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Dockery and Son
This poem is one of the most melancholic of Larkin’s collection, and like many, it starts with a specific, real instance before moving to a more general contemplation. Larkin, here, is a “visitant” to the “Dean”, returning to Oxford University.
From the offset, there is a sombre mood evoked through “death-suited”. It suggests that Larkin feels, himself, death just around the corner, shrouding him; or perhaps it is that Dockery has died, and that’s why Larkin has made the journey to his old university, that the “death-suit” is literally a suit for the dead.
Returning to Oxford, there is a sense of alienation and isolation. In the direct speech from the Dean, we hear that Dockery’s “son’s here now”, following the common tradition of Oxbridge alumni’s child to follow in their parents’ footsteps. It cuts the persona off immediately, who has ‘outgrown’ this place. He loses himself in the memories of how “half-tight” he’d once give his “‘version’ of ‘these events last night’”. Of course, the Dean’s words contrast now, in “do / You keep in touch with”.
The enjambment, leading to stress on the word “locked” also evokes the sense of alienation – Larkin can no longer enter a place that was once “home”. Almost like ‘Home is So Sad’, though now there is a physical barrier. Larkin leaves, catching the train “ignored”.
The ideas that have come from the meeting with the Dean are not so easy to leave behind. Larkin reflects upon Dockery, how he was “that withdrawn / High-collared public-schoolboy” – not someone to have sex, to produce a son. And not so young as “nineteen”. Again, there is a reference to death, the transience of life, in Cartwright, his roommate, “who was killed.” The persona seems to be greatly conflicted by the ideas that greet him, and he trails off into sleep, “how much… how little…” with the matter unresolved.
On the platform, Larkin sees that “the ranged / Joining and parting lines reflect a strong / Unhindered moon” before him – a visual metaphor for the different strains of existence that we can travel down. Dockery has one line, Larkin another, but for that brief moment in Oxford, their lines “joined”.
A perfect summary of Larkin’s life to this point comes at the beginning of the fourth stanza:
To have no son, no wife, No house or land still seemed quite natural.
Of all the poems, this one seems to contain the greatest self-recognition, the closest the persona can be to Larkin, the poet. “Only a numbness registered the shock / Of finding how much had gone of life.” As time passes, has his life, so far, been a waste? When he holds up Dockery and his son in contrast, what does he have to show for his life?
But again, as he draws these contrasts, comes to the conclusion that Dockery, at only “nineteen” had “taken stock / Of what he wanted”, there is further doubt. “No, that’s not the difference” between them. Larkin believes that Dockery merely followed the “innate assumption” that he should marry and have children.
For Larkin, the idea of being “added to” – having a “wife”, a “son” – meant dilution. Larkin believed the expression: “the greatest enemy of art is the pram in the hall.” He believed, to be married and have children would stifle his creativity, take him away from the art that he centred himself around, divide him. This was one of the reasons why, despite his long relationships, he never married.
He questions these “innate assumptions” that family is good. He doesn’t believe they come from “what / We think truest, or most want to do”. Because of the “innate assumptions”, our true desires “warp tight-shut, like doors” – like the door in Oxford.
But it’s these “innate assumptions” that “Suddenly harden into all we’re got”. For Larkin, looking back, he sees that he has “nothing” – stressed by the repetition of the word. Yet even for Dockery, with his son, the assumptions are threatening, as they “rear / Like sand-clouds, thick and close” – suffocating.
Like in ‘Self’s the Man’, there is a question of who, ultimately, is better off. Here, Larkin reflects, there is no answer to that, because “whether we use it or not, it goes”. Regardless of how we use our lives, we are all headed for the same point: “age, and then the only end of age” – death.