‘Toads’ by Philip Larkin is a nine stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific pattern of rhyme. Instead, there are isolated moments of perfect and imperfect (or slant) rhymes. For instance, in the first stanza the first and third lines are perfect, with the “-ck” sound. The second and fourth lines are half, consonant rhymes, using the “f” sound. There are numerous examples of both techniques of rhyme throughout ‘Toads.’
A reader should also take note of the use of repetition at the beginning of lines. This is known as anaphora and occurs to great effect in the third stanza with the alliterative use of “Lots,” “Lecturers” and “Losels” at the beginning of the first three lines. The repetition and alliteration continues into the stanza with four more examples of words that begin with “l.”
In regards to rhythm, Larkin also makes use of different patterns. The stressed and unstressed syllables migrate from first to second position and often times there are extra syllables at the end of lines, This creates a feeling of unevenness and even discomfort. It connects directly the subject matter of the poem itself in which the speaker discusses his own unhappiness and lack of satisfaction with his situation. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Toads
‘Toads’ by Philip Larkin tells of the two toads, or pressures, that exist within a speaker as he struggles to free himself from everyday life.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how there is one thing that plagues him more than anything else, a toad. This toad, represents work, exterior obligations and financial pressures. It is always there, forcing poison into his life. Larkin’s speaker is curious about what his life would be like, and if he’d be happier, if he was poor.
The next stanzas depict the lives of the poorest, those who struggle to find food and shelter. Although Larkin realizes the struggles of a job-less life, he thinks these people are happier than he is. Plus, he states, no one ever actually seems to starve to death.
In the next section of ‘Toad’ the speaker admits that he is never actually going to make this shift. He is not brave enough to throw off the pensions given to him by the government. This is due mostly to a second toad. This one is present within his body and forces him to keep his job. The combination of these two toads is the entire reason he is unable to change.
Analysis of Toads
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by asking the reader a rhetorical question. He is expressing his unhappiness with the “toad work” and how it seems as though he’s supposed to let it “Squat” on his life. It is clear from these first lines that the “toad” is not a physical animal, instead it is used as a metaphor to represent the pressures of the world and how work and obligations are always there.
He goes on to ask a second question. Larkin’s speaker has an idea that should be able to use his wit,
[…] with as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
This makes clear the frustration he feels, as if there is a possibility that his world could change but he doesn’t quite know how to achieve it.
In the second stanza Larkin’s speaker describes the six days of the week that the “toad,” or work, plagues him. It “soils” his life, his thoughts, and his emotions with a “sickening poison.” His work, which is never defined, is bringing him no great benefits. It only allows him to “pay…a few bills” and in return he is poisoned by it. The cost and benefits are completely out of proportion.
In the third stanza he speculates on what it would be like to live as some others do, “on their wits.” The following lines insert a number of the examples of people that Larkin sees as living off their “wits” rather than depending on poisonous work. He includes “Lecturers” who use their brains and passions to make money. Then there are “Lispers” or people who have lisps. He feels as if they need to work even harder than those without lisps to secure work.
He goes on to refer to “losels,” or worthless people, who have no redeemable character traits. There are also “loblolly-men” and louts.” There are clowns and drunken people. Just as in the first two lines, he looks to this group as examples of those who worse than him, but still managed get by without the weight of the poisonous toad. The use of alliteration in these lines unites the different types of people, it connects them through sound and the visual on the page.
Larkin’s speaker presents a few additional examples of people who do not worry about maintaining constant work in their lives. There are many people, he thinks who,
[…] live up lanes
With fire in a bucket.
From the speaker’s perspective these people, although they are without homes or dependable sources of income, and therefore food, are happy. They seem to the speaker to”like” living around fires and eating “windfalls” or fruit that is knocked from frees and tins of “sardines” they find.
The people who live up lanes, as mentioned in the fourth stanza, have “nippers.” This is a reference to children. These children are as poor as their family members. They run around without shoes.
He mentions the “unspeakable” or indescribable” wives of these poor men and how thin they are. Through a simile he compares them to “whippets” or a very small, thin breed of dog. Though everyone seems to be starving, from Larkin’s perspective, “No one actually starves.” The speaker’s tone is quite interesting in these lines and those which proceeded them. It is easy to see how these opinions come from the perspective of one who has never actually known real poverty.
In the sixth stanza the speaker returns to his own personal feelings. He wishes that he possessed the courage to throw off the toad and shout out to the government to,
[…] Stuff your pension!
Larkin’s speaker wants to rid himself of his own dependence on government entities and subsidies. If he was able to assert his own bravery then he’d find a new freedom. That being said, he knows there is no chance of him actually taking the plunge. His liberation from monetary concerns is a pipe-dream he knows he won’t ever achieve.
In the seventh stanza the speaker goes into the true nature of his problem. There is the first toad that rests on his body, representing work. There is also,
[…] something sufficiently toad-like [that]
Squats in [him] too;
This speaks to his inability to move beyond the societal rules and purposefully break away from the capitalist system of the day. He depicts the toad as being “heavy as hard luck” and “cold as snow.”
The force inside him is so influential that it keeps him from getting what he wanted. The toads, especially in combination, won’t allow him to achieve “The fame” or women or money he wants all at one time. There is nothing the speaker can do. He can’t “blarney” or charm his way out of being a human being, destined to struggle through life.
In the final stanza the speaker addresses the general issue that plagues his life, the two toads. He states that the one toad within him, that forces him to consider his obligations, does not fuel the exterior toad. But the fact that they are existing together at the same time makes life all the more difficult.