A summary of a classic Larkin poem
‘First Sight’ is a short poem written by Philip Larkin in 1956, and published in his 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings. Unusually for Larkin, it is a rather upbeat poem, a beautiful lyric about the natural world. You can read ‘First Sight’ here; read on for our analysis of this wonderfully affirmative poem.
In summary, ‘First Sight’ describes lambs taking their first steps in the snow, meditating upon the fact that the animals can have no grasp of the world without snow, of the grass and flowers beneath the white wintry canopy that is awaiting them when spring comes. The poem might also, by extension, be said to be about innocence more generally, given that it fuses a number of common tropes associated with innocence: lambs, snow, the new-born.
Larkin completed the poem in early March 1956, when winter was beginning to give way to spring: the poem’s wintry setting is temporary, and the world will soon be abuzz and alive with the sights and sounds of new life. Like Larkin’s earlier poem ‘Coming’, with its joyous reassurance that ‘it will be spring soon’, ‘First Sight’ celebrates the fact that, while we are aware of the spring displacing the winter every year and that the snow is only ever temporary, the new-born lambs can have no concept of this. Like the thrill of buying somebody a surprise Christmas present and relishing the anticipation of the look on their face when they open it, Larkin, in ‘First Sight’, seems to wait, with the lambs and the earth itself, for that ‘immeasurable surprise’ which lies in store for the lambs.
All this may seem uncharacteristically optimistic for a natural pessimist (following Thomas Hardy’s poetic lead) like Larkin. Its animal theme, and the natural sympathy for other creatures which the poem exhibits, may also seem to be at odds with the bluff poet who wrote ‘This Be The Verse’ or ‘Self’s the Man’. But Philip Larkin wrote a number of animal poems (see also ‘Myxomatosis’, ‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’, ‘The Mower’) and was a member of the RSPCA for much of his life. He was sensitive to the plight of animal suffering, and also – as here – fond of imagining what the world is like to creatures of a completely different species.
One last word of analysis: the poem’s return to ‘snow’ as the last word in the last line, when this word had also ended the first line of the poem, suggests the cycle of the seasons, as if to remind us that the lambs, and we, can only ever have one ‘first sight’ of either the snow (or the world without snow). After that, Larkin seems to be saying, there is no other. Things are new only once. But that’s all the more reason to cherish them when they are, when the world still holds ‘immeasurable surprise’.
Image: Ewe with two lambs in the snow (photo: Andrew Hill, 2006), Wikimedia Commons.
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Larkin being the “New Poet” takes common, everyday life as the subject matter for his poems. I have read and enjoyed two of his poem – “The Whitson Weddings” and “Church Going”.
This one’s great too :)
It’s a lovely poem, isn’t it? I’d also recommend his ‘Talking in Bed’: https://interestingliterature.com/2016/10/11/a-short-analysis-of-philip-larkins-talking-in-bed/
As much as I appreciate Larkin’s everyday life topics, how about some eco-poetry? Such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Peter Reading or Mary Oliver!
That’s a good idea – any suggestions on where to start with Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work?
Actually I only have one of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s in the anthology Earth Shattering. How about The Shore by WS Merwin? Robinson Jeffers? There are lots to choose from in Earth Shattering.
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Philip Larkin, “First Sight”
Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.
As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.