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Toads

Toads

Philip Larkin 1955

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Criticism

Sources

For Further Study

First published in Philip Larkin’s second collection of poetry, The Less Deceived, in 1955, “Toads” is one of his more popular poems. It was this second collection which introduced Larkin to poetic recognition at the age of 33. Over the years, this humorous and sardonic look at nine-to-five office life has provided both a window into the author’s biography and an anthem for those who share the poem’s central question: “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?” Like so many in England during the 1950s who found themselves spending a majority of their time sitting in an office at a desk in order just to pay off “a few bills,” the speaker of the poem dreams of telling his boss “Stuff your pension!” Featuring Larkin’s distinctive mix of “everyday” language crafted into metered verse, many critics and readers perceived the poem as Larkin’s stand against office life. Less than ten years later, he returned to the same subject in a follow-up “sister” poem, “Toads Revisited.”

Author Biography

Although Philip Larkin only published five slim volumes of poetry during his lifetime, by the time High Windows was published in 1974, he was regarded as one of the greatest British postwar poets, commonly known as “England’s other Poet Laureate.” In fact, he was officially offered the position when it became available in 1984, but he politely declined, insisting instead on keeping a more private

life away from the public eye. Even when his work was most popular, he refused to choose a career exclusively in poetry, working instead as a librarian while also writing novels, criticism, and essays on jazz.

Born August 9, 1922, in Coventry, Warwickshire, England, Philip Arthur Larkin was the second child of Sydney and Eva Larkin. His father being the city treasurer, he grew up in a “quite respectable house” in a middle class neighborhood. His poems reflect a negative view of these early years, which he described as an “opaque childhood” punctuated by “forgotten boredom.” An undiagnosed near-sightedness, combined with a speech stammer, caused Larkin to withdraw from other children, learning instead to dislike them outright. After years of considering himself an “unsuccessful schoolboy,” he began feeling more comfortable during his final terms at the King Henry VIII high school, where he learned to balance his love for cricket, football, jazz music, and reading in his father’s extensive library. It was during these late teen years when Larkin began writing prose and poetry, inspired by the lush novels of Henry James, whom many critics consider his biggest writing influence. He continued to write at Oxford in 1940, where he enrolled in St. John’s College and, later that year, published his first poem, “Ultimatum,” in the school literary magazine The Listener.

World War II required many college students to join the British military, but due to his poor eyesight, Larkin was free to finish up his schooling in English language and literature. Acquiring a deep love for W. H. Auden’s and W. B. Yeat’s poetry, he remained at the university until 1943, when he received a First Class bachelor’s degree. Larkin received his master’s degree from Oxford in 1947. Larkin decided not to pursue a teaching career due to his stammer, which persisted late into his life. Instead, he chose to work as a librarian at the Wellington urban district council in Shropshire while completing a professional accreditation in a librarianship correspondence course. In 1946 he was appointed assistant librarian at the University College in Leicester, and shortly after that appointed sublibrarian at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Perhaps faster than expected, Larkin was settling into his lifetime career; in 1955 he became librarian of Brynmor Jones Library of the University of Hull in Yorkshire, where he worked until his death in 1985.

The drudgery of work became a common theme throughout Larkin’s work, most notably in the two half-serious poems “Toads” and “Toads

Revisited.” “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life? / Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork / And drive the brute off?” the speaker of “Toads” asks. As a younger poet Larkin told an interviewer for the Guardian, “Work encroaches like a weed over the whole of my life … It’s all the time absorbing creative energy that might have gone into poetry.” But an older Larkin learned to balance work with his creative vocation. As the speaker of “Toads Revisited” writes, “No, give me my in-tray, / My loaf-haired secretary / … Give me your arm, old toad; / Help me down Cemetery Road.” It was while working at the public library in Shropshire that Larkin wrote his first two novels, Jill (1945) and A Girl in Winter (1947). Stories of “displaced working-class heroines,” they reflect a cheerless and gloomy postwar England. Both novels were critically praised for their carefully textured landscapes, and A Girl in Winter was so well received that Larkin’s publisher pressured him for a third book of prose, though by this point his energies were shifting back toward poetry.

Although Larkin’s first collection of poetry, The North Ship, was published before his two novels, it was not until Marvell Press published The Less Deceived in 1955 that he began to gain a reputation as a poet. His inclusion in the influential anthology New Lines, in which editor Robert Conquest first dubbed Larkin a member of “The Movement,” further reinforced his place in modern British literature. Larkin’s work appeared regularly in such notable journals as Atlantic Monthly and The Partisan Review. These poems were later collected in the book The Whitsun Weddings in 1964. It was another ten years, in 1974, before High Windows appeared as his final collection of poetry.

Publishers Faber and Faber celebrated Larkin’s 1982 birthday with the publication of Larkin at Sixty, which was a collection of tributes from friends and colleagues. By this point in his life Larkin had earned an international reputation as, in the words of Alan Brownjohn, “the most technically brilliant and resonately beautiful, profoundly disturbing yet appealing” poet to be writing in the second half of this century. He received many honors, including several doctorates, appointments to the National Manuscript Collection of the Contemporary Writers Committee and the literature panel of the Arts Council for Great Britain, as well as such literature awards as the Queen’s gold medal for Poetry in 1965 and the Lioness Award for Poetry in 1974. In addition, Larkin was made a Companion of Honour in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. A man who saw life “more as an affair diversified by company than as an affair of company diversified by solitude,” Larkin died shortly after an operation for throat cancer in 1985.

Poem Text

Why should I let the toad work
   Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
   And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils                 5
   with its sickening poison—
Just for paying a few bills!
   That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
   Lecturers, lispers,                        10
Losels, loblolly-men, louts—
   They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
   With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines—            15
   They seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
   Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets—and yet
   No one actually starves.                   20

Ah, were I courageous enough
   To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
   That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like          25
   Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
   And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
   My way of getting                          30
The fame and the girl and the money
   All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
   One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,        35
   When you have both.

Poem Summary

Lines: 1-4

In this first stanza the speaker introduces the poem’s central question: “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?” By comparing day-to-day office life to a toad, Larkin depicts the tedium of years sitting behind a desk. Squat, slimy, and fat, the toad seems to sit on the speaker of the poem and leave no room for fun. But Larkin can think of a possible escape—his intelligence. Like a sharp tool, perhaps he can “use [his] wit as a pitchfork / and drive the brute off.” Can he utilize his good education and sharp sense of humor in order to find a better way to survive?

By directly comparing work to a toad, Larkin sets up a central metaphor which the remainder of the poem will extend and explore. Metaphors enable us to describe otherwise vague or difficult subjects—emotions, attitudes, etc.—in terms readers can “grasp” and understand with their senses.

Lines: 5-8

Continuing the metaphor, the speaker uses the second stanza to elaborate on the questions asked in the first stanza. We learn that work dominates his life six days out of seven each week, month after month, year to year. The proportion seems unreasonable, even dangerous. The toad work “soils” the speaker “With its sickening poison,” painting a grotesque picture of a man covered in poisonous slime while being crushed by the squatting weight. And what for? the speaker wonders. “Just for paying a few bills!”

Lines: 9-12

In the third stanza, the speaker defends his question by pointing out that many people “live on their wits,” as he had initially proposed in the first stanza. But the list Larkin offers us does not catalog the “witty” types we would first expect. Other than lecturers, who support themselves by teaching, the rest of the “folks” living on their wits—“lispers, / Losels, loblolly-men” and “louts”—may have had difficulties finding work. Lispers are those having or affecting the air of sophisticated culture, not persons with a speech impediment. A losel is a literally a “worthless person”; a lout is considered a “clumsy, stupid fellow.”

Perhaps a British expression from the 1950s, it is difficult to tell what exactly a “loblolly-man” is, though the term “loblolly” itself refers to a thick, sloppy liquid. From this and the context of the word, readers can assume that is probably not a complimentary title. But no matter what the reason, these folks manage to “live on their wits” without ending up as paupers, or common beggars, as perhaps society expects of those who reject conventional careers.

Perhaps reflecting the whimsical intention of this list, Larkin uses alliteration, or a repeated sound, to craft the third stanza. When we read this list aloud, the repeating “L” sound is almost humorous in its echo, reminding us of the “la la” babble of a losel, loblolly-man or lout.

Lines: 13-16

The speaker provides additional examples of people able to survive on very little in these lines. They do not need much—a fire in a bucket, a tin of sardines, a windfall of luck or money now and then—and they even “seem to like it.” Rather than spending six days of the week in an office in order to pay a few bills, these people manage to get by on what little is given to them.

Lines: 17-20

In the fifth stanza the speaker continues to focus his descriptive eye on the people who seem to get by without working. He notices that their nippers (a British slang for young boys) “have got bare feet,” perhaps because they are too poor to buy shoes. Similarly, their “unspeakable wives / are skinny as whippets,” those terribly-thin racing dogs. Although these families show distinct signs of severe poverty—barefoot children, emaciated parents—the speaker points out that no one actually starves.

Note that in this stanza Larkin has provided gender information for his characters without explicitly referring to their sex. In line eighteen Larkin refers to “their unspeakable wives,” implying

Media Adaptations

  • Readings (by The Poets): Philip Larkin; Thom Gunn; Ted Hughes; Seamus Heaney; Douglas Dunn; Tom Paulin; Paul Muldoon. Audio cassette and paperback, 1995.
  • Douglass Dunn and Philip Larkin/Book and Cassette (Faber Poetry Cassettes). Faber & Faber, 1984.

that the male made the decision on work. Reflecting the “male as breadwinner” attitudes of the 1950s, Larkin crafts his lines perhaps confident his readers would not have to be told which gender he is referring to in his verse.

Lines: 21-24

In these lines, the speaker wishes he could summon up the courage to tell his boss “stuff your pension!” Common to many careers, many companies reward their long-time employees by offering them a pension, or paid compensation, at the time of their retirement. So even if you have to “slave away” your life for twenty years or more, at least when you reach a certain age you can stop working and continue to collect monthly paychecks. Perhaps tired of working with the reward so far in the future, the speaker just wants to say “take this job and shove it.” But quickly the speaker’s rational side kicks in, reminding him that he knows, “all too well, that’s the stuff / That dreams are made on.”

Lines: 25-26

Here the speaker turns his attention back on himself and questions if a life without work would really suit him. In these lines we learn the toad work might not be alone sitting on him, “for something sufficiently toad-like / Squats in me, too.” Perhaps it is in his nature to work six days a week.

Lines: 27-33

In these lines the speaker wonders if any other way of life is possible for him. Unlike the folks he described in the fourth stanza who are able to survive on windfalls and sardines, Larkin fears this cold weight inside him “will never allow [him] to blarney,” or sweet talk, his “way to getting / The fame and the girl and the money / All at one sitting.”

It is in these lines the speaker perhaps defines what he thinks are the two possible ways of succeeding in life: either by being a lucky sweet-talker or by working six days a week at the office. Although the latter is like having a toad squatting on you, he knows that he may have to settle for living that way since he has never had the luck or flattering nature to succeed any other way.

Lines: 34-36

This final stanza seems to summarize the debate. The tone of this stanza becomes fairly abstract, never fully answering the question raised in the first stanza. Void of any concrete images we can understand through using our senses, these lines read almost like a philosophical statement. “I don’t say, one bodies the other / One’s spiritual truth” may mean that the speaker does not intend to make a moral judgment, or that one way of living—by luck or hard work—holds more spiritual significance than the other.

Or maybe the speaker is making a distinction between the “inner” and “outer” toads in his life. It is no surprise that Larkin’s critics do not agree on an interpretation for these closing lines. And perhaps Larkin does not intend for us to choose one or the other, but a combination of the two, as the speaker concludes “but I do say it’s hard to lose either, / When you have both.”

Themes

Search for Self

The two questions that open the poem—“Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life? / Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork / And drive the brute off?”—are both questions of identity. In an attempt to define who he is, the speaker examines his life. He finds that he spends six days a week at the office in order to pay a few bills. Perhaps in 25 years or more he will earn his pension and be able to retire with financial security, a check arriving on schedule as it always has, even though he will not be sitting behind a desk any longer. But the ratio of work versus financial reward does not seem fair. Surely he can find another way, one that provides spiritual fulfillment and a little fun.

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a similarly structured poem which begins with the question “Why should I let the toad school / Squat on my life?” Using the hymnal measure form Larkin employs, rhyme your quatrains abab, keeping your lines under seven words each. Compare results and discuss.
  • Imagine you are Philip Larkin having received this poem rejected from a publisher, a terse note attached: “This poem ends in a fog of abstraction. Rewrite the last stanza!” Cover the last four lines with a blank sheet of paper, reread the poem from the top (at least three times), then write your new and improved ending. Compare results and discuss.
  • Share this poem with a parent or other adult. Then ask if they too think of work as a toad squatting on their life. Have they ever wanted to shout “stuff your pension?” What is keeping them at their current job? Demand an honest, specific answer, then ask yourself what do you expect out of the career you will eventually choose? Demand the same.

How can he make his life different? Is he “courageous enough / To shout Stuff your pension!” to his boss? As the poem nears closure, he begins to wonder if “something sufficiently toad-like” squats in him too, that perhaps what he begins the poem fighting against is really part of his own identity. Although the poem ends without the speaker or reader really finding the answer to these questions, the speaker has learned something about himself.

Duty and Responsibility

Underlying the questions about work in “Toads” is the implicit assumption that the speaker feels a duty and responsibility to work. He is expected to be at his desk six out of seven days a week in order to be a productive and valued employee. At the time of the poem’s publication, Larkin worked as a librarian at Brynmor Jones Library of the University of Hull in Yorkshire, and stayed at that same job until his death in 1985. He managed a staff of more than a hundred employees. Both students and staff depended on him to organize a wealth of University resources.

This sense of responsibility is so strong for the speaker of “Toads” that even when he considers quitting, another part of himself speaks up, reminding like a parent “But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff / That dreams are made on.” His dreams, we learn later, also include fame, women, and money, at least two of which we know from Larkin’s biography he achieved. If the toad which squats on the speaker is daily grind at the office, then the toad which squats in him might be an inner duty, a self-discipline that keeps him at his desk.

Style

Considered a “traditionalist” poet and a master in his craft, Larkin combines formal poetic structure with colloquial language to create an interesting speaker’s voice in “Toads.” Using traditional poetic devices borrowed heavily from William Butler Yeats and Thomas Hardy, Larkin contains his humorous and pessimistic voice inside nine quatrains, or four-line stanzas. The stanzas themselves are built on an abab rhyme scheme, which means that the first and third lines rhyme a, as do the second and fourth lines b. This is traditionally known as hymnal measure.

Larkin bends his own rules with the use of “slant rhymes,” or words which may have matching consonant or vowel sounds, but not both. An example of this is in the first stanza, which rhymes “life” with “off,” or the third stanza which matches “lispers” with “paupers.” This use of “half” or “slant” rhymes, made famous by Emily Dickinson, help to soften and hide a traditional form so the content of the poem is not overshadowed by its “container.”

Historical Context

Although “Toads” reads like a manifesto of a person jailed for years, the poem is actually written by a man taking his first few steps into a lifelong career. In 1954, Larkin had just begun his new position as a librarian at the Brynmor Jones Library of the University of Hull in Yorkshire.

Perhaps aware of the magnitude of this decision when he wrote the poem, Larkin remained at that same job until his death in 1985. He managed a steadily growing staff of librarians until eventually more than a hundred employees worked under him. “Toads” not only reflects Larkin’s feelings at that time, but perhaps spoke for a generation finding themselves at the beginning of a long, narrow road.

Unlike the “blue collar” industrial jobs which dominated the workplace toward the beginning of the twentieth century, the 1950s signaled a shift to more “white collar” desk jobs. Society was headed into the “information age.” Jobs changed. Instead of manufacturing steel to build railroads or weaving fabric to clothe children, more and more people found themselves formulating reports or routing office memos.

The 1950s was a period of homogenization, a time of conformity over individuality. Symbolizing the time was the charcoal grey suit and narrow dark tie for businessmen who drove into the city by day and returned home to white picket fences and suburbs by night.

Newspapers reported the escalating tensions between Russia and England, France, and America. Cold war paranoia spread worldwide. Citizens were expected to be productive and conformist. The pressure to fit in meant that those who found themselves in the margins—those who did not put on a grey suit and head to the office each day—were often considered to be “losels” and “louts” and were met with suspicion by most citizens.

Robert Lowell, an American poet contemporary to Larkin, described the decade as the “tranquilized fifties,” capturing the distilled boredom and routine of the time. As Larkin grumbled about work, across the Atlantic a generation of writers raised their voices against the conservative standards and expectations. In the same year Larkin asks his readers “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life? / Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork / And drive the brute off?,” Beat poet Allen Ginsberg writes in his poem America, “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing / … When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?”

Both poets searched for an alternative to the pervasive attitude of the 1950s, and ironically, both come to similar poetic conclusions. Just as Larkin eventually discovers something toad-like squatting inside which keeps him from the lucky life of fame and women, Ginsberg too resigns himself: “America

Compare & Contrast

  • 1955: Beat poet Allen Ginsberg reads his poem “Howl” for the first time to a captivated audience at the Six Gallery in Berkeley. Jack Kerouac passes a jug of wine around. The whole room yells “Go! GO!” after each long line Ginsberg reads. The poem, later published by City Lights Books, becomes the “beatnik bible” for a generation of teens dissatisfied with the establishment.

    1997: Allen Ginsberg dies of natural causes in New York. Having influenced a generation of writers worldwide during his lifetime, obituaries run in literary and counter-culture magazines alike, from the Paris Review to Rolling Stone Magazine.

  • 1955: IBM introduces its first business computer. The compact mainframe is large enough to fill an entire room.

    1998: More than one in four families own personal computers, or PCs. These desk or laptop machines run on microprocessors far more powerful than the first IBMs, yet the chips are smaller than a fingernail.

  • 1955: Both Ann Landers and “Dear Abby” first appear as columnists in syndicated newspapers, answering readers’s confidential questions and offering advice.

    1998: There are virtually thousands of columnists, call-in radio shows, and television programs dedicated to answering a public’s endless need for advice on day-to-day matters, from choosing clothes to soul mates.

this is quite serious. / … I’d better get right down to the job.”

Critical Overview

While much commentary of “Toads” focuses on the speaker’s ambivalent and sardonic tone as he debates the necessity of work, critics do not seem to agree on an interpretation of the speaker’s conclusions. Martin Scofield, writing for The Massachusetts Review in his essay “The Poetry of Philip Larkin,” writes “The last stanza is perhaps equivocal; despite [Larkin’s] disclaimer, work does seem to be propping up ‘spiritual truth’.”

In his Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin, critic Andrew Swarbrick views the speaker’s conclusion as more of attempt to dodge blame for being in the situation he so vehemently gripes about. He writes: “In the poem’s conclusion, the speaker tries to argue that his having to settle for the world of work is not his fault: but almost buried within the poem is a more personally discrediting admission.” Perhaps Swarbrick speaks for first-time readers and seasoned critics alike when he complains that “Toads” “ends in a fog of abstraction.”

Criticism

Jhan Hochman

Jhan Hochman is a writer and instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Hochman discusses how various aspects of the poemstructure, symbolism, and tonedepict Larkin’s inner struggle between responsibility and freedom.

In “Toads” (1955), Philip Larkin depicts what is perhaps one of the more prevalent conflicts between need and desire—the need to work for money and the desire to live by one’s wits.

In “Toads,” work is embodied as a crouching, noxious toad (whose handling perhaps leads to calluses rather than warts). At least since the Book of Genesis, work has been called toil, and was the punishment for Adam and Eve. “Toads” maintains the Eden myth could do with some revision; Adam and Eve would now be less tempted to eat from the tree of knowledge than from the tree of financial success.

With this updated myth, work as a punishment is more directly reflective of contemporary economic necessity since it is less the desire for knowledge than it is the need for money which drives people to work. Larkin, however, is ashamed of the way he lets the toad squat upon his freedom. He uses the poem to work through his self-disgust. Eventually he arrives at an understanding, one that might be called anti-heroic; the toad, while no dragon, is damnably hard to chase away with the pitchfork of wit, and so must be accepted. Philip Larkin is no dragon-slayer.

Neither is he a romantic poet. Larkin, at least in his poems, is less interested in promoting romanticized sentiment than in accepting life as it must be lived. As with other contemporary poets of “The Movement,” a group of poets that also included Thom Gunn and Donald Davie, Larkin avoided rhetorical excess and cosmic heaviness, instead mining more mundane existences and conversational language for his poetry.

Larkin’s primary model was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), a poet who goaded readers to realize that love is fleeting and death just around the corner. Larkin, however, appears skeptical that people like Hardy can so easily accept the worst, and so uses his poetry to come to terms with what most think it best or easy to avoid. His attempt to deal with the worst is one reason Larkin said he wrote his poems, the others being that he felt they needed to be written. He criticized W. H. Auden for continuing to write poems; Larkin felt that Auden’s need to write had vanished.

Just as Larkin composed “Toads” out of a need to accept or reframe his cowardice before the toad of work, his poem, “At Grass” (1950), is working towards an acceptance of, perhaps even contentment with, the absence of notoriety. And there is also the poem, “Aubade” (1977), an attempt to come to terms with the fear of impending death.

It might be said that “Toads,” more than “At Grass” or “Aubade,” is more complex since the poet is torn between two alternatives, work and wit. Work is called a toad, a specific metaphor called theriomorphism, a figurative transformation whereby concepts or creatures are made into animals. Theriomorphism’s more well-known sister-metaphor is personification, wherein concepts or creatures become not animals, but persons or person-like, for example, when liberty is called “Lady Liberty,” and even becomes a statue greeting ships sailing into New York harbor.

Toads are considered by some the negative flip side of frogs who, with the notable exception of the abnormally large population of frogs sent as a plague by God in Exodus, usually herald desired rain and fertility. The toad is a negative symbol because some varieties of toad secrete a skin-irritating fluid as a defense against being eaten, and also because toads have bumps on their skin wrongly thought to cause warts on the people who handle them.

Larkin’s toad is a little different because its major negative trait seems to be squatting, a squatting that weighs the speaker down with hunkers (hips or thighs) heavy as the hard luck and cold snow he fears he will have to withstand if he gives up his job. The fear of the unknown and the security of predictability prevent him from hopping with the force of a toad into adventure and risk. Lest we forget, toads hop as well as squat. Larkin’s ignoring the fact that toads hop with incredible strength only goes to show that in order for most metaphors to function (good metaphors, by the way, leap from one concept to another like toads), they must focus on similarities and ignore a great deal of difference.

Toads, weighed down with the Larkin-imposed trait of being unwilling to jump, are counterposed to wit, blarney, and courage, i.e., the courage to wing it. In spite of Larkin, it might be helpful to think of the wit/soul/mind/spirit complex as a bird. At least since ancient Egypt, the bird has been a symbol of spirit/soul/mind, of activation and aspiration toward higher planes.

But perhaps the opposition between toad and bird can be distilled even further: squatting versus flying and “singing.” For example, Larkin wants to flee work, to escape toil by using the gift of wit, of enchanting speech, by using “winged words” as do “lecturers and lispers.” Lispers are those having or affecting the air of sophisticated culture, not persons with a speech impediment. Larkin thinks he might also avoid work by employing the wheedling talk of “losels” (scoundrels, con men) and “loblolly men” (boors or clowns), summed up as those with the gift of “blarney.” The Blarney Stone is a stone high in the wall of Blarney Castle and said to confer the gift of flattery upon those who can kiss it.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Larkin saved over 700 of his personal letters, revealing fascinating biographical information. Anthony Thwaite edited Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985.
  • To get a sense of how Larkin’s work relates to a larger poetic context, read Calvin Bedient’s Eight Contemporary Poets: Charles Tomlinson, Donald Davie, R. S. Thomas, Philip Larkin, W. S. Graham.
  • Salem Hassan explores Philip Larkin’s role in the British poetic “movement” in his book Philip Larkin and His Contemporaries: An Air of Authenticity.
  • Another British poet who wrote during the same period as Larkin, and who shared his distaste for public life, is Stevie Smith. Her Collected Poems is available from University of Oxford Press.

And if Larkin is not able to wing his way through life by the bird-like lilt of lingual flourish, perhaps he might scavenge like an abandoned dog, or like the desperately poor who Larkin naively thinks—probably because he has not seen it happen—never starve. But alas, Larkin knows too well he will never be able to take the leap and try to survive either by his mouth, or by a hand-to-mouth existence. His toad is not one who leaps, but lolls. It is not, as he says, that the toad weighs down his bird and keeps it from singing and flying, that the body weighs down the mind (“It is not that the one bodies the other / One’s spiritual truth”), but that when you have both a body that needs security and a mind that needs freedom, it is difficult to disregard (“lose”) either. Larkin’s conclusion is neither a reconciliation between body and mind, nor a decision to give up his fantasy of wit for mere toadish reality. Larkin is instead ambivalent; he must live with—must accept—the opposition between his ineradicable need to squat and his desire to fly, sing, or live by his wits.

Larkin’s uncomfortable dilemma of work versus “freedom” is thus maintained, not conveniently ignored. As if to mimic the ongoing battle between the need to work and the need to live with no obligations, the form of “Toads” exhibits repeated oppositions: the rhyme scheme, abab, is grounded in what is called “half-rhyme,” where, for example the final consonant “k” sound of “work” is forced to rhyme with “pitchfork” and the final consonant “f” sound of “life” with “off” in the first quatrain. Full rhyme might lessen the impact of the poem, would blend different sounds into a reconciliation at odds with a content focused on conflict. Even the number of lines and stanzas are divisible by two with opposing indentations in each stanza. No final stanza of say, three lines can reconcile Larkin’s opposition between the need to work and the desire to flee it. Furthermore, each stanza follows a beat pattern of 3232, that is, a first and third line of trimeter and second and fourth line of dimeter. Opposition is built into the very warp and weft of “Toads.”

Contrast “Toads” with Larkin’s “Toads Revisited” (1962). The latter poem is not only a revisitation, but a revision of Larkin’s perception of work. In “Toads Revisited,” work is accepted as the better alternative to the hard lives of the aged, the mentally unstable, and the homeless poor Larkin sees in the park. He no longer feels the temptation to stop working and has realized that work is better than destitution.

And the poem’s form largely reflects his revised sentiment: no pattern of opposing line indentations; nine stanzas instead of eight, the ninth as a resolution; lines almost exclusively of trimeter, the number three being a number not of opposition but resolution; a rhyme scheme of aabb instead of abab(though still employing slant rhyme, perhaps a minor weakness); and finally the last two lines of full rhyme, virtually a blended couplet that speaks to Larkin’s perhaps grudging acceptance of the toad, work.

By the end of reading both “Toads” and “Toads Revisited,” there is no blinding insight; instead there is an unsolvable conflict (“Toads”) and then resignation to the way things are (“Toads Revisited”). Larkin slays no dragons, cannot even chase away a toad. But then it takes a certain kind of un-toadlike creature to convert toadlike conflictedness and resignation into the decisive and winged words of poetry.

Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

Bruce Meyer

Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universitites and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer explores Larkin’s ruminations concerning life and work in his poem “Toads.”

When asked by Robert Phillips of The Paris Review how he arrived at the idea of “toads” as an image for working and the relationship between the individual and his daily job, Philip Larkin responded “Sheer genius.” As critics such as Andrew Motion, in his essay “Philip Larkin and Symbolism,” have suggested “Toads” is one of the poet’s most curious pieces, “tak[ing] the form of a debate between two sides of his [Larkin’s] personality—with the rebellious, freebooting, anti-authoritarian aspect having the first say.” On one hand, the persona of “Toads” feels secure in his working life, yet on the other hand he sees the possibilities of freedom in those who have shed the cloak of responsibility and respectability. As Larkin’s close friend, the poet and critic John Wain pointed out in Professing Poetry, “Ordinary life, Toad-land, is a touching dream. And also a dazzling vision. And intensely sad. And an empyrean where stones shine like gold above each sodden grave. This is the Larkinian imperative, the point at which his poetry assumes its authority and speaks out. Into this dailiest of daily lives comes the priest and the doctor, running, in their long coats; into this most prosaic of prose chronicles come the limbs crying for stillness …” Philip Larkin’s poetry is that of the common man in search of the balance that will make life livable and acceptable. Larkin concerns himself with the dichotomies that face the individual, in this case the choice between freedom and responsibility. The tough answer that he finds in “Toads” is the painful realization that he has chosen one way of life at the cost of the other and that existence is sadder because he can acknowledge and even understand what it would be like to be different. Larkin commented in The Listener in 1972 that “What I should like to do is write different kinds of poems that might be by different people. Someone said once that the great thing is not to be different from other people, but to be different from yourself.” For Larkin, the great observer of common life, the sadness lies imbedded in this realization. He is not a poet of dreams, but of realities and the way one confronts and lives up to those impositions of life that represent not the possible but the actual.

Philip Larkin’s poem, “Toads” (composed in 1953 and published in The Less Deceived, 1955) is about the relationship between the working man and his job. From Larkin’s perspective, a job is something one must do “six days a week” to the point that “it soils / with sickening poison.” What, he asks, is the price of work? He considers the alternatives to work—unemployment and even vagrancy—and weighs the benefits of “folk” who “live up lanes / With fires in a bucket, / Eat windfalls and tinned sardines.” Those who turn their backs upon the daily drudgery of a regular job and the way that a job wears one down are compared to “toads.” They bear an unseemliness, like their namesakes, and although they may fascinate the observer and even entice him to imagine himself as a work-free individual, they are, after all, slightly repulsive. This is something that the poet finds hard to understand because that very repulsiveness is part of his own personal make-up—the desire to find an alternative way to spend one’s life. After all, Larkin remarks, life as a jobless and homeless vagrant might not be so bad: “Lots of people live on their wits,” he notes, comparing the “toad” people to “Lecturers, lispers, / Losels, lobolly-men, louts,” and suggesting that “No one actually starves.” That toad-like quality, the desire to shuffle off the demands of respectability and professional dedication is something that “Squats in me, too.” For Larkin, the spirit of uselessness is something he must accommodate in his being, a dilemma that he faced as he began his career as a noted librarian at the University of Hull. It is the realization of “the toad work,” the concept of an alternative existence in a virtual “Land of Cockaigne,” being part of his nature that he struggles to resolve in the poem “Toads.”

Peter Breughel the Elder produced a fascinating painting titled The Land of Cockaigne in which a group of Renaissance period peasants laze about in a field, their stomachs full, on a warm summer day. This notion of dispensing with the pressures and obligations of daily responsibility in favor of an existence in which sustenance is provided almost by default rather than pursuit is an age-old concept. In nineteenth-century poetry, the concept of “vagabondia” as developed by American poet Richard Hovey and Canadian poet Bliss Carman in a series of poetry volumes, is viewed as an almost Utopian offshoot of the Wordsworthian Romantic ideal of man living in harmony with Nature. In the code of “vagabondia,” Nature provides miraculously for those who choose to pursue freedom rather than position, and the carefree vagabond is

“A subtheme that runs throughout Larkin’s entire oeuvre is the bitter realization that the gap between poetry and reality dictates that the poet redefine his position in the contemporary world ….”

happy just to walk the world, unbridled from obligation and responsibility. This concept of “vagabondia” had a number of key offshoots that, in terms of literary development, have led in different directions. In one manifestation, the vagabonds of Carman and Hovey’s nineteenth-century happy wanderings have manifested themselves as Samuel Beckett’s clown-like tramps of the Theatre of the Absurd in Waiting for Godot. But the thread from which Larkin takes his cue in “Toads” comes down to him via the poetry of W. H. Davies, Robert Frost, and Edward Thomas.

W. H. Davies, a popular Georgian poet of the early twentieth century, wrote a number of well-received books which evolved the vagabond figure into the British idea of “the tramp” (a major influence on the comedy of Charlie Chaplin). Davies’s most significant work, Autobiography of a Super-tramp (1908), came from his experiences a vagabond in North America following his introduction to the poetry of Carman and Hovey. Aside from the influence of Davies, Larkin was also a great admirer of the poetry of Edward Thomas who (when teamed in writing relationship with American poet Robert Frost who had met Hovey at Dartmouth College) further evolved the concept of the “free life” as a literary motif in twentieth-century English poetry.

Unlike his “vagabondia” predecessors, however, Larkin’s ideal is not rooted in freedom but in necessity. Larkin realizes that freedom is a literary illusion, and a rather weak one at that. He acknowledges actuality with a constancy that sets him apart among twentieth-century poets; yet there is a playfulness in Larkin’s choice of structure for “Toads.” He applies his observations and considerations in an abab rhymed stanza which, for all the prosaic tone and cadence of the lines, is actually a song stanza in much the same way that previous “vagabondia” lyrics used the element of song to celebrate freedom. Larkin turns the stanza structure on its head, almost in a gesture of black comedy, to effect an additional layer of irony (which in this case lies at the core of the poem’s essential dichotomy) to his conclusion that he has “both” worlds within his own. Andrew Motion suggests that this “conclusion in the final stanza is disarmingly compacted.” Motion continues that the poem’s statement, by the final stanza should “be obvious: that working and not working complement each other. The compression itself forms a crucial part of the poem’s meaning. It conveys a sense of being trapped in an argument, and of a deliberate, difficult effort at self-persuasion.”

What is intriguing, biographically, about “Toads” is that it was written so early in Larkin’s own professional life, at the outset of his long and distinguished career as librarian at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones Library. In a letter to Robert Conquest written on April 14, 1955, about the time Larkin’s The Less Deceived went to press, Larkin commented that “Hull has me shagged out at the moment, partly through work,” and quoted “Toads” almost as an emblem or motto for his existence at that time: “(‘six days of the week it soils’ etc.) and partly through living in an awful hostel where I can get no peace. But that will soon be altered, whether for better or not I can’t say yet. In the meantime, poetry is impossible.” This last statement suggests that Larkin may have felt a connection between the “work” in “Toads” and the process of poetic composition, or the painful experience of not being able to write. For poets, this is the worst kind of experience. The debate, it can be argued, at least on a compositional level, is not between daily work and freedom, but between life and the desire to write. The playful pursuit of song through the ironic misuse of the song stanza for humorous purposes contains a rather bleak message of the relationship between the poet and his world. A subtheme that runs throughout Larkin’s entire oeuvre is the bitter realization that the gap between poetry and reality dictates that the poet redefine his position in the contemporary world—a belief that was held not only by Larkin but by his compatriots of the period. In the introduction to the anthology New Lines (1956), the poets who became known as The Movement—Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and John Wain—suggested that the role of poetry was not to pursue typically “poetic” ideals but to articulate a vision that was “anti-phony, anti-wet.” In other words, Larkin and others held the belief that poetry should turn away from “petered out sentimentalism” and “combat” the trend toward poetry as a vehicle for the poetic ideal and opt for a “reverence for the real person or event.” Larkin continued to assert this belief throughout his poetic career and commented to The Times in February of 1974 that he wanted his readers to come away from the poem not with “the poem, but the experience; I want them to live something through the poem, without necessarily being conscious of the poem as a poem.”

In a voice typical of The Movement poets, Larkin draws a clear line in “Toads” between daily reality and the way literature makes us think the world should be. The sixth-stanza lament, “Ah, were I courageous enough / To shout Stuff your pension! / But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff / That dreams are made on” echoes Prospero’s lines that close the comic masque betrothal revels of Ferdinand and Miranda in Act IV, Scene i of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Like Prospero in that famous speech on the nature of illusion, Larkin seems to be implying that the illusion of freedom that the persona sees in the world of the jobless is actually a “baseless fabric of this vision” where all “shall dissolve, / And like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.” Such is the message of many of Larkin’s finest poems: “Aubade,” “The Whitsun Weddings,” and the sequel poem to “Toads” from his next volume, The Whitsun Weddings, “Toads Revisited.” For Larkin, however, the fleetingness of life is nothing to sentimentalize; yet the sadness of the “insubstantial pageant” remains to haunt his work.

In “Toads Revisited” Larkin considers those who have dodged “the toad work” as “being stupid or weak” while at the same time imagining himself in their place. He opts for his “in-tray,” his “loaf-haired secretary,” and his menial power to keep a caller waiting on the phone. In the end, however, Larkin surmises that both lives, the life of the free vagabonds and those who pursue “toad work,” lead to the same conclusion: “Help me down Cemetery Road.” In an almost elegiac note reminiscent of Thomas Gray in “An Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” the paths of glory, drudgery, or simple indifference to the responsibilities of life “lead but to the grave.” What is key in all this, perhaps the saving grace of a rather bleak vision, is that Larkin teaches us to be able to imagine something different for ourselves; for a moment we learn how we can transport ourselves into another reality if only to realize the certainty and fixity of our own conditions. The end result of “such stuff as dreams are made on” is the power not to see ourselves differently, but as ourselves. After all, the hardest thing to imagine is oneself and the purpose of “Toads” and its successor poem is to lead the reader through the harsh and ironic dilemma of otherness to the clarity of self-realization.

Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

Sources

Brownjohn, Alan, Philip Larkin, Longman Group, 1975.

Larkin, Philip, Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989.

Motion, Andrew, Philip Larkin, Methuen, 1982.

Rossen, Janice, Philip Larkin: His Life’s Work, University of Iowa Press, 1989.

Scofield, Martin, “The Poetry of Philip Larkin” in The Massachusetts Review, Summer, 1976.

Swarbrick, Andrew, Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin, Macmillan, 1995.

Timms, David, Philip Larkin, Oliver and Boyd, 1973.

For Further Study

Latre, Guido, Locking Earth to the Sky: A Structuralist Approach to Philip Larkin’s Poetry, Peter Lang Publishing, 1995.

Exploring Larkin’s use of traditional form, Latre discovers many fascinating relationships between his tight poetic structure and everyday language.

Motion, Andrew, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1993.

Motion draws from Larkin’s entire archive of work to make both literary and psychological conclusions regarding the “cranky” and “overwhelmingly humorous” poet.

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