Critical analysis on Philip Larkin
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
The poem “The Trees” by Philip Larkin deals with the reflective descriptions of the speaker’s observation of trees. Despite its misleading superficial simplicity, the poem bears a deeper meaning underneath: the trees that are reborn every year symbolize renewal and hope in the face of the humans who have to face death eventually. Yet, throughout the poem, Larkin ambivalently ponders about this symbolism, as he delightedly views the picture of the growing trees but denies the immortality of their youth as a superficial veneer marked by the inward aging and an eventual death. The poem is in a strictly regular metrical and rhyming structure, arranged into 3 different stanzas, each one four lines long. Such regularity of structure is reflective of the nature’s cycling of birth, growth and renewal. “The Trees” demonstrates the transience of youth as a result of the destructive passage of time, one of the recurring themes of Larkin’s works.
In the introductory stanza, through the portrayal of the burgeoning trees as both cheerful and melancholy, Larkin purposefully reveals the meaninglessness of life. Larkin illustrates the trees as “coming into leaf”. The speaker deploys the diction “leaf” as a symbol of life and conveys a positive, hopeful connotation. Through this physical depiction, Larkin establishes an image of fresh, growing trees, and sets a mood of liveliness in the scene. Larkin further strengthens this lively mood as he describes the comforting view of “recent buds [that] relax and spread”. The poet cleverly deploys sibilance to effectively evoke the sound of rustling tree leaves, signifying life and youth. Hence, Larkin further emphasizes the vivacious image of the bustling trees, and enhances the encouraging, hopeful atmosphere. Through the deliberate choice of verbs “relax and spread”, Larkin personifies the leaves and uses trees as a metaphor for humans, comparing their stage of youth to a human’s entering of a new stage in life. Such comparison between the trees and humans implies that Larkin is contemplative about the cheerful, comforting message of hope that trees give to humans. The speaker’s use of trees as a consolation to humans can also be found in his other poem “Forget What Did” where the natural and celestial recurrences appear as consolation in the face of individual sufferings. However, immediately after such use of metaphor, Larkin repudiates that “their greenness is a kind of grief”. Larkin deploys the alliteration “greenness” and “grief” to highlight that such beauty of life is a “grief” because it is merely ephemeral. The negative connotation conveyed by the diction “grief” suggests Larkin’s abrupt shift of tone from optimism to pessimism. Furthermore, Larkin deliberately deploys the noun grief to create a rhyming couplet of “leaf” in the first line and “grief” in the last line of stanza. This rhyming couplet effectively contrasts the two distinct connotations of positivity and pessimism, further highlighting the speaker’s ambivalence. Additionally, as the speaker compares the growth of trees to “something almost being said”, the repeated use of ambiguous diction such as “something” and “almost” signifies the speaker’s state of two different minds. Through the predominant tone of ambivalence, Larkin underscores such greenness of nature that seems so cheerful is no less transitory than human life and effectively conveys that all life has an end.
In the second stanza, Larkin underscores that trees that outwardly seem perpetually young, in fact, age and eventually have to die, demonstrating the theme of inevitability of death. Larkin questions the immortality of trees in comparison to the transitory lives of humans, as he asks “is it that they are born again// and we grow old?”. Through the deployment of the diction “born again” signifying fresh renewal, and of diction “grow old” signifying death, Larkin reveals the theme of contrast between youth and age. The speaker deliberately utilizes the punctuation of question mark to reveal his pensive tone that effectively causes the reader to ponder about what life really means to the reader and even to look back at all the time this reader had robotically spent in his life. Immediately following the question however, Larkin denies, “No, [trees] die too”, commenting that the lives of trees are no less transient than those of humans. Larkin utilizes caesura to effectively highlight that his thought about trees’ endless youth is immediately defeated by his realization that trees do eventually die as well as humans. This caesura underscores his abrupt wavering of tone from speculative to pessimistic, and further emphasizes the ambiguous mood of the poem. It is through this predominant ambiguity of the poem that Larkin reflects the opaque meaning of life in his perspective. Additionally, Larkin compares the trees’ renewed youth every summer to a “yearly trick of looking new”. The speaker’s deployment of diction “trick” connotes that all the hope and consolation one may get from viewing the trees’ vivacious “coming into leaf” are a superficial veneer. This diction further suggests a negative connotation in the speaker’s voice, and builds his pessimistic tone that shows his desultory, hopeless attitude towards revitalizing into having a more meaningful life. Through the word choice “rings of grain”, Larkin implies that despite the fresh outer appearances, the trees are growing old inside, as they leave traces in the trunk, underscoring the theme of contrast between youth and age. The reader can also interpret this expression of the poet in a different way: the speaker is using the trees as a metaphor for humans. As trees outwardly seem lively but inwardly grow old and die in the end, the speaker is mockingly comparing this to the humans’ efforts to “renew” their lives by using various ornate luxuries or by going to prestigious colleges or workplaces, even though eventually the only thing that remains after time passes is their death. Through such pessimistic tone, Larkin hints that death is inevitable and therefore underlines his melancholy attitude towards life that is seemingly full of opportunities but is fundamentally ephemeral and meaningless. This theme of inevitability of death also plays a significant role in the poem “Dockery and Son”. In “Dockery and Son”, Larkin conveys that no matter what Dockery does in his life, whether getting married or having a son, and no matter what Larkin himself does in his life, whether eating an awful pie or sleeping, “life is first boredom, then fear. Whether or not we use it, it goes”. This poem “The Trees” reflects Larkin’s similar idea that life eventually has an end and thus is pointless.
In the final stanza, Larkin expresses his admiration for the trees that indefatigably strive for a renewal in contrast to his own resignation to reach for a revival in life. Marked by the use of the transition word “yet still”, implying a change of tone from pessimism to a more positive one, Larkin compares the trees with “unresting castles”. The speaker uses this metaphor to create an image of masculine, firm trees, like castle turrets. This image of adamant trees is further developed by the speaker’s deployment of diction “full-grown thickness”. Larkin creates this image to suggest his new tone of distant admiration towards the trees that tenaciously repeat the cycle of birth, aging and renewal “every” year. Yet, his constant wavering of tone between pessimism and hopefulness greatly contrasts the image of adamant, unwavering trees. Moreover, Larkin depicts the trees as alive with speech, as they “seem to say” to him about something. Larkin personifies the trees through the diction “say” and further emphasizes this personification through the deployment of sibilance. The personification of the trees serves to create the effect of aliveness and joviality of the trees. Additionally, Larkin’s repetition of the onomatopoeia “afresh” further enhances the sound of tree leaves bustling and rustling by the wind, thereby signifying life. Through this onomatopoeia, Larkin evokes images of nature and hope. This imagery is symbolic of the trees’ continuous, unwavering life and renewal. This last line of the poem is a message that Larkin gets from trees to leave the past behind and begin a new life with hope. And yet, the reader can infer from the dominant tone of ambivalence that the speaker is hesitant to act upon this message from nature. Larkin cleverly uses no enjambments at the end of each stanza but instead ends each with a period. The speaker’s use of this punctuation effectively reflects the predominant message of the poem that even though nature repeats in cycle, there is an end eventually, underscoring the theme of inevitability of death.
In conclusion, Larkin purposefully expresses his reluctance towards life, which is meaningless to him. He ambiguously conveys that trees that appear to be young, hopeful and consoling to human eyes, are in fact just as equally mortal as humans. From his ambivalence, Larkin conveys that death after life is inevitable, showing his negligence of the tree’s cheerful message to begin his life afresh. As an analyzer of this poem, the reader feels differently from the way Larkin feels from viewing the trees: the reader feels from it joy and affirmation, and even motivation to try harder in all he does, as nature and its serene views are what he tends to turn to rely on when faced with dilemma. Yet, the reader feels melancholy when faced with the fact that such feelings are vain after death; indeed, as Alun R. Jones states in his critical notes on Larkin’s works, “the effect [of Larkin’s writing] is akin to that achieved at times by Mozart and Schubert at their most tender and poignant”.
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