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Slowly the women file to where he stands
Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair,
Dark suit, white collar. Stewards tirelessly
Persuade them onwards to his voice and hands,
Within whose warm spring rain of loving care
Each dwells some twenty seconds. Now, dear child,
What's wrong, the deep American voice demands,
And, scarcely pausing, goes into a prayer
Directing God about this eye, that knee.
Their heads are clasped abruptly; then, exiled
Like losing thoughts, they go in silence; some
What's wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:
Similar in some ways to ‘Love Songs in Age’, this poem is about women, though it describes a group of women rather than focusing on the particular one in ‘Love Songs’. Like many of Larkin’s poems, it’s based on a real event, him visiting a cinema and seeing an American evangelist in action (the “he” in the poem). These elderly women, who have nothing to ease the pain in their lives, have come to him, seeking help about “this eye, that knee”.
However, Larkin’s presentation of the scene isn’t a pretty one. There is something rushed about the proceedings, “Stewards tirelessly persuade them onwards” and deep irony in the juxtaposition of the nice image of his “warm spring rain of loving care” and “Each dwells some twenty seconds”. The man doesn’t actually care about the women coming to him; the process is more like a mass production line where he aims to see as many as he can. This impression continues throughout the stanza, “scarcely pausing” and “clasped abruptly”, the latter adverb being very harsh.
The man is also self-consciously aware of his own ‘righteousness’. “stands / Upright”, speaks in a patronising tone, “now, dear child” and in “Directing God”, he has assumed power over God… The way the women’s problems are referred to as “this eye, that knee” gives another sense of his attitude towards them, casual, uncaring.
In the second stanza, “Just yet” (the beginning of a line, to draw attention to it) suggests that they will eventually stray “back into their lives”. However, though the evangelist may have been a phoney, the emotion he provoked within these women is genuine. Despite their age and the trials they’ve faced, something within “idiot child” still responds to even the hint of kindness, and they “re-awake at kindness” (the phoney makes their story sadder still).
Into the final stanza, Larkin describes them as “Moustached in flowered frocks”, giving a sense of their ugliness. While some might interpret it as some kind of misogynistic attitude Larkin had of women, the poem seems to portray them in a sympathetic light. “Moustached” is a real observance, and because of it, the simple kindness triggers a landslide of emotions: “such joy arrives / Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief”.
The joy turns to sadness in the exclamatory, “What’s wrong!” suggesting the desperation and frustration: it’s not an interrogative; one should know what’s wrong. The turn of emotions is caused as they reflect upon the “sense of life lived according to love” and “all they might have done had they been loved”. Larkin’s huge simile conveys the scale of the agony this epiphany brings about: “immense slackening ache, / As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps.”
This poem shows a section of society that is shunned of love, hardened by its loss. Yet, despite this, the slightest tenderness – even if fake – can bring out the shining emotions that would have been present if they’d had that chance of love. The sad point is furthered by the phoney, emotionless nature of the evangelist. Though he pretends to cure their “knee” or “eye”, the deeper emotional pain and loneliness that brought them here “nothing cures”.
If we compare this poem with ‘Love Songs in Age’, however, the bleak picture is further augmented: for in that poem, the woman had love, yet it held up to none of its promises.