A summary of a great Larkin poem
‘Afternoons’, like a number of Philip Larkin’s other poems, treats the theme of the passing of youth and the setting-in of middle age. But rather than focusing on his own middle age (Larkin was in his mid-thirties when he wrote the poem, in 1959), Larkin examines the lives of others, analysing the existence of a group of young mothers he observes at the local recreation ground. You can read ‘Afternoons’ here.
Larkin describes observing the young mothers ‘setting free’ their children on swings and in the sandpit at the new playground. The setting, fittingly, is late summer or early autumn: Larkin appears to have written this poem in September 1959, but this setting of late summer fits with the theme of fading youth treated later in the poem, as does the afternoon setting.
In the second stanza, Larkin broadens out this vision of the mothers supervising their children at play: he imagines the women’s husbands ‘in skilled trades’, as well as the other details of their ordinary lives, such as their wedding photo-album near the television at home, and the daily chores these stay-at-home mums have to carry out, such as all the washing generated by the family.
As we move towards the third and final stanza, Larkin returns to the present scene, noting that the children wish to be taken home. He concludes that the women’s ‘beauty has thickened’ and that something ‘is pushing them to the side’ of their lives. What does he mean?
The poem is typical of much of Larkin’s mature poetry in many ways: the way he takes a specific detail from modern living, something he probably observed – as most of us do – in the course of his daily life, and then wrote up into a poem, broadening out its significance and examining its implications.
In other ways it is curiously atypical: although the poem has a reasonably steady rhythm, it is unrhymed where most of Larkin’s poems utilise some sort of rhyme scheme.
The unrhymed form reflects the poem’s focus on an unsatisfactory life, or rather generation of lives, with no hope of being able to pin down precisely what has led to the women’s lives being so unsatisfactory.
Of course, one must remember that this is the 1950s, age of austerity and, until 1954 in Britain, rationing. But that must only tell part of the story: in 1959 it had been two years since Harold McMillan memorably told Britons ‘you’ve never had it so good’, as a new era of prosperity was ushered in following the long period of cuts and tightened belts in the wake of the Second World War.
No: Larkin’s poem is a more timeless and universal meditation on the unsatisfactoriness of all of our lives, especially once we realise our youth has flown and a new generation is taking up the baton. (Compare Larkin’s later poem ‘Sad Steps’.)
All this really comes home in the bridge between the second and third stanzas, which – in a characteristically Larkinesque touch – run on, so that ‘courting-places’ ends up being ‘rhymed’ (ironic, of course: this is no rhyme but mere repetition) with ‘courting-places’, the one concession to a rhyme in this unrhymed poem, and then not really a rhyme at all, but a reminder of the fact that life goes on, and, whilst these courting-places may be a thing of the past for these women, they are still courting-places for others who are experiencing their first flush of youth, lust, and love.
But Larkin refuses to be too specific about what has happened to these women’s sense of their own lives, and what has caused their happiness to recede. Note the careful language employed: the mothers’ beauty hasn’t faded, but ‘thickened’, which is not the same as saying they have simply fleshed out from motherhood or become plump. ‘Something’ (what?) is pushing them to the side of their own lives.
They have lost autonomy over their lives, despite – or, perhaps more accurately, because of – the orderliness depicted in the middle stanza. Only the new generation, their children searching for acorns and being set free on the swings and in the sandpit, can now feel that same intensity of feeling that the mothers once felt.
In the last analysis, ‘Afternoons’ offers at once a vividly specific and hauntingly elusive depiction of the passing of youth, one that is all the more powerful because Larkin is writing about people at one remove from him: strangers he has observed in passing, people he does not know.
‘Afternoons’ is available in Philip Larkin: Collected Poems. We thoroughly recommending getting hold of this volume, as a way of discovering more of Larkin’s powerful, moving, amusing, and thought-provoking poetry.
We’ve offered some tips about the close reading of poetry here, and analyse another classic Larkin poem, ‘Toads’, here; you might also enjoy Larkin’s ‘Talking in Bed’. For more classic short poetry, see our discussion of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams.