A reading of a classic Larkin poem
Philip Larkin completed ‘Mr Bleaney’ in May 1955, and it appeared nine years later in his third major volume of poems, The Whitsun Weddings (1964). The poem is about a professional man renting a room in a woman’s house, and musing on the life of the previous tenant, ‘Mr Bleaney’. In this post we offer some notes towards an analysis of the poem, which can be read here.
In summary, we might divide ‘Mr Bleaney’, roughly, into three parts. The first two-and-a-bit stanzas constitute the setup for the poem, which sees the poem’s speaker being shown the room he is to lodge in. His landlady, the woman who owns the house and who is renting out one of her rooms to him, tells him about the previous man to occupy the room, the titular Mr Bleaney. The second ‘third’ of the poem, which runs until the end of the fifth stanza, charts the speaker’s observations of the room which he now occupies, having decided to take it. He tries to get used to the new room but starts to compare his life and habits with the imagined ones of his predecessor. The third and final part of the poem, comprising the final two stanzas, is more philosophical, and sees Larkin’s speaker speculating on the depressing fact that both he and Mr Bleaney, and others like them, have nothing more to show for their lives – even when they’re firmly into middle age – than a ‘hired box’, i.e. one rented room.
That’s a brief summary of the content of Larkin’s poem. But what does it mean? Like many of his poems, it takes an ordinary and everyday situation from real life – one that is homed in on with considerable specificity – and then uses this as a way into meditating on more timeless and universal themes: the notion of what a ‘life well led’ might entail, perhaps chief of all.
It’s also worth glossing some of the words and terms Larkin uses. That reference to ‘the Bodies’, for instance, is slang for the section of a car manufacturing plant where the ‘bodies’ of the cars are assembled. This term also resonates with secondary significance, suggesting, as it does, that Mr Bleaney is just one of many such ‘bodies’ in the world whose lives have no meaning to anyone else, much like the identical cars produced on the production line where he worked. The reference to Mr Bleaney ‘plugging at the four aways’ is a nod to the football pools (‘aways’ are away games), which Larkin’s speaker imagines Bleaney playing in the hopes that a big win would lift him up out of his rather lonely and meagre existence.
Similarly, the ‘jabbering set’ – which could be either a radio or, by 1955, a television set – is a neat encapsulation of the rather wretched existence endured by both the speaker and, he imagines, Bleaney before him: living in somebody else’s house, helping to pay someone else’s mortgage, putting up with someone else’s noise. Specifying the object as either a radio or a television would also destroy the nice fixedness of ‘set’: people become set in their ways, our lives become set into a daily and weekly (and yearly) routine, just as the word ‘jabbering’ seems, by association, to refer to the landlady herself, whose constant wittering is a reminder that Bleaney’s, and the speaker’s, lives are stuck in a rut.
And that final image of a ‘hired box’ is also tantalisingly ambiguous. Does it refer to a box of belongings, which has been hired to transport them to the speaker’s new digs? More likely, it is the room itself (perhaps it’s the ‘box room’ in the landlady’s house, after all), although all our lives are merely ‘hired’ – we must give them up eventually – and we all end up in that wooden ‘box’ that is a coffin.
One of the bleakest aspects of the end of Larkin’s poem, as the critic Christopher Ricks observed (see his essay on Larkin, in his collection The Force of Poetry), is the way the final two stanzas constitute one long sentence, which piles up the imagined observations and thought processes of Mr Bleaney before Larkin ends with a three-word shrugging conclusion: ‘I don’t know.’ As Ricks remarks in his analysis of Larkin’s poetry, many Philip Larkin poems provide insights into other people’s lives which, if they were put into the first person (the ‘I’ mode) would still manage to refrain from sounding self-pityingly weak. The end of ‘Mr Bleaney’ offers a particularly clear example of this. Larkin’s speaker is really describing his own grim musings in those two final stanzas: the dread is his own. He can only speculate that Bleaney, similarly situated, would have had the same depressing thoughts, but he cannot know for sure.
If you’d like to read more of Larkin’s work, we recommend The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin. Discover more about his poetry with our commentary on ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, our thoughts on Larkin’s short masterpiece ‘Days’, our discussion of Larkin’s poignant poem about home, and our summary of Larkin’s great poem about the environment.
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).