How Larkin writes about life choices in his poetry in comparison with Abse’s presentation of the theme.

In Larkin’s poetry he writes about life choices in a very detached style, he goes on the continuing concept that life choices are an illusion, that we are all a product of society devoid of any meaning or uniqueness. Also his poems are impersonal, they aren’t usually about him or his experience, and they are more relatable to a wider audience.  These are particularly evident in the poems ‘Self’s the Man’ and ‘As Bad as a Mile’. Abse’s style of writing, however, is more autobiographical and is based on his own experience which is evident ‘Postcard to his Wife’ and ‘Malham Bird’.

As Bad as a Mile is a short ‘AAABBB’ rhyme scheme poem that’s literally about attempting to throw and apple core into the bin but narrowly missing. Though a deeper look into it tells us that ‘failure’ is imminent because fate controls and dictates our life choices, it’s ‘spreading back up the arm’, so this term tells us that we’re never truly able to make our own decisions, it is merely an illusion.

This poem conveys the proverbial meaning that if you nearly succeed but ultimately fail then the result is the same as failing spectacularly. Also it conveys the idea that we’ve all an unchanged destiny and that it’s not ‘luck’ that you miss or don’t succeed at something, it’s just failure. The image of the ‘apple unbitten’ is a symbol of human nature and is linked to the Biblical illusion of the original sin, which lead to ‘failure spreading’ as a direct result of it.

It could be argued that the repetitive use of ‘Earlier and earlier’ is encouraging the reader to go  back into time of Adam and Eve, to witness the first independent life choice that was responsible for the downfall of mankind and therefore ‘failure spreading back up the arm’ is a direct that’s imminent as a result of that action.

The Malham Bird is a poem that is linked to As Bad as a Mile because of its allusive religious references. The actual Malham bird, according to the Jewish myth, was a bird from the Garden of Eden who went on to live a lonely, immortal life because it obeyed the commandments and didn’t eat the forbidden fruit. It is strongly suggested that Abse himself is the Malham bird because he was the faithful Jew who is now ‘lonely’ because of the death of his wife and feels ‘immortal’ because of all of the things he’s having to overcome.

Larkin and Abse write about the constant restrictions that refrain them from the ability to make their own life choices, though Abse is much more stylistically personal and autobiographical whereas Larkin is impersonal and somewhat emotionally detached, the narrator is an observer and critical, and Abse is the experiencer in the Malham Bird. Larkin’s ‘Englishness was so desolate and inhospitable that even the English were scandalised by it’, according to Martin Amis, thus his style was still unique, even in the category that it fit into.

Self’s the Man is a poem that explores the theme of selfishness that is connected to life choices such as marriage and having children.  Within the poem Larkin compares a single, companionless man to another who’s married. Arnold, the married man, has different ideologies in comparison, but through the use of rhetorical questions, (‘is there such a contrast?’), direct messages (‘Arnold is less selfish than I’) and Larkin becoming aware of his own inadequacies, (‘Or I suppose I can’) so he admits that his previous attitude was merely a facade to make himself feel more comfortable with his own reality. He reasons that selfishness is the reason for choosing to remain unmarried, and choosing to get married opens a rite of passage that may enable you to make your own decisions.

On the other hand this could be interpreted differently. He presents the stereotypical idea that marriage is another form of entrapment through a sexist tone, (‘married a woman to stop her getting away’), so the persona compares himself superior to Arnold because he doesn’t have a ‘woman’ that he’s tied to. This theme is reinforced possibly by purposely mocking the stereotypical women’s role in marriage, ‘the money he gets for wasting his life on work/ She takes as her perk’, and to ‘Put a screw in this wall’, so the portrayal is undermining and the imperative makes Arnold’s wife seem controlling and interfering, which then affect his ability to have decisions.

Interestingly the rhyming structure is AABB, which could represent his change or unravelling perception of marriage, and how that may restrict or free you. Another interpretation would be that is represents the ordinary, repetitive nature of marriage and peoples’ lives in general. To support the latter idea, the mundane pattern of marriage is underlined through the use of colloquial and casual language, ‘kiddies’ clobber’, so with marriage comes responsibilities and conventions that are necessary, which is brushed off with the persona saying ‘oh’, which seems as though he’s boastful about his own selfishness. He seems glad that he’s not Arnold because he’s aware of the realistic, repetitive situation that Arnold is in. with the persona we might assume is Larkin himself because we know that despite his close relationships with numerous women, especially Monica Jones and Ruth Bowman, he never married, and the poem’s speaker highlights the same sentiments that Larkin held, ‘the scrupulous awareness of a man who refuses to be taken in by inflated notions of either art or life’ (Peter R. King), so Larkin too disagreed with the concept of marriage as it was traditional and an unnecessary social trend that restricted people.

Postcard to his Wife is an Abse poem that is linked through the theme of choices and decisions with Larkin’s Self’s the Man.  His poem contrasts with Larkin’s idea that marriage restricts freedom, which, on the contrary, is more of an adventure which allows you the freedom to be adventurous, and it’s highlighted through words such as ‘whim’, ‘twisting’, ‘wild’, and this conveys Abse’s belief that even the simple things in marriage aren’t necessarily boring. Therefore Abse’s view and portrayal of marriage contrasts with Larkin’s own.

Abse portrays marriage in a much more romantic light in comparison to Larkin. He felt ‘blessed’ being with her, unlike Arnold and his wife in Self’s the Man who were only married to obey society’s traditions and expectations. Postcard to his Wife is a sentimental, personal and nostalgic poem that emphasises the persona’s longing for his wife. Again we can assume that this is an autobiographical poem because it’s closely linked to Abse’s wife, Joan Abse, who had died in a car crash in 2005 prior to this poem.

On a whole Larkin’s portrayal of life choices is critical and objective in his poetry, and Abse in contrast is subjective, relying on human emotions and feelings rather than observations and interpretations of others. Larkin has a rather pessimistic outlook on the theme of life choices, though many could interpret it as realistic and brutally honest.


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