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Ambulances/Dockery and Son


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In response to the calls on the Tentative Suggestion thread for some new poetry discussion (and let me again invite those who didn't participate in some of the old discussions to add their thoughts and revive them) here is something new to mull over.

 

I'm quite a fan of Philip Larkin, who is, in so many ways, a truly English poet. His work is full of the gloriously trivial, the day-to-day detritus of life, yet spun through all of that are profound reflections on the nature of existence. His subject matter is frequently the last material you would expect to draw poetic attention and yet in the evocation of the ordinary you will suddenly come across a line or image of extraordinary beauty. His poetry is the remarkable lyricism of the mundane. He's not a cheery chap, but I think that's part and parcel of his achetypal Englishness!

 

The question was posed elsewhere about whether two poems were off-putting, but I do think in trying to get a feel for a poet more than one example provides a much better footing, so I'll post two but we can focus on the first. Don't feel you need to mention them both in discussion if you prefer just to consider one.

 

I thought I'd go for two slightly less famous examples, both from his collection, The Whitsun Weddings.

 

Ambulances

 

Closed like confessionals, they thread

Loud noons of cities, giving back

None of the glances they absorb.

Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,

They come to rest at any kerb:

All streets in time are visited.

 

Then children strewn on steps or road,

Or women coming from the shops

Past smells of different dinners, see

A wild white face that overtops

Red stretcher-blankets momently

As it is carried in and stowed,

 

And sense the solving emptiness

That lies just under all we do,

And for a second get it whole,

So permanent and blank and true.

The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,

They whisper at their own distress;

 

For borne away in deadened air

May go the sudden shut of loss

Round something nearly at an end,

And what cohered in it across

The years, the unique random blend

Of families and fashions, there

 

At last begin to loosen. Far

From the exchange of love to lie

Unreachable insided a room

The trafic parts to let go by

Brings closer what is left to come,

And dulls to distance all we are.

 

Dockery and Son

 

'Dockery was junior to you,

Wasn't he?' said the Dean. 'His son's here now.'

Death-suited, visitant, I nod. 'And do

You keep in touch with-' Or remember how

Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight

We used to stand before that desk, to give

'Our version' of 'these incidents last night'?

I try the door of where I used to live:

 

Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.

A known bell chimes. I catch my train, ignored.

Canal and clouds and colleges subside

Slowly from view. But Dockery, good Lord,

Anyone up today must have been born

In '43, when I was twenty-one.

If he was younger, did he get this son

At nineteen, twenty? Was he that withdrawn

 

High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms

With Cartwright who was killed? Well, it just shows

How much . . . How little . . . Yawning, I suppose

I fell asleep, waking at the fumes

And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed,

And ate an awful pie, and walked along

The platform to its end to see the ranged

Joining and parting lines reflect a strong

 

Unhindered moon. To have no son, no wife,

No house or land still seemed quite natural.

Only a numbness registered the shock

Of finding out how much had gone of life,

How widely from the others. Dockery, now:

Only nineteen, he must have taken stock

Of what he wanted, and been capable

Of . . . No, that's not the difference: rather, how

 

Convinced he was he should be added to!

Why did he think adding meant increase?

To me it was dilution. Where do these

Innate assumptions come from? Not from what

We think truest, or most want to do:

Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They're more a style

Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,

Suddenly they harden into all we've got

 

And how we got it; looked back on, they rear

Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying

For Dockery a son, for me nothing,

Nothing with all a son's harsh patronage.

Life is first boredom, then fear.

Whether or not we use it, it goes,

And leaves what something hidden from us chose,

And age, and then the only end of age.

As so often with Larkin the depth kicks in most strongly at the end.

 

So, let's focus on 'Ambulances' if people feel happier with that and if you want to throw in some thoughts on 'Dockery and Son' too then by all means do!

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I. too, am a fan of Larkin, but have neither of these works in any collection at home.

 

You've selected two poems where doors are shutting, in Ambulances, literally at first, and metaphorically in Dockery and Son.. There's no meaning to anything, we get old, we die,that's all there is.

 

In the first two verses of Ambulances I could see workaday streets in a workaday town and liked the line about women walking 'past smells of different dinners'. (Ah, yes, the days before supermarket ready meals!) And then the mood darkens. It's their 'own distress' that onlookers feel, it's as if they can sense that one day they'll be 'unreachable' like the person in the ambulance.

 

I had to re-read before I noticed that there was a structure to the poem and a rhyming scheme. Larkin's matter-of-fact style obscures this. This applies to the second poem too.

 

I preferred Dockery and Son. Even the title attracted me, perhaps because of its similarity (?) with Dombey and Son or just shopkeepers' frontages.

 

I found it quite vivid, the poet sitting on the train working out the arithmetic of Dockery's age when he became a father, in a stream of consciousness inner dialogue. And then from the banality of the station's awful pie, Larkin starts to delve deeper. It's almost shocking, I felt, how he so dismisses fatherhood and the reasons for it. It's a really bleak vision he has, about that and about life generally: I suppose life is not quite the right word as it's 'the end' that looms larger for Larkin.

 

Despite this, I still admire the poem. He's not asking us to like him. 'I catch my train, ignored' - can feel that.

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I found them quite depressing.

Yes, in many ways they are - some of the bleakest of poems from a poet who did tend to dwell on the darker aspects of life. Still, that for me is part of the joy of poetry: it encapsulates the entire spectrum of human experience, including the grim, much as our recent writing exercises have been about both hate and hope.

 

I love the development of the image in 'Ambulances': the idea of walking into a confessional box - facing up to the consequences of decisions in life - which becomes another 'box' in the ambulance, whisking the occupant not to life but death (in yet another box!), rather like a grim reaper that visits 'all streets'. The shock of seeing someone taken into an ambulance does indeed tend to give me pause for thought, so it seemed a very natural symbol to choose. The idea of a life of almost random connections with others receding in the distance, and of the sense that all those links gradually unravel, loosening us from the web, is a powerful one.

 

I find 'Dockery' slightly less bleak, actually, because although it also has the idea of journeying to inevitable death, it seems focused much more on the notion of who we are and how we came to be that way; almost a nature versus nurture approach. I think the most fascinating observation as part of this is the idea that what we become isn't actually what we truly desire deep down, which is an option that warps tight shut. Instead we grow up into styles and habits that gradually take hold and 'harden into all we've got', as if the nature of society corrupts something purer within us, the real being that is somehow lost.

 

I like your picking out the detail of the pie, chuntzy - it's this mixture of the terribly mundane with the profound and disturbing that is one of the things I love about Larkin. Like you (and surely like everyone!) I don't 'enjoy' the message, but I admire the view and the way it is portrayed, which, like the best literature, makes you sit up and listen.

 

Anyway, thanks for your contributions, Meg and chuntzy. Not much of a discussion, unfortunately! Ultimately that's why I gave up putting these things together - very few people contribute, but I'd hoped with so many people asking for some more we might get more takers.

 

I'm sure Larkin would have some bleak insights about that! :rolleyes:

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Anyway, thanks for your contributions, Meg and chuntzy. Not much of a discussion, unfortunately! Ultimately that's why I gave up putting these things together - very few people contribute, but I'd hoped with so many people asking for some more we might get more takers.
Give 'em chance! These poems take some thinking about, and BGO has been very quiet for the last couple of days.
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I've found it quite difficult to come to any real thoughts on these poems, I'm still being distracted by builders. However I found them both a little obscure in some ways and quite heavy.

Ambulances I did particuarly like the image of children "strewn" on the road. That struck me as particuarly apt.

The thought of mortality brought home by the departing ambulance is interesting and the twist of "poor soul" being an expression of the watchers intimations of death is telling (If I'm reading it correctly).

I can't say that I particuarly like"Ambulances" David but I don't know much Larkin. Maybe I need to read a bit more to tune in.

 

Dockery and Son Still thinking about this. I'm not quite sure what the point is. Is it the difference between the writer's views and Dockery's on children Why the contradiction surely adding does mean increase the questioning of that is intriguing. Why does Larkin see it as "dilution" I can't see that in the poem.

I'm really struggling with this David. However I thought I had better post something (however useless) to keep you encouraged. I think its hard to write critically about something when it (criticism/thinking about meanings) is not part of our daily life in a concious way. It's also intimidating. I for one am glad that you persist David, thank you.

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Why the contradiction surely adding does mean increase the questioning of that is intriguing. Why does Larkin see it as "dilution"
I can see why a man of mature years who has never had wife or child could feel that sharing his life with others in that intimate sort of way would 'dilute' it.
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I for one am glad that you persist David, thank you.

Well, my apologies for my slightly grumpy post - I wasn't in the best of moods! Thanks everyone for picking it up again.

 

'Dockery and Son' is the more difficult of the two, I think - you're right, Elfstar. Particularly those last two stanzas where it becomes very philosophical. That's what I like about it, though - the idea of an ordinary event in life (here, re-visiting university) suddenly forcing you to reassess your personal journey over the years and to question the reasons why you've ended up the way you are. I think the rather un-poetic musing

 

Only nineteen, he must have taken stock

Of what he wanted, and been capable

Of . . . No, that's not the difference: rather, how

 

Convinced he was he should be added to!

sums up the human authenticity of this process, struggling to reach the truth, with a change of direction that is awkwardly broken still further by the fracture of thought into the following stanza.

 

I think the concept of radically differing views of what's important in life is also very interesting.

 

Why did he think adding meant increase?

To me it was dilution. Where do these

Innate assumptions come from?

 

The impulse to have children seems very basic, yet here it's seen in diametrically opposed terms. The contrast of children being either 'increase' or 'dilution' of a person's life is fascinating, I think.

 

Anyway, I'll chip in some more thoughts along the way and burn my grumpy hat immediately.

 

;)

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I take your point Meg,but surely he's talking about his feelings then, not now as he continues to say that these things "harden into all we've got"
True, I had momentarily forgotten the tense :o But I think that the self-absorbed character that hardens into the 'confirmed batchelor' of mature years is present in the youth, too.

 

I wonder why he thinks that Dockery made a choice.

A son, at nineteen - in the middle of the war Perhaps Dockery's life had been just as random?

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I wonder why he thinks that Dockery made a choice.

That's an interesting part of the equation, isn't it? Obviously we don't necessarily choose everything that happens in our lives, yet it almost seems more hopeless if that's true, as if we have no real control. I think that's part of how his thinking evolves onwards from that point. The idea of Dockery making a choice moves to the consideration that we don't actually choose what we'd really want - these are the options that warp shut, like doors. Instead the business of life around us seems to create choices, the things that obviously have begun as rather insubstantial aspects but have gradually hardened into all we've got.

 

The child business is interesting. Of course, people do look at it as increase, in a way - you have spread youself beyond yourself. But from another perspective it could be dilution, because your interest, attention and efforts transfer to these new people: you're no longer the focus of your own life. That's arguably a good thing, of course, but as a stark truth you could say it lessens the true you!

 

If you then combine that with the idea from Ambulances that we are only woven into a web that has grown up around us through a series of connections with others over the years and that as we die these connections simply loosen and we drop out of the web, then again there seems to be something rather insubstantial and meaningless to our existence beyond ourselves.

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I`ve not read any Phillp Larkin poetry before and whilst they are not poems that lift the heart, I found them interesting ( I`m not sure enjoyable is the right word).

I like the line in Dockery and Son

I try the door of where I used to live: Locked.

This is the poem I prefer, I think.

I am enjoying the discussion very much, as someone who is quite new to reading poetry it is good to read other peoples thoughts and comments.

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I like the line in Dockery and Son

I try the door of where I used to live: Locked.

Absolutely! It's such a simple line that takes an ordinary detail and makes it rich with meaning, as he tries to unlock what it was from their past that forged their futures in the shapes they eventually settled into. Doors become an image in 'Ambulances' too, shutting on the soul being driven away from their lives - more separation and mysteries of life to be pondered!

 

Glad you're enjoying the discussion, Mac.

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  • 8 months later...
I found them quite depressing. Both seem to be about the pointless randomness of life, and an inevitable, hopeless conclusion. :(:(

 

 

I think most Larkins poems are like it, Im studing him for english at the moment and i must say its the first time ive actually enjoyed poetry though im suprised that were comparing "Ambulances" with "Dockery and Son" i would of said "Mr Bleaney" goes better with "Dockery and son" and "Ambulances" goes better with "Here" oh well just wanted to say Larkin rules! My Fav Larkin though is probibly "Study of reading Habits" or "This be the verse"

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im suprised that were comparing "Ambulances" with "Dockery and Son" i would of said "Mr Bleaney" goes better with "Dockery and son" and "Ambulances" goes better with "Here"

Well it isn't actually an A-Level comparative essay, Huntress! ;)

 

The idea wasn't to find lots of links or contrasts between them but to have a couple of examples of Larkin's work for people to discuss in terms of what they liked or disliked. 'Mr Bleaney' is frequently anthologised so I avoided that.

 

(Tip from a former English teacher: short poems should have single inverted commas, not double)

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Yes Huntress, I just love 'Here' too! It's amazing the way he manages to create silence out of words, with that sudden drop into peace in the last stanza!

 

And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges

Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,

Isolate villages, where removed lives

 

Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands

Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,

Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,

Luminously-peopled air ascends;

And past the poppies bluish neutral distance

Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach

Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:

Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

 

But if you want a really depressing Larkin poem, what about 'Aubade'! :(

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Great to find another Larkin fan, whatnot, and someone else who loves 'Here'. Funnily enough I did actually consider posting that as one of the two poems here but I chickened out because it is, of course, far more involved in the general scheme of Larkin's thinking than appears at first sight.

 

Which is why I was interested in you choosing the term 'peace' rather than simply 'quiet'. Peace seems to me at odds with the feeling being pushed towards in that poem, as indeed in the whole of The Whitsun Weddings. How do you feel that peace operates here?

 

Also, I'd be interested in your take on the much-discussed 'luminously-peopled air ascends' - obviously on the face of it far from the emptiness of the surrounding description.

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Two of my favourites are the one about 'the toad, work' followed by 'Toads Revisited.' I like short lyric poems that work in pairs, suggesting that there's always another side to the story, such as Wordsworth's 'Expostulation and Reply' and 'The Tables Turned.'

 

Toads Revisited:

Walking around in the park

Should feel better than work:

The lake, the sunshine,

The grass to lie on,

 

Blurred playground noises

Beyond black-stockinged nurses -

Not a bad place to be.

Yet it doesn't suit me,

 

Being one of the men

You meet of an afternoon:

Palsied old step-takers,

Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,

 

Waxed-fleshed out-patients

Still vague from accidents

And characters in long coats

Deep in the litter baskets -

 

All dodging the toad work

By being stupid or weak.

Think of being them!

Hearing the hours chime,

 

Watching the bread delivered

The sun by clouds covered,

The children going home;

Think of being them,

 

Turning over their failures

By some bed of lobelias,

Nowhere to go but indoors,

No friends but empty chairs -

 

No, give me my in-tray,

My loaf-haired secretary,

My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:

What else can I answer,

 

When the lights come on at four

At the end of another year?

Give me your arm, old toad;

Help me down Cemetery Road.

 

And, finally, a 'proper' rhyme!

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To be honest David I just said 'peace' as a quick response, so 'quiet' would probably be more apt. But if I think about it and try to justify it, I could say that Larkin surely feels that hell is other people and therefore that anywhere that is quiet is also for him, a place of peace. Maybe!

 

I'll have to think about the luminously peopled air ascends... I haven't studied hiis poems so I didn't know it was much-discussed!

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Yes Huntress, I just love 'Here' too! It's amazing the way he manages to create silence out of words, with that sudden drop into peace in the last stanza!

 

And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges

Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,

Isolate villages, where removed lives

 

Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands

Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,

Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,

Luminously-peopled air ascends;

And past the poppies bluish neutral distance

Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach

Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:

Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

 

But if you want a really depressing Larkin poem, what about 'Aubade'! :(

 

 

Let face it most of Larkin Poems have depressing ends yet they also almost have a questioning about them that is never truly complete which i think is what makes Larkin so good because it not just the depression shown.

 

(David thanks for the tip i will try to remember it but this is where my dyslexia and dysbraxia come in and i always manage to muck up. It annoying i love words they just dont love me back)

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Let face it most of Larkin Poems have depressing ends yet they also almost have a questioning about them that is never truly complete which i think is what makes Larkin so good because it not just the depression shown.

I think you're absolutely right there. The greatest and most enduring poetry doesn't really provide answers or anything definitive; rather it explores the human condition and leaves the reader thinking. That's why the end of 'Here' is so haunting -the calm after the rush of human existence and the sense of answers that are 'out there', a clarifying resolution to the slightly tawdry experience of life, yet it is out of reach. It is the glorious frustration of coming so near and yet realising it is still so far!

 

I think the ambiguity undercutting the pessimism that everyone always latches onto in Larkin is best conveyed in the closing words to the entire collection of The Whitsun Weddings, from 'An Arundel Tomb':

 

"Time has transfigured them into

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be

Their final blazon, and to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love."

 

Sounds positive, yet it's based on an 'untruth' proving an 'almost instinct almost true'! As tantalising as reaching the limits at the end of the line in 'Here'!

 

(David thanks for the tip i will try to remember it but this is where my dyslexia and dysbraxia come in and i always manage to muck up. It annoying i love words they just dont love me back)

:)

 

Well I fully sympathise with that, Huntress, and it's great that you don't let that difficulty get in the way of your passion for books!

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"An Arundel Tomb" is awsome though the thing that always amuses me with it is the ending for a different reason. Thats the fact he said "What will survive of us is love" Most people argue Larkin was a misoganist because he never married yet he wrote "arundel Tomb" Because he saw his relationship with Monic in the staues of the Earl and countess. So it was kind of a nice ending and shows Larkin does actually Love. Well thats my perception of it anyway. :)

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Most people argue Larkin was a misoganist because he never married yet he wrote "arundel Tomb" Because he saw his relationship with Monic in the staues of the Earl and countess. So it was kind of a nice ending and shows Larkin does actually Love. Well thats my perception of it anyway. :)

It's a teasinglyly ambiguous ending, isn't it? So many telling little undercuttings yet the feel of a positive statement - I think it asks to be taken in many different ways and it's heartening to see your optimistic reading!

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