"Next, Please" by Philip Larkin
Expectation and hope are some of our most basic human traits; we always hope for a glad future, in which all of our problems will be solved and better days await us. In Philip Larkin's poem "Next, Please," however, that concept is argued to distract us from the ever-fleeting present, as the author notes how much time we spend (or waste) on promises and expectations instead of living in the now. While the poem starts out light, it quickly descends into dark implications for those whom Larkin is chastising (Reibetanz, 1982).
In the first verse, Larkin seems to tease us about these small mistakes we make, underselling just how disastrous they are to subvert our expectations and surprise us as the poem continues. At first, he simply says that, "Always too eager for the future, we / Pick up bad habits of expectancy. / Something is always approaching; every day" (1-3); this indicates that our emphasis on hoping for the future is nothing more than a pet peeve, a 'bad habit' that is somewhat harmless but is still something we should change. Larkin's emphasis on the italicized phrase, "Till then, we say" (4) notes the constant refrain of those who work to the future - their lives are terrible, but they envision something better, and so their days are ruled by that phrase.
Larkin's second verse mocks human beings' everlasting waiting for better days to come - our future days are viewed as a "tiny, clear / Sparkling armada of promises," which gets closer each time (5-6; Cox, 1959). All the while, we are "watching from a bluff," unable to do anything to hasten them or move closer to them, painting us as helpless creatures who can only lament that the ships don't come faster - "How slow they are! And how much time they waste, / Refusing to make haste!" (5, 7-8). By using pronouns like 'we' and 'they,' Larkin holds himself with the reader, sharing in our frustrations. At the same time, he makes light of our impatience at waiting for the future to come through deliberate exaggeration of our frustrations (Weatherhead, 1971).
Because of this constant waiting, Larkin says, the days "leave us holding wretched stalks / Of disappointment" (lines 9-10). Here, Larkin notes that our lives are actually negatively impacted by this constant waiting for the future; waiting and hoping breeds disappointment, presumably as each ship comes in and it does not satisfy our wanting. This indicates the perpetual waiting and unhappiness that come from someone who does not live in the present. Despite this exaggeration, it does seem as though Larkin has a purpose for making our waiting so overblown; he makes the ships themselves seem too good to be true, in an almost vulgar way:
"though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,
Flagged, and the figurehead wit golden tits
Arching our way" (13-16).
Larkin makes the ship seem almost seductive; each new day, represented by the ship, is full of riches, women and opulence - this indicates the better days Larkin believes we all hope for and wish would come now. However, despite the desperation we have to experience those wonders, and the fact that we see the ship coming our way, "it never anchors; it's / No sooner present than it turns to past." (16-17). The latter line is the most indicative of the author's perspective on the fleeting nature of time; these future days we spend so much time hoping and waiting for last just as long as any other; to that end, they are both disappointing and impermanent. Because they do not last, or "anchor," Larkin brings us back to that state of disappointment wherein we recognize the illusory nature of these ships (and the future) (Banerjee, 2008). The early part of the poem builds us up to the arrival of the ship, just as people wait for their better days to come:
"Right to the lastWe think each one will heave to and unloadAll good into our lives, all we are owedFor waiting so devoutly and so long" (17-20)
The cargo of the ship, the "good" that is "unloadedinto our lives," is presented as a reward for our patience, which is owed to us due to our patience (Roper, 1960). However, Larkin shows just how little rewards do for us, if they even exist at all - what we want is not real, but what we do get is all too real and disappointing.
In the end, Larkin reveals the real thing we are waiting for - Death. "We are wrong: / Only one ship is seeking us, a black- / Sailed unfamiliar" (21-23). In this way, Larkin notes our mistaken assumptions about what lies ahead of us; not riches, but the end of our lives. Prior to this last verse, Larkin has treated our silliness at looking for the future with a fair bit of comedy; however, now he drops the curtain in order to make us face our graver truths. He describes the ship as a terrifying chimera, "towing at her back / A huge and birdless silence. In her wake / No waters breed or break" (23-25). By noting how dissimilar it is from the ships we expect, and how it leaves nothing in its "wake," the finality and darkness of Death is established (Rowe, 1989).
With this poem, Larkin notes our mistaken assumptions regarding the future, and the errors we make in expectation and hope (Bayley, 1984). We always desire to have a brighter future, with our present never being good enough; therefore, we keep waiting for that shinier ship to anchor and stay with us. However, the reality of this situation is that these moments will always be fleeting, and that Death will be the final ship that comes for us. Because of our waiting, that is the ship we are really waiting for. Larkin injects a great deal of cynicism in this poem, which is indicative of the Movement which opposed Modernism by emphasizing decay and the shift toward more pastoral settings (Watt, 1995). In "Next, Please," Larkin notes this decay by depicting people as blind to the inevitabilities of death, optimistically (and mistakenly) hoping for a lasting, great future. Since Britain, at the time of the poem's writing, was experiencing a cultural and social decline, Larkin likely saw the end of these golden ships coming their way, and wanted to awaken the British public to the realities that awaited them (Bowen, 1977).
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