Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Larkin Again: Two Ways of Looking at a Toad

'I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours,' said Jerome K. Jerome. Clearly it also fascinated Philip Larkin, but he preferred actually doing it, building a successful career in academic librarianship while in his 'spare time' becoming the best English poet of his generation. His ambivalent attitude to work was best expressed in his well-known poem Toads, written on this day in 1954...

'Why should I let the toad work
          Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
          and drive the brute off?
Six days of the week it soils
          With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
          That's out of proportion.
Lots of folk live on their wits:
          Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts -
          They don't end as paupers;
Lots of folk live up lanes
          With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines -
          They seem to like it.
Their nippers have got bare feet,
          Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets - and yet
          No one actually starves.
Ah, were I courageous enough
          To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
          That dreams are made on:
For something sufficiently toad-like
          Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
          And cold as snow,
And will never allow me to blarney
          My way to getting
The fame and the girl and the money
          All at one sitting.
I don't say, one bodies the other
          One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
          When you have both.'
Toads is a fine example of Larkin managing to sound blokily matter-of-fact and conversational while performing all manner of tricks of rhyme and metre and deploying some quite fantastical vocabulary. 'Losels', by the way, were 'losers', good-for-nothings, wasters, while 'loblolly men' were medical orderlies on board ship, doling out loblolly, a thick gruel, to the sick and injured.
 Larkin (for the purposes of the poem) concludes that work is not the only toad squatting on him; there's something inside him too that he knows will always hold him back from the heroic gesture  - 'Stuff your pension' is for him the 'stuff' of dreams.
 Sure enough, eight years later, Larkin is still working, and the toad is no longer any kind of crushing burden, but rather a welcome companion, helping him through life - or as the death-obsessed poet succinctly puts it, 'down Cemetery Road'. In Toads Revisited - like Toads, a poem of nine short-lined quatrains - Larkin paints such a dismal picture of life without work, shuffling around the park among 'palsied old step-takers, Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters, Waxed-fleshed out-patients', that returning to work seems a positively delightful prospect...
'Walking around in the park
Should feel better than work:
The lake, the sunshine,
The grass to lie on,
 
Blurred playground noises
Beyond black-stockinged nurses -
Not a bad place to be.
Yet it doesn't suit me,
 
Being one of the men
You meet of an afternoon:
Palsied old step-takers,
Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,
 
Waxed-fleshed out-patients
Still vague from accidents,
And characters in long coats
Deep in the litter-baskets -
 
All dodging the toad work
By being stupid or weak.
Think of being them!
Hearing the hours chime,
 
Watching the bread delivered,
The sun by clouds covered,
The children going home;
Think of being them,
 
Turning over their failures
By some bed of lobelias,
Nowhere to go but indoors,
No friends but empty chairs -
 
No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:
What else can I answer,
 
When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.'
 
'Turning over their failures By some bed of lobelias' - the only Lobelia rhyme in English verse? Probably... Of course, both Toads and its sister poem are drenched in Larkinian irony and humour, and should not be read as any kind of 'statement' (statement, that is, of anything beyond the poem). However, both embody an ambivalence - a mixture of dull resentment and reluctant gratitude - that many of us must have felt in our working lives. For myself, when the time came, I found it easy and liberating to slip out from under the toad and make my own way down Cemetery Road, whistling as I go. 

4 comments:

  1. Years ago, when a friend spoke of perhaps retiring, I mentioned the poems. She apparently had not heard of Larkin, but liked them very much.

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  2. Gosh, they're jolly good. Why had I forgotten about them these last thirty years?

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  3. Lovers of Larkin often feel the need to defend the man from charges of being a marketeer of misery such as in Seamus Heaney's lecture "Joy or Night" which quotes 'Aubade' published in Heaney's "The Redress of Poetry". Patrick Kurp does the defending of Larkin regularly on Anecdotal Evidence. So, I'm interested, Nige, by your comment "Toads and its sister poem are drenched in Larkinian irony and humour, and should not be read as any kind of 'statement' (statement, that is, of anything beyond the poem)." This suggests an ironic detachment. It would, of course, be naive to think that no such detachment exists in art or that a poem, so skilfully, not to say beautifully crafted as 'Aubade' was not recollected and crafted in tranquillity. It suggests that Larkin was, even in his most miserable and hopeless content, playing roles. In order to do that one has to have an essential artistic serenity. What do you think? PS Agree with you on the easy joys of retirement.

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  4. Well yes, there's little (if any) straight 'self-expression' in Larkin - as in any really first-rate poet. He's a maker, and one of the things he makes is a persona or series of personas that project an often comical gloom. Along with Beckett, he's a great (and misunderstood) black humorist, another Stoic comedian. His poems actually tend to be much sadder when he drops the persona.

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