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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

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"Next, Please" is a poem by Philip Larkin that draws on the human propensity to look beyond what is current in hopes of obtaining more. It touches on the insatiable desire of humanity and the resulting crisis it can create within ourselves. He makes use of an extended metaphor, equating the image of the ship to that which is expected (future opportunities), and juxtaposing it with the sole thing that, in all certainty, draws near (death).

His tone is one that admittedly recognizes, if not reproaches, human nature for being "always too eager for the future" and thus being susceptible to the unhealthy practice of constantly expecting. He describes the lure of faraway fortunes as a "sparkling armada of promises," whose flashy appearance takes our attention away from what is real and apparent in life. Such constant eagerness for what's to come causes one's care and patience to erode, creating the cognitive bias of seeing slowness in most everything. Larkin emphasizes this impatience with the use of exclamation:
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!
He goes on to show how we tend to be very clear and perhaps too sure when it comes to our desires, often carving them in elaborate ways in our minds in something akin to lust:
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,
Flagged, and the figurehead wit golden tits
Larkin anchors his poem on a greater human flaw—entitlement—when the speaker calls us out for thinking "we are owed / for waiting so devoutly and so long." This calls to mind the idiom, "Good things come to those who wait." He puts a twist on it, giving the poem a sharp turn away from its earlier bright, golden imagery toward an approaching vast, "birdless" darkness. It makes no hesitation to declare that in the grand scheme of things, at the very end of a long wait, we all board the same ship towards our own mortality. Larkin paints the picture of stillness and nothingness with his last line:
In her wake
No waters breed or break.
The rhyme scheme of the poem is aabb, lending it a swaying rhythm, much like being in the water. His stanzas are also visually noteworthy in the way they mimic the shape of a ship, with part of the upper body jutting out before tapering at the bottom. This tapering likewise lends to an emphasis on the theme of expectations, as the last line of each stanza is inextricably linked to the first line of the next, whether it be in structure or in thought. It results in each stanza seamlessly towing the other, coming in as one ship after another, as the reader is taken on a journey through the different stages of waiting—expectation, disappointment, denial, disenchantment—until the last one, which is the quiet acceptance of death.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

Philip Larkin’s “Next, Please” is made up of six four-line stanzas. The first three lines of each (with several exceptions) are in iambic pentameter, while the last line of each is noticeably shorter (either four or six syllables). The rhyme scheme of each of the stanzas is aabb. The poem examines the common desire many people have to focus their attention on the future instead of living in the present. Many spend their entire lives waiting for the good things the future will supposedly bring to those who faithfully wait for them. However, the poem warns its readers that such hopes will always end in disappointment, for the only thing that is certain to arrive is death. The first stanza begins by pointing out disapprovingly that “we” are “Always too eager for the future” and, as a result, “Pick up bad habits of expectancy,” living life in the hope that the future will surely make life better than it is in the present.

The next four stanzas explore this “expectancy” through the ironic development of the old maxim about waiting for one’s ship to come in. From a cliff, people watch the sea, waiting for the sight of a “Sparkling armada of promises” to approach. However, the expected ships are, annoyingly, in no hurry to arrive. In addition, as the third and fourth stanzas explain, even after a ship arrives, it leaves those who waited for it “holding wretched stalks/ Of disappointment.” Although the watchers’ hopes are not vague dreams and they are able to see every detail of an approaching ship clearly, “it never anchors; it’s/ No sooner present than it turns to past.” Time is in constant flux, and to live in the hope that it will somehow stop and deliver “All good into our lives” is to be constantly disappointed. Still, the watchers continue to wait expectantly, believing that, surely, they will be rewarded “For waiting so devoutly and so long.”

The last line of the fifth stanza states emphatically that “we are wrong,” however. Those rewards will never come. Instead, the only ship that will drop anchor is the ship of death, which will be totally unexpected and will bring an end to all hopes of what the future will bring—and to the future as well.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780

“Next, Please” proves to be a fairly typical work by a poet generally regarded as a member of what came to be called the Movement, a group of nine university-educated Engish poets who, in the 1950’s, were in rebellion against the political and artistic preoccupations of the poetry of the 1930’s and 1940’s. They regarded themselves as part of an alternate tradition of twentieth century English poetry, one opposed to the complex and confusing modernism of T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, and their followers. This tradition was closely associated with Thomas Hardy; like Hardy, Larkin and his fellows regarded the use of rhyme, regular meter, and stanza forms as a necessity of English poetry, not as a choice.

The poetry of the Movement also conveyed the dominant tone of postwar England in the 1950’s, a time of diminished expectations. The poet was no Romantic hero, celebrating the powers of poetry and the imagination. Instead, he had to be a realist, carefully recording the grimy reality of an empire on the decline in straightforward, simple language. Thus, Larkin’s use of the old cliché about one’s ship coming in reflects the clichéd, moribund life he knew in the 1950’s. This mood is reinforced by the description of one of the ships about to arrive. It is a “promise” seen clearly and in detail, but the overall effect is tawdry. The ship’s “brasswork” is highly polished, but Larkin uses the word “prinked” to describe it—a word related to “preen” and “primp.” The suggestive image of the ship’s “figurehead with golden tits/ Arching our way” is obviously intended to undermine any idea the reader may have developed of a proper and stately sailing vessel.

The primary poetic device used in the poem is the conceit, an extended metaphor whose working out provides the structure of the poem. People wait for their ships—their expectations—to come in, building up “bad habits of expectancy.” The detailed description of one ship allows Larkin to reveal how artificial and even seedy people’s expectations may be. The last ship (death) brings an end to everything. As Hardy does in poems such as “The Convergence of the Twain” (1912), Larkin uses irony of situation—in particular, the mistaken expectation of something other than death—forcefully. The ships of promises never dock, yet people still wait for them and for their deserved rewards. “But,” Larkin informs readers, “we are wrong.” Ironically, only Death will ever come to anchor. That ship, in fact, provides the only allusion in the poem, one that suggests the medieval “ship of fools.” It may also allude to D. H. Lawrence’s poem “The Ship of Death” (1932), which urges its readers to create, through the poetic imagination, their own ships to enable them to sail the sea of oblivion. However, for Larkin, one is powerless before oblivion’s “huge and birdless silence.”

“Next, Please” makes use of both enjambment and end-stopped lines, with the former being more prevalent. The enjambment (or the run-on line) is used to reinforce the poem’s meaning. In the first stanza, for example, the opening line ends with the subject of a sentence that is completed in the second line: “Always too eager for the future, we/ Pick up bad habits of expectancy.” The “we” at the end of the line creates a sense of “expectancy” itself, as the reader anticipates the predicate to come.

Enjambment is most effectively employed at the end of the poem, where the ship of death makes its appearance. Larkin is able to place stronger emphasis on the hyphenated modifier “black-/ Sailed” by splitting it so that the first line ends with “black-.” The second line is also enjambed: “towing at her back/ A huge and birdless silence.” The third line concludes with an opening prepositional phrase, and the rest of the sentence follows in the final line: “In her wake/ No waters breed or break.” While enjambment is usually employed in poetry to create a quick “flow” from line to line, often, for narrative purposes, “Next, Please” creates instead pauses at the ends of the lines in which enjambment occurs.

Another device Larkin uses is the shortened fourth line at the end of each stanza. Where the first three lines of a quatrain establish one metrical pattern (in this case, an iambic pentameter line), the last, because it is considerably shorter, surprises readers and has the tendency to draw the line out in their minds to the length it would be expected to have. Thus, each word of each last line acquires more emphasis than it would if it were part of an iambic pentameter line.