Larkin’s “Breadfruit”

There are nearly fifty pages of Larkin’s unpublished poems in his Collected Poems, including his much cited “Aubade,” which may be my favorite poem from this section. However, considering the number of excellent articles on this poem, in particular this one at New Criterion, I decided to mention one I liked nearly as much and probably comes closer to my own view of the world:


Boys dream of native girls who bring breadfruit,
Whatever they are,
As bribes to teach them how to execute
Sixteen sexual positions on the sand;
This makes them join (the boys) the tennis club,
Jive at the Mecca, use deodorants, and
On Saturdays squire ex-schoolgirls to the pub
By private car.

Such uncorrected visions end in church
Or registrar:
A mortgaged semi- with a silver birch;
Nippers; the widowed mum; having to scheme
With money; illness; age. So absolute
Maturity falls, when old men sit and dream
Of naked native girls who bring breadfruit
Whatever they are.

I’m not sure whether this reminds me more of Yeat’s“The Wild Old Wicked Man”which ends

That some stream of lightning
From the old man in the skies
Can burn out that suffering
No right-taught man denies.
But a coarse old man am I,
I choose the second-best,
I forget it all awhile
Upon a woman’s breast.’
(Daybreak and a candle-end.)

or Shakespeare’s more famous Seven Ages of Man, but I like it either way.

Yeah, I know it’s a stereotype, but it’s my stereotype, and even if it’s not true it helps to explain why my all time favorite TV shows are Benny Hill, Married with Children and The 70’s Show.

The poem does a nice job of contrasting the dream of endless sex with the real cost of that dream, the same cost Al Bundy had to pay every time he came home from selling women’s shoes. Do you think it was pure coincidence that someone who loved hooters so much had to spend his whole day groveling at the feet of women?

I just hope I can maintain my lust (for life) when maturity finally befalls me.

I’ll have to admit that I much prefer Larkin when he leavens his work with a little humor, something he doesn’t always manage. Of course, I also like a few of his bleak poems about country workers that remind me a lot of Hardy’s poems.


Despite reading several critics that argue otherwise, I can’t help but feel that Larkin’s is too pessimistic, but many of his poems still resonate deeply , perhaps a reminder we all share darker moments in life.

I originally thought my favorite poems from 1964-1974 were the “love,? or, more precisely, the anti-love poems like “Talking in Bed? that challenged stereotypes of love and marriage.

Then I turned a page and discovered:


I thought it would last my time —
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down:
I knew there’d be false alarms

In the papers about old streets
And split-level shopping, but some
Have always been left so far;
And when the old part retreats
As the bleak high-risers come
We can always escape in the car.

Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
— But what do I feel now? Doubt?

Or age, simply? The crowd
Is young in the M1 café;
Their kids are screaming for more—
More houses, more parking allowed,
More caravan sites, more pay.
On the Business Page, a score

Of spectacled grins approve
Some takeover bid that entails
Five per cent profit (and ten
Per cent more in the estuaries): move
Your works to the unspoilt dales
(Grey area grants)! And when

You try to get near the sea
In summer …
It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last,

That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts —
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be so hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

Most things are never meant.
This won’t be, most likely: but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs
I just think it will happen, soon.

and thought, “Damn, wish I had written this poem.? It expresses my own views so clearly I could almost imagine I had written it, without the rhyme, of course, because I could never say what I wanted to say in rhyme. Perhaps that’s what it makes it better than my own rantings on this subject.

The subject of the poem is an old one, of course, a Romantic complaint about man’s destruction of the natural world, brought up to date. The narrator is no Romantic, indeed he’s a realist who always seems to have assumed that “progress? would in the end have little effect on the environment, because it has never threatened the existence of the natural world in the past, despite the protests of poets. All the years that mankind has diverted sewage to the seas, the seas have absorbed it and continued to thrive. This is the same assumption most people still seem to operate under, worrying little, if at all, about the environment.

Larkin describes recent trends to move out of the city and to the country to escape all that’s wrong with big cities, generally bringing all the sprawl that’s part of the problem with them. And since it’s primarily the richest people who are escaping to the wilderness and the seashore, they have to build huge houses. Even those who consider themselves environmentalists and build “green? houses, destroy the wilderness by the very act of building there.

And when they find themselves threatened by “cougars? or “bears? whose homes they’ve invaded, the raise a great outcry officials are forced to trap or kill these predators.

Despite my attempts to change the way we mistreat the environment, at moment I find myself worrying that Larkin is right, that “greeds/ And garbage are too thick-strewn/ To be swept up now.? People need so many things, or at least think they do, that they are willing to destroy the very things that they claim to love to live to the fullest here and now.

Mothers drive huge gas-guzzling cars, rationalizing that they are protecting their kids, all the time polluting the air their children breathe and wasting precious oil their children will need if their future is to be assured. People seem to assume that the science that has brought them all these wonderful things will somehow magically resolve problems as they arise. I do not share that faith.

Larkin’s Early Poems

I’ve finished the first two sections in Larkin’s Collected Poems, “The North Ship” and “The Less Deceived” published in 1945 and 1955 and so far haven’t found many poems that reach out and grab me. There were a couple in “The Less Deceived” that were interesting, but apparently the rights to those poems belong to a different publisher and they’re quite adamant about not using them “throughout the world,” so I’ll not include one here.

That said, the poems published in 1945 seem reminiscent of Hardy’s poetry, though not as appealing to me. A few of them actually seem rather Romantic, in a dark, Poe sort of way. And that’s not a good thing as far as I’m concerned. I guess it might appeal to others, though, considering the number of Google searches I get for dark poetry.

My favorite from the early collection is shorter than most and more direct:


Kick up the fire, and let the flames break loose
To drive the shadows back;
Prolong the talk on this or that excuse,
Till the night comes to rest
While some high bell is beating two o’clock.
Yet when the guest
Has stepped in to the windy street, and gone,
Who can confront
The instantaneous grief of being alone?
Or watch the sad increase
Across the mind of this prolific plant,
Dumb idleness.

I guess I’ve lived alone long enough to identify with these feelings. Even though I thrive on being alone, it seems impossible not to feel lonely at times. I’d hate to not have at least one person I can call “friend” at all times in my life.

There’s a good reason why almost every campsite I’ve ever visited in the wilderness has a long-established fire-pit. Sitting next to a campfire and talking the night away is one of the best reasons to go backpacking as far as I’m concerned. Even when you’re dead tired from hiking most of the day, it’s hard to walk away from the campfire and hit the sleeping bag. There’s something primeval about sitting next to a fire talking, keeping the darkness away.

I can’t identify quite as much with the “dumb idleness” except for a few notable illnesses where I’ve been incapacitated because of surgery, but the few times I have experienced it have certainly been “sad,” if not downright depressing.

Larkin’s “This be the Verse”

A while back Robyn Summerlin recommended I read Phillip Larkin so I ended up putting him on my Amazon wish list. My daughter Dawn ended up buying it for my birthday, noting that Larkin sounded old and crotchety, kind of like me.

Perhaps it’s not entirely accidental, then, that I found this poem upon beginning to browse the volume:


They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Since Dawn bought the book through Amazon I doubt she could have seen this poem, at least I hope not. Right now, though, I’m feeling a bit grouchier than usual and since I’m on a roll of reading recommended books, I thought I’d look at Phillip Larkin: Collected Poems and see if I like all of them as well as I like this one.

There’s certainly more truth than we want to admit in the first line, and I appreciate Larkin’s directness. Nor does it hurt that there’s a touch of humor, or at least I’m interpreting it as humor, in the last two lines of the poem. With a line like “Man hands on misery to man” you can almost imagine that Larkin has just finished reading a Thomas Hardy or W.G. Sebald novel.

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