“Poetry of Departures” by Philip Larkin is a beautiful, plain-spoken poem from “The Less Deceived.” First published in 1995, this volume of him attracted such a great deal of attention from English classes and even throughout the world till now.
It’s not hard for us to know all of a poem’s words by heart. Some interpretations don’t lie on the surface and are straightforward to fully understand.
Should we take Philip’s words in “Poetry of Departures” literally, nothing beyond the narrator’s speaking of a person who considered running away from home? Or is there something about the poem worth pondering?
Let’s go over a close analysis and introduction to one of Philip Larkin’s most famous poems, “Poetry of Departures,” together.
An introduction to “Poetry of Departures”
Who is Philip Larkin?
Philip Arthur Larkin (1922–1985) was a famous British poet and novelist. Though he spent his entire life working as a librarian, Larkin was known as one of the post-war period’s most well-known poets until he died in 1985.
He successfully gave a good account of himself and resounded on the strength of a minimal number of works, over one hundred pages of poetry in four slender volumes, including:
- The North Ship (1945)
- The Less Deceived (1955)
- The Whitsun Weddings (1964)
- High Windows (1974)
Literary and Historical Context of the “Poetry of Departures”
History context and Literary of any literary work usually go in parallel since literature is the minor of society.
World War II brought the flamboyant, rhetorical, and surreal styles favored by contemporary, well-known British writers like Dylan Thomas, George Barker, and Vernon Watkins to an end.
To this end, the reader started approaching the formally disciplined or irregular verse with images, which became the principal instrument in literary works. They worked with many conventional and dignified forms that came to be known, with characteristic understatement, as the Movement.
And Philip Larkin was a preeminent practitioner of this style through two of his novels: A Girl in Winter (1947) and Jill (1946).
Under the influence of The Movement, Larkin’s poetry, including The Less Deceived (1995), reflects a melancholy sense of life’s limitations and a somber preoccupation with human solitude, illustrated through lines of elegiac elegance.
Theme & Symbolism of “Poetry of Departures”
“I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any-after all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think?”-Philip Larkin-
There will be times when we wonder why we haven’t done any of the things we needed to do or wanted to do. We struggle to come up with a choice when faced with decision-making paradoxes and hope it’s the right one.
We are torn between the ideal and the real. So did the speaker in “Poetry of Departures.”
“Poetry of Departures” is like an interior monologue of a person who dreams of running away from the ordinary living routine to have a life out of bound. But is that everything Larkin wants to convey through his poem?
Personal Desire vs. Risks Versus Stability and Perfection
Though the speaker is drawn to the pleasure of “chuk[ing]” everything he owns away for a completely new life, he is aware of the futility and chaos of such renunciation.
From the author’s perspective, ordinary life is too bold, sober, and laborious. He even came to the conclusion that:
“We all hate home
And having to be there”
In contrast to that lifestyle, the poem mentions a group of people ready to break the weariness of routine life. It’s also the speaker’s deepest desire, a life of adventure and travel.
But hardly is anyone willing to “just clear[ed] off,” step out of their safe zone, leaving all possessions behind.
Hesitation vs. Choice
Larkin starts the poem in a state of admiration toward a life of travel but in the end, embarking on an aimless journey to him turns out “a deliberate step backwards.”
The author brings to his readers the tension and paradox between what society deems “perfect” and what most people wish for. There is always a massive gulf between personal desire and reality that hardly anyone can overcome.
While a break from routine toward a promising departure can be romanticized, this “seemingly inspiring” action can ultimately be a step backward. If you genuinely want to pursue such a life, make sure to be aware of all the consequences.
One of the most exciting symbolism in “Poetry of Departures” is when the author considers all “good books, good beds” to be “specially-chosen junk.”But these junks (just under Larkin’s view of the point) are perfect in the eyes of society.
If “good books” and “good bed” metaphor the ordinary and bold life, the image of “he” who “walked out on the whole crowd” or the unshaven beard symbolize freedom.
In “Poetry of Departures,” the title itself lets readers know it’s a poem about departures. Using the connotation of the word “poetry,” Larkin represents two sides of a departure from the view of idealism and realism, as well as the definition of two different ways of livings:
- One consists of those who choose to stay at home and not to ever get a close look at the outside world.
- Another group includes those who thirst for exploration and decide to live a much more fulfilling and adventurous life, leaving everything behind
The entire baking of the poem is an autobiographical poem about two contrasting viewpoints of “a departure.”
Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis of “Poetry of Departures”
Stanza One: Line 1-8
“Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
From the first line of the poem, we know that the story that’s about to be told is “fifth-hand.” Even the speaker doesn’t know who that story is referring to.
But instead of taking us directly to the story, “As epitaph” is the first image with which the author associates strongly whenever it’s told. The use of “As epitaph” here might confuse us since an epitaph is known as a short piece of writing or poem about a dead person carved on tombstones.
What made the story of a man who “just cleared off” an epitaph? Or whether the main character in the narrated story literally died?
The relation between the man’s story and an epitaph can be understood in 2 ways:
- He, of course, didn’t die in the traditional sense. The speaker didn’t mention anything about him after he left. So it’s, in fact, a societal death.
- We use epitaphs to memorialize what is important and memorable to the writer. In the “Poetry of Departures,” it’s the speaker. The idea of taking that “audacious, purifying” move triggers a deep admiration from Larkin towards “he,” an unknown person.
Larken’s talent for word choice depicts excellently a person that’s:
- A bold, courageous hero whose actions are admirable and worth desiring to everyone via the two adjectives “audacious and purifying.”
- But the word “elemental” comes after giving readers a sense that though that person lives a fantastic life, he/she is just as primary and basic as any other human being
What makes an ordinary person different is that they’re brave enough to “clear off” and live a spontaneous life.
Stanza Two: Line 9-16
“And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:”
In the following lines, the speaker shows his approval of choosing a more adventurous lifestyle and his pure desire to pursue one as well. He writes, “We all hate home.” By using the word “we,” the speaker assumes that everyone has that mutual thought.
“I detest my room,
It’s specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said”
Larkin’s next diction toward the traditionally positive things of ordinary life, such as “good books” or “good bed,” is obviously disdainful and negative, using words like “hate” and “detest.”
Things that seem to be worth wishing for a perfect life in the eyes of society are no more than “specially-chosen junk.”
Stanza Three: Line 17-24
In the 2nd stanza, it’s clear that Larkin’s intention is to lead us into believing that he is unsatisfied with his perfect life. Moving to this stanza, the poem’s tone is shifted from admiring to spiteful and satirical.
“He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;”
Along with this impression, we’re taken back to the story of an unknown man who made a manful decision to “walk out on the whole crowd.” In the beginning, he felt “flushed and stirred,” but later said, “Surely I can, if he did?” The first two lines of stanza three depict a Larkin, who:
- Restless, anxious, and maybe even jealous of a stranger who is brave enough to step out of their safe zone, giving up a stable life to experience an adventurous lifestyle.
- At the same time, he points out the fact that it’s not normal for someone to go against the majority.
That action moved the speaker deeply, just as when he faced a woman who took off her dress or was threatened by a man. Drunk on those intense emotions, the speaker almost believes he can be that brave hero in his imagination.
Can he? Instead of using a positive sentence, the second half of the stanza begins with a question.
“Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,”
A hesitant feeling about whether he should do the same thing. That thought restricts the speaker’s free will, making him stay “sober and industrious.” The poem now brings up to us the nature-or mere possibility of choice itself-between a free life and its unpredictable risks.
Stanza Four: Line 25-32
The first three lines of stanza four are covered in the happiness of the speaker when imagining himself living an exciting and wonderful life of adventure.
“Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if”
Still, the poem’s emotional shifts from idealism to rationalism quickly when it comes to the last five lines, starting with the word “if.”
“It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Promising possibilities of an adventure-packed life provokes Larkin to follow and step on that route. But soon, the poet realizes the romantic script of that action seems to be so futile, artificial, and pointless.
If he were to walk out on his life, the stability he had built up to this point would be meaningless. After judging various pros and cons, Larkin chooses to settle down and remain in his everyday routine existence.
The last line captures the paradox of the whole poem: what seems perfect is, at the same time, reprehensible.
Literary Devices & Poetic Devices in “Poetry of Departures”
The “Poetry of Departures” by Philip Larkin is loaded with meanings as an account of the use of the literary devices below.
- Metaphor: Seen in the second line of the first stanza when the man’s story is spoken of “as an epitaph” and in the image of an unshaven beard mentioned in the first half of the final stanza. The man’s story associated with the epitaph represents two sides of a departure (the freedom comes with several risks), while an unshaven beard symbolizes freedom.
- Consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds, particularly the /d/ sound at the end of lines 1, 2, 4, and 5 of stanza 3, gives us a smooth transition of ideas.
- Repetition: The word “and” is used regularly throughout the poem, which helps connect all the ideas Larkin wants to convey to his readers. Apart from letting the poem flow smoothly, this repetition relates everything to each other. Also used in the line “the good book, the good bed.”
- Imagery: The poet used images such as junk, books, home, unshaven beard, even humans, etc. to make readers better visualize the opposition of two lifestyles.
- Rhetorical question: Appeared once in the poem “Surely I can, if he did?” to emphasize the poet’s hesitation, struggle, and diction between 2 contrasting lifestyles.
- Alliteration: The repetition of the same consonant sounds in the same lines is used throughout the poem. For example, “walk out on the whole crowd” or “leaves me flushed.”
Though most poetic devices are considered part of literary devices, yet some can only be used in poems.
The “Poetry of Departures” comes with four stanzas. Each is a set of 8 lines, also known as octaves. Instead of conforming to one particular rhyme, the poem varies the rhyme scheme in each stanza on purpose to create several moments that are slant, rhymed, or only half.
For example, in the first stanza, Larkin used the end rhyme in lines three and seven, six and eight to make them perfect rhyming pairs.
- “He chucked up everything” with “This audacious, purifying.”
- “Certain you approve” with “Elemental move.”
Next, lines one and five, plus lines two and four, are half-rhymes thanks to the similarity in the /d/ sound. In other words, they’re related to each other through only part of the word rhymes.
- “Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,” with “And always the voice will sound.”
- Or “As epitaph” with “And just cleared off,” which are connected by their /f/ sound.
For Larkin, life is something lived mundanely and full of “naked but honest” truths when it comes to the gap between illustration and reality.
“Poetry of Departures” not only talks about the universal desire to escape from the mundane, unremarkable life, but also about the chaos and risks versus stability.
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Poetry allows us to transmute ordinary experience into transcendent truth. As a literature lover, Mia has a strong passion for providing her readers an in-depth look into poetry and sharing fantastic viewpoints toward life under poetry’s perspectives.