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September 2011

Nomination: Breadfruit [19 November 1961. From Collected Poems (1988)]

This is a poem that proclaims itself Larkin’s in many ways: by theme, by style and most delightfully by its wit. Written in 1961, and also published that winter – even though Larkin described it, in a letter to Robert Conquest, as ‘just about the worst poem I have ever let get set up’ – ‘Breadfruit’ belongs to the period of his growing confidence and success, and was therefore written by the Philip Larkin Maeve Brennan knew, the generous, courteous, sensitive and often charming person whose real qualities defy most features of his public persona. Perhaps that accounts for its gentle ending, where the birdless path to the tombstone is not invoked: the old men are allowed to return to the daydreams of their youth – daydreams almost comically erotic, that perhaps derive from the boys’ adventure magazines of Larkin’s youth, such as D.C. Thomson’s The Wizard.

The form of ‘Breadfruit’, with its four significant two-foot lines, its regular pentameters and purpose-built rhyme-scheme softened under an easy colloquial flow – I especially enjoy ‘(the boys)’ – and its cyclic return to the opening image – this is Larkin at his elegant stylistic best, whatever his own opinion of the poem may have been.

The development of the middle section, recounting the progress of the boys’ attempts to convert daydream into some kind of reality, is the stuff of many of the familiar poems – ‘As Bad as a Mile’, ‘Send No Money’ and of course ‘Love Songs in Age’ – deftly suggesting the whole arc from ‘bright incipience’ to disillusioned old age. After their early, earnest shots at wooing, the youths find themselves on a familiar track: ‘a mortgaged semi– with a silver birch’ – lower-middle-class stagnation, conformity, no time or money for their own pleasures; with ‘nippers; the widowed mum’ we get glimpses of the folk who live up lanes in ‘Toads’ (and by implication of those who lack the courage to), or of poor old Arnold, who’s obliged to invite his mother–in–law for the summer. There’s no sign of that early exotic/erotic vision; it’s got ploughed in under the day–to–day; and suddenly their lives have ‘hardened into all they’ve got’: ‘illness; age’; and the reader has fleeting premonitions of darker poems, not only ‘Dockery and Son’ but ‘The Old Fools’, ‘Aubade’.

But it’s the wit that distinguishes this jewel of a poem. ‘Such uncorrected visions’ – what a gentle put–down, and what an unexpected, and telling, metaphor for distorted expectations. And the breadfruit themselves! – those undefined symbols of unattainable exotic sex. In that whimsical repeated ‘whatever they are’ I always fancy I can hear the amused, equivocal, gently mocking tones of Larkin himself.

Alison Mace

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