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Two poems by Philip Larkin Essay

‘Love Songs in Age’ and ‘Reference Back’ are both poems by Philip Larkin that deal with the painfulness of memories and our subjection to time. In each, Larkin talks of the ways music can provoke memories, be it the sheet music ‘Love Songs in Age’, or the records in ‘Reference Back’. The tone of the poems is very similar, with a negative opinion expressed in the final stanza of each poem, with ‘Reference Back’ dealing with the distortion of memories over time, and the theme of ‘Love Songs in Age’ being the overrating of love. Despite this, there are a number of differences in the way Larkin achieves his effects, in both the structure and language.

In ‘Reference Back’ the narrator is talking of visiting home, and the lack of communication between himself and his mother, and how this is the way it has always been. Larkin uses the word ‘unsatisfactory’ four times in the poem, to describe the hall, room, the mother’s ‘age’ and the son’s ‘prime’. This puts emphasis on the idea expressed in the final stanza; that we romanticise the past and therefore feel that the present pales in comparison and experience feelings of dissatisfaction as ‘by acting differently we could have kept it so’. This idea of romanticising the past is also seem to an extent in ‘Love Songs in Age’

Both poems consist of three stanzas; the first introducing the situation, the penultimate talking of the significance of the music and the concluding stanza summarising what Larkin wishes to demonstrate to the reader. In ‘Reference Back’ these stanzas are clearly separated by full stops at the end of each line, while in ‘Love Songs in Age’ Larkin uses enjambment. This can be seen between all three stanzas with ‘stood/Relearning how’ between the first and second and ‘even more/The glare’ between the second and third. One explanation for this may be that in ‘Love Songs in Age’ Larkin is explaining that love cannot stop anything, such as the death of the woman’s husband, and that life and love will always continue, while another explanation is that this may be representative the flowing music, with ‘ word after hyphenated word’. It also enhances the ‘unfailing sense of being…spread out like a spring-woken tree’ that continues to spread and grow, that the music ‘had ushered in’.

Enjambment between the stanzas is not used in ‘Reference Back’, and this may be demonstrative of the narrator putting on separate records, or ‘each instant of our lives’, which the narrator refers to as if they are all separate parts of life, rather than of a continuous period of time. It could also illustrate the lack of communication between the narrator and his mother, representing the physical and mental difference between them, with the mother in the ‘unsatisfactory hall’ and the narrator in his ‘unsatisfactory room’. In both poems enjambment between each line is used, with no end-stopped lines present in either poem, possibly to give the impression of the narrator’s flowing thoughts as the music provokes a variety of memories.

Larkin also uses the rhyme scheme of the poems to emphasise his points. Although initially the poems seem similar, each with a regular rhyming pattern, there are subtle differences that contribute to different effects. In ‘Love Songs in Age’ the rhyme scheme is very regular throughout the poem, with each stanza ending in a rhyming couplet and consisting of eight lines. The rhymes are very straightforward, such as ‘space’ and ‘place’, and ‘water’ and ‘daughter’. This could represent the way life is continuous and the presence of love in the woman’s life had not changed anything ‘then, and could not now’, so everything remains the same as in each stanza.

It could also be said that this is demonstrative of the way love is always ‘promising…to set unchangeably in order’ everything in life. In ‘Reference Back’ the rhyming pattern is seemingly regular, set in rhyming couplets, but the length of the stanzas varies. In each stanza, however, the rhymes become half rhymes and the scheme deteriorates, from ‘call’ and ‘hall’ to ‘lives’ and ‘perspectives’. The simplicity of the rhymes in the early part of the poem echoes Larkin’s point that people romanticise the past in their memories and simplify it, so there is dissatisfaction with the present in comparison, which is shown by the more tenuous rhymes in the last stanza.

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