A summary of a great Larkin poem
Written in August 1960, ‘Talking in Bed’ is one of Philip Larkin’s best-loved poems. It was published in his 1964 volume The Whitsun Weddings. Like many of his poems, ‘Talking in Bed’ takes a recognisable and relatable setting – two lovers lying in bed together – and then draws out from this small, specific scene in order to meditate on bigger, more existential questions. You can read ‘Talking in Bed’ here; what follows are some words by way of analysis.
In summary, ‘Talking in Bed’ does what so many of Larkin’s poems do: he takes a very simple, specific scene and then explores its wider meaning and how it tells us something about our lives, but the conclusion is less straightforward than the setting which prompted it. The poem is about how something that should be the epitome of intimacy and honesty – two people lying in bed together – actually only succeeds in making us poignantly aware of our loneliness and insignificance in the universe. And, if anything, it becomes harder to be truthful and kind to the person you are closest to (physically as well as emotionally), though – as is so often the case with Larkin’s poetry – he cannot provide any answer as to why this might be the case. Nobody can. ‘Nothing shows why…’ Note the pun on the word ‘lying’ in that second line: lying in bed, but also lying, or at least finding it difficult to be true, in bed.
In terms of its rhyme scheme, Larkin’s poem is a tour de force. Arranged into a series of three-line stanzas or tercets, ‘Talking in Bed’ begins with an aba rhyme, followed by cac, and then dcd, concluding eee. In other words, the rhyme on the first and third lines in one stanza becomes the rhyme in the middle line of the next stanza, until this pattern breaks down and we get the simple triplet of find/kind/unkind. This final triplet, like the poem’s speaker, is isolated: aptly, this final stanza had been ushered in on the very word ‘isolation’, left hanging at the end of the previous line. It is not simply a tercet but a triplet, in that all three of its lines end on the same rhyme.
The fact that a poem about ‘two people being honest’ is written in patterns of three, namely the three-line stanzas, is also suggestive and surely significant. Is this meant to suggest simply incompletion – something less-than-perfect, or ‘odd’, about the relationship between two people trying to be honest with each other – or does it also hint at a third person in the relationship, who prevents the two lovers from being honest with each other? (Not that we want to reduce this poem to a biographical reading in light of Larkin’s own life, but throughout much of his life he shared his life – and his bed – with more than one woman.)
‘Talking in Bed’ contains what we propose to call the ‘Larkin zoom’: it begins with something local and everyday (and often unremarkable, and perhaps even unpromising as material for poetry), and then zooms out to take in the wider themes and resonances which are suggested to the poet by that local starting-point. From two people in bed we move to the sky, whole towns, perhaps even the whole senseless and uncaring universe.
If you’d like to read more of Larkin’s work, we recommend The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin. Discover more about his poetry with our commentary on ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, our thoughts on Larkin’s short masterpiece ‘Days’, our discussion of Larkin’s poignant poem about home, and our summary of Larkin’s great poem about the environment.
Image: Larkin with Gin & Tonic, 1961; photographer unknown. First published in Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite. Via Simon K on Flickr (share-alike licence).