“Dockery and Son” is a portrait of how a chance remark brings about an awareness in the hearer of the emptiness of his life. A simple comment from the Dean about a schoolmate of the persona’s having a son now at their college spurs a meditation about how unlived the persona’s own life has been.
It is usually the chance remark or observation that elicits such a contemplation. The speaker was adventurous as a student; then called before the Dean, still “half-tight” in the morning after the previous night’s exploits, he now stands before himself, trying to explain not what he did but what he did not do. Dockery himself is an abstraction, even to the speaker: “Was he that withdrawn// High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms/ With Cartwright who was killed?” He remembers the dead but is unclear as to the living.
The speaker does say that to have “no son, no wife,/ No house or land still seemed quite natural,” but the fact that others who were his juniors do have these things makes him realize the emptiness of time. In other words, it is only when comparing himself with others that the speaker realizes how little he has done. It is important to realize that this is not envy; the speaker does not desire Dockery’s son, but he does see nothing in his own life that could be the envy of others. He has diverged “widely from the others.”
At first he thinks that Dockery must have planned his life, must have seen “what he wanted, and been capable,” but then dismisses this from his mind. There are certain “Innate assumptions” by which one acts, he decides; they go unquestioned at the time, and when “looked back on, they rear/ Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying/ For Dockery a son, for me nothing.” There is a fatalism at work that seems as pronounced as that which can be found in some of the work of Thomas Hardy, to whom Larkin has admitted an indebtedness. As to what this force, this “something hidden from us,” is, one should be loath to form too strict a definition; indeed, Larkin never does. It could perhaps even be an excuse for inaction. The poet does state, “Life is first boredom, then fear,” but the next line asserts, “Whether or not we use it, it goes,/ And leaves what something hidden from us chose.” Whether this vague something is a thing destined or simple biology, it is unknown, a life force that may not be life-affirming. Still, one does come back to that “strong// Unhindered moon” reflected by the “Joining and parting lines.” This gives a shape to the speaker’s meditation but is itself unknowable.