A critical reading of an iconic Larkin poem
‘Toads’ is one of Philip Larkin’s most famous poems. When asked later in an interview how he came up with the idea for the toad as a metaphor for work, Larkin replied, ‘Sheer genius.’ He probably had his tongue in his cheek when he said this, but it is an inspired and instantly memorable analogy. Larkin wrote ‘Toads’ in 1954, and it was published a year later in his second collection, The Less Deceived. You can read ‘Toads’ here; what we’d like to do in this post is analyse Larkin’s poem and attempt to isolate what makes it so interesting.
In summary, ‘Toads’ is a cry of frustration that sees Larkin grumbling about having to devote his entire day to work, just so he could have an evening (as he put it in the 1982 South Bank Show special about him). He has to give up ‘six days’ of his week to the toad work, which seems ‘out of proportion’ for what he gets in return. Yet he ends up concluding that work is probably something he is well-suited to, and he wouldn’t want to be one of those people who live without it. For he, too, is ‘toad-like’.
Why the toad? What did the poor toad do to deserve such an unflattering portrayal? Toads are considered ugly, damp, slimy, but also servile (the word ‘toady’, formed off the back of the animal, denotes someone who is sycophantic and eager to please). Work strikes Larkin as being like that: work is unromantic, base, distasteful, unattractive. But toads are hardly the most fearsome of creatures, and, as foes from the animal kingdom go, would be pretty easy to vanquish. Would you rather be attacked by a toad or a tiger? No contest. This lends the image of Larkin driving the ‘brute’ toad off with his pitchfork an air of comicality, like a gardener disposing of an unwanted garden pest. Surely the toad can be easily got rid of.
But it’s not that simple, of course. Larkin’s deft use of off-rhymes – work/pitchfork, life/off, and so on – suggests his displeasure with having to work for a living, but these half-rhymes also come to reflect his flawed stance against work. There is something unconvincing about raging against the machine and wanting to enjoy a life free from work, for such a life would be oddly hollow. Larkin himself held this view: he was fond of saying that a poet only needs two hours a day in which to write, so what is he going to do for the rest of the day? And then, another problem: even if he didn’t work for a living in a day job, in order to get the money, the fame, and the girl – which he identifies as his main goal – he would have to work anyway, so he would never truly escape the toad work. There is another toad within him, compelling him to work – for otherwise he would never achieve anything. As romantically appealing as those lispers and losels may appear to him, he knows he could never live like them. He’s not brave enough. Toads, as remarked earlier, are associated with servility, and are not the bravest animals in the world. He is ‘toad-like’ because he could never turn his back on civilisation and all the benefits it brings – financial security in the form of his pension, for one thing, to say nothing of fame, riches, and sex – in order to live among the loblolly-men. Dream on.
Larkin’s reference to ‘loblolly-men’ has puzzled readers, until we realise that ‘loblolly’ was old slang for a bumpkin, the implication being that a ‘loblolly-man’ is a country bumpkin or peasant. A ‘losel’, similarly, is a rake or scoundrel, a general ne’er-do-well.
This concept of the two toads, the one representing the institution of work itself and the one that lurks deep within Larkin, helps to explain the meaning of that final stanza: it’s hard not to be a bit of a toad when you slave away at work all day, just as it would be difficult to chuck in the job when you harbour a toad-like approach to living as part of your nature.
‘Toads’ sees Philip Larkin examining and analysing his own attitudes to work, and many workers have found themselves agreeing with his assessment. It would be lovely to give it all up, wouldn’t it? But, as Larkin argued in ‘Poetry of Departures’, a poem he completed a couple of months before ‘Toads’, there is something false about the dream of giving everything up and the perceived freedom such an act would bring. ‘Toads’ brilliantly encapsulates the emptiness of such a dream.
Larkin would return to the theme of work in his sequel, ‘Toads Revisited’, but he would also pen a short piece of doggerel about having to work (included in a letter to his long-term girlfriend Monica Jones). We include ‘Toads’ in our selection of great poems about work.
Image: Art installation of Philip Larkin as a toad for Larkin 25 (author: Paul Harrop, 2010), Wikimedia Commons.