Please comment on the theme of the poem "Wants" by Philip Larkin.

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jmj616's profile pic

jmj616 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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In his poem "Wants," Philip Larkin expresses his "wish to be alone."  The poet desires to be freed from the many obligations and expectations that society imposes upon him.  He yearns to be free of social obligations, which are symbolized by the phrase, "the sky grows dark with invitation-cards."  He wishes to be free of "the printed directions of sex," referring to the expectations that society has regarding the sexual behavior of a man or a woman.  He also wishes that he did not have to be "photographed under the flag" together with his family; this seems to refer to the obligations of one's country (the flag) and one's family. 

In the second paragraph, Larkin seems to go even farther: he seems to desire to be free of the "burden" of life itself.  He expresses a "desire for oblivion," or self-destruction. 

Although this thought sounds radical, consider how it resembles the famous words of Hamlet:

 To die, to sleep...
and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'tis a consummation(70)
Devoutly to be wish'd.

teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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In "Wants," the narrator argues that underneath all the busy and programmed events of life, he--and by extension all of us--wants to be alone. He articulates this desire in the first line, saying 

Beyond all this, the wish to be alone

The preplanned events of life obscure the desire for solitude. Among these, the narrator speaks of "invitation cards," "the printed directions of sex," and being photographed with family under a flagstaff. In other words, the larger social life suggested by invitations, a mechanical, required sex life, and the demands of family and country (the "flagstaff") interfere with the desire for solitude, a desire which the narrator repeats at the end of the stanza. He wants an existence that is all his own, apart from a prepackaged life.

In the second stanza, the narrator takes the theme of solitude even  further and says we long for the oblivion of death. Our activities--especially all the ways we try to stave death's reality off with, for example life insurance and by averting our eyes--only imperfectly mask the wish to die that runs next to our desire to live. A desire for life and a desire for death coexist: death is part of what we desire no matter how we try to hide it.

Although this could be seen as a very bleak theme, the Larkin Society website gives it a more positive interpretation:

'Wants’ takes what could merely have been bleakness and despair and warms it into the more honourable estate of melancholy. Paradoxically by giving formalised lyric expression to this melancholy, this “desire of oblivion”, the poet briefly gives manageable form to the very fear of death that so informed his own work and life and that he sees as generating such “costly” rituals in others.

 

 

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