By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Myxomatosis’ was written by Philip Larkin in 1954. Myxomatosis, a disease which affects rabbits and is lethal to them, was introduced into Britain in the 1950s in an effort to control the rapidly growing rabbit population. Larkin’s poem is a response to this measure. You can read the poem here; what follows is our analysis of Larkin’s poem.
According to James Booth in his biography, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, ‘Myxomatosis’ was prompted by what Larkin described as a ‘foul article’ written by Ronald Duncan and published in Punch magazine that year. In the article, Duncan cheered the arrival of the destructive rabbit disease myxomatosis in his village; Larkin, who often wrote touchingly about the plight of small animals (compare his late poem ‘The Mower’), responded with this short poem, whose title plainly states its subject-matter.
Summary and Analysis
Whilst the speaker of ‘Myxomatosis’ is the man who finds the rabbit, the poem starts off by focalising the world from the rabbit’s perspective: struck down by the deadly myxomatosis in the ‘soundless field’, the rabbit has no idea of what is going on; it cannot move and has no choice but to wait there, in a state of severe lethargy, as time, ‘hot inexplicable hours’, pass by.
One of the fine touches of Larkin’s poem is his ability to suggest what might be going through the animal’s mind: he fancies that the rabbit wonders whether it has been caught in some sort of trap, and if so, where were its teeth?
Then, the voice and thoughts of Larkin’s speaker take over: putting the dying animal out of its misery (‘a sharp reply’, an act of violence which goes happily undescribed), the speaker cleans his stick of the creature’s blood and meditates that he has saved the animal from a worse fate, that of slowly dying from myxomatosis.
It is worth noting that, as well as bestowing the power of human reasoning upon the rabbit (albeit of a rather limited kind), Larkin gives the disease itself animal characteristics, namely ‘teeth’ and ‘jaws’ (though the first of these is meant to suggest the manmade metal traps used to ensnare rabbits), as if it’s some rabid beast stalking the countryside in search of its prey.
The poem ends with another attempt to get inside the animal’s head, to wonder what its last thoughts may have been. There is a delicate convergence between the words used of the rabbit and the words the speaker uses about himself: for the rabbit, the hours of the onset of the disease were ‘inexplicable’; Larkin’s speaker says he is glad he ‘can’t explain’ to the rabbit the nature of its fate from which it has been delivered.
The word ‘teeth’, used in the line imagining the rabbit’s confused thoughts, is echoed by the ‘jaws’ the speaker refers to. Poignantly, Larkin’s speaker speculates that the rabbit may have entertained hope of escape from whatever had incapacitated it, if ‘you could only lie quite still and wait’.
The fact that virtually every word in this final line is a monosyllable, with only ‘only’ stretching to two, and the language is plain and simple, contrasts with the rhyming word ‘suppurate’ which ‘wait’ complements. The rabbit’s imagined childlike thoughts are innocently hopeful, misguided, and doomed.