Critically analyse the themes within Phillip Larkin's "Toads Revisited" and Larkin's handling of the themes throughout the poem.
This essay will critically analyse the themes within Phillip Larkin's "Toads Revisited" and Larkin's handling of the themes throughout the poem. Toads revisited (1964) was written eight years after Larkin's "Toads" following a shift in the persona's attitude towards several themes, which will be discussed throughout this essay.
Phillip Larkin was a pessimist in many aspects of his life, Larkin was not religious and held the firm opinion that religion was merely a human invention, designed somewhat as a comfort blanket to help people cope with the fact there is no life after death. Larkin seemed to believe that anything that held any value in his life, such as a romantic relationship, would not last. For this reason, Larkin struggled to find long-lasting love. As Appleyard. B. wrote for the independent (1993) "[Larkin is] a hopeless and inflexible pessimist." and that "Larkin's [depression] was seldom more than grimly inward and futile." It can be argued that this is correct as his pessimistic attitude towards life had a significant impact on his writing, Larkins bleak view on death is a central theme seen in 1980 "Aubade" and "Church going" 1952 (which was written the same summer as "Toads" 1952.) In relation to this, one of the major themes seen throughout Toads revisited is pessimism. The metaphor of the toad used throughout both poems holds dark, oppressive connotations representing Larkin's pessimistic personality. The toad in both poems holds a double meaning; although it is a metaphor for working life, possibly also a metaphor for Larkin's personality flaws. The toad represents the feelings invoked by the need to work for a living.
Larkin initially seems to have had a shift in attitude into a more positive tone, in comparison to Toads 1952. The natural imagery creates a warm, positive feeling "walking around in the park...the lake the sunshine, the grass to lie on." However, Larkin's true pessimistic personality is quickly unveiled again when he states, "yet it does not suit me". Larkin's depression created a skewed negative outlook on life. It affected his lack of fulfilment and pleasure that one would usually get when in the lovely setting described. Larkin creates the impression that working life is so much better than being "one of the men you meet of an afternoon" who are "palsied old step-takers hare-eyed...with the jitters". Larkin uses kinaesthetic imagery within this stanza to describe how the old men are shaking, the verb "palsied "has connotations of tremor and paralysis which evokes the feeling in the reader of paralysis and becoming stuck in this place. The constant shaking has connotations of nervousness as if these men are on the verge of a nervous breakdown; their "hare-eyes" creates the image of terror. The language used within the first two stanzas emphasises the pessimistic tone of Larkin's work.
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The theme of time and ageing are seen prominently throughout the poem. The theme of time is initially seen in the title; the verb "revisited" suggests the theme will be prominent throughout. The poem takes the reader on a journey, as the persona experiences a change in attitude within the poem. The poem initially begins with the same attitude towards working life as that seen in "Toads" however, from the second stanza the shift is seen "yet it doesn't suit me". Larkin claims that being sat in a park in the afternoon "watching the bread being delivered" shows "stupidity" and "weakness". Therefore, he would instead allow the toad into his life to avoid becoming a stupid, weak man of the afternoon. By the end of the poem, Larkin's new ideas on working life are solidified, "no give me my in-tray". The reader feels as though they have been on the journey of realisation with the persona in both Toads and Toads revisited. The "toad" which was initially seen as a negative metaphor becomes a familiar creature for the reader. "give me your arm, old toad; help me down Cemetry road". The description of the "old toad" evokes the feelings of familiarity and comfort.
The conclusion Larkin suggests is although one can get through life without the toad, living off "tinned sardines" you will walk down "Cemetry road" alone if that’s what you choose. Larkin gives the reader many contradictions within his two poems, challenging his own opinion and attitude towards working life. However, this last line in the final stanza is one of the most contradicting. Although the toad is seen to be a familiar old chum at this point, there is also a more sinister underlying meaning of death. The last line in the last stanza sees the first full rhyme within both poems, again a contradiction to himself. The full rhyme signifies strength between the toad and the persona in the poem as they have finally come together, and peace has been established. It also signifies that Larkin has come to a definitive conclusion on where he stands in terms of the "toad".
The poem has a central theme of poverty, and Larkin portrays himself somewhat as a snob. In 1964, when the poem was written, Britain was still much more a classist society. Larkin's father Sydney was Coventry's city treasurer, and therefore, assuming from this Larkin was bought up in a wealthy middle-class family. Larkin was very well-educated, attending King Henry VIII school in the city; he then went on to study at St. John's College, Oxford. Larkin was able to continue his studies during the war, due to failing his medical; therefore, he was in a privileged position in terms of his education. His middle-class conditioning can be seen to hold a significant impact on the narrative in his work. In his collection of letters home (1936-1977) Larkin’s letters to his parents are published, as Chilton. M (2018) wrote for the independent "they [Eva and Sydney Larkin] financially bailed out their undergraduate child on many occasions, answering his plea for clothes ("send some under-clothes please") and for money ("this seems a good time to warn you I am down to my last £3")." This supports the idea that Larkin relied on his parents to bail him out of situations financially, and he would not have been left in a situation like the "characters" he writes about in this poem.
The theme of poverty within the poem is seen through "characters in long cloaks, deep in the litter-baskets-" Larkin's inherent disgust at the characters in the poem seems cruel seen using the adjectives "stupid" and "weak" to describe the characters. Larkin is out of touch with reality, writing as if these strangers have chosen this way of life, the thought "of being them!" creates the feeling Larkin looks down upon the strangers. The "old men" and "characters in long cloaks" which are referred to throughout stanza 3 and 4 have the common ability to be able to dodge the toads' work. The personal pronoun "them" along with the verb "characters" seems to dehumanise the strangers in the poem. Larkin thinks; if you do not fall victim to the system of working life and the toad, you are not worthy. Larkin uses satire by ridiculing the characters in the park and criticises their stupidity. In stanza 5, the aggressive tone continues the use of assonance "delivered" "covered" "characters" creates a harsh tone.
In toads (1954) Larkin states that although these people may struggle "no-body actually starves" this, however, is contradicted in Toads revisited (1964) as the "characters in long coats" are seen "deep in the litter –baskets-" suggesting they are scavenging for food, and are in fact starving as a result of being "too stupid or weak" to work. In the penultimate stanza, the personal pronouns shift from "them" to possessive pronouns such as me, my, I. This amplifies the difference and separation in classes within the 60's society.
Phillip Larkin explores the major theme of boredom in Toads Revisited. The poem is structured of 9 stanzas, with 4 lines each, with half-rhymes throughout, the repetitive nature of the structure gives a feeling of boredom. In the last stanza, the use of a full rhyme allows the reader to experience a moment of realisation that Larkin is content with the boredom and routine of working life.
The theme of the imminence of death is seen strongly throughout. The use of enjambment "beyond black-stockinged nurses" creates a feeling of breathlessness that would be felt during death. The "nurses" in the park also signify illness and death. Larkin uses simple sentences after the use of enjambment, such as "not a bad place to be." "yet it does not suit me." these short sentences when read aloud consolidate the feeling of breathlessness. The last line “help me down Cemetry road” is a metaphor for death.
Overall, Larkin has created a bleak tone within the poem. Larkin’s pessimistic personality intensifies the negativity felt throughout this poem. Regarding the different themes discussed Larkin’s pessimistic personality influences how these themes are approached. Initially, it seems Larkin uses the poem as a vessel to convey his feelings towards work in a cynical way. However, the tone of the poem remains negative; the persona's attitude shifts. After having started to unpick the poem, it becomes clear that work and life with the "toad" is in fact, the more favourable option, than that of the characters described in the poem. The poem is part of the Whitsun weddings collection written by Phillip Larkin in 1964; the collection is dominated by poems with the major themes of the passing of time, loss, and the imminence of death. These themes are seen strongly in Toads Revisited.