‘Talking in Bed’ by Philip Larkin was written in 1960 and later published in The Whitsun Weddings, in 1964. It is one of Larkin’s most famous pieces and conforms to a particular style that he is known for. The subject matter is straightforward, but his exploration of it takes the reader deeper than one might normally go. He explores the relationship between two people and the larger world as they lay in bed together.
The lines of this piece are divided into tercets, or three line stanzas. They follow a rhyming pattern of aba cac dcd eee. It is interesting to note the relationship between sets of three and the focus on a couple. There are an uneven number of lines in these sets, leaving them (possibly) incomplete. You can read the full poem here.
The most important theme of this piece is: insignificance as a result of, and in combination with, loneliness and time. Larkin speaks on how even in the most intimate of situations, such as those experienced in bed with a lover, one is still at the mercy of the world. The wind never rests and “dark towns” continue to pile up on the horizon.
No matter how much one cares for the world, it does not return that affection. By the conclusion Larkin has brought the reader to a state of confusion and questioning that mirrors his own. One should be seeking, as the speaker does, for words that are “at once true and kind / Or not untrue and not unkind.”
Larkin uses images of nature, and its most powerful elements alongside descriptions of unrest to represent the pressures of living in the modern world. The stillness of two people “talking in bed” is contrasted against the constant movement of time and the “wind’s incomplete unrest.” It builds and releases and travels through the “dark towns” of the world.
Summary of Talking in Bed
‘Talking in Bed’ by Philip Larkin speaks on a pervading loneliness and feeling of insignificance that penetrates even the most intimate moments.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how talking in bed with one’s significant other should be an easy thing to do. He immediately notes that this is not the case and goes on to describe the way that time and the elements work to erode one’s sense of worth in an ever-changing world. The right words become harder to find and honestly more difficult to maintain.
Analysis of Talking in Bed
In the first four lines of this piece the speaker begins by presenting a situation in which one is “Talking in bed.” There are no distinct characters in the poem. Instead Larkin leaves the personal element open. This way one is able to insert their own experiences into the context of the poem. It also forces a reader to dig deeper to understand what Larkin is speaking about. The language is somewhat ephemeral with double negatives built upon one another.
He is interested in exploring loneliness and how even in the least lonely situations nothing is easy. When a couple is intimate it should be “easiest” to talk, but that is not the case. Larkin speaks on this kind of intimacy as being part of a larger pattern of love dating back to the beginnings of humanity. This connection to the past is part of the reason why there are no specific characters. The couple in the poem is more of an “emblem” than a specific pairing of people. Whoever one imagines in this situation is suited to the poem.
Larkin knows that exposing oneself physically and emotionally to another person should bring out one’s most honest self, but that is not the case. The world still goes on around this imagined couple and it only grows more difficult to tell the complete truth.
In the next three lines Larkin makes the transition to speaking more broadly about the influence of the outside world. It is due to the continual passage of time, happening outside the bedroom, and the persistent movement of one’s mind that there is no “unrest.” Larkin emphasizes this fact by speaking of the,
[…] wind’s incomplete unrest
He is interested in how it “Builds and disperses clouds” It has the power to change the landscape of the sky, ensuring that it’s never the same one second to the next. Finally he comes to the last line which describes how these same elements cause the build up of “dark towns…on the horizon.” Rather than describing a light in the distance and representing hope, he speaks on “dark towns” which are inherently foreboding.
In the last few lines the speaker sums up his opinion of the world with the line,
None of this cares for us.
He is referring to the earth, the wind, and the “dark towns” off in the distance. Even the most objectionable aspects of the earth completely disregard the cares of the couple. No matter how aligned one feels in the world, that will never be the complete truth.
In the second half of the eighth line Larkin returns to the theme of isolation. He is wondering over the strangeness of the couple’s “unique distance from isolation” and the persistent feelings of loneliness. The couple is closer to the loneliness they are seeking to escape than they might like to think. This causes a break in their communication and connects the end of the poem to the beginning.
The couple is unable to find the correct words, the ones that come to mind are not “true and kind” nor are they “not untrue and not unkind.” This strange double negative is meant to throw a reader off balance. It helps one place themselves in the same confused position as this emblematic couple.