The Poem

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“Dockery and Son” is a poem not really about either Dockery or his son; it is about the speaker, who is a typical persona of Philip Larkin. Larkin’s stock persona is someone unsuccessful in love, someone whom life has passed by. It is frequently a mistake to confuse the persona with the poet, but with Larkin one usually senses there is no great gulf between the two.

The poem begins with a conversation between the Dean and the speaker, who is revisiting his college. Typically, only the Dean is directly quoted, not the speaker of the poem. The Dean happens to mention Dockery, who is younger than the speaker and whose son is now a student at this same college. The quoted conversation fades as the speaker remembers how he once had to explain his “ ‘version’ of ‘these incidents last night,’ ”—had to explain, as a student, disruptive behavior to the very man with whom he is now reminiscing. Time has passed; the speaker finds his old room, but the door is locked. He departs unnoticed on a train.

On the train, he starts to think about Dockery. He estimates that Dockery must have had a son when he was about the age of twenty. Then he tries to remember exactly who Dockery was. When he is about to reach a conclusion which threatens to be a commonplace—“Well it just shows/ How muchHow little”—he falls asleep. Even contemplating how time has passed unheeded, a life slept through, causes him to sleep through more time.

He is awakened by the “fumes/ And furnace-glares of Sheffield.” Waiting to change trains, he examines his life to this point. His complacency has been jarred through the mention of Dockery and his son. He mentions that not to be married, have a son, or own property “still seemed quite natural.” When he compares what he has not accomplished with what Dockery must have done, however, “a numbness registered the shock/ Of finding out how much had gone of life,” of finding how different the speaker was from the others. The speaker notes that Dockery must have thought “adding [having a child, among other things] meant increase” and remarks that to himself “it was dilution.”

He realizes that a life is ruled by “Innate assumptions.” These are not ideals or ethical truths; rather, they are “more a style/ Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,/ Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got.” He realizes that life is passing them all by, whether they make use of it or not, and “leaves what something hidden from us chose”; one is left with the sum of one’s days, though the motivation for one’s actions may be hidden even from oneself. After that, all that is left is “age, and then the only end of age,” death.

Forms and Devices

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Larkin is a great master of understatement, and “Dockery and Son” is a typical example of his muted mastery. Almost all of Larkin’s poems make use of traditional forms, but rarely do those forms call attention to themselves. “Dockery and Son” is written as a series of six octaves, or eight-line stanzas, but only the final one ends with a period. The stanza is the ordering element on the page, but it does not structure the movement of the poem. Similarly, each stanza consists of four rhymes, yet the arrangement of the rhymes varies from stanza to stanza. The structure seems a random one, the reader being thrown from one stanza ahead into the next almost without knowing it—much like the speaker, who moves...

(This entire section contains 523 words.)

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through stages in his life with little recognition except that time is passing.

One sees Larkin’s real genius in the poem’s pacing. For example, stanza 1 ends: “I try the door of where I used to live:”; the colon leads one to anticipate some discovery, something important enough to carry over the stanza break. Instead, the next stanza begins simply, “Locked.” This one word, so strategically placed, undercuts all expectation and reinforces the non-event of the speaker’s life.

Another example is when the speaker falls asleep: “Yawning, I suppose/ I fell asleep, waking at the fumes/ And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed.” The selection of the word “suppose” makes even his sleep seem questionable, certainly as unintended as most of his life. The reader would like some firm realization, some course of action decided upon; the words “where I changed” heighten the irony, making it obvious that only trains and not a course of life have been changed. This is driven further by the inclusion of the homely detail of eating an “awful pie.” Yet just when the reader is resigned to the trivial, the speaker sees “the ranged/ Joining and parting lines reflect a strong// Unhindered moon.” The railroad tracks here are certainly reflective of the lines that lives take, but the moon is something beyond. It is both strong and unhindered; it is beyond the petty facts of human lives. This sudden opening out into an image that can never be precisely defined is a notable aspect of Larkin’s work, and it expresses a sense of the numinous that exists yet is denied to the certain knowledge of men. It offers less a glimmer of hope than a sense of a greater frustration.

Larkin’s use of language is correspondingly subtle. When the speaker wonders about how Dockery “must have taken stock,” he remarks: “how// Convinced he was he should be added to!/ Why did he think adding meant increase?/ To me it was dilution.” The choice of having children, of commitment, is presented in the language of business. But, then, the title of the poem itself, “Dockery and Son,” sounds much like a business. Within its seemingly prosaic surface, the language is the subtlest of poetry. The business of his life is a failed one; he has nothing, but it is a nothing with “all a son’s harsh patronage.”