A Study of Reading Habits
When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.
Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.
Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store,
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.
I thought this poem would make an interesting companion to last week's. Both involve speakers who, motivated mostly by love or just sex, reject the books they devoured in childhood. But last week's speaker does so because he finds their language inadequate to describe his adult love, and this speaker finds in them an exposure of his own inadequacy as an adult.
In the first stanza, the speaker reveals himself in his boyhood as that ill-fitting specimen, the student who hates school but loves to read. It might be the academic subjects, or resistance to regimentation, or social awkwardness, or a combination of these things and others, but the books he chooses provide a respite from all that. He's bookish, and his eyes are getting worse; we can assume he doesn't have any athletic ability to help him get by in his world, especially since his big dream is to have physical strength and skill, expressed heroically – his right hook will fell the hugest bad guys, and (just as important for his dream-vision of masculinity as being able to fight) he'll keep his cool the whole time. (You might be reminded of the snappy quips that muscular comic-book heroes always deliver with their lightning blows.)
The speaker is older in the second stanza: a teenager, and sex has taken over, as it does. He now wears thick glasses, the reward for "ruining his eyes" through his escape-hatch of reading. Once again he doesn't come right out and say he was unpopular or picked on, but once again it's implicit in what he now chooses to read: if girls liked him, he might continue in the hero vein as a romantic hero. Instead, his complicated feelings of fear, anger, and rejection express themselves in a rather sprightly way through vampire books (I should point out that this was written long before the Twilight series or even Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat series brought vampires back; those recent books are just further evidence of the deep-seated and widespread need the speaker is describing). He's not seducing women; he's "clubbing" them with sex (I'd assume club has a phallic implication here). He has ripping times in the dark – ripping is British slang (perhaps outdated by now?) for excellent, wonderful, but also brings with it thoughts of the bodice-ripper type of romance novel and a sulfuric whiff of Jack the Ripper and the prostitutes he murdered. But these angry emotions are complicated by reminders in the first and last lines of the stanza of just how far this fantasy is from what this boy's life must be: first the "inch-thick specs" he has to wear, and then the striking rhyme with fangs: meringues. I always find this word unexpected and a nice little surprise, undercutting the rest of the stanza with something sweet and fragile, a childish treat – a word that gives us more of what the speaker must seem like to others than the fantasy fangs of his favored books.
In the third stanza, the speaker has slumped into adulthood. The notes to the edition I used (for which see below) mention that here the "language is coloured by usage that is American or originally American"; this is interesting to me because, being American, I tend to think of American usage as usage. As you can tell from the spelling of colored in the quotation, the editor is British. Actually, what I get from this third stanza is not so much American usage (chap certainly is not) but the language of American westerns: dude meaning a citified, perhaps slightly effete or overly cultured man, fancily dressed and out of place on the rough and tumble range (not in its current meaning of just a guy); yellow (a variant is yellow-bellied) meaning cowardly; the hero who arrives in town as opposed to the storekeeper stuck there with his dull necessities. The speaker's reading, never very sophisticated, stays on the same ultimately unsatisfying level: life has forced him to admit to himself that he can never fulfill his adolescent fantasies, and the women (plural) he dreamed of conquering have been replaced by a girl (singular) whom he lets down. Slang and obscenity are always carefully used by Larkin, and the poem ends with a slide into exasperated, almost despairing coarseness. Sex and drunkenness are two of the most fertile sources of slang, and here the sexual longing rippling through the poem is rejected in favor of oblivious drinking: get stewed. The speaker finally rejects what has apparently been his only source of consolation into early manhood with a crude dismissal: books are a load of crap. It's shocking and funny, but also deeply sad, as it always is when a loved illusion is stripped away.
This final stanza seems like a demotic version of this section of Eliot's Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two, / Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, / Deferential, glad to be of use; / Politic, cautious, and meticulous; / Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous – / Almost, at times, the Fool." Prufrock comes to the sad admission that he is not the questioning, intellectual Hamlet, star of the show, but the buffoonish counselor Polonius, casually murdered halfway through the play: Prufrock even omits the identifying I in the second line, leaving himself merely an implication of the verb am, and towards the end he illustrates how "politic, cautious, and meticulous" he is with his delicately placed, hesitant commas and qualifiers (indeed; almost; at times).
There are apparently people who think this poem is Larkin speaking of himself. In fairness to them, it is close enough to what we know of his physical appearance and complicated relationships with women to make that theory superficially plausible (though I find it difficult to believe that a professional librarian, formally astute poet, and Oxford graduate like Larkin would, when speaking in his own voice, misuse the objective case: Me and my cloak and fangs as the subject of the sentence – doesn't that tip people off?). Nabokov used to write scornfully of people who need to "identify with" or even just like a novel's characters, rather than admire the artist's skill in creating a world out of words. And I think that's some of what Larkin is getting at here: the use of reading (mostly novels, it appears; our speaker apparently avoids nonfiction or poetry) as an alternative to and escape from reality, and how reality eventually shows us who's boss. Even Don Quixote had to admit in the end that he was just an exhausted, unstable old man.
I took this from The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett.