A friend of mine once said, “what good are emotions if all they do is make you weak?”
The premise that something ‘good’ should come out of emotions is a curious one.
Humans don’t feel things because it’s beneficial or salubrious for them; we’re just wired to feel, and oftentimes at the expense of sound reason and judgment.
This is why people smoke even though they know it’s unhealthy; it’s why people procrastinate even though they know it’s unproductive; it’s also why people eat tubs of ice-cream while binge watching Netflix even though they know it’s neither healthy nor productive.
We’re more irrational than we think.
How irrational are you?
The best litmus test for one’s irrationality is the experience of falling in love, because it compels us to do things our saner selves would never fathom doing.
There’s also the masochistic phenomenon of certain people getting a kick out of going for unrequited or hurtful love, as if the subconscious cynic in them realises that it’s probably a losing game in the long run, so why not just go for the most unsuitable or worst characters to begin with?
I sometimes chuckle at the irony of ‘bitter love’ being more preferable than ‘blissful love’ for poet and artist types, if only because wild, extreme (and often, crappy) emotions form the most fertile wellspring for creative inspiration.
Larkin: great poet, or messed-up dude?
Philip Larkin, arguably one of the best post-war English poets, is a fascinating specimen for the exploration of bitter, messy love, largely because his own love life was a hot mess.
He’s not the most appealing character in real life (a generous understatement for someone with a notorious obsession with pornography), but those who enjoy his writing would agree that his poetic genius more than makes up for his moral failings.
For a frumpy, stodgy-looking university librarian, Larkin was a lifelong bachelor who defied stereotypes with his Lotharian pursuits.
According to Andrew Motion, Larkin’s biographer, the poet’s life was marked by a concatenation of failed, but colourful, relationships.
While his most famous romance was with a fellow Oxford English graduate by the name of Monica Jones, Larkin’s initiation into love was with a 17-year old girl called Ruth Bowman, whom he met at the Shropshire public library where he was working at one point.
Four years into their courtship, the pair got engaged in 1948, but all this time Larkin had developed feelings for Jones (from as early as 1946), and was finding the prospect of an unfaithful marriage increasingly hard to swallow.
Shortly before he left for a new post in Belfast, then, Larkin and Bowman broke off their engagement, and this experience is likely to have confirmed for the poet that he’s not quite cut out to be a husband (hence his lifelong bachelorhood).
In the poem ‘Wild Oats’, published as part of The Whitsun Weddings anthology in 1964, we catch a glimpse of Larkin’s romantic disappointment, and the sombre self-reflection that came out of his experience with Bowman.
It’s such an interesting poem, too, because it shows us both Larkin’s vulnerability in matters of the heart – and his self-consciousness about having such emotional vulnerabilities.
Could a ‘misogynist’ (?) and a ‘feminist’ (?) share common ground?
On the surface, it seems like Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy – another popular English poet – could not be more different characters.
Some would argue that Larkin was a misogynist (but reality often calls such labels into question), while most would agree that Duffy is a feminist; many would find Larkin’s works embarrassingly nationalistic or quaint, while few would disagree that Duffy’s oeuvre is empowering, modern and ‘sexy’, especially in a climate of glamorised wokedom.
Bottom line – reading Duffy is just cooler than reading Larkin. But for all their differences, these poets shared numerous similarities as well.
For example, neither poets married: Larkin had the good sense to remain a bachelor for life, and Duffy had the self-confidence to first leave an older man with whom she began a relationship at 16, then embracing her homosexuality and also becoming a mother.
Both poets were offered the Poet Laureate position, but while Larkin rejected his in 1984, Duffy accepted hers in 2009. And where their attitudes towards love is concerned, they can both be remarkably pragmatic, armed with a piercing grasp of reality which allows them to see through the fog and haze of romance.
So in this post, let’s close read Larkin’s ‘Wild Oats’ and Duffy’s ‘Valentine’ to examine love in a realistic light.
Reading Philip Larkin’s ‘Wild Oats’: “Unlucky charms, perhaps”
Let’s start with the title: the phrase “sowing one’s wild oats” is an idiom for having many sexual liaisons in one’s youth. From this alone, we may think that we’re in for a salacious, wild ride, but Larkin soon ‘disappoints’ with not a jot of erotica.
Instead of proto-50 Shades of Gray stuff, we get a morose and pensive dude taking a trip down the memory lane of his love life, and not having much to show for all his efforts over the years.
The title, as we will soon find out, is either ambiguous or misleading, because one of the questions this poem leaves open is whether the speaker did ‘spread his wild oats’ in true philandering fashion, or if he had wanted to – but was unable for some deeper, emotional reason.
By the time we’re done with the poem, it’s pretty clear that the speaker is a failure at love, and the reason for this failure differs depending on the perspective.
To the speaker’s ex(es), he was –
too selfish, withdrawn,
And easily bored to love.
But to the speaker, that sort of judgment only reveals their lack of understanding of him. Apparently, his inability to love (and so he says) anyone fully is because he never got over an unrequited infatuation from his past.
This is implied at the start of the poem –
About twenty years ago
Two girls came in where I worked —
A bosomy English rose
And her friend in specs I could talk to.
Faces in those days sparked
The whole shooting-match off, and I doubt
If ever one had like hers:
But it was the friend I took out,
The juxtaposition of “twenty years” and “two girls” presents a micro focus framed within a macro time scale, which immediately suggests that this is an incident which, though seemingly pedestrian, carries significant weight for the speaker, who remembers it vividly even after two decades.
This is then followed by another striking juxtaposition between the metonym of “A bosomy English rose” – a reference to the more attractive girl, and the bland description of “her friend in specs I could talk to”.
While the epithet of an “English rose” is a common phrase for a beautiful (and presumably English) woman, the rose itself has thorns, which could cause hurt and pain. What’s clear is that the speaker is primarily taken in by her physical beauty, as suggested by the synecdoche of “Faces” in “Faces in those days sparked/The whole shooting-match off”.
But while this hyperbolic claim highlights the power of her attractiveness, we are hit by a surprise in the final line of this stanza, introduced by the pregnant caesura of the colon – “If ever one had like hers:/But it was the friend I took out”.
The technique of ending a description with an unexpected turn is called paraprosdokian, and here, it serves to reveal for us the speaker’s crippling self-consciousness – he was too chicken to go for the woman he actually fancies, and this self-consciousness will doom his love life for years to come.
As the second stanza rolls around, we see a lot of numerical references (almost one in every line from lines 9 – 16), which should tell us something about the speaker’s tallying mind set –
And in seven years after that
Wrote over four hundred letters,
Gave a ten-guinea ring
I got back in the end, and met
At numerous cathedral cities
Unknown to the clergy. I believe
I met beautiful twice. She was trying
Both times (so I thought) not to laugh.
The irony of having “met/At numerous cathedral cities/Unknown to the clergy” is a dig at the sexual puritanism propagated by Catholicism, as the speaker reveals that he’s had many romantic trysts in supposedly sacred locales.
This conveys a certain level of irreverence that the speaker holds towards notions of orthodoxy, be it in religion or in love. But what is the value of those “seven years”, “four hundred letters”, “a ten-guinea ring”, and meeting “at numerous cathedral cities” – when ultimately, they all ended in the nothingness of a broken relationship?
Notwithstanding the length of time during which the speaker and his ex were together, the amount of memorabilia they exchanged, and the number of rendezvouses they’ve had, it all came to a futile end because of one person – “I met beautiful twice”.
This reference to “twice” echoes the “two girls” mentioned in line two (coincidental, or not…?), and cinches the earlier and later moments in the speaker’s memory to suggest that “beautiful” is in fact the “bosomy English rose” from twenty years back.
Like the anatomical word “faces”, the adjective “beautiful” suggests that the speaker’s infatuation with the attractive girl is rooted in the physical, rather than in an appreciation of her personality. The girl also seems to register the shallowness of the speaker’s love, which perhaps explains her scorn for the man (“She was trying/Both times (so I thought) not to laugh”.
The parenthetical aside of “(so I thought)” once again reinforces the speaker’s self-consciousness, as he’s deeply aware of his inadequacy both as a potential lover and a human being in the eyes of the woman he so desires, but has never had the courage to pursue.
With the third and final stanza, we feel a strong, conflicted mix of cynicism and regret in the speaker’s tone, as he reflects on why his ‘wild oat-spreading’ over the years hasn’t quite come to meaningful fruition –
Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn,
And easily bored to love.
Well, useful to get that learnt.
In my wallet are still two snaps
Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.
Unlucky charms, perhaps.
This is a melancholic ending, but the hint of bitterness that the speaker betrays makes it hard for us to sympathise with his unluckiness in love.
The sarcastic note in “Well, useful to get that learnt” suggests that he both doesn’t agree with his ex-lover’s conclusion of him being “too selfish, withdrawn,/And easily bored to love”, and that he knows full well he has those traits, but if she couldn’t cope with them, then tough.
The symbol of those “two snaps/Of bosomy rose” tells us that the speaker’s biggest problem in love (at least in his view) all came down to a woman he could never be with. And so we realise that all the ‘wild oats’ he had sown were really all just a distraction from a haunting reminder – that there will always be this beautiful woman in his memory, and that his inability to forget or pursue her will forever paralyse his capacity for truly loving another woman.
Feminist critics are unlikely to read this poem in a favourable light, what with the objectifying metonyms and references that Larkin ascribes to the women (“bosomy rose”, “unlucky charms”, “friend in specs”), and the narcissistic self-absorption that characterizes the male speaker’s half-justification for being a failure in love.
The point of this poem, though, is in showing us the psychological fragility of a man who can’t bear to look his fragility in the eye, because he can’t even bring himself to risk the possibility of being rejected by someone he likes, and so prefers to settle for ‘second best’, the “friend in specs”, instead, which doesn’t even work out in the end.
And this, unfortunately, is the curse of his – and many others’ – love life.
Reading Carol Ann Duffy’s “Valentine”: “Not a red rose or a satin heart”
Like ‘Wild Oats’, Duffy’s poem ‘Valentine’ presents a complicated picture of love.
By the time we’ve reached the end of the poem, we understand that the ‘Valentine’ title is an ironic misnomer, because Duffy gives us a very un-Valentiney take on love.
Valentine’s Day may be a celebration of romance, but this poem tells us that none of the kitschy accoutrements of romance amounts to the reality of love, and we see this from two negative subordinate clauses in the poem:
Not a red rose or a satin heart. (l. 1)
Not a cute card or a kissogram. (l. 12)
This is an example of apophasis (which I also discuss in this post), the literary device for mentioning something only to refute or deny it.
The emphasis, then, is on telling readers what love isn’t, lest we continue to operate under the misconception that love is somehow defined by cheesy trinkets or symbolic gestures.
No, the speaker insists, love is this much more complicated and much less pleasant thing that drives you crazy – and yet, we can’t seem to ever get enough of it. Instead of roses, hearts or fuzzy cards, love is much closer to the analogy of an onion, and its nature is perhaps as confusing as Duffy’s mixed metaphors and similes –
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
The reference to ‘brown paper wrapping’ tells us that loving another person isn’t really all that exciting. Forget the rush of passion that comes with getting swept off your feet; love is mundane, but it is also a source of “light” and hope which requires delicate handling.
The phrase “careful undressing” is comical and bumbling, serving to mind not the quickfire, passionate “undressing” of a couple on Valentine’s night, but rather, a slow ‘delayering’ process that’s more awkward than romantic.
But the speaker’s task is to give it to us straight, and not filtered through rose-tinted lenses. As she continues with the onion analogy –
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
A wobbling photo of grief.
There’s something sentimental about photographs that just makes them a fixture in sad love poems. Contra Larkin’s speaker in ‘Wild Oats’, whose “two snaps” are of a woman he can’t attain, Duffy’s speaker alludes to the hypothetical photo of a lover’s own reflection, which is made blurry by the onion-induced (or love-triggered) tears.
The genius in Duffy’s comparison of an onion with a lover is that they both stimulate tears we can’t control – but have actively sought ourselves. You don’t cry just from touching an onion; an onion only makes you cry if you cut it up.
Likewise, you won’t cry just by being in the presence of a lover; a lover will only make you cry if you engage with him or her.
The difference, however, lies in the sort of ‘blindness’ that comes out of onion- or lover-induced tears: whereas ‘blindness’ from onion tears can be remedied with a Kleenex and a quick few minutes, ‘blindness’ from love tears can be a lot trickier to cure…
And if this makes love sound unappealing, Duffy’s speaker has no qualms. After all, she says –
I am trying to be truthful.
As the poem reaches its end, we realise that love is hard to get rid of, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on the way lovers handle it –
I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,
if you like.
its scent will cling to your fingers,
Cling to your knife.
What word does “knife” rhyme with?
Life, of course.
So while the onion scent will stay on the kitchen knife, the lover’s scent or presence is a lot more indelible on the mental canvas, as it sticks with us for life even after the lovers themselves left.
The idea of marriage is portrayed as a suffocating threat, as the image of onion rings is made to conflate with marriage bands – “platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring”.
The contrast between the blasé, shoulder-shrugging tone of “if you like” and the cautionary register of “Lethal” reveals the speaker’s view towards marriage – it is an imprisoning institution, but if one wishes to partake in it, then that’s a personal choice.
Just tread with caution and know what you’re getting yourself in for.
Love can be long-lasting – “possessive and faithful” – even without the trammels of matrimony; all it takes is for two people to be equally aware and accepting of love as a ragtag experience of tears and joy, some of which are rewarding, and others less so.
Read in this light, it seems that ‘Valentine’, while no less sparing of the blunt unpleasantness that sometimes results from love, is rather more optimistic and forward-looking about the business of loving than ‘Wild Oats’, which is clearly pessimistic about the prospects of love (at least for a certain type of person), expressed through the hindsight of a jaded lover.
These aren’t exactly poems one would append to a love letter or read aloud at a wedding reception. But hey, at least Larkin and Duffy are keeping it real for the gullible, emotional ones among us.
So, instead of keeping snaps of that dude or chick we have a secret crush on, maybe it’s better for our sanity to keep these poems in our metaphorical wallets (i.e. iPhones/Androids) instead.
Photo credit: Chris Radburn/PA Archive/PA Images, The York Press
To read my analysis of other poems, check out my posts below:
- Comparing love poetry (I): Reading Thomas Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’ and Maura Dooley’s ‘Letters from Yorkshire’
- Looking at war poetry (I): Reading Wilfred Owen’s ‘Insensibility’ and Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘War Photographer’
- Looking at war poetry (II): Reading Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’ and Ted Hughes’ ‘Bayonet Charge’
- Reading poetry through art: Reading W. H. Auden’s ‘Musee des beaux Arts’ and William Carlos Williams’ ‘Landscape’
And more here!