Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Toads, by Philip Larkin

In March 1954, when he wrote "Toads", Philip Larkin was working as a sub-librarian at Queen's University, Belfast, having held the post for nearly four years. His initial enthusiasm for the job had worn off and he was ready for a change. Later that year he applied for the post of Librarian at Hull University and was successful; he would continue as Librarian there until his death 30 years later. One of his fears when making his application was that the interview panel would have read "Toads" and assumed that it represented his attitude to work. However, either they had not, or they recognised it as a typical example of Larkin's ironic self-mocking style.

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?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
That's out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losers, 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-
They seem to like it.

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

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
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
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,
When you have both.


"Toads" comprises nine four-line stanzas with an ABAB rhyme scheme. However, there is only one true rhyme in the whole poem (enough/stuff in the sixth stanza), with all the rest being half-rhymes at best (such as toad-like/hard luck and blarney/money). The effect of this is to give the poem a certain amount of structure but not too much. There is therefore an element of uncertainty running through it, as though Larkin is hinting that this is all a bit tongue-in-cheek and not to be taken too seriously. Larkin clearly hoped that his hint was strong enough for the interviewing panel at Hull, and apparently it was!

In Western tradition, the toad has long been seen as an unwelcome presence that can bring harm to people. It has been associated with witchcraft, as noted by J. K Rowling in her "Harry Potter" series, in that the toad is one of four creatures (the others being the cat, the rat and the owl) that trainee witches and wizards are allowed to have as "familiars". It was believed to spit poison, and John Milton in "Paradise Lost" has Satan disguised as a toad speaking "poisonous" words into Eve's ear. Toad secretions can certainly be used to produce hallucinogenic substances, so it is not surprising that such legends have persisted.

Larkin uses the toad as a symbol for something dark and brooding that squats, motionless and cold-blooded, next to (or inside) one and which cannot be shaken off, much like Eve's toad mentioned above. In his first stanza he identifies the toad with "work", although he wants the metaphor to serve for something that is both poisonous and heavy. It squats "on my life" and also "soils / With its sickening poison".

Larkin toys with the idea of being able to ignore the need to work and, instead, live on his wits (i.e. his poetry). The idea of starving in a garret like a 19th century artist (shades of Puccini's "La Boheme") had a theoretical appeal to Larkin; he had lived in attic rooms in other places and had tended to over-emphasize their bareness and squalor in his letters to friends and family. As he says in the third stanza: "Lots of folk live on their wits", and he proceeds to list a few categories:

"Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts –
They don't end up as paupers"

Larkin seems to be having fun with alliteration here, by trying to find a selection of possible "wit-livers" beginning with and containing the letter "L", perhaps drawing an analogy with his own surname. He therefore comes up with an interesting list of people who apparently do not have to work for a living, with "lecturers" being a tongue-in-cheek dig at the university teachers whose demands for the tracking down of obscure references would be one of the reasons for a sub-librarian to feel that he was being besieged by toads! "Losel" is a middle-English word for a worthless person, and a "loblolly man" was an untrained medical orderly on board an early naval ship (who would presumably have had to use bluff in order to persuade his patients that he knew what he was talking about). Whether, to quote Larkin, they "don't end up as paupers" would depend on one's definition of a pauper.

Likewise, one might argue with Larkin's assertion that poor people who "eat windfalls and tinned sardines" (and "seem to like it"), and whose "unspeakable wives / Are skinny as whippets", do not actually starve.

However, Larkin then states that the idea of throwing up his job and living a bohemian existence is unrealistic and "the stuff / That dreams are made on" (a direct quotation from Shakespeare's "The Tempest", spoken as part of Prospero's "resignation speech" which accords with Larkin resigning himself to reality). The reason that Larkin gives is that the external toad of work is accompanied by "something sufficiently toad-like" that is internal (it "squats in me, too") and simply will not allow him to do what his flights of fancy might suggest would be a good idea. He comes clean and admits that what he wanted all along was not the artistic purity of bohemianism but the ability:

"… to blarney
My way to getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All in one sitting."

However, the reason why this is impossible for Larkin is that such a solution would be to deny himself and to act in contradiction to his own nature. Larkin once said that "deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth", by which he meant that a life without pain (of some sort) would have been one without creativity. He cannot escape the toad of work because he has the toad (not equivalent to the first but only "sufficiently toad-like") inside himself that is the constant requirement to be discontented and unsatisfied with life. One is reminded of Larkin's admiration for the poems and novels of Thomas Hardy, another writer for whom alienation from the world was his driving creative force.

In terms of his two toads, Larkin concludes his poem by saying that it is not the fact that the "spiritual" truth of either toad is embodied by the other, but that: "it's hard to lose either, / When you have both". In Larkin's case it was not just hard, it was impossible and, indeed, undesirable. Without his toads, Larkin would not have been Larkin.

© John Welford