The theme of journeys is present in Philip Larkin’s poem, A Study of Reading Habits. However, it is not a physical journey that we see, but a metaphorical journey about the speaker’s life progression through his changing escapisms created by books. The title is a mock, serious title for it sounds like a piece of academic research Larkin uses first person persona to give expression to things he would prefer not to have attributed to himself. The structure of the poem divided into three stanzas; school years, adolescent years and the present.
The tone is sarcastic and colloquial, that along with the shorter lines, creates a less serious poem from Larkin. In the first part of his journey, the persona is imaginative and loves to read, so much so that is it ‘ruining [his] eyes’. He imagines a fantasy world where he could be cool and ‘deal out the right hook to his bullies’. The alliteration of ‘dirty dogs’ is symbolism of the persona’s bullies, which portrays them as the villains. It is the stories, which makes him believe he is invincible, like that of the heroes he reads about.
The stories provide an escapism to which he can be brave, hero, and not the bullied kid to which he is in reality. There is a smooth, harmonious quality in the beginning stanza due to Euphony. This underscored how easygoing and fantasy-like childhood can be. The second part of his journey represents his adolescent years. We now see him with ‘inch thick specs’, which is ironic to him previously stating his compassion for reading was ‘ruining [his] eyes’. We see the persona become more gothic and dark, with his new love of Horror Fiction.
‘Cloaks and fangs’ sounds dangerous and eerie, which is his new escapism. Some critics suggest that ‘ripping’ could be vampire vocabulary but it also can refer to being posh. Through his journey through stanza two, we see him move on to more lustrous novels, where his escapism is him being a womanizer. Larkin use borrowed language of ‘clubbed with sex’ and ‘broke them up like meringues’ to create the poet’s whimsical world. The similie refers to his lust for sexual encounters with women.
The phrases are quite cheesy and some suggest it is bad writing on Larkin’s behalf, but some argue it is Larkin trying to sound like a bad guy. Larkin is trying too hard to sound like Raymond Chandler’s character, Marlowe, but it just doesn’t work. In the final part of the persona’s journey, which leads him up to the present tense, we see a completely conflicting view of reading. In the final stanza the speaker comes to terms with reality; he can no longer hide behind books.
He realizes that his world is less fulfilling than the fantasies portrayed in books, and says ‘don’t read much now’. He feels betrayed by books and his tone becomes bitter. The ‘yellow’ figure evokes the sense of weakness and represents cowardly characteristics. This metaphor produces the effect of a cowardly character, which evidently relates to the persona. This means he can no longer fantasice for the characters he looked up to are weak. With no more escapism, the persona no longer wants to read.
In the penultimate line of the poem Lark says ‘Get stewed’, which is said in a light hearted jokey way. Some suggest it refers to getting drunk, which may be his alternative escapism, but some argue it means get lost, referring to the disappointment. On the contrary, the final line represents the persona’s new feelings towards books. He believes they are a worthless “load of crap”. The theme of the poem is that escapism and ignoring reality only makes life less fulfilling, which is illustrated through the theme of a journey.
Courtney from Study Moose
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