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.