Armistice Day: MCMXIV by Philip Larkin

Today, 11/11/11, at 11am, most of the world will pause for two minutes to remember the ceasefire on the Western Front in 1918. Last year, I featured what could be considered as one of the best-loved and most moving war … Continue reading

Talking in Bed by Philip Larkin

The Whitsun Weddings - Philip LarkinTalking in Bed is a universal poem that lives up to Larkin’s hope that “people in pubs” would talk about his poems. It is one of my favourite poems simply because of this.

I have come across certain readings of the poem that suggest there is a dark and unnerving meaning to this poem that involves policy and politics between America and Britain at the time of publication in the 1960’s. Everyone is entitled to their own interpretation, but I could not disagree more. In my opinion this is honest, simple poetry at it best.

 

Talking in bed ought to be easiest
Lying together there goes back so far
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside the wind’s incomplete unrest
builds and disperses clouds about the sky.

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind
Or not untrue and not unkind.

His poems are often pessimistic and gloomy – with recurring themes of death and doomed relationships. He is also often labeled a racist and a mysoginist. However, while melancholy permeates Talking in Bed, the poem is simultaneously powerful and beautiful.

The main issues dealt with are loneliness and relationships. These are issues that are personal to Larkin: despite having multiple long-term relationships throughout his life, he never married, and was often depicted as sexually unfulfilled and lonely.

Philip LarkinThe beauty of the poem lies in the vulnerability that it exposes. In the first stanza we are introduced to “an emblem” of two people lying together in bed with nothing seemingly to say to each other. This ’emblem’, it is suggested, is a part of our human nature – it “goes back so far”.

A tension is created in the second stanza with the “complete unrest” of the wind. The silence enforced here amplifies the anxiety that is created by the dispersal of the clouds, which in turn signifies the destructive and invisible force of the silence.

In the third stanza, isolation is added to the building tension in the shape of the “dark towns” that “heap up on the horizon”. Here, the insignificance of the couple is highlighted against the outside world. The dark towns appear infinite on the horizon, creating an image of worldly isolation.

Larkin’s inability to come to terms with his loneliness is exemplified here:

None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation.

Larkin is aware of his own insignificance in the world, but he cannot seem to find reason for it.

The “unique difference” is also key here: physically speaking the lovers could not be closer, but emotionally the distance between them is inconceivable. Simultaneously, a sense of safeness is conveyed in the couples seperateness from the outside world. Is it this sense of safety that keeps this couple together despite the emotional distance between them?

In the fourth and final stanza the couple have nothing to say, neither cruel nor kind. Is this the realisation that they don’t know each other as well as they thought, or does this poem depict the emptiness of promiscuity? Alternatively, does the poem illustrate the idea that you can never really know someone?

Either way, these themes are explored in true Larkin style – plain and simple.

And for me, a sweet aftertaste remains.

Share your experience of this poem below…