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“That vase…”: or, some notes on Philip Larkin

November 2, 2010

Cover of the Faber & Faber re-issue.

His biographer, Andrew Motion, tells us that Philip Larkin penned the following poem after a visit to his mother’s house in Loughborough, some 2 to 3 hours distant from his own residence in Hull. Anthony Thwaite, editor of Larkin’s Collected Poems (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1988) dates its composition precisely: 31 December 1958 (indicating that the visit to his mother had been for the holidays). Larkin published the poem in his 1964 volume The Whitsun Weddings.

None of these facts is especially pertinent to the poem, however. Its melancholy is so perfectly generalized, most precisely so when its references become strangely poignant in the closing lines, with their imperatives and that terminal two-word demonstrative: “That vase.”

“Home is so Sad”

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Let’s say that house is to home as brain is to mind. No one knows quite what the latter two terms mean, other than that we inhabit them and they “inhabit” us, whether, on the one hand, as some constellation of memories and affect (the good with the bad); or, on the other, as a barrier to getting away from that constellation of memories and affect (the good with the bad); or as a barrier (say) to detaching the affect from the memories. “Home” takes it root in the German word heim, whose negation Sigmund Freud so effectively put into circulation: unheimliche (“un-home-like”), for which term we have, in English, “uncanny.” The experience so named combines the familiar with the strange in such a way as to unsettle us. “Home is so Sad” makes “home” unheimliche, and yet also so utterly familiar. Because, after all, we “can see” perfectly well “how it was,” can’t we? Just look at “that vase,” for example.

Philip Larkin

But before taking larger matters up, I’ll address certain features of the poem’s form. It falls so readily into two five-line stanzas of that most heimliche line (to readers of English poetry): iambic pentameter. And it rhymes, so simply, A-B-A-B-A. The “A” rhymes in stanza one are perfectly conjunctive, by which I mean they bring together words related not by sound merely but by meaning also. From “left” to “bereft” to “theft”: three registers of loss, each one successively a greater violation (abandonment, bereavement, crime). From the perfect rhymes in the first stanza we “move house” (as the British say) ever so slightly into a trio of near-rhymes in the second (as/was/vase).† That’s one kind of dislocation, hinging precisely, here, on the 50th syllable in this 100 syllable poem: “theft.” Notice how well Larkin lays his sentences into these ten lines, from the poverty of that terminal two-word/two-syllable sentence, which is a severe sentence indeed (“That vase”) to the 37-word sentence that begins with “Instead, bereft of anyone to please” and extends on down through that “joyous shot” that’s “fallen so wide” of the mark it should have hit: the way “things ought to be,” so as fully to distinguish home from house, the quaintly affective from the merely architectural. And what variety in the two-stanza house Larkin has built of what used to be this “home”! Taking independent grammatical units for sentences, here they range in length from 2 to 4 to 6 to 7 to 21 to 37 words. Larkin makes his rhymes, conjunctive (in sound and sense) when they ought to be, oblique when they must, without ever allowing a single rhyme to fetch in a word that doesn’t already belong to the conversational, even homely, diction of the poem (and of most all his best poems). “You can see how it was”: the voice knows perfectly well what to do with sentences such as this, even as every obligation to form, throughout the poem, is paid in full. No mortgaging here.

Two metaphors govern the poem. The first lends a kind of double reference to the title and opening statement.

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft . . .

These lines treat the “home” as if it were animate, as if it had aspirations (to call even “the last to go” back); as if it suffered grief (so bereaved does it feel); as if suffered even resentment, having fallen victim, of course, to the “theft” of what the merely architectural part of it had become: a “home.” An equivocation works nicely through the second line as it moves, by enjambment, into the third (“Shaped to the comfort of the last to go / As if to win them back . . .”). The inhabitants “shape” the house to their comfort, of course, making a “home” of it, but here the verb allows us to assign some measure of agency to the house/home itself: the home holds the “shaping,” perhaps even fancifully “shapes” itself, “as if to win” the “last to go” back, where “to go” may mean either depart or, more likely, die. The home has a dog-like fidelity. The “house” is first acted upon, and then, once it becomes a “home,” it somehow acts, “as if” it seeks “to win” what once possessed it, and was also possessed by it, back: a family, even if only (taking the part for the whole) the last of that family “to go.” The merely structural, the “house,” the building, somehow assumes an organic sort of vitality from the sheer momentum of the lives lived out in it, as if it cultivated loyalties, manifold nostalgia, affiliations. It had a life of its own, and having had a life, it now has also the aptitude to “wither” and die back into the skeletal underpinnings of what it had become: a mere “house” again, on the market, up for sale—or even worse, up for “estate sale,” with all its homely adjuncts and contents tagged for price. The cutlery. The piano. The music in the piano stool. That vase. Things spoken of as uncannily familiar, and yet from which we now feel—from which even the “home” now somehow “feels”—estranged. “You can see how it was.” All too well you can.

But I begin to wonder whether the home’s canine fidelity is altogether to the delinquent inhabitants, or in equal share to its own equilibrium. It wants to stay as it was left, after all—selfish, clinging creature that it has become. It hasn’t the “heart,” or the “courage,” bearing in mind the coronary etymology of that word;—it hasn’t the heart “to put aside the theft”

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide.

Coventry, with its inner-ring road.

Coventry, with its inner-ring road.

This “home” is just dog-tired of all these serial transformations, made necessary by, oh, so many “thefts”: from house to home to house to home, ad infinitum, until its own decrepitude (or urban development) takes it off the market. How many incarnations as a “home” does any “house” have, over the course of its “life”? In England and, to a lesser extent, in North America, often a great many incarnations. Andrew Motion reminds us that the “home” Larkin was chiefly raised in on Manor Road in Coventry, having survived the Luftwaffe‘s Coventry Blitz on November 14, 1940, was itself razed in the 1960s to make way for a new “inner-ring” road around the city.

In any case, our second metaphor sets in here. Every house starts its career into homeliness so aspirationally as to seem a kind of arrow, or “shot,” “joyously” fired off with so little, so terribly little, chance of hitting its mark: namely, “how [familiar] things ought to be” but too seldom actually are. The melancholy wit here has our “home” having “no heart” to undergo yet another such ordeal. Young couple after young couple (let’s say), moving in, taking their “joyous shot” at life, at marriage, at child-rearing, at old age, at what we usually do not find in Larkin’s poetry: good fortune, rather than those “crass casualties” (to use Thomas Hardy‘s phrase for it) that make nothing of our hopes. Home is so sad. That Larkin should choose not to particularize “home” with some limiting “this” or “that” is typical of him, and a perfect touch. He broadens the point, abstracts it, waiting for the last two lines to deal in particulars, until we reach, as I have said, that wonderfully sad demonstrative phrase, that most Larkinesque of gestures, so curtailed, so brought up short, so terminal. I mean that briefest, but most deeply affecting, of all the poem’s sentences laid up for and over against home: “That vase.” Not just any vase; that one, bearing in mind what it once bore within, some bouquet or other, fetched in as flowers always are—for some bright occasion, or in apology, or in hope that the sick might refresh themselves. Or is it that the vase itself—singled out, here, from all the other vases that likely stand about the house—has its own history, and wasn’t some yard-sale bargain, but a gift, or a purchase, “shaped” to the taste and “comfort” of “the last to go”? It hardly matters what this demonstrative that directs us to: to the vessel, or to what it once contained or may still contain. Because the whole of the poem depends upon the same sad ratio between a vessel (a house) and what it tries to hold in and on to (a home). And now our Larkinish “home” is “homeless” again, lapsed into bereft “house-hood,” awaiting, exhausted, with hardly the heart to endure it, the next “shot at how things ought to be” for the men, the women, the children who shall both shape it into a home and be, in turn, shaped by it, even unto the long length that memory bears.

I’d be remiss not to make one last point as to the poet’s craft. How has Larkin dealt in and with his “sad” things? The dislocations, the shots fallen wide of their mark, the bereavements, the thefts, the sorrow of the “last to go,” this home that hasn’t the “heart” to have its own go again, and would as soon “wither” as be undone by yet another “joyous shot at how things ought to be”? He has built—if my account of the poem’s fine form (above) hasn’t missed the mark—two perfect stanzas, 5-feet by 5-lines, into something of a “house” for all these sad ruminations, where now it stands for whoever shall open The Whitsun Weddings to inhabit for the space of an hour or so. Larkin knew what a “stanza” was, etymologically as well as in his craft: a “room,” a “dwelling place.”

A postscript: I forget how American my ear is. Yesterday an English friend reminded me of what I ought to have recognized anyway. In the mouth of an Englishman “was”/”vase” is, in fact, a full rhyme (was/”vahz”). I overstated the dislocation as to rhyming in the second stanza.


Philip Larkin’s residence, off Pearson Park in Hull.


N.B.: For other entries in The Era of Casual Fridays pertaining to Larkin, click here. For a link to the Philip Larkin Society, click here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. sean permalink
    November 16, 2011 2:38 PM

    Perhaps it’s the same vase as the one in Love Songs in Age. In this poem Larkin again evokes a terrible sense of the elusive nature of our most intimate longings through a contemplation of the common-place. The vase, the home, the love song – they are all embodiments of a dream of happiness and of belonging; they lose their significance and their charm and are forgotten. So too, the dream.

  2. October 31, 2013 10:32 AM

    “We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms” ran through my head where you link “stanza” and “dwelling place.”

    “Vase” is an interesting final word, which suggests to me that related word, “urn.” And there are a few people who keep an urn on a mantle or shelf at home, usually because they haven’t known quite what to do with the contents, which likewise dwindle from meaning over time.

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