‘Wants‘ by Philip Larkin is a two stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, or quintains. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, or pattern of meter, but there is a great deal of repetition, creating the illusion of rhythm. For example, the endings of lines one and five of each stanza are the same: “alone” in the first stanza and “runs” in the second.
Larkin also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. In the first stanza, two of the five lines begin with “Beyond” and the other three start with “However.” In the second stanza, two lines start with “Beneath” and another two starts with “The”. This technique helps to emphasize the endless demands on one’s time, and the long list of things that keep one away from what they really want.
Another way that Larkin uses repetition is in the use and reuse of the first line of each stanza. This first line, and the fifth, are identical. This kind of refrain forces a reader back to the reality of the situation he is trying to depict. It is “oblivion” or solitude that humanity is really searching for. By ignoring this fact, one is ignoring their own wants.
Summary of Wants
The poem begins with the speaker stating that “Beyond all this, the wish to be alone”. The “wish to be alone” is at the root of everything humans do. The problem is that it is hard to access. There are always more invitation cards, the desire to have sex, and family gatherings to be dealt with. These things get in the way of what one wants more than anything— solitude.
In the second stanza, he sets out a similar argument, this time using the stronger word “oblivion”. This could refer to actual death, or to something a little less final. It is the thing “beneath” everything else. When one is planning the future, having children, or trying not to think about death, there is this desire hiding underneath.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Wants
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.
In the first stanza of ‘Wants’ the speaker begins with a simple statement. He says that “Beyond all this, the wish to be alone”. Since this is the first line of the poem, that which he is moving “beyond” should be considered to be the rest of the world, and all its complications. He feels that the desire to be by oneself always exists, just beneath the surface.
Some of the things the speaker wishes that he and the rest of humanity could get beyond are listed out in the next three lines. Each of these lines begins with “However”. This use of anaphora emphasizes the impossibility of escaping contemporary life. There is always something in a way that keeps one from being alone when they want to be.
The first thing he mentions is “invitation cards”. Through figurative language, he imagines that there are so many demands on one’s time throughout life that the sky “grows dark” with them. This is a more complicated, and poetic, way of saying that they never stop coming. There is always someone asking one to be somewhere or do something.
In the next two lines, he mentions the “printed directions of sex”. He is referring to the programmed way in which one reacts to the need for sex. One’s actions are replanned, printed and clear. There is no way around it. The same can be said for the next line which mentions family. This gathering in particular is one that is taking place under a “flag-staff” or flag pole. Friends, partners, and family are three of the things which keep one from being alone. The flag-pole speaks to a sense of duty to one’s relatives and perhaps to the country one lives in.
The final line of this stanza is a repetition of the first. Larkin is emphasizing the way that the desire for solitude is at the beginning and end of everything else one might want.
Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs:
Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs.
The form that the first and fifth lines of the first stanza took is repeated in the second stanza. This time though, the poet states that “Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs”. Here, he is stating that beneath all of one’s attempts to the contrary, there is an innate human desire for “oblivion.” This can be interpreted in two ways, that he is speaking about death itself, or about a state in which one is entirely alone and sensorially muted.
Just like in the first stanza the poet moves through three different examples of how one works against their own wants. First, there are the “artful tensions of the calendar”. This is the passing of time, and the planning out of days. One might in reality want to be dead, or at least separate from the rest of the world, but still, the planning goes on.
He also mentions “life insurance” and the “tabled fertilely rites”. These are two ways humans push back against death and insure that their hand will be felt after their gone. Through the creation of children and the payouts associated with life insurance plans, one’s life continues.
In the fourth line, the speaker states that throughout life humans try to look away from death. By avoiding that which is going to happen no matter what one does, humans go into “oblivion” unprepared. The poem concludes with Larkin repeating the first line again (just as he did in the first stanza).