A reading of a classic poem about advertising
‘Essential Beauty’ (1962) is one of several poems Philip Larkin wrote about the gulf between advertising and the real world. Like another poem he wrote in 1962, ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, ‘Essential Beauty’ examines the promises that billboard advertisements make to us and how starkly the reality of people’s lives differs from such aspirational messages. You can read ‘Essential Beauty’ here.
Before we proceed to an analysis of this poem, a quick summary. ‘Essential Beauty’ is divided into two stanzas. The first offers a series of images from contemporary posters advertising a range of products: Oxo (‘that small cube’), Ovaltine (‘cups at bedtime’), and so on. Many of these were genuine adverts, or Larkin’s distilled summary of their typical contents. These advertisements offer their products as the key to attaining the perfect life: a well-balanced family, a life of ‘smiles’, ‘how life should be’. The second stanza then contrasts these billboard advertisements with the world – the actual world – these posters hide from our view.
Everything is ‘pure’ in the adverts, but the pubs depicted in the advertisements (which are full of ‘white-clothed’ upper-middle-class people who play tennis) are nothing like the real pubs where you’ll find a boy ‘puking his heart out in the Gents’, the demotic monosyllables (‘puke’, ‘Gents’) reinforcing the nosedive into the guttural and, indeed, the gutter.
Behind ‘Essential Beauty’, as with so many of Philip Larkin’s poems, lies his preoccupation with death. This begins early on with the image of a huge advertisement for custard screening ‘graves’, as if the advertisements – and their products – allowed the consumer to stave off death, such is their power. (Note the way ‘graves’ is twisted into the altogether more pleasant ‘groves’ just two lines later, only for it to return, spectrally, in the name of ‘Granny Graveclothes’ Tea’.) The ‘dying smokers’ have literally smoked themselves to an early grave, because they allowed themselves to be conned by the advertisers’ lie that smoking would make them attractive to women (but in fact ‘that unfocused she’ is a mirage, as exemplified by the fact that she is walking towards them ‘as if on water’).
What lends ‘Essential Beauty’ its poignant power is the clever way Larkin fuses his obsession with death – a death you won’t find depicted in the sunny advertisements his poem mentions – with the idea of failed love, or at least lust. The boy isn’t simply being sick in the gents’ toilets; he’s ‘puking his heart out’, a deft turn of phrase that combines the idea of drowning one’s sorrows (and not being able to keep down his alcohol, as he’s barely old enough to drink) with the suggestion of unluckiness in love (matters of the heart and all that). Similarly, those dying smokers have never tasted the ‘essential beauty’ promised them by the cigarette adverts, and have remained sexually and romantically unfulfilled. Both the very young (the boy) and those near the end of their lives are equally unsatisfied. In Hamlet’s words, look here on this, and on this: look at how, in that first stanza, the happy families owe ‘even their youth’ to the life-giving properties of the Oxo cube; and then contrast this smiley image with the grim vision of age, ill health, and imminent death in the poem’s second stanza. (One might complement such an analysis of ‘Essential Beauty’ with Larkin’s words from the end of ‘Dockery and Son’: ‘age, and then the only end of age’.)
‘Essential Beauty’ combines Larkin’s sharp eye for detail concerning mid-twentieth-century life in England with his usual themes: thwarted love (and lust) and death. The poem might be productively analysed and discussed alongside a couple of Larkin’s other poems which treat similar themes, ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ and ‘Send No Money’.