Love Songs In Age

She kept her songs, they took so little space,
The covers pleased her:
One bleached from lying in a sunny place,
One marked in circles by a vase of water,
One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,
And coloured, by her daughter -
So they had waited, till in widowhood
She found them, looking for something else, and stood

Relearning how each frank submissive chord
Had ushered in
Word after sprawling hyphenated word,
And the unfailing sense of being young
Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein
That hidden freshness, sung,
That certainty of time laid up in store
As when she played them first. But, even more,

The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,
Broke out, to show
Its bright incipience sailing above,
Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order. So
To pile them back, to cry,
Was hard, without lamely admitting how
It had not done so then, and could not now.


This, perhaps my favourite Larkin poem, is based loosely on his mother. It begins, unlike a lot of Larkin’s poems, with a third person pronoun, “She.” Without a name, however, the poem becomes more universal, speaking about women in general, or even humans in general…

The first stanza describes the finding of the songs. That “they took so little space” gives an impression of a tidy person, only keeping them as they’re out of the way – an insignificance – and this characterising occurs later too, in “One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,” as though tidying is out of her control. (Larkin’s mother was a very tidy person).

The listing in the first stanza gives a sense of the songs' sentiment, how picking each one out brings a whole memory with it.

“She found them, looking for something else” shows the discovery is accidental, or serendipity (a happy chance) and as the poem moves into the second stanza and she begins “Relearning”, the poem takes on a melodious tone, “word after sprawling hyphenated word” to mirror this. It is really quite effective, and shows Larkin’s mastery of words… (in my opinion).

“The unfailing sense of being young / Spread out like a spring-woken trees” connects youth to the idea of Spring, as we see in a number of other poems like ‘First Sight’. The poem is made more potent by the woman’s age, that only in “widowhood” does she find them, and the nostalgia sweeps over her. When we are young, we have “That certainty of time laid up in store”, the belief that we have so much time to do everything in life, we could want… it’s only as we age, that we realise time is limited…

Moving into the third stanza, the concept of “much-mentioned”, almost clichéd, love is presented in its “brilliance”: love lifts us up “its bright incipience sailing above”; it is “still promising to solve, to satisfy”; and brings order to chaos “set unchangeably in order”. However, in a moment of tearful recognition, “to cry,” the character reflects on how love has not fulfilled those bright promises, leaving the last sad note: “It had not done so then, and could not now.”

The poem shows how attitudes change over time, and how love, promising so much, fails to deliver.

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