This is a poem about the cultural identity of a person and how he struggles mentally in a foreign land for his cultural roots. In this poem, Philip Larkin talks about himself. His life in Ireland posed several challenges to his English identity. The Irish custom was welcoming, still, there was a difference that didn’t allow the poet to feel at home. The reference to Ireland as “elsewhere” makes it clear that the poet had a strong bonding with his English culture. But, for the sake of being “workable” in Ireland, he had to accept her culture as it was without any frowning and detachment.
‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ by Philip Larkin presents the “strangeness” of Ireland and how it shaped the poet’s thinking at the beginning of the poem. The poet didn’t feel at home in this foreign land and her culture. The difference between Irish culture paradoxically had a welcoming tone. Once the poet had got used to their “draughty streets” and “Archaic smell of dockland”, somehow appeared to the poet as “separate” from his culture. However, he found himself “not unworkable” in this country. In the end, Larkin feels at home when he thinks about his “customs and establishments” in England. Although he ironically refers to the conservative nature of his culture, he somehow finds solace in musing about his roots.
You can read the full poem here.
‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ by Philip Larkin is a short poem containing three stanzas. Each stanza of the poem has four lines. Though it’s a modern poem, there is a specific rhyme scheme in it. The poet uses a regular rhyming pattern in the poem and it is ABAB. However, the poet makes use of slant rhymes for maintaining the rhyming pattern of the poem. Likewise, in the first stanza, “home” and “welcome” somehow rhyme together, and “speech” and “touch” appear to be rhyming altogether. In the following stanzas, there aren’t any imperfect rhymes. As “faint” and “went”, “stable” and “unworkable” sufficiently maintain the rhythm in the second stanza.
The metrical composition of the poem is also regular. There are more or less ten syllables in each line of the poem. Some lines begin with a trochaic foot while the rest of the feet follow the iambic meter. In some lines, there is a hypermetrical foot at the end. That’s why the overall poem is composed of iambic pentameter with few variations. In some lines, where the rhythm falls reflect the state of mind of the poet. As an example, in the first line of the poem, the poet wants to emphasize his mental loneliness in Ireland. For this reason, in the first foot, the stress naturally falls on the first syllable. In this way, the overall composition and structure are relevant to the theme and subject matter of the poem.
‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ by Philip Larkin contains several literary devices that are important concerning the poet’s idea in each line of the text. Likewise, the poet begins with a litote to express his mental state in the foreign culture of Ireland. The phrase, “Strangeness made sense” contains an epigram that presents a truth value in the apparent “strangeness”. The “salt rebuff of speech” is a metaphor for the local Irish dialect. The poet uses a metonymy for representing the Irish people who converse in that coarse dialect.
The second stanza begins with a metaphor. The “draughty streets” is a metaphorical reference to the Irish streets that aren’t crowded with people. The “Archaic smell of dockland” is also a metaphor. And the poet connects the sense of this phrase to “a stable” by using a simile. The “herring-hawker’s cry” presents an onomatopoeia. The stanza ends with another litote. In the final stanza, the poet uses a palilogy in the third line to emphasize the strict conservatism of England. In the last line, the poet uses the main metaphor of the poem, “elsewhere”. It is a reference to any foreign land that a person likes apart from his native land. He also uses personification in this parting line.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Once that was recognised, we were in touch
‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ by Philip Larkin introduces the “elsewhere” in the first stanza of the poem. That elsewhere is in Ireland where the poet went to work. Far from his native place, Larkin couldn’t find homely pleasure in Ireland. It was all different from the poet, its culture, people, language, and the climate. Every aspect of the country posed a challenge to the cultural identity of the poet.
The poet is realistic and straightforward in this stanza. He knew what seemed “strangeness” to him, was the essence of Irish culture. However, the country welcomed him in her way and the poet heard it right. The more he understood the Irish culture, the more he became used to it.
Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
To prove me separate, not unworkable.
In the second stanza, Philip Larkin describes the Irish landscape that he could recollect while writing this poem. The secluded streets that ended on to the hills reminded him of the streets of England. The dockland gave the poet an ancient expression and made him thought about the Irish past. The collective cry of the herring and hawker birds that dwindling in the air proved to the poet as foreign things. But with a stronghold on his cultural identity, the poet moved on and made him workable in that alien culture.
Living in England has no such excuse:
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.
In the last stanza, the poet ironically refers to his country, England. The poet knows, he can’t question his culture. If he felt something troubling him deep about his roots, he had to accept it without frowning. The place he grew up molded his character as well as identity. So, it is useless to defy one’s roots if there’s something wrong with it.
Likewise, the poet thinks, “It would be much more serious to refuse…” This line again highlights that the poet couldn’t refuse his customs and establishments. It was his duty to maintain the integrity of his cultural identity. In the end, the poet says, “Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.” It reflects the very idea of cultural consciousness. But, this line is in contrast with the title of the poem. That’s why it can also be an ironic reference to his country’s conservativism. If the poet developed a bond with Ireland, he couldn’t proclaim it.
‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ by Philip Larkin talks about the poet’s visit to Ireland and its impact on his cultural identity. In June 1950, Larkin joined The Queen’s University of Belfast as a sub-librarian. Belfast is located in Northern Ireland. The poet spent five years in that place and it was the most contended part of his life. In 1955, he returned to his country and joined the University of Hull as the University Librarian. He held this post until his death. However, this short five-year stay had a significant impact on the poet’s life and cultural identity. He started to love the culture and language of Northern Ireland. In this poem, he expressed his attachment with Ireland, and implicitly questioned the cultural conservatism of his motherland.
‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ by Philip Larkin is concerned about the cultural heritage and the local flavor of Ireland. Here is a list of a few poems that represent the same about Ireland.
- Ireland With Emily by John Betjeman – Like Larkin, John Betjeman describes the people and history of Ireland as an outsider.
- Ireland, 2002 by Paul Durcan – In this poem, Paul Durcan talks about the changes that occurred in Ireland in modern times.
- Bogland by Seamus Heaney – The description of Ireland given by Seamus Heaney in this poem is metaphorical and it covers the present state of the country.
- White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland by Eavan Boland – In this poem, Eavan Boland describes the beauty of Western Ireland.
You can read about 10 of the Best Philip Larkin Poems here.