Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
This is a poem about how people live their lives in expectation of the next great thing without appreciating each passing moment. We are, as Larkin writes, too desirous of what is to come, and we acquire the habit of what he calls "expectancy," or always living in wait for something better. His title for the poem, "Next, Please," is satirical, as it is what a person who works in a store might say to a customer waiting in line. It's almost as if we treat our wishes and dreams like customers in a queue.
Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
Larkin's narrator uses the extended metaphor of an armada of ships to represent our dreams coming true. Our dreams and hopes are like ships that near the bluff where we are waiting on shore. They approach in a sparkle of promise, and they seem to never land but to always be somewhere offshore. We seem to wait an eternity for their arrival.
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,
Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors
In these lines, Larkin's speaker describes the approach of our dreams as if it were the arrival of a well-appointed ship. Each part of the brasswork on the ship has been polished, and each line or rope on the ship has been sorted out. The ship approaches with a buxom woman on its bow, and it arches toward us. This sexual imagery evokes our desire for more. However, although the ship is gleaming and full of promise, it does not come to shore. Instead, it just moves on, symbolizing the way in which the things we look forward to with such great expectations just pass on, leaving us waiting for the next great thing.
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
In the last stanza, continuing the extended metaphor of the arrival of ships, Larkin writes that only one ship will come to shore: the ship of death. It is a black ship that is at first unfamiliar to us, and it has no waters behind it. In other words, it ends our lives, and there is nothing that follows it. All of our expectations are like ships that do not arrive on shore, but the only ship that does arrive is death; it is the only part of our fate that will definitely come true.