Dockery and Son

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November 2008

Nomination: Dockery and Son [28 March 1963. From The Whitsun Weddings]

Larkin minced no words in his discussions of children. He condemns them as ‘awful’ and expresses his gratitude that ‘I’ve never lived in hideous contact with them… The nearer you are to being born, the worse you are’ (FR 48). In his interview with the Observer he calls them ‘selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes’ (RW 48). He makes sure we know the feeling is not a new one: ‘I hated everybody when I was a child, or I thought I did. When I grew up, I realized that what I hated was children’ (FR 47).

This is obviously a man who didn’t have much desire for parenthood. And yet, in this poem, he speaks to me as the mother of two young sons and a person who doesn’t find children awful (at least, not most of the time). This poem uncomfortably confronts my assumptions about reproducing: have I increased or diluted myself? And it helps me, happily, to find myself more closely aligned with Dockery than with the speaker.

I like the speaker here because he’s willing to say what he thinks, as he thinks it, and he might be right. I like hearing that having children doesn’t have to be what everyone does; and, of course, it is selfish in its own way. And I appreciate that he credits Dockery (and therefore, by association, me) with having thought so thoroughly about whether we ‘should be added to.’

I can see why the speaker’s made his choice, but I’m glad I’ve made mine. ‘Whether or not we use it, it goes…’ Certainly Dockery (and therefore, by association, I) will finish up in the same place as the speaker in the end, but maybe he has used his life; and maybe I’ve used mine.

I’d guess that most people don’t think of ‘Dockery and Son’ as a feel-good sort of poem, but its process of thinking through this big question, and the places that thinking takes the speaker, takes me to some useful places too.

Gillian Steinberg

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