By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Toads’, Philip Larkin’s celebrated analysis of the realities of everyday workaday drudgery versus a life of freedom and unemployment, appeared in his 1955 collection The Less Deceived. In 1962, he was inspired to return to the same subject – and the same metaphor – for a follow-up poem, ‘Toads Revisited’, which we’re going to subject to a bit of Interesting Literature-style close reading in this post.
Larkin once observed that ‘Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth’, and the title of Larkin’s poem subtly echoes, but also parodies, such Wordsworthian titles as ‘Yarrow Revisited’.
‘Toads Revisited’ carries a somewhat less glamorous edge: indeed, the toad was seized upon by the poet Marianne Moore as a metaphor for the ugliness that good poetry needs to contain. ‘Imaginary gardens with real toads in them’ was her assessment of poetry: the garden can be as beautiful as you like, but it must have the taint of grim reality about it. ‘Toads’ are unpoetic enough; to revisit them seems like wilful subversion.
‘Toads Revisited’ starts in the traditional Larkin way: by observing an ordinary yet specific scene from contemporary life and then pondering what it means. Here, the starting-point is a walk in the park, which Larkin says should be a happier experience than having to go to work.
Much as the freedom of the neighbourhood cats roaming the gardens and alleyways, and of the retired pensioners strolling into town, seems like something to be envied when one has to commute to work of a morning (or, before that, go to school), the park is a sort of paradise-on-earth to the duty-bound and employed Larkin: the sunshine, the grass, the lake, the sound of children playing in nearby playgrounds (a reminder that they, like all of the people at work, are denied this freedom to roam the local park).
But Larkin quickly says that, appealing as it may seem, this sort of thing isn’t to his taste: he wouldn’t want to be one of the crowd of unemployed (and unemployable?) men you typically meet in the park, whether they’re infirm and doddery or mentally unsound. There are officer workers (clerks) who are inexplicably out of the office, displaying signs of ‘the jitters’; there are people newly discharged from hospital and still not too hot on their feet, and homeless people (‘characters in long coats’) rummaging in the rubbish bins for scraps of food.
As is so often the case in a Larkin poem – contrast the unfeeling and crass way the speaker of ‘The Old Fools’ opens that poem, by affecting a disdain for old people’s weaknesses and infirmities – the speaker’s voice is a little bluff and dismissive. All of the people he has just described are avoiding work simply by virtue of being ‘stupid or weak’. This may contain some truth in some cases, but it’s as if the speaker is still trying to convince himself that he’s better off at work than living among this paradise that is not all it seems.
‘Think of being them!’ is a half-hearted attempt to sound sympathetic which betrays the speaker’s contempt for such weakness. These people have nowhere to go and nobody to talk to. They’re lonely and have nothing to motivate them.
No: Larkin will keep his desk job, with his secretary and his responsibilities – because these responsibilities, drain on his time though they may be, give his life a purpose and importance. (Even poetry cannot sustain him all the time, especially when you’re as unprolific a poet as Larkin.) Larkin ends ‘Toads Revisited’ by appealing to the ‘toad’ of work, asking it to give him its arm and escort him ‘down Cemetery Road’ – i.e. towards the grave.
So far we’ve largely been offering a summary of ‘Toads Revisited’, but it’s worth stopping to analyse Larkin’s use of language too. It contains the same half-rhymes that were deployed in ‘Toads’, suggesting that there is something off about the Edenic work-free world being described in the poem.
This interpretation is supported by the fact that, in the very last couplet, off-rhyme gives way to full rhyme: toad/Road. However, there had been one full rhyme earlier in the poem, on be/me, in the second stanza – aptly, when Larkin is declaring his preference for work over a life of leisure (or what appears to be leisure if it’s not analysed too closely).
There is no ‘turn’ or change of heart/mind in this poem, as there so frequently is in a Philip Larkin poem when he brings himself up short and re-examines his stance on something. His view is consistent in ‘Toads Revisited’.
The poem forms a neat ‘sequel’ and complement to the original ‘Toads’ poem, seeing a slightly older Larkin declaring his settled happiness with the life of daily toil and work. That park or garden remains imaginary (or its promise of freedom does, anyway); the poet’s place is with the real toads that are found elsewhere.