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That was a pretty one, I heard you call
Oliver's Riverside Blues, it was.
Truly, though our element is time,
This poem is based upon Larkin’s mother. After his father died, he would regularly visit her, although as the poem shows in “I / Played record after record, idly, / Wasting away my time at home”, he received little pleasure from the experience. As well as this break, and lack of communication, there is also a dichotomy of thought, for his mother “looked so much forward to” the time her son was at home.
The title ‘Reference Back’ has its usual Larkin ambiguity. The term is a musical one, apt as music plays a large role in this poem. The idea of referencing back, looking back, is also developed within the poem, and Larkin supposes that he will “always remember how / those flock of notes […] made this sudden bridge” – literally became a “reference”.
As with many others, the poem begins with a line of direct speech: “That was a pretty ones.” His mother comments on the song that he has just “idly” played, the classic blues song Riverside Blues, written “the year after [he] was born”. For that brief moment, in both enjoying the music, there is a connection between them: a “sudden bridge”, which puns on another musical term. Despite him being, at present, in his “prime”, the ‘best’ time of life, he is no better than his mother’s “age” as both are “unsatisfactory”. In life, it raises the much more universal question, are we ever truly satisfied?
Larkin reflects upon the transience of life, how despite time being our “element” – we cannot survive without it – “we’re not suited for to the long perspectives / Open at each instant of our lives”. We’re not suited to reflection that ordinary instances, like the bridging of musical tastes between mother and son, cause, because they “link us to our losses”. It is very like the melancholy end to ‘Love Songs in Ages’, for in looking back, we see life “as it once was, / Blindingly undiminished,” – full of youthfulness, hope and optimism. It seems that growing changes us for the worse, and a sad conviction that “by acting differently we could have kept it so”.
From the specific moment and personal poem about his mother (use of second person personal pronouns), Larkin moves to a more universal point about growing and changing. However, there is a sense of ambiguity at the end, in the words “just as though”. Is there any way we could ever act “differently”?