Sunday Night Journal, May 20, 2018
Sunday Night Journal, May 27, 2018

52 Poems, Week 21: Home Is So Sad (Philip Larkin)

Now, when you've read this poem, before you say or think "Why did he post this miserable depressing little poem?!?" read my comments following it.



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.


Ok. First of all: it doesn't actually work like this, at least in my experience as both child and parent. Larkin didn't have children himself. You may know his famous and really very unpleasant poem which ends "And don't have any kids yourself." (I looked that up to see if I was remembering it correctly, and I was not. I was remembering it without "any", which I think is actually better--more emphatic and final. Glad to be of assistance, Mr. Larkin.) So what does he know about how it may have looked from home's point of view? Presumably he was describing the home in which he grew up. The poem was written in 1958, when he had been gone for about fifteen years, and I think he was in fact the last (of only two) to leave. So maybe his childhood home did more or less stay as it was left; I don't know, of course.

But that was certainly not the case in my childhood home, which changed continually after I left (the second of five). My parents lived happily for many years after we were all gone, in the same house which changed significantly as they rearranged things to suit themselves. And it hasn't been the case for my wife and me as our children have left home. Neither we nor the house are sitting here forlornly. I am writing this, for instance, in a room which was the bedroom of one or more of the children for a long time, and which I like to call my study though I don't think it will really merit that name until I get an easy chair in here--right now it looks more like an office. 

Second: the reason I posted this poem, though if I were thinking of this series as The 52 Best Poems Ever I would not include it, is that, like the Yeats poem I posted for Week 15, it contains one image, one thought, that comes into my mind very often, and has done for years. How often? At least once a week, I'm sure. It's this:

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide.

That's an almost unbearably poignant image of the way life tends to go, especially family life. I've lived long enough to have seen way too many joyful beginnings end in sadness. Somehow for me Larkin's image captures perfectly both the eager hope and the disappointment, the way we aim and the way we miss.

So it's not so much that I like this poem as that I consider it brilliant in a very narrow way, and that the one bit has become part of me. Fortunately disappointment is not the end of the story. Frequently even in this life disappointment is transcended.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.  


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"That vase" must be quite a memory for him.

I spent some time online one day looking through Larkin poems, but didn't find one that satisfied me enough to send to you. I am aware of him through reading Martin Amis, who knew him and writes about him quite a bit in his own memoir.

Interesting that you post a Phillip the day after another important person with that surname in literature dies; Philip Roth.

I had decided on this a week ago, so no planning was involved, at least on my part.

There are at least half a dozen or so Larkin poems that I consider extremely good. There might or might not be another in this series. I have his Collected Poems but have probably never read more than about 25% of them. One thing that kind of bothers and puzzles me about him is that some of his work, like this poem, is straightforward and easily comprehensible, some is really obscure to me. I remember that really thwarted me when I started to read the Collected from beginning to end. One poem after another just didn't really make a lot of sense to me. Not in an abstract or surrealist sort of way--just didn't know what he was getting at.

And Larkin, like Roth, only has one "L" in his first name. Sorry to be so OCD. :)

Argh. You're right. Last week I double-checked to make sure I had the right number of "L"s in "Phyllis" but I didn't even think about it for this one.

I had to laugh a bit at this because no sooner did I get married than my parents redecorated the living room and dining room. It was like my home disappeared. Then they moved and my siblings married from that house, and they moved again.

Also, the people who bought these two houses completely changed them, the latter going from an English Tudor to French Provincial. So there is no trace of our homes.

We have done likewise. We moved out of the house where we raised the children, and this house looks entirely different than it did when my youngest daughter and granddaughter lived here.

That phrase is very poignant, but while I have my melancholy moments--days--I think that that joy did not disappear. I can look back at it, and enjoy it and put some sort of hope in it for the future. (I know you are not like that. ;-)) Sometimes I look at something one of my children is doing and think, "Wow, he/she is doing this great thing," and then I realized it is something they learned in my home.

It seems to me that Larkin is seeing some sort of failure in himself in this poem.


Like he was the thief.


I don't know whether he's *seeing* a failure in himself or not--I mean consciously--but he is certainly revealing it.

I had forgotten about this till Karen mentioned it recently: when our oldest went off to college, I lobbied against doing anything different with the room for at least six months, just so that he wouldn't feel like a door had been closed behind him.

I remember a conversation with someone years ago whose father had died when she was fairly young. Later, while she was off at college her mother remarried to someone who had children of his own and moved into a different house. So this person came "home" from college to a house she'd never seen before and had to introduce herself to the new step-sibling who answered the door.

My childhood was so happy that the word "home" still feels really good. I've had enough suffering in life, and have no desire for any more, but even so, I just can't relate to this poem. For which, I'm glad!

That's pretty hard.

I didn't change Becca's room until my granddaughter moved in a couple of years after B. graduated. Now I have completely changed it. It is full of toys.

Sometimes I drive by houses where I have lived, especially the house where we raised our children for 24 years, and think about how I used to be able to just walk in the front door, and now I can't. It's a very strange feeling.


Yeah, and I hate it. I'm a bit neurotic about places. I think if I had my real preference I would still be living in the first house I ever knew. Without giving up other things which are totally incompatible with that wish, of course. :-)

I meant to say earlier: Louise, it's wonderful that you feel that way about home.

Maybe Larkin never really wanted to leave home, and that's what made it so sad for him -- from a recent piece in The Guardian about Larkin and his mother:

“He couldn’t marry anyone because he was so involved with his mother. Writing to her twice a week, he also visited her every fortnight or so. He would come down from Hull to Loughborough, and then he would visit Monica in Leicester. But he was living in Hull, which is where he got involved with Maeve Brennan in the library… You’ve got this really tangled emotional situation. The mother is the key element. People have always half recognised that, but never been able to see it properly.”

I had no idea! I knew from bio fragments in reviews here and there that he had a tangled relationship with women, but not that he had this thing about his mother. So maybe she *did* keep it "shaped to the comfort of the last to go." He seems to have been a rather unpleasant person in many ways. Had a collection of pornography.

Well, this has been so edifying.


I just read the Guardian piece (thanks, Marianne). It's striking how much alike he and his mother look.

Here's Larkin reading "Home Is So Sad" (twice):

"Louise, it's wonderful that you feel that way about home."

It is a great testimony to my parents and close relatives.

Yes, it is.

I just listened to him read it. What a great voice he had.

Yes. I was expecting a thin maybe whiny voice.

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