“The Building” is a poem of nine seven-line stanzas plus a single final line. It is written in Philip Larkin’s characteristic rough iambic pentameter, with an equally characteristic subtle rhyme scheme. All the lines are not exactly ten syllables each; nevertheless, the pattern of stress is that of the iamb: a two-part (disyllabic), stressed-unstressed foot.
The poem is a description of a place that is never definitively named, although it is clearly a hospital or other health-care facility. The first stanza describes the building in contrast to what is around and outside it. The last lines of the first stanza, along with the entire second and third stanzas, describe the building’s interior, including the inhabitants. The fourth and fifth stanzas describe what the building is like from the inside, from the point of view of the people waiting there: how being there is an interruption of their daily lives and what they are afraid will happen to them.
Stanza 6 returns to the exterior of the building, this time looking out from the inside. The outside world seems very far off; it goes on and on, out of sight. Further, in stanza 7, the world is addressed as a separate thing and is even said to be “beyond the stretch/ Of any hand from here.” For a brief three-line sentence, the speaker of the poem is present and includes himself in the condition of the people in the building: The “loves” and “chances” of the world are only a “touching dream to which we are all lulled.” Then he separates himself again in a way that he says is inevitable, because everyone will “wake from” that dream “separately.” Awakening from that illusion of “self-protecting ignorance” is brought about by a more real confrontation with death in a building such as this.
Stanza 8 shifts back from speculation to more particulars about the experience of the people in the building. The sense of uncertainty remains, however, because the particulars of death are unknown on any level. So, continuing on to stanza 9, what is being said about the people in the building—“Each gets up and goes at last” and “All know they are going to die”—is being said about all humanity. The poem explains this when it says in the final lines, “That is what it means,/ this clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend/ The thought of dying.” The confrontation with death forced upon the people who arrive at this building is no different from that which faces those who have not arrived there yet, and what is done in the building of the poem is in a certain way no different from what is done in “cathedrals,” because neither “contravenes . . ./ The coming dark” of death. The desire of all people to do so, to contravene both their own and others’ coming dark, is poignantly represented by their offerings of “wasteful, weak propitiatory flowers.”
Larkin’s subtle rhyme scheme contributes significantly to the overall impact of the poem. While the stanzas run seven lines, the poem uses an eight-rhyme pattern: abcbdcad . This has two effects. First, because the rhyme carries over from one stanza to the next, the reader, too, is carried forward through the description by an imperceptible force; it is an experience akin to that which is being described. Second, through the middle stanzas of the poem this has the effect of disturbing the unity of each stanza. For example, the rhyme scheme begins at the second line of the third stanza, the third line of the fourth stanza, and so on, so that the reader is made to...
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feel an unease and a lack of resolution, until the final stanza and the single final line.
This effect is further accomplished by a technique called enjambment, in which the sense of one line is carried over into the next. This occurs frequently within stanzas; more important, it occurs from one stanza to the next in every stanza except the first. The midsentence pause creates a momentary sense of meaninglessness. When that pause carries over across stanzas the sense of disorientation generated by the poem is more intense.
With the last eight lines of the poem, the beginning of the rhyme pattern and the beginning of the stanza coincide, as they did in the first stanza, and the pattern is allowed to complete itself with the final single line. This coincidence, the completion of the pattern and the end of the unrelenting enjambment, provides a sense of resolution for the reader, but it is an uneasy one, because the final line, standing alone, also breaks completely with the stanzaic form of the poem.
The absence of a first person, a narrative “I,” in this poem contributes to its troubling sense of depersonalization. Not only is the first person absent, the only second-person reference is not to a singular “you” but to the whole “world” (stanza 7), after which there is a single reference to “we” (all of “us” in this world). All the other references to people are by category—“porters,” “nurse,” “kids,” “girls”—or only as “humans” or “faces,” lumped together in indefinite or plural third-person pronouns—“someone,” “those who tamely sit,” “some” who are young or old, “they” and “them,” and even “all.” The only exception occurs when the indistinct “they” see a singular “him” “wheeled past,” in stanzas 5 and 6; that is, when someone is separated from the waiting mass and goes to face his fate alone.
The anonymity of the building, emphasized by all the indefinite pronouns as well as the poem’s title, is reinforced by Larkin’s repeated use of similes using the comparative word “like.” The streets are “like a great sigh”; the waiting room is “[l]ike an airport lounge.” Finally, in the ninth stanza, all that the waiting people know is that they will die in a place “somewhere like this.”