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When looking at this poem, it’s useful to consider Larkin’s earlier poem ‘Toads’, because this, as the title indicates, is a second look at the “toad work”. In comparison of the two, this poem is a more “matured” look at the idea of work, though it does work with similar levels of irony. It is based upon Larkin’s time in a flat overlooking Pearson Park.
The poem opens in the continuous present tense, “Walking around in the park”. It causes the opening to be vague, giving no indication of when the walking occurs, or even, the subject of the description, who is doing the walking, and, as with many of Larkin’s poems, adds a more universal tone.
In these earlier stanzas, a nice image of time of work is presented: “The lake, the sunshine, / The grass to lie on”, a much less aggressive tone to that seen in ‘Toads’, concluding: “Not a bad place to be.” However, we are immediately forewarned that this is no more than an illusion in the word “should”: while it should be like this, the reality is quite different.
This contrast soon comes: “Yet it doesn’t suit me, / Being one of the men / You meet in the afternoon”. The unusual word structure is easy to misinterpret here, so be careful to read it as: it doesn’t suit me to be one of those men. The poem lists the men one might find out of work on an afternoon, and none of the images are pleasant. “Palsied old step-takers” – shaking old men – “Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters” – red-eyed, terrified clerks, who granted this sudden freedom, have no idea what to do with it – “Waxed-fleshed out-patients” – sickly-looking patients from the nearby hospital. Then there are the “characters in long coats”, which perhaps reminds us of the terrifying, yet nonsensical image of ‘Days’, more vividly, connecting all these “work dodgers” with death.
The persona adopts an aloof tone when thinking about those “being stupid or weak”. He describes their passive lives, how they are “Watching the bread delivered, / The sun by clouds covered, / The children going home” and “Turning over their failures”. Yet, there is a layer of irony with perhaps discredits the persona’s words, for it is not actually these people with “Nowhere to go”, that are contemplating “their failures”, but the persona, projecting those thoughts upon them. The rhyme scheme here seems to augment to ridicule, stretching it to rhyme “failures” with “lobelias”, much like the rhyming couplets in ‘Self’s the Man’.
The persona, moving into the next stanza, concludes that he is quite content with work in comparison, very unlike the voice of ‘Toads’, saying: “give me my in-tray”. The reference to "loaf-haired secretary" is probably a reference to Larkin's own secretary and lover Betty Mackereth.
In the final stanza, with, "When the lights come on at four / At the end of another year," there is a sense of time passing. "Give me your arm, old toad" suggests friendliness between the work and the persona, unlike in ‘Toads’. However, there is more irony in the final line: “Help me down Cemetery Road.”
Ultimately, is the persona any better than those deathly “characters in long coats” or “waxed-fleshed out patients”? Despite his contempt for them, he is dependant on work, to help him along the road to death – “down Cemetery Road”. It helps him to survive, by providing an alternative to thinking about the grim prospect of death. Just like those people “dodging the toad work”, he too is hurrying towards death.
In the end, this poem leaves on with ambiguity, like so many of Larkin’s poems. Is work something to be embraced, “give me your arm” or should we use our “wit as a pitchfork / And drive the brute off” as 'Toads' suggests? Does it actually matter either way when we’re all travelling down “Cemetery Road”?