Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Toads Revisited, by Philip Larkin

As the title suggests, "Toads Revisited" refers to an earlier poem, namely "Toads" which Philip Larkin wrote in March 1954. The gap to the poem under review was more than eight years, to October 1962, when Larkin was firmly established as the chief librarian of Hull University. He was no longer hoping for advancement to a top job in his profession as he had achieved his ambition. His attitude to work, which is central to both poems, seems to have undergone a subtle change in the interim. "Toads Revisited" was published in Larkin's 1964 collection "The Whitsun Weddings".

The poem

Walking around in the park
Should feel better than work:
The lake, the sunshine,
The grass to lie on,

Blurred playground noises
Beyond black-stockinged nurses -
Not a bad place to be.
Yet it doesn't suit me.

Being one of the men
You meet of an afternoon:
Palsied old step-takers,
Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,

Waxed-fleshed out-patients
Still vague from accidents,
And characters in long coats
Deep in the litter-baskets -

All dodging the toad work
By being stupid or weak.
Think of being them!
Hearing the hours chime,

Watching the bread delivered,
The sun by clouds covered,
The children going home;
Think of being them,

Turning over their failures
By some bed of lobelias,
Nowhere to go but indoors,
Nor friends but empty chairs -

No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:
What else can I answer,

When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.


In the earlier poem, Larkin used the metaphor of a toad to stand for something dark, heavy and oppressive that dominated one's life in an unwelcome way and could not be shaken off. The need to work for a living, together with the duties and responsibilities thus entailed, was one such toad, but allied to it was the poet's mental state that required him to remain discontented with life as this was his inspiration to be creative.

Like "Toads", "Toads Revisited" comprises nine four-line stanzas in which Larkin makes extensive use of half-rhymes that have the effect of suggesting connections between concepts but without lending any certainty to the links. On the two occasions when a full rhyme is used the contrast is striking enough to make the reader take notice. A difference between the two poems is that the later poem has an AABB rhyme-scheme instead of ABAB in "Toads".

In "Toads Revisited", Larkin has escaped from his desk, possibly during his lunch break, and is "Walking around in the park" on a sunny day which, as he says, "Should feel better than work". However, as one of the only two rhymed couplets in the poem makes clear, this is:

"Not a bad place to be.
Yet it doesn't suit me,"

What doesn't suit Larkin is being the same as the other people he can see in the park who are: "All dodging the toad work / By being stupid or weak". In "Toads", Larkin had listed various categories of non-workers, in a tone of amused admiration, as people who lived on their wits and who might thus be envied. However, when he now says (and repeats) "Think of being them", in referring to the down-and-outs who are "Turning over their failures / By some bed of lobelias", he does so out of pity rather than envy.

Larkin emphasises the point by painting expressive word-pictures both of the people in question ("Palsied old step-takers … Waxed-fleshed out-patients … characters in long coats / Deep in the litter-baskets") and the lives they lead ("Hearing the hours chime … Watching the bread delivered … No friends but empty chairs").

Instead, Larkin welcomes the world of work, expressed as "… my in-tray, / My loaf-haired secretary" (the reference is to a strange, and presumably fashionable, hairstyle that his secretary had temporarily adopted), and ends the poem with the second rhyming couplet:

"Give me your arm, old toad,
Help me down Cemetery Road."

There is therefore an acceptance of "the toad work" as being not only necessary but desirable. By accepting that work will be with him all his life (a prophetic statement given that Larkin was still in office at Hull until the day he died in 1985) he can treat it as a friend and not the evil imposition that was implied by the use of the word "toad" in his earlier poem.

Indeed, there is no hint in "Toads Revisited" of the second meaning of "toad" referred to above. There is anger in the poem, but it is directed at the social condition of other people who are without work and are forced to hang around the park all day, and not at the inner compulsion to be discontented. There is less personal feeling here, and for that reason it is not as hard-hitting a poem.

The question then arises of which is the better poem? That is, however, an unfair question, because the two "Toad" poems are not doing the same things. Although Larkin is revisiting the concept of his toad metaphor, he is not considering it from the same perspective. Although both poems demonstrate typical Larkin wit, the latter is more easy-going and works on a different level. This poem shows the mature Larkin at the height of his form as a wordsmith, engaged in a conversation with his readers and challenging them to agree or disagree with his sardonic view of the world of work.

To mark the 25th anniversary of Larkin's death, the Philip Larkin Society commissioned the creation of forty fibreglass models of toads, each a metre tall, to be placed at locations around the city of Hull, this being a project that drew attention to the two "toad" poems and recognised their significance within the Larkin canon. Despite problems with funding and vandalism, the toads became highly popular and raised £60,000 for charity when they were auctioned in September 2010. A number of the buyers wanted their toads to remain on public display in the city, thus providing an unusual example of a physical reminder of a pair of poems by a well-loved poet.

The pictured toad was painted as a caricature of the poet.

© John Welford

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