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Analysis of Philip Larkin's "Talking in Bed"

Analysis of Philip Larkin's Talking in Bed


Philip Larkin is considered one of the greatest English poets of all time. He graduated Oxford with a degree in English Language and Literature, and eventually became the librarian of the University of Hull's library, a position he held for thirty years. Larkin began his poetic career heavily influenced by W.B. Yeats, but after WWII he became inspired by Thomas Hardy's "rugged language, local settings, and ironic tone" (Greenblatt 2565). Larkin's poetry began to describe everyday situations and people; in fact, he is famously quoted as saying that "poetry is an affair of sanity, of seeing things as they are; I don't want to transcend the commonplace, I love the commonplace life. Everyday things are lovely to me" (2566). One of his favorite themes, the failure of love, is used in his poem "Talking in Bed." In this poem, there is a definite sense of disconnect between the couple, and it is clear that the metaphorical wall between them has been building up for a long time. The narrator questions how and why their relationship failed; was it because their relationship was based on dishonesty? Or did their marriage fail because marriage is a flawed institution?

The marriage bed is a typical emblem (symbolized) for a marriage; it is supposed to be a sacred and safe place for spouses to come together as one. The marriage bed should be the place where a couple feels the most connected, but in this poem, the marriage bed makes the couple's detachment from one another screamingly obvious. The word "lying" has a twofold meaning in this poem; on one hand it means that the couple in assuming a horizontal position together, and on the other hand, it means that there is some untruthfulness or falsehood between the couple. "Goes back so far" also has a double meaning: first, the couple has been "lying together" in their bed for years (they have been married a long time); and second, they have been dishonest with each other for years.

This poem was written in the early 1960s, divorce was still largely viewed as scandalous. It was considered disgraceful, especially for women, to give up on their marriages; so many people stayed in unhappy marriages. Many people of the time believed that couples had a duty and obligation to stay together for their children, and sacrifice was just part of entering into a marriage contract and having children. It wasn't until the late 1960s and early 1970s that a new idea emerged that stressed individual fulfillment over marital or societal obligations. It is also important to remember that women were not able to be as independent as they are today; most women were homemakers, and did not have the degree or qualifications to work in the public sector. In the past, the only way to get out of a marriage was to fabricate outlandish wrongdoings by your spouse. In the United States, this all changed when Governor Reagan introduced no-fault divorce, in 1969 (Wilcox).

The second stanza offers a nature metaphor to describe the ups and downs of marriage. The awkward silence suggests that there is a lot of tension between the two, which only increases as they continue to remain silent. The "outside" mirrors the couple inside; the pressure builds and builds between them, and is never alleviated. The wind is in a constant state of turmoil, spreading clouds across the sky. "Builds and disperses" could be a metaphor for an argument; tension builds, and has to be either released or repressed, in this situation I would say that the tension is repressed (unresolved). "Clouds" have both a dark and threatening aspect, and has the ability to obscure. Metaphorically speaking, if the sky was clear then the marriage would be peaceful, but clouds insinuate that the marriage is riddled with problems; these problems could potentially harm the marriage, so the clouds obscure them, if you can't see something then it doesn't exist.

"Dark towns" can symbolize a number of different things: impediments, arguments, problems, loneliness, pain, etc. This darkness gathers up on the horizon (range of outlook or experience) as a looming reminder of the couple's future. Nature doesn't care about their relationship; it is up to them to figure things out. The narrator doesn't understand why their marriage has failed; why at "this unique distance" (lying side-by-side) that they feel so isolated from each other.

He doesn't understand why the words are not coming to them. Is there nothing left to say? Is the marriage that far gone? He is having trouble remembering the "true and kind" words that at one time he felt for his spouse; did he ever even mean those words that he once spoke? Was their marriage based on a lie? This poem offers no solution or answers, which allows people to relate to this situation better. There is no blanket answer to why a marriage fails, because each relationship is different and has its own problems. Perhaps this poem is a wake-up call for those who are falling into silence, warning them before it is too late to make things better. Sometimes the hardest conversations to have are the ones that involve change, personal and situational.


Sources


Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. 8thed. New York: Norton, 2006. 2565-6.

Wilcox, W. Bradford. "The Evolution of Divorce." National Affairs issue 1. Fall 2009

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. It really helped me better understand the poem.

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