory’ until God contravenes. However, fear of death makes life much more valuable.
In the same ways, the nurse instructs and encourages us as a grim reaper, and summons us to die though her intention is never so. She even doesn’t offer any hope of faint maternal comfort but reaches us with frigidity. She is, in fact, performing her duty.
Death is a guarantee. It cannot be placated until the idea of its preventability gets morphed into an acceptance of its inescapability.
So, the main purpose of the building is to awaken the realization of a ‘clean sliced cliff’ whereby we will all be inescapably falling from.