The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 780 words.)