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This poem is based upon the only woman Larkin came close to marriage with: his first girlfriend Ruth Bowman. She had a friend called Jane, who is the model for the “bosomy English rose”, while sixteen-year-old Ruth was “her friend in specs I could talk to”.
The idea of “specs” reminds us of ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, a self-deprecating poem, and in its way, this isn’t dissimilar. The title ‘Wild Oats’ comes from a common euphemism for sex: an encouragement for boys to go out and ‘saw some wild oats’ – sleep with lots of women before getting serious. During the 1950s, there was still a real dichotomy between males and females: men were encouraged to ‘get out there’, while women were advised to remain chaste.
Considering ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ and Larkin, though, this seems a somewhat ironic title: no matter the adolescent fantasies of the persona in ‘A Study’, Larkin doesn’t seem the type to have cast many. Immediately in this poem, the persona is intimidated by the “rose” and “it was the friend I took out”. In the second stanza, he believes he “met beautiful twice” and he is convinced that both times “she was trying” “not to laugh”. It shows again the low self-confidence, unlike the “wild oats”.
The relationship went on for “seven years” and even as far as engagement, “Gave a ten-guinea ring,” but in the end it didn’t last. The persona’s colloquial attitude to the giving is rather dismissive anyway, and the whole poem is tongue-in-cheek. In real life, Larkin was quite cruel to Ruth, and the conclusion is probably what she said of Larkin, “That I was too selfish, withdrawn, / And easily bored to love.” Again, the persona is dismissive and tongue-in-cheek in response to this: “Well, useful to get that learned.”
Though this is a reflection on the past of “about twenty years ago”, the persona still has “two snaps / Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on”. The persona comes to the trivial conclusion, in that he is still single, that they are “unlucky charms”. Yet, as with many of Larkin’s poems, the last word discredits this light-hearted conclusion: “perhaps.” Perhaps those “snaps” are “unlucky charms”, but perhaps there is a much darker, more serious reason for the ‘Mr Bleaney’-like existence.