The Poem

“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.


(The entire section is 476 words.)

Forms and Devices

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 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,...

(The entire section is 523 words.)