A reading of Larkin’s poem
How we should analyse Philip Larkin’s poetry depends on what phase of his career we’re dealing with. In ‘Send No Money’, Larkin examines the gulf between our expectations of the world and the somewhat less satisfying realities the world provides us with. It is also significant that ‘Send No Money’ was completed, according to Larkin’s notebook, in August 1962, two months after his poem ‘Essential Beauty’ and two months before he wrote ‘Sunny Prestatyn’. All three of these poems deal with this theme: the difference between what Larkin elsewhere calls ‘your wants, the world’s for you, and … what you’ll get’. You can read ‘Send No Money’ here.
‘Send No Money’, in summary, dramatises a meeting between the poem’s speaker (who may or may not correspond to the young Larkin) and Time, personified as a man with a booming voice and a large ‘fobbed’ belly, like an old (fob) watch. The young speaker asks Time to tell him the truth about life and ‘the way things go’. His peers, the other young lads, just want to get started, to plunge in and start living their lives, but the speaker is more thoughtful – he is already aware that life, and finding out about life, are not the same.
Time responds that the speaker is wise beyond his young years (hence ‘no green’ in his eye), so tells him to sit and watch as life occurs all around him, observing it as though watching a blacksmith or other skilled craftsman bashing metal into shape, ‘clobbering’ it as though to fashion a suit of armour. Everybody else is too busy taking part in life to observe the ‘shape’ that is formed by all of these occurrences, but the speaker, sitting with Time, can see them.
In the third and final stanza, the speaker says that he’s halfway through life now, and on dark mornings he sees his own face in the mirror, and it resembles a ‘bestial visor’ – that is, an animate face but one that resembles a metal visor which has been bent out of shape and caved in by the ‘blows’ of all life’s occurrences. This proves nothing to the speaker, and, contrary to his expectations as a young lad, he hasn’t learned anything about life. This is how he spent (wasted?) his youth, he tells us: by following ‘truth’, and learning that what is gradually formed is a symbol of middle age and then old age: a ‘truss-advertisement’, a reminder that, as Larkin wrote of life elsewhere, ‘whether or not we use it, it goes’.
What should we make of this poem, and the central images Larkin employs? One way of analysing ‘Send No Money’ is to think about the significance of the poem’s title. The title, ‘Send No Money’, suggests advertisements where the buyer receives the product (such as a truss) and then pays back the cost over a course of months or years, as in ‘hire purchase’, which was very popular in 1960s Britain when Larkin wrote the poem. These adverts would proudly reassure the listener, reader, or viewer: ‘send no money’, as you wouldn’t have to start repaying the money until later on. This is exactly how Larkin feels about life: he was conned by Time, as a young man, into thinking that by going in search of truth he would eventually find it, and there would be ‘nothing to pay’, as it were. But as his middle-aged battered visage suggests when he gazes in the mirror of a morning, he has paid a price, all the same. The idea that he would need to ‘send no money’ in exchange for this knowledge was false, and he was tricked.
The use of colloquialisms such as ‘have a bash’ and ‘sod all’ are part of Larkin’s distinctive style, but ‘bash’ here takes on an ironic twist, when Time later refers to occurrence ‘clobber[ing] life out’ and then, in the final stanza, Larkin refers to his own face as a visor that has been bashed or ‘bent in’ by the ‘blows of what happened’. The bitter chain of ‘tr-’ words in the final two lines – trite, untransferable, truss, truth – underscore the bitterness the speaker now feels at being short-changed, and in rhyming ‘youth’ with ‘truth’, Larkin suggests that we can only really learn the bitter truth once we have become older and more experienced, and have faced the harsh realities and disappointments life throws at us. There’s no talk of wisdom here; Larkin seems to share the Wordsworthian view that childhood is a time of innocence (though also naivety), and adulthood takes us away from that blessed world.
‘Send No Money’ is, then, typical Philip Larkin, especially the Philip Larkin who also wrote ‘Essential Beauty’ and ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ at around the same point in his life. It is also archetypal Larkin in touching upon the topics of disillusionment, the gap between hope and reality, and a concern over growing older and leaving one’s youth behind.
Image: Larkin with Gin & Tonic, 1961; photographer unknown. First published in Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite. Via Simon K on Flickr (share-alike licence).