Both Larkin and Duffy explore the reality of love in their poetry, examining in detail the unrealistic expectations of romance (such as the oft-held belief that love endures through time and hardship) present in a relationship in ‘Love Songs in Age’ and ‘Valentine’. This eventually leads to the realisation that love does not match such idealistic expectations, as seen in ‘Love Songs in Age’ and ‘Disgrace’. However, while Larkin attributes the loss of love to the erosive nature of time in ‘Talking in Bed’, Duffy highlights the complicity of the couple in the breakdown of their relationship in ‘Disgrace’.
Nonetheless, both poets ultimately reach the same conclusion- that of the realisation that love is transient.
Larkin presents ‘Love Songs in Age’ in a mixed manner, as seen in the low frequency lexis (‘incipience’, ‘submissive’, ‘unchangeably’) to reflect the idealised, abstract nature of what love represents, as opposed to the bitter reality of love, as shown in the high frequency lexis(‘case’, ‘cry’, ‘love’).
The juxtaposition of the progression from high frequency lexis to low frequency lexis and back again (‘She kept her songs, they kept so little space…Its bright incipience sailing above…To pile them back to cry…’) follows the changing perception the widow has for love, as she rediscovers the love songs of her youth and her once-naïve expectations for love, which eventually fade into a more realistic, jaded view of romance. The poem itself is presented in a melancholic tone, and the theme of memories and the passing of time, with emphasis on the widow’s gradual realisation of the true nature of love, establishes an atmosphere of nostalgia.
This is seen through the use of the semantic field of memory to depict the widow’s past, as seen in the lexis ‘relearning’, ‘time’ and ‘young’. Likewise, ‘Talking in Bed’ is written in a mixed manner, with the use of high frequency lexis (‘kind’, ‘bed’, true’) and low frequency lexis (‘emblem’, ‘horizon’, ‘isolation’). As can be seen in ‘Love Songs in Age’, Larkin deliberately uses a mix of formal and informal lexis, with the intention to reflect the supposed intimacy in the act of ‘talking in bed’, but highlighting instead the abstract nature of time and the reality of love as time erodes the relationship depicted in the poem.
‘Talking in Bed’ is presented in a resigned tone, thus creating a mood of despair. This is established through the use of the modal verb ‘ought to be’ to express the couple’s discontent, implying from the beginning of the poem, that ‘talking in bed’ is not all that it should be. Furthermore, the semantic field of dissatisfaction, as seen in the use of lexis such as ‘silently’, ‘unrest’ and ‘isolation’, reflects the state of the couple’s relationship, contributing to the plaintive mood.
Duffy’s ‘Disgrace’ is also written in a mixed manner with the use of high frequency lexis (‘home’, ‘head’, ‘tears’) and multi-syllabic lexis (‘silhouette’, ‘obscenities’, ‘vulnerable’). The mixed register is deliberate, intending to reflect the cognitive dissonance of the persona in the poem as she wakes up to reality, coming to the realisation that her relationship has broken down. ‘Disgrace’ is presented in a bleak tone, with the sombre mood of the poem already hinted at through the use of the abstract noun ’Disgrace’ as the title. The use of the semantic field of decay contributes to the dark atmosphere as well, with lexis such as ‘blackened’, ‘death’ and ‘rotten’ used to represent the death of the persona’s relationship.
On the other hand, ‘Valentine’ is written in a straightforward manner, with the use of simple register such as ’red’, ‘onion’ and ‘take’. The intentional use of high frequency lexis serves to emphasise the persona’s insistence on honesty within the relationship, as well as the rejection of idealistic expectations of love. The candid mood of the poem is compounded by its forthright tone, with the use of the semantic field of violence (‘Lethal’, ‘knife’, ‘fierce’) to portray the true nature of love. Duffy also uses a free verse poetic structure, which mimics the form of one side of a dialogue, to emphasise the direct manner in which the persona addresses her lover, with pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘you’ showing direct address.
In ‘Love Songs in Age’, Larkin portrays the reality of love through the widow’s love songs as a metaphor for her previously idealistic notions of romance. This is seen in the deliberate use of enjambment in the second stanza; ‘And the unfailing sense of being young/ Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein/ That hidden freshness, sung,/ That certainty of time…’ as Larkin reveals the widow’s former, unrealistic belief that love is all enduring by establishing a sense of continuity in the poem. In particular, the use of a ‘spring-woken tree’ as a symbol of the widow’s love is especially interesting with its positive connotations of new beginnings, with the ‘tree’ traditionally being a symbol of strength, mirroring the widow’s youthful perceptions of love being invincible. Such starry-eyed notions are further seen in the third stanza; ‘The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,/ Broke out, to show/ Its bright incipience sailing above’.
This is notably shown in the noun-phrase ‘much-mentioned brilliance’, with the abstract noun ‘brilliance’ revealing the widow’s perception of love as a radiant entity. However, the widow’s unmet expectations of love are revealed through the use of the noun ‘glare’, with its connotations of light and truth, to highlight the true harshness of love. This is compounded by the verbal phrase of ‘sailing above’, implying that such an idealistic image of love is unattainable, and cannot be achieved. Larkin also highlights the widow’s unrealistic expectations of love through the juxtaposition of the lyrical ballad structure in the poem and the more sombre theme of the promises love fails to deliver, suggesting that the widow’s perceptions of love in her youth were but fanciful illusions.145
However, in ‘Valentine’, Duffy presents the true nature of love through the persona’s outright rejection of the traditionally idealistic notions of love. This is immediately made apparent in the lines ‘Not a red rose or a satin heart’ and ‘Not a cute card or a kissogram’, both minor sentences arranged in single, isolated lines used to emphasise the persona’s distaste for such conventional symbols of romance. Instead, Duffy uses the extended metaphor of an ‘onion’ (‘I give you an onion’) as a more accurate depiction of love. More specifically, the use of the ‘onion’ as a representation of the reality of love is shown in ‘It will blind you with tears like a lover, It will make your reflection a wobbling photo of grief’.
Here, love is portrayed as a cause of sorrow and despair, with the use of lexis such as ‘grief’ and ‘tears’ highlighting the negative effect of love on the persona and her lover’s emotions. The adverse consequences of love are further shown in the use of verbs such as ‘blind’ and ‘wobbling’, with its implications that love will distort the view of the people involved. The use of the ‘onion’ as a metaphor is also featured in ‘Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring’. In particular, the use of the dynamic verb ‘shrink’ is especially significant, as it is suggestive of the unavoidable entrapment that will arise should one conform to the traditional ideals of a romantic love, here represented through the symbol of a ‘wedding’.
However, Duffy does present an accurate portrayal of love as she uses the ‘onion’ to highlight the positive aspects of love as well. This can be seen in ‘It is a moon wrapped in brown paper. It promises light’. Here, Duffy shows the potential happiness and hope that love can bring through the use of positive lexis such as ‘moon’, ‘light’ and ‘promises’. However, she does emphasise that these ‘promises’ are conditional, as care must be taken even when in love, as shown in ‘the careful undressing of love’, as she presents the expression of love through physical intimacy.223
As can be seen in ‘Valentine’, Duffy reveals the reality of love in ‘Disgrace’ through the eyes of the persona, who acknowledges the transience of love in the progressive destruction of her relationship. The use of Gothic imagery is especially prevalent throughout the poem, with much emphasis placed upon the house as a symbol of the couple’s decaying romance. In particular, Duffy portrays the death of the couple’s relationship through the personification of common household items, as can be seen in ‘the small deaths of light bulbs pining all day in my ears, their echoes audible tears’. With the ‘small deaths of light bulbs’ echoing the disintegration of hope present in all aspects of the couple’s relationship, the act of ‘pining’ and the noun phrase ‘audible tears’ carry connotations of loss and mourning, depicting an incessant longing for a love that has long ceased to exist.
The extended metaphor of the couple’s house as a representation of their relationship is further shown in ‘To a bowl of apples rotten to the core. Lame shoes empty in the hall…’. Here, the symbolism of ‘a bowl of apples rotten to the core’ reflects the love between the couple as being completely and thoroughly ruined, with the adjective ‘rotten’ carrying negative connotations of the festering trouble between the two. The ‘Lame shoes empty in the hall’ are also used as a representation of the couple’s destructive romance, with the pair of ‘lame shoes’ echoing the couple and their inability to improve their now-meaningless relationship. Eventually, the persona in ‘Disgrace’ comes to the revelation of the inescapable destruction of love, as can be seen in ‘But one day we woke to our disgrace’.
Here, the use of the coordinating conjunction ‘But’ implies a sudden realisation of the destruction of their relationship, with the verb ‘woke’ carrying the double meaning of a physical waking as well as the acknowledgement of ‘disgrace’, as love ceases to exist. This is further shown in ‘And how our words changed. Dead flies in a web. How they stiffened and blackened’. It is interesting to note the comparison of ‘Dead flies’ to ‘our words’ by the persona, as the ‘dead flies’ are symbolic of death and a loss of vitality, echoing the persona’s comprehension of the loss of proper communication in her dilapidated relationship.
The use of the ‘web’ as a metaphor for the couple’s relationship is especially significant as well, as it illustrates the sense of entrapment felt by the couple, much like the ‘dead flies’ caught ‘in a web’. Such recognition of the state of the couple’s relationship is further seen in the last stanza; ‘Woke to the meaningless stars…lost’. With the ‘meaningless stars’ as a symbol of lost hope, the dynamic verb ‘woke’ shows the couple’s growing realisation of the reality of the transient nature of love, with the adjective ‘lost’ depicting a sense of helplessness for the state of their relationship.329
Similarly, the reality of love in ‘Love Songs in Age’ is shown to be vastly different from the widow’s youthful perceptions of romance, as her unrealistic expectations eventually fade to her present realisation that love is not everlasting. This is seen in the first stanza; ‘One bleached from lying in a sunny place, One marked in circles by a vase of water, One mended when a tidy fit had seized her, And coloured by her daughter’. Here, the blemishes found on the widow’s love songs are representatives of her altered view of love. In particular, the use of lexis such as ‘bleached’, ‘marked’, ‘mended’ and ‘coloured’ illustrate the imperfect condition in which the love songs are found, mirroring that of the widow’s perception of love that has altered over time.
This is shown in Larkin’s portrayal of the widow’s perception of love as being tarnished by her years of experience- be it through ‘a sunny place’, with its implications of positivity and happier times, ‘a vase of water’, which has connotations of sadness, or domestic life, as seen in; ‘coloured by her daughter’, which is suggestive of the irrevocable changes the widow faces as she undergoes the process of becoming a mother. Likewise, the tarnishing of love is depicted as Larkin refers to ‘Still promising to solve, and satisfy, And set unchangeable in order’. In particular, Larkin uses sibilance through the repetition of the ‘s’ sound, creating a sense of sorrow, and perhaps sympathy for the widow.
There is, however, some use of irony in this line as well, as the phrases ’still promising’ and ‘in order’ , which are supposed to reflect the idealistic nature of an all-powerful love, instead emphasise how the feelings of love fail to live up to its promises ‘to solve, and satisfy’. This becomes especially significant, as the protagonist of the poem is a ‘widow’, who has experienced the death of her husband and understands love’s inability to ‘to solve, and satisfy’. Such disappointment in the way in which love fails to live up to its promises leads to the widow’s gentle realisation that love is not all that it should be, as seen in the last stanza; ‘To pile them back to cry, Was hard, without lamely admitting how it had not done so then, and could not now’.
Here, the widow’s tearful recognition of love’s impotence can be seen in the verb-phrase ‘pile them back, to cry’, as this shows the actual setting aside of the idealistic notions of love, both in a physical and metaphorical sense. Although this admission ‘Was hard’, the realisation of the fading of love is inexorable, with the adverb ‘lamely’ showing the widow’s reluctant acknowledgement that her previous expectations of love were unrealistic. The constant failings present in love are especially shown in the closing line of the poem; ‘It had not done so then and could not now’, with the juxtaposition of the past and the present in ‘then’ and ‘now’ emphasising the inability of love to deliver on its promises, as well as the widow’s sad resignation that love does not ‘satisfy’, and will inevitably fade.447
In a similar fashion to ‘Love Songs in Age’, Larkin presents the unavoidably erosive nature of time in ‘Talking in Bed’ as a cause for the reality of love fading. This is most obviously seen as Larkin refers to ‘Yet more and more time passes silently. Outside the wind’s incomplete unrest builds and disperses clouds about the sky’. In particular, the use of the adverbial ‘more and more’ complements the adverb ‘silently’, reflecting the subtle accumulation of problems, which manifests itself in silence, or a lack of communication, due to the almost imperceptible passage of time. The uncontrollable effect of time is also seen in the use of the preposition ‘outside’, as it implies that the changes brought about by the progression of time, like the forces of nature, are beyond all control, whereas the use of the adjective ‘incomplete’ carries connotations of unfinished changes, presenting time as a relentless force.
Larkin also uses the semantic field of nature (‘wind’, ‘clouds’, ‘sky’) to depict the unavoidable nature of time. This is achieved through the use of ‘wind’ as a metaphor, as it creates an unseen, almost invisible change, not unlike the change brought about by time. Similarly, ‘clouds’ are used to represent the erosion of love, with its gradual build-up and subsequent fading seen through Larkin’s description of the water cycle in ‘builds and disperses clouds about the sky’ , with the production of clouds and rain mirroring the ceaseless progression of time. In the third stanza, the lines ‘And dark towns heap up on the horizon. None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why’ depict the universal change caused by time and its inescapable nature.
In particular, the use of the noun ‘towns’, which contain a mass of people, implies that the detrimental effects caused by time are inexorable and uniform, affecting everyone equally, whereas the adjective ‘dark’ and the noun ‘Nothing’ hints at a menacing, omnipotent force at work, emphasising again that the forces of time are uncontrollable and the erosion of love inevitable. Furthermore, the noun ‘horizon’ carries connotations of an unreachable, faraway destination, thereby showing the infinite stretch of time. The disorderly nature of the phrasal verb ‘heap up’ is significant as well, not only reflecting the gradual construction of an emotional barrier between the couple through time, but the haphazard and chaotic confusion that time has the potential to create. As can be seen in ‘Love Songs in Age’, Larkin portrays the similar reality of a transient love in ‘Talking in Bed’ through the destructive nature of time.521
However, while Duffy presents the fading of love as an inevitable reality in ‘Disgrace’, she attributes the loss of this special feeling to the actions of the persona and her partner, as opposed to the erosive nature of time. This is shown at the beginning of the first stanza; ‘But one day we woke to our disgrace; our house…nursing a thickening cyst’. The complicity of the couple is established through the use of personal pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’ in the above lines, with the continued use of such pronouns (‘…our voices asked’, …we shouted in silhouette’, ‘…In our sullen kitchen’) throughout the poem an indication of the breakdown of the relationship by the couple’s destructive hand. This complicity is shown in the incongruent use of the verb ‘nursing’, which traditionally has positive connotations, but is, in the poem, used to highlight the deliberate cultivation of hatred in the relationship, causing such discomfort that the persona uses the impersonal noun ‘house’ (as opposed to ‘home’) to describe the place in which she lives.
The persona’s bitter admission that ‘nothing we would not do to make it worse’, with the double negative used in ‘nothing’ and ‘not’, further intensifies the couple’s calculated cruelty. The lines ‘Cherished italics suddenly sour on our tongues, obscenities spraying themselves on the wall…’ also show that the couple is at fault, with the use of the verb ‘spraying’ mimicking a spray can as language becomes a violent act of vandalism when the couple loses control of their emotions, as they become relentless in their exchange of verbal abuse. A similar scene depicting the couple’s fight is seen as well as Duffy refers to ‘Into the night with the wrong language, waving and pointing, the shadows of hands huge…’. In particular, the dynamic verbs ‘waving’ and ‘pointing’ are an indication of the mutual blame present between the couple, with the noun phrase ‘wrong language’ highlighting the lack of understanding between the two whilst emphasising the loss of physical and emotional intimacy between them.
The complicity of the couple is also shown in the last stanza; ‘…faithless, unpenitent, you and me both, lost’, with the pronouns of ‘you’ and ‘me’, complemented by the adverb ‘both’, showing the couple’s participation in the ruination of their relationship. The adjectives ‘faithless’ and ‘unpenitent’, often seen in the semantic field of religion also shows a lack of trust, or faith present in the couple, that they have become wary and sceptical of each other. More significant, however is the use of enjambment in ‘you/ and me’, which Duffy uses to illustrate the emotional and physical distance between the two. In the end, the couple is ‘lost’, both having to face the reality that their own actions caused the destruction of their relationship.
Ultimately, both Larkin and Duffy share the same purpose of presenting the reality of love by destroying the common belief of its supreme powers through the portrayal of the unmet expectations of romance. However, this is presented in a different manner: in Larkin’s poetry, he points to the erosive nature of time that leads to the loss of love, implying that its pursuit is hopeless, whereas Duffy’s poetry shows that the couple’s own actions are to blame, and carries the more optimistic message that love, although a worthy quality, should be handled carefully.
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