A reading of a Larkin poem
‘Self’s the Man’ was completed in November 1958, and was published in Philip Larkin’s third major poetry collection, The Whitsun Weddings, in 1964. In some ways it might be regarded as the lighter precursor to a more elusive later poem, ‘Sympathy in White Major’, which we’ve analysed here. But the present post constitutes some notes towards an analysis of ‘Self’s the Man’, which you can read here.
In summary, ‘Self’s the Man’ contrasts Larkin’s bachelorhood with the life of a married colleague, named Arnold, who is widely viewed as less selfish than the unmarried Larkin. Larkin begins by agreeing with this unspecified group of people who view Arnold as the less selfish one. Through marrying, Arnold has committed himself to a life devoted to other people, namely his wife and children. The money he earns is viewed by his wife as her ‘perk’, which she promptly spends on things for the house and on clothes for their ‘kiddies’. His family swallow up all of Arnold’s spare time too, with his wife getting him to perform tasks around the house, keep the children company, and invite his mother-in-law (shock horror!) to stay. From this set-up in the first four stanzas, the poem then shifts to a more analytical mode for its second half. In the sixth stanza, Larkin does a turnaround: wait a minute, is it really true that Arnold is less selfish because he gives up all of his time and money for his family? After all, Larkin argues, Arnold got married for his own selfish reasons – he’s just ‘playing’ a different ‘game’ from Larkin. Both men are out for themselves, ultimately: it’s just that Larkin gets to spend his free time as he wishes, rather than having to do things that others want him to do. The only real difference, Larkin concludes, is that he is better than Arnold at knowing when to stop things before they become too much – before, as the poem’s final striking image has it, he goes mad and has to be carted off in a van to a mental institution (presumably having been driven insane by having made the wrong decision). But in that final line there is another about-turn, which seems to suggest that ultimately bachelorhood is no less conducive to a sane and satisfying life than marriage: either way, life sends you mad.
The jaunty rhythm and the rhymes of ‘Self’s the Man’ support the tone of the poem, which is light, almost flippant. It’s curious that Larkin’s previous completed poem, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, was a celebration of marriage and unity, albeit of a potentially muted kind (depending on how we choose to analyse the poem’s final image, among other things). ‘Self’s the Man’ is almost the flippant flipside to that poem, championing solitude and singlehood over marriage and the responsibilities that brings.
Yet this is a poem by Philip Larkin rather than Pam Ayres (sorry, Pam), and so there is a little more to probe and analyse here than meets the eye. For a start, the two sides of the argument – the setup presenting Arnold as altruistic father and husband, and the later critique of such an image – are not quite so separate as they first appear. The notion that Arnold was ‘out for his own ends’ is there right in the third line of the first stanza, with the telling statement that he ‘married a girl to stop her getting away’. This ambiguous phrase has two meanings: one presents Arnold as selflessly giving up his freedom for the sake of his wife (he agreed to marry her because it’s what she, not he, wanted), while the other one casts Arnold in an already less than noble or selfless light (he cynically married her even though his heart wasn’t in it, just so she wouldn’t leave him for another man). Undercutting Larkin’s at-first saintly depiction of Arnold is a less flattering undercurrent.
What’s more, we only have Larkin’s (or the poem’s speaker’s) word for the fact that Arnold, like Larkin, views his marriage in such a depressing light. It’s perfectly possible that Arnold enjoys wheeling his children round the street and spending time with them, just as he’s proud of being the ‘man about the house’ doing the DIY and being of use to those he loves. The dig at the mother-in-law belongs to a long tradition of viewing your wife’s mother as an annoyance one can never get on with, but it’s from the world of caricature and cliché and is not necessarily true in Arnold’s case. Such a catalogue of unappealing chores and responsibilities is being filtered to use through the eyes – and voice – of a bachelor figure who dislikes marriage and having children anyway.
The most puzzling part of ‘Self’s the Man’ is undoubtedly that final stanza, where the syntax is by no means clear, specifically in the poem’s closing line. What does ‘Or I suppose I can’ mean? What does the auxiliary verb ‘can’ refer to – the verb ‘stand’ in the antepenultimate line? But that makes little sense given that Larkin has already said he does know what he can stand, and the reversal in the final line makes no sense when interpreted in this way. It seems to refer to the idea of ‘sending a van’ (i.e. being driven mad), hence our account of this line’s meaning in our summary above. However, it remains ambiguous in an otherwise fairly clear Philip Larkin poem. What do you make of it? Your suggestions please.
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).