A summary of a short Larkin poem
Philip Larkin wrote ‘As Bad as a Mile’ in February 1960, during one of his most productive periods of poetry-writing. It was published four years later in his volume The Whitsun Weddings. You can read ‘As Bad as a Mile’ here; what follows is our analysis of this six-line poem.
The title of Larkin’s poem plays on the expression ‘A miss is as good as a mile’, which means that failure is failure, regardless of how close to success you actually came. Larkin inverts this expression, in typically lugubrious fashion, to suggest that there is something total and irrevocable about failure. Larkin’s inversion also points up something odd about the expression: why is missing by a small margin seen as being as good as missing by a mile? Surely a narrow miss is as bad as missing by a wide margin?
In summary, ‘As Bad as a Mile’ does what so many of Larkin’s poems does: starting from a small, everyday scene – throwing an apple-core at the bin and missing – he broadens out the significance of this simple act, seeing it as a symbol of failure in life more generally. This is helped by the readily Christian connotations of the apple, conventionally said to be the forbidden fruit which Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. Their transgression was man’s first failure, according to the Christian story: Larkin’s near-miss with another apple is simply the latest example of such a blunder.
But the suggestion of the story of Adam and Eve encoded in the poem’s final line – stretching back to the prelapsarian period in man’s history (that is, ‘before the Fall’) – suggests that failure is somewhat inevitable. We all have Original Sin, even if we’re atheists like Larkin: mankind is weak and flawed and destined to fail, no matter how hard he tries to succeed. The playful nature of the throw in the first stanza – the apple core is ‘shied’, suggesting the fairground game of the coconut shy – belies the seriousness of the poem’s message, but also underscores the far-reaching inevitability of failure. Man’s failure precedes the act of aiming an apple-core at the bin and missing.
Indeed, failures multiply – and this is something that Larkin’s poem hints at through its use of repetition: ‘less and less’, ‘more and more’, ‘Earlier and earlier’, as well as the triple repetition of the same rhyme in each stanza: these tercets are also triplets, rhymed aaa and bbb. We are denied the satisfying completion of either the couplet or the quatrain.
‘As Bad as a Mile’ is one of Philip Larkin’s shortest poems, but several questions remain difficult to answer, and this analysis can go no further than suggesting possible responses. What is the effect of Larkin inverting ‘as good as a mile’ into ‘as bad as a mile’? What is he saying about the nature of failure?
Image: Apple Stark by Roberta F. (2007), via Wikimedia Commons.