A reading of a Larkin poem
‘Sympathy in White Major’ contains perhaps the most mouth-watering description of someone making a gin and tonic to be found in all English poetry. But it is also, like many Philip Larkin poems, about the relation between the self and society, between the individual and the world around him (and in Larkin it is a him). What follows are some notes towards an analysis of this intriguing poem.
A brief summary of the three stanzas that comprise the poem first. The first stanza essentially consists of a description of Larkin (or his poem’s speaker) making a gin and tonic – not the most typical opening for a Philip Larkin poem. But at the end of the stanza we get the beginnings of the poem’s core theme: selflessness. Once the drink is prepared, Larkin raises it in a toast to some unspecific person (perhaps himself), praising this person for devoting their life to others.
The second stanza then examines the perceived selflessness of the poem’s speaker. Other people wore others like clothes, the simile suggesting using something and then discarding it when one is tired of it (much as people throw out old clothes when fashions change). But our speaker instead spent his life trying to bring happiness to others by attempting to show them some of the things (‘the lost displays’) that would otherwise have passed them by (such as love, sex, and company, we might suggest). The speaker concludes that he failed in his mission, but they came nearer to attaining true fulfilment than if they’d spent their time entirely alone and so missed out on these things altogether.
The third stanza largely comprises a list of clichéd phrases used as terms of praise for somebody who is decent, upstanding, and selfless. But in the final line, Larkin rejects such platitudes about ‘the whitest [i.e. the most decent] man I know’ by saying that white is not his favourite colour. The implication – though this itself is open to interpretation – is that Larkin rejects the notion that selflessness is a virtue as such and that we should praise it. By linking ‘Sympathy in White Major’ with Larkin’s other poems about selfishness/selflessness – such as ‘Self’s the Man’ – we can begin to see ‘Sympathy’ as a more oblique reflection of Larkin’s belief that many people who are praised for leading selfless lives are actually ‘out for their own ends’. For instance, Arnold, the antagonist in ‘Self’s the Man’, is initially offered to the reader as less selfish than Larkin because he gives up all his spare time to his wife and children, but Larkin then critiques such a view and finds it wanting: Arnold wanted to get married and have children, so he was acting out of selfishness too, even though to the world at large he may appear more upstanding and altruistic. In that final line, then, Larkin’s rejection of the colour white as ‘not [his] favourite colour’ can be understood as a refusal to accept or honour the notion that wanting to be surrounded by a family and other people makes you necessarily less selfish. Larkin prefers the honest, but decidedly ‘unwhite’, position underpinning his own selfishness: ‘Thinking in terms of one’, as he puts it in another poem, is more easily done.
It’s revealing that Larkin wrote ‘Sympathy in White Major’ a few months after he completed ‘Annus Mirabilis’, his poem about coming to sexual relationships late in life and feeling as though he’d missed out on enjoying the prime of life because he grew up before the birth of the permissive society. The next poem he would complete in the notebook, equally tellingly, was ‘Sad Steps’, a poem which sees Larkin realising that a new, younger generation has supplanted his and that he will never again feel the first flush of youth – and the quickening of the heart (and other things) that young love (or, indeed, lust) brings. It’s as if Larkin – if we might venture to suggest that the ‘I’ in the poem is meant to be at least partly autobiographical – is bidding farewell to his youth in a sort of mock-funeral wake, raising a glass to himself. But who is he raising a glass to in that final stanza? If it’s himself, the last line becomes more difficult to analyse and bring in line with the interpretation offered above. If it’s someone else, then it jars with the second stanza, which presents Larkin himself (assuming the lyric and personal ‘I’ here) as the selfless one in the poem.
One way of squaring this interpretive circle (or rather squiggle) is to analyse the poem as offering a critique of Larkin’s own activity as ‘white’ or selfless, when he knew that this was at least partly misleading. We might see the ‘private pledge’ in that first stanza, and the other italicised statements in the third, as Larkin’s ventriloquizing of people’s views of human beings and the things that people tend to applaud on formal occasions (such as when memorialising someone at a funeral wake). But Larkin’s voice, which cuts back in for that final line, also cuts through all such empty eulogies and implies that devoting one’s life for others, whilst laudable, is not always what people are doing. Similarly, what Larkin has been doing in his life should not be seen as either outright selfish or selfless, but rather a combination of the two: living one’s life for oneself but also, in doing so, making others happy (although the jury is out on just how happy Larkin’s relationships made the women in his life – Andrew Motion and James Booth offer two very different readings of Larkin’s life in this respect – it’s clear that he was a devoted son to his widowed mother, and was also generous to other writers with his time and advice). That final declaration that white is not his favourite colour then suggests that instead of constantly praising altruism and decency (and sometimes seeing it where none exists), we should be more honest about people’s motivations.
This is only one possible analysis of an ambiguous poem. ‘Sympathy in White Major’ has been likened to French Symbolism – its title being an allusion to Gautier’s ‘Symphonie en Blanc Majeur’ – but if we interpret the poem in light of Philip Larkin’s life, and other poems he wrote such as ‘Self’s the Man’, it begins to make a little more sense without losing its tantalising obscurity.
Image: Gin and tonic by cyclonebill via Wikimedia Commons.