Wild Oats by Phillip Larkin

‘Wild Oats’ by Phillip Larkin is a three stanza poem that is divided into sets of eight lines, or octaves.The stanzas are all distinctive because they trace Larkin’s romantic life throughout the years. The poem begins “twenty years ago,” moves on to “seven years” then finally tells of the results of his failed engagement. 

Larkin’s speaker regards women in ‘Wild Oats’ in two very different ways. There is the “bosomy English rose” of the first stanza who is close to perfect. Then there is “her friend in specs.” This woman is regarded by the speaker to be less attractive and therefore easier to talk to. 

Another important aspect of this piece is the connection to Larkin’s own life. The two women are based on real life acquaintances. He was engaged for a long period of time to the second, less attractive woman, named Ruth Bowman. The more beautiful of the two was named Jane Exall. 

Before beginning this piece a reader should take note of the title and its euphemistic meaning. The phrase, “wild oats” comes from a longer line, “sow your wild oats,” alluding to sex. It embodies a  sexual way of being that has been pervasive throughout time. Men are encouraged to “sow” their “oats” with as many women as they want before marriage. But if a woman were to do the same she would be harshly criticized. You can read the full poem here.


Summary of Wild Oats 

‘Wild Oats’ by Phillip Larkin is a short poem that tells of Larkin’s own emotional struggle to maintain a relationship with his fiancé while in love with another woman. 

The poem begins with the speaker stating  he met two women “twenty years ago.” These women were opposite in looks and opposite in how they impacted him. The less attractive was easier to talk to and so they began a relationship that lasted for seven years. It finally came to an end with they both decided he was too shallow and easily bored to truly love someone. 

This was not the full story though. He was obsessed with another woman who he met at the same time. She had all the physical characteristics of his perfect woman and he was unable to shake her image for his whole life. The poem concludes with the speaker wondering if the two images he keeps of her in his wallet are bringing him bad luck. 


Analysis of Wild Oats

Stanza One

In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by telling the reader that he met two women “twenty years ago.” The two were very different from one another, at least superficially. One was strikingly beautiful and in real life her name was Jane Exall. In this piece the speaker refers to her as a “bosomy English rose.” She represents everything Larkin, and the particular speaker he is channelling in ‘Wild Oats,’ want in a woman. He says that she has a face like no other. He has never seen anyone life her..  Exall was accompanied by a friend who was “in specs” and was much easier to talk to. 

Contrary to what one might expect, Larkin chose to begin a relationship with Ruth Bowman, the less attractive of the two. This was most likely because he could not find the courage to speak with Exall. He states in the next lines that it was due to the faces of these women that he found himself in so much trouble.

A reader should take note the two different ways Larkin chose to write about Exall and Bowman. The first is described through the vibrant, easily imagined picture of a rose while the other gets nothing but a passing comment. This is indicative of the way he thinks about the two throughout the poem and is more than likely part of the reason the relationship ended up failing. He is wholly dismissive of the qualities Bowman has. Instead he remains obsessed with her companion, Exall. 

In the last lines he announces that “it was the friend I took out.” Neither of these women are given names in the 24 lines that make up ‘Wild Oats.’ This helps to denigrate their agency in their own lives. 


Stanza Two 

In the third stanza the speaker jumps ahead to the days in which the relationship came to an end. They were together for seven years and seemed to fall into some sort of love. It was marked by “four hundred letters” and his eventual purchase of a “ten-guinea ring” to give her. This symbolized their impending engagement, something that will never come to pass. Although the stanza starts with the speaker describing his actual relationship, by the time it gets to the halfway point he is distracted. 

His thoughts return to “beautiful” which he claims to have “met…twice.” This is an even more simplistic way to refer to Jane Exall who he initially met 20 years prior. He places more weight and worth on these two encounters than he does on his seven years with Bowman. 

The final line of the second stanza is up for interpretation but it speaks to Larkin’s previously hinted at anxiety. He notes that “Both times” he met with this woman she was trying “not to laugh.” He is clearly self-conscious, a character trait which is very much on display when he is around Jane Exall. 


Stanza Three

In the final eight lines the speaker refers to the end of the engagement. The cheap ring was given back and the rehearsals for the wedding came to an end. They had completed five total mock weddings, but something was still unsatisfactory. Unfortunately this piece only contains the perspective of Larkin. He does report on how Bowman saw him at that point though. 

They both reached “an agreement that” he was “too selfish, withdrawn, / And easily bored to love.” Just as he simplified the women throughout the text, the reasons for the failed engagement are simple. He did not have the temperament. The reader knows that it was more than this though. He had deep-seated feelings for Exall the he was never able to shake. Even now, as he writes the text, he notes that he still has “still two snaps / of bosomy rose.” She is just as elegant in the images as she was when he met her. 

The poem concludes with an interesting statement on behalf of Larkin’s speaker. He (presumably examining the photos) wonders if they could be “perhaps” bad luck. It is as if he is just coming to the conclusion that his emotional attachment to a woman he was incapable of having, or even knowing, poisoned his engagement. It also hints at the possibility that more of his life than just his engagement is in shambles. 

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  • Avatar A E Maxwell says:

    I often wonder if a female poet had written ‘Well, useful to get that learnt’ after it being decided she wasn’t suited to love if the humour of the situation would have remained.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Unfortunately, I think you are right. Society has ingrained in us a notion that promiscuity in men should be heralded and in women, it should be derided. This permeates into humour too. Which is sad really.

      • Avatar A E Maxwell says:

        What I actually meant was that when a man writes a poem he doesn’t have the weight of every man who ever existed on his shoulders.

        • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

          which almost further my point. That freedom is a luxury not afforded to the fairer sex.

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