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December 2010

Nomination: Wants [1 June 1950. From The Less Deceived]

This is the poem that Larkin intones at the end of the Monitor film made with Betjeman in 1964. Once you’ve listened to him reading it, it’s impossible to hear it in any other voice. As he delivers the lines, the camera pulls back and he walks away, as if illustrating the very “wish to be alone” that is the poem’s subject. It is perhaps consciously contradictory (as with so many things about Larkin) that one of the few times he allows film cameras into his life concludes with an expression of wanting to be alone. As an articulation of the forlorn, it is nonetheless a remarkably engaging poem.

Interestingly this drive towards isolation is inextricable in the film from images of the city – the mist rising from the canal along which he retreats has more than a Stygian whiff of ‘oblivion’ about it. The contentment that Larkin found in Hull of course owes something to its being on what he called ‘the edge’ of things, as if the fastnet of the city allowed him, when required, a safe retreat from the demands of the wider world.

Like so many of Larkin’s, this poem articulates unadmitted truths of ordinary life – who hasn’t known an ambivalent response to social invitations for example, even though it may not be quite as bleak, even self-caricaturing as his description in ‘Wants’ of the sky growing “dark with invitation-cards”? This reminds us of the dark evening, the oblivion, “that lights no lamps” in ‘Going’, the poem he placed immediately before ‘Wants’ in The Less Deceived. Here however, rather than mortal horror as in ‘Going’, it is social life, reproduction, family pride, indeed the whole messy business of living, from which he recoils with a cold shudder into welcoming solitude.

The poem descends from the wish merely to be alone to the “desire of oblivion”. This is less like Keats intermittently being “half in love with easeful death”, more like a long yearning for the subtext to all time and all things. Part of Larkin’s humane genius was to take known but hidden experience and describe it with an accuracy and lyricism that raises it from the inadmissable into the vocabulary of common life.’Wants’ takes what could merely have been bleakness and despair and warms it into the more honourable estate of melancholy. Paradoxically by giving formalised lyric expression to this melancholy, this “desire of oblivion”, the poet briefly gives manageable form to the very fear of death that so informed his own work and life and that he sees as generating such “costly” rituals in others.

Martin Jennings

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