Love Songs in Age and Wild Oats by Philip Larkin Essay

Throughout Love Songs in Age and Wild Oats, Philip Larkin uses various literary techniques, such as imagery, structure and symbolism to convey certain aspects of love and the passing of time. These aspects are illuminated by Dannie Abse in Down the M4. Love Songs in Age pictures a woman, perhaps Larkin’s mother, who has kept the musical scores of songs she used to play, perhaps on the piano, and rediscovers them after many years, when she is a widow. In the poem, Larkin uses lexical choice to explore how the idea of love is often distorted and in reality, love fails to live up to its promises of ‘freshness’ and ‘brilliance’.

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In the third stanza, the concept of ‘much-mentioned’ almost cliched, love is presented in its ‘brilliance’, love lifts us up, ‘its bright incipience sailing above’; it is ‘still promising to solve, to satisfy’; and brings order to chaos ‘set unchangeably in order’. However, in a moment of tearful recognition, ‘to cry’ the character reflects on how love has not fulfilled those bright promises, leaving the last sad note: ‘it had not done so then, and could not now’.

This painful recognition of the failure of love’s promise to solve the loneliness of our lives, in both youth and age, is illuminated in Down the M4 by Dannie Abse. The negative ending, ‘It won’t keep’ implying that the mother’s life, symbolised by the ‘tune’ is not permanent, illuminates the perishability of love in Love Songs in Age, and how we must eventually see past the ‘promises’ and instead ‘glare’ into the reality of death, without lasting love.

In Wild Oats, love is conveyed in a similar fashion. It explains that a person, over the course of time, comes to realise that his greatest desires of love, are unattainable, and second best things will have to suffice. The central purpose of this poem is to show that love is one of these great desires and despite flashes of promise it contains scarcely anything that is more than fragmentary. Larkin reveals, through tone, diction, and irony, the terrible human hopes and cold realities that love inspires.

Larkin uses words such as ‘rose’ to explore love as unattainable. The imagery conjures thoughts of gorgeous petals, yet we often forget about the prickly stem on which the rose sits. This word is used in both, the first and third stanzas, to depict the beautiful woman who the narrator falls in love with. Her beautiful face and body allure him into affection, leading him to overlook her harsh ‘thorns’. Ironically rose also suggests favourable, comfortable, or easy circumstances, a definition that is the omplete opposite of what the unattainable lover instigates in the narrator’s life. The speaker also uses words such as ‘cathedral’, ‘ring’, and ‘clergy’ in the second stanza, to implicitly state that he proposes to the beautiful lover, and is denied many times. In the third stanza, Larkin’s creative use of the word ‘snaps’ in describing the pictures of his lover he carries around. Instead of simply calling them pictures or photographs, he substitutes a word that resembles what the woman in the picture did to his heart!

In the last lines of the first stanza the speaker ends with ‘But it was the friend I took out’, considering he rambles on about how beautiful and great her friend is, it is confusing and ironic that he chooses the girl in ‘specs’. The speaker continues on in the second stanza and says ‘I believe I met beautiful twice’ the uncertainty of how many times he met her is not genuine and is only meant to look like he does not consider or remember how many times they met, when realistically it is all he cares about.

In the third stanza the speaker states, ‘Well, useful to get that learnt’. This is attempt by the speaker to alleviate the cold reality of the complete loss of his desire in trying to say that he learned a valuable lesson about love. However, this is contradictory because he settled for the girl in ‘specs’ as a result of knowing that the beautiful girl, who ultimately symbolises true love, was unattainable from the beginning. This unattainability is illuminated by the ‘perishable’ story Abse’s mother tells him every time he visits in Down the M4.

This suggests that age, and perhaps attempts at love may well be repeated again and again, but eventually we all become ‘bored to love’. Not only does Larkin explore love but he also explores the past and the swift movement from youth to adulthood. In Love Songs in Age, Larkin uses the movement of the sheets or records to symbolise the movement from love and youth to motherhood, widowhood and to the memory of youth in old age, which is depicted as awakening to a painful recognition of the failure of love’s promise to solve the loneliness of our lives, in both youth and age.

Everyday domestic objects and places are captured in everyday expressions, ‘a tidy fit’, the poem then moves into highly wrought figurative language to express distance between our actions and thoughts and hopes of transcendence through love, ‘its bright incipience sailing above’, and finally moves into realisation of ‘It had not done so then, and could not now’. This shows how the past and present merge and our life experience or age does not lessen our longing and disappointments. The unfailing sense of being young, spread out like a spring-woken trees’ shows the use of natural imagery to connect youth to the idea of spring. Alternatively, like a season, it quickly passes and before we realise it, we have grown old. This idea is also made more potent by the woman’s age, that only in ‘widowhood’ does she find them, and the nostalgia sweeps over her. Larkin explores how when we are young, we have ‘that certainty of time laid up in store’, the belief that we have so much time to do everything we could possibly want to do in life, it’s only as we age, that we realise our time is limited.

This limitation on time is illuminated in Down the M4, when Abse depicts our journey through life as ‘further than all distance known’, yet instantly undermines this when saying ‘it won’t keep’. This suggests that when we are young, looking into the past in adulthood seems a very long distance away, but at a speed of a car on the motorway, it is present. In Wild Oats, Larkin explores a certain aspect of human nature, how we often enter lasting relationships, that we know will not be productive, yet we still continue due to our fear of failure.

Larkin not only uses enjambment and a series of conjunctions in the first two stanzas to show the length of the pointless relationship, but he in fact uses the relationship to explore how our lust for the ideal, can lead to failure in love. The final stanza in Wild Oats deals with the bitter break up Larkin encounters with his second choice for a girlfriend. The phrase, ‘Five rehearsals’ explicitly conveys the much anticipated end to this doomed relationship. He admits his shortcomings and pushes, what must have been, a major portion of his life’s experience to one side with a single poignant line, ‘Well, useful to get that learnt. This line makes it clear to the reader that he really hasn’t learned anything significant from his experiences. It emphasises his bitterness towards the complete uselessness of the relationship. Larkin’s sarcasm also shows the reader how he wishes he had gone with the woman he had fantasised about rather than wasting his time chasing something he didn’t believe in; his perception of love. Towards the end of the stanza Larkin again refers to the woman with a sexual undertone when he writes ‘bosomy rose with fur gloves on’.

The gloves are an obvious sexual symbol, but this hint of something more voluptuous is immediately supressed and voided of any positive connotation by Larkin’s denigration of the photographs, or possibly the gloves as ‘Unlucky charms, perhaps’, a frank, nonchalant admission that longing for what he knew he could never acquire has been the reason for his failure in love. In Down the M4, Dannie Abse illuminates how our quest for the ideal life is ridiculous, instead suggesting that old age and mortality is inevitable, as our enjoyable lives ‘won’t keep’.

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