Nomination: Home is so Sad [13 December 1958. From The Whitsun Weddings]
I love this poem because it captures something poignant – and true – about our homes but also points out the determined hopefulness with which we live our lives! As a linguist, it is the tension between the syntax and the poetic form that gives me so much pleasure.
The poem opens with a very short sentence (Home is so sad) which not only sets the scene, but is universal in its appeal, ‘home’ not having any modification (my home, your home) so that we are forced to see it as home in general that is sad. This statement is then backed up by each of the claims that follow. In the second sentence, the proposition is that home ‘stays as it was left’. This in itself is not sad and in other contexts we might see as a bonus the fact that it doesn’t change. But the syntax is extended by a subordinate clause which runs on for the next two lines producing an uneasy feeling in the reader who may have thought that the sense was complete after ‘It stays as it was left’. This additional information seems innocuous at first (Shaped to the comfort of the last to go) and doesn’t in itself produce too much poignancy although it might produce a mental image of cushions that have not been plumped up. However, when the reader realises that there is no full stop at the end of line two and the next layer of subordination is added (as if to win them back) the reader may well feel the sense of loss beginning to creep up on them.
The next sentence takes up five lines (from the middle of line three to the middle of line eight). Here the poignancy begins in earnest from the second word (Instead, bereft) which is complemented in the next line (of anyone to please) so that the reader is taken swiftly by the syntax towards the main clause in the sentence (it withers so). Once you have reached this point, home has been established as ‘withered’ and the rest of the sentence is made up of subordinate clauses explaining exactly all the ways in which homes wither. They have ‘no heart to put aside the theft’ for example. The next subordinate clause raises (false) hope in the readers by reminding them that human beings are ridiculously optimistic defining the original idea of home as ‘a joyous shot at how things ought to be’ but even as you read this line, and note the lack of full stop you can hear the warning music that alerts you to the let-down that is round the next corner – in this case on the next line. The noun phrase ‘a joyous shot at how things ought to be’ is, it turns out, not complete. There is another modifying clause to come: ‘long fallen wide’. The sounds of this phrase, with three stressed syllables close together, seem emphatic and slow the pace of the poem down.
The final sentence in the poem uses another of Larkin’s brilliant techniques, which is the list. He uses lists when he wants to slow down time and leave the reader with a snapshot of a scene, timeless and usually very static. Here, the list is introduced by the clause ‘You can see how it was’ which brings the reader or addressee into the scene by the use of the second person pronoun (you) making the effect more vivid as a result of the reader feeling that s/he is being addressed. The list follows and is the archetypal three-part list, indicating a kind of symbolic completeness. The reader is again ‘addressed’ by the imperative ‘Look at’ and the three phrases (the pictures and the cutlery; the music in the piano stool. That vase.) are specific enough to set a visual scene, whilst symbolising the general possessions and clutter of people’s lives. The fact that the three-part list is set out as three sentences gives the reader a sense of slowing down as the home grinds to a halt. The final two sentences in particular, having no main verb at all, are ‘bereft’ of any time markers and seem to indicate that this home at least is not going to recover from its loss. The use of ‘That’ in the short final sentence ‘That vase’ adds a distance to the scene as if the scene is getting further away from the reader, or is fading. The use of ‘this’ would have brought the reader back close to the items being referred to. It is noticeable that the vase is not given any characteristics – we don’t know if it is glass or what colour it is – it is both archetype and also fading from view.
Larkin’s genius for me is not only his observational skill, which is clearly immense, but also his complete understanding of how language works – and particularly how it works in the poetic context. I don’t find this poem depressing. On the contrary, I think it is a perverse celebration of the human spirit in the face of (eventual) death!