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“Essential Beauty” by Philip Larkin is a perfectly balanced poem of two 16-line stanzas. In the poem Larkin explores the subject of advertising in the early 60s. He begins by describing the subjects on huge billboards on the sides and ends of buildings. He suggests that these enormous images are placed in slum areas and that this is inappropriate and doubtful in its honest intention. Larkin’s outstanding criticism is directed towards the content of the adverts.
He makes it clear that “motor oil and cuts of salmon,” are of no consequence or beyond the finical ability of the people who live in the blocks of streets and slums where these billboards are pasted. “Cars” and “deep arm chairs” bed time cups and radiant electric fires warming “cats by slippers on warm mats” are certainly not the experiences of those who dwell in the vicinity of the outrageous adverts.
They: “Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares They dominate the outdoors.” This criticism is at its height in its description of an advert for butter: “……High above the gutter A silver knife sinks into golden butter.” Here he employs a cheap advertisement rhyme and exposes the ridiculous image which is clearly inappropriate for those upon whose house the advert may be displayed. Furthermore Larkin clearly despises the image of: “Well balanced families, in fine Midsummer weather.”
In the second stanza Larkin exposes the frothy emptiness of the images and moves on to explain the reality behind the images in the advert. As a result he demonstrates the distortion and dishonesty of advertising. Larkin states that we live in a different world from that which the advertisers depict: “………our live imperfect eyes That stare beyond this world.” “………nothing’s made As new or washed quite so clean,” In a country pub the clients are all “with clothed ones from tennis clubs.”
We learn that there is a boy throwing up in the gent’s toilet and a pensioner being cheated at the same time. Larkin reserves the final thrust for the cigarette advertisers. The dying smokers will not have a chance match lit meeting with a beautiful person however hard meeting with a beautiful person however hard they “drag” on their fags. The reality which Larkin seems to suggest in the last two lines, is that the beautiful women is visible, standing apart, recognising the dying smoker and the image of her goes dark as the smoker dyes.
Philip Larkin exposure of the falseness, bad taste and down right dishonesty of billboard advertising is shocking and disturbing. At a time when the population of Britain was beginning to enjoy a rising income the advertisers were settling vulture like to grab any extra income from the poorest people. The advertisers were openly suggesting that the purchase of their products would inrich their lives, maintained their youth and give them motorcars. Larkin seemingly intense dislike of this whole medium is based on the sense of humanity and compassion. He does seem to care for the people who the advertisers are trying to win over; those who have spent most of their lives trying to live on a very small income.
I found Philip Larkin’s poem “Essential Beauty” quite unfathomable to begin with. However once I was aware of it was making a comments about billboard advertising over forty years ago I began to understand Larkin’s subject and became aware of his stance. Although the advertising he describes is extremely dated in some respects compared to the two -dimensional advertising of today, it is none the less clearly recognisable from the poem.
The advertisement depicts very middle classed people, images and expectations. Larkin certainly explains the contrast of these images with the reality of the lives and living conditions of the working class people who had to live with these enormous images around them, dominating their lives. I sympathise with Larkin, I think this type of advertising must have been insulting if not a clear signal that there was a huge division between the classes at that time. I think this poem is a powerful historic statement about inequality and insensitivity