A summary of a short Larkin poem
Completed in August 1953, ‘Days’ is one of Philip Larkin’s shortest poems. Like many of his poems, its meaning seems obvious, its words asking to be taken at face value; but, as with Larkin’s great poetic mentor, Thomas Hardy, upon further analysis the poem is revealed as elusive and ambiguous. What is ‘Days’ about? You can read the poem here.
Like a handful of Larkin’s other well-known poems, such as ‘Going’, ‘Water’, ‘Afternoons’, and ‘Solar’, ‘Days’ is written in free verse, with no rhyme scheme or regular metre. Its ten-line simplicity is reminiscent of the Imagist poetry of T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, Joseph Campbell, and other early free-verse pioneers in English poetry from nearly half a century earlier. Whereas most of Larkin’s poems utilise regular metre and some sort of rhyme scheme, ‘Days’ does not.
In summary, ‘Days’ reflects, in a rather matter-of-fact way, on the deepest of questions: ‘what’s it all about?’ and ‘what is the meaning of life?’ But the recalibrating of this question in terms of ‘days’, rather than life or existence in general, points up an important and recurring theme for Larkin’s poetry: the daily ritual of work, the day-to-day business of living. (Compare ‘Toads’ and ‘Toads Revisited’, for instance.) Days are, we are told, ‘where we live’ and they are for being happy in: the upbeat, almost childlike catechism of this first stanza seems coyly innocent of the day-to-day realities of drudgery and work.
But then, in the second stanza, the ‘turn’ of the poem comes with that word ‘Ah’, and the response that the only way to escape living one’s life in terms of ‘days’ brings the priest and doctor running ‘over the fields’ in ‘their long coats’. For ‘doctor’, here, we are probably meant to think of psychiatrists rather than podiatrists. Or perhaps, more grimly still, we should consider the fact that the priest and the doctor are running in tandem (somewhat comically, given their flapping long coats): the only people who can truly escape the day-to-day struggle of life are the dead. And who are the dead tended by, typically? The priest (administering last rites) and the doctor (attempting to do something either to avert the patient’s death, or, at the very least, alleviate their suffering at the end).
In other words, there is nowhere we can live but in ‘days’ – that is, in the daily cycle of work and being a functioning member of society – unless we’re mad or dead. The second stanza of Larkin’s poem characteristically combines the faintly comic (the priest and doctor in their long coats) with more morbid subject matter. Although analysing this short meditation on life any further may be unnecessary, the questions posed in ‘Days’ are far from small and the poem leaves us with much more to meditate on. It is something that Philip Larkin himself would return to: see ‘Toads’.