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The Importance of Elsewhere

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch.

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

Analysis

Before he came to Hull, Larkin worked in a library in Belfast, where the inspiration for this poem “lonely in Ireland” comes from. He did, however, dislike travel and being away from England, though as this poem demonstrates, it does have advantages.

In the first stanza, and into the second, the persona explores the idea of being “elsewhere”. “Strangeness” there “made sense”, because when we’re “elsewhere”, it makes sense to be an outsider and stranger. “Salt rebuff of speech” is a description of the harsh northern Irish accent, and Larkin likes that it is “Insisting so on difference” – for him, it is a relief to not have to be the same as the people around him.

The second stanza describes Belfast, evoking all the senses: “draughty streets” (touch), “archaic smell” (smell), “herring-hawker’s cry” (hearing). In some ways, the description is similar to the “fishy-smelling / Pastoral” in ‘Here’. Though different, Larkin feels he has an excise for that difference in “To prove me separate, not unworkable”.

“Living in England has no such excuse”, however. Notice the pronoun usage which also augments the difference: “Their streets…” and in England, these are “my customs”. While he could get away with being antisocial in Ireland, “It would be much more serious to refuse.” The final line reminds us again of the poem ‘Here’ with its first word, and the isolation that he seeks. “Underwrites” is a legal term, meaning to guarantee or confirm; it is ironic really that only in “elsewhere” can he feel confirmed of his “existence”.

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