First Sight

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.


To quote my current English teacher: “If anyone ever complains that Larkin is a miserable old git, show them this poem to prove them wrong.” (Not sure why I can recall my teacher’s words…but be grateful, not scared!)

‘First Sight’ is a simple poem about lambs taking their first steps into the world, and the title serves partly for this purpose: either, it is literally the lambs’ “first sight” or it is the poet’s “first sight” of the lambs, or even seeing the lambs in a new light.

The poem is about the passage of time, a theme prevalent in a number of poems. Like ‘Afternoons’, it uses the idea of winter being the season of death and cold: “their bleating clouds the air” “vast unwelcome” “wretched width of cold”. For the lambs, coming out into “snow”, being born is almost like death, and equally oxymoronic is the “sunless glare”.

However, despite the initial bleakness of life-like-death, a sense of anticipation builds in the the second stanza as they "wait". “Hidden round them, waiting too,” builds to the wonderful positive phrase, “Earth’s immeasurable surprise.” Coming soon, though “they could not grasp it if they knew” (and part of what makes it so wonderful is the unknowing, the “surprise”) is the season of spring, which “so soon will wake and grow / Utterly unlike the snow”. The poem ends in hope, that after the long cold season of death, there is the new spring of life and growth.

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