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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

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The title of the poem, "Reasons for Attendance," elicits within the reader an expectation that a justification of presence will be provided within this poem. In this case, the speaker attempts to justify why he remains outside the glass of a dance while the participants enjoy the inside. The "lighted glass" represents the ideals that separate the speaker from the group. The speaker also separates the age of the group members from the surrounding text using em dashes: "—all under twenty-five—." This visual separation draws attention to the fact that this is a young group of dancers, likely quite different in age from the speaker. They are different in more ways than this one.

The second stanza begins with an em dash, drawing the reader back to the previous stanza while interjecting the speaker's private thoughts. The speaker imagines that these dancers are happy, in an almost wistful tone. He also juxtaposes the ideas of solemnity and happiness at the end of the previous stanza to further make the reader consider the nature of the group's joy. The speaker's perspective then switches to being inside the dance. He is sensually aware of the dancers' experience; he can smell the smoke and sweat and feel the girls pressing up against him in a pleasing way. This is followed by a series of interrogative lines as he questions the "lighted glass" that separates them. Why does he remain outside this world? Why do they participate? He goes further to question what sex is. This stanza ends in enjambment, again linking two stanzas together, though they are structurally divided on the page.

The speaker addresses a common belief that most couples find happiness in each other. He believes this to be inaccurate. Perhaps some ignore their true calling toward happiness; for him, art (something necessarily experienced alone) provides great joy. The words "Art, if you like" are surrounded in parentheses to visually bring attention to the words for a couple of reasons. First, the poem now speaks directly to the reader using second person, thus engaging them to consider what they "like" as a source of happiness. Second, the word "like" is used both as a rhetorical statement and as a verb, almost a question. ("Do you like art, too?")

The final stanza contains these lines:

Therefore I stay outside,
Believing this; and they maul to and fro,
Believing that . . .

The word "believing" appears as the verb beginning two consecutive lines, drawing a sharp contrast to the differences that surround those beliefs. The speaker believes that art and individuality bring him happiness. The dancers believe that dance, sex, and connection with others (however fleeting) brings them happiness. Larkin's speaker concludes that this is okay for everyone.

However, this conclusion rests on one final qualifier: a short fragment placed at the very end to draw intended emphasis to the question which runs as a current throughout the poem ("If no one has misjudged himself. Or lied"). In order to achieve happiness, it is important for each individual to be honest about those things which bring personal joy. The speaker ultimately provides the justification of presence for both the dancers and himself by stating that the journey toward happiness is an individual one.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399

“Reasons for Attendance” is a short poem of twenty lines that is divided into four cinquains with regular rhyme scheme based primarily on slant rhymes. The title hints at Philip Larkin’s multiple concerns in the poem. He ponders why the young couples with “flushed face” move “to and fro” inside the dance hall while he remains outside. Similarly, he considers why he, despite his protests that he does not need the happiness inside the hall, is drawn “To watch the dancers”—that is, to “attend” to them, in the archaic sense of “give heed to.”

“Reasons for Attendance” begins with the speaker standing outside “the lighted glass” feeling compelled to watch the dancers inside. For the remainder of the poem, Larkin alternates between the perspectives of the observer outside and the dancers inside the hall. In the third line of the first stanza, he shifts from himself to the particulars of the dancers, who shift “intently” and “Solemnly on the beat of happiness.”

The second stanza brings another shift in perspective, as the poet focuses on what he senses (“smoke and sweat” and “The wonderful feel of girls”) as he attempts to penetrate the atmosphere inside. The first line of the stanza (“Or so I fancy”) raises the possibility that the earlier sensations described inside the dance hall were only what the poet’s “fancy” projected onto the scene.

Beginning with line 2 of the second stanza, the poet presents the two competing motivations that inform the poem—sex, seen by many as “the lion’s share/ Of happiness,” and the “lifted, rough-tongued bell” of art, which demands a separateness of its followers. In the third and fourth stanzas, Larkin seems to resolve the conflict by asking that the dancers and the detached observer be allowed to follow their own “voices”—the dancers to follow the “trumpet’s voice” of communion and sexuality, and the speaker, the “individual sound” of his muse’s bell. He concludes that “both are satisfied.”

With the last line of the poem, however, the poet undercuts this apparent resolution by raising the possibility that neither party has found happiness: “If no one has misjudged himself. Or lied.” This ambivalence saves the poem from the kind of easy truce between competing ethics that Victorian readers admired and contemporary readers may find too pat in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: “He works his work, I mine.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

In “Reasons for Attendance,” the poet uses ambiguity and paradox to suggest his uncertainty over the choices he has made and his ambivalence toward the dancers. In the final line of the third stanza, the poet moves toward a clear declaration of his position concerning human choices: “It speaks; I hear.” “It” seems to refer to the vague concept in the stanza’s second line—“that lifted, rough-tongued bell.” Sensing that the reader will not be able to understand the significance of the bell, Larkin parenthetically identifies it as “Art,” only to withdraw certainty with his qualifier “if you like.” If the bell is art, the statement bridging the third and fourth stanzas seems deliberately ambiguous: “others may hear as well,/ But not for me, nor I for them.” May hear what? the reader might ask, since the “others” in the poem—the young dancers—have heeded the trumpet’s call to communion, not the voice of art. When the poet concludes “and so/ With happiness,” the reader can only wonder, and what with happiness? since “so” apparently refers to the preceding ambiguous statements about hearing.

The poet ends with a final instance of ambiguity, this time a pair of demonstrative pronouns presented in parallel positions, neither with a clear referent: “Therefore I stay outside,/ Believing this; and they maul to and fro,/ Believing that.” The poet has worked himself into a state of confusion concerning his own motives and implies that the young dancers experience a similar confusion.

Larkin creates a sense of the uncertainty he feels about the world inside the “lighted glass” of the dance hall through a series of paradoxes. The young dancers move “on the beat of happiness,” yet they shift “Solemnly.” The poet juxtaposes the “smoke and sweat” inside the dance hall with the “wonderful feel of girls.” He also creates a paradox in his use of a lion metaphor: The sexuality enjoyed by couples may be “the lion’s share/ Of happiness,” but the young couples “maul to and fro.”

Instead of letting his confusion rage, Larkin remains detached, controlling his emotions through a number of poetic devices. In the second stanza, when the poet senses his own anxiety over the possibility that sex holds “the lion’s share/ Of happiness,” he distances himself by shifting to the purposely pretentious tone of the third stanza: “What calls me is that lifted, rough-tongued bell/ (Art, if you like).” Larkin also reins in his fears by using a consistent meter (iambic pentameter) and relentlessly adhering to his chosen rhyme scheme (albeit most often through less obtrusive slant rhyme). Finally, the poet guards against his own emotions by using understatement throughout the poem: “It speaks; I hear,” “and so/ With happiness,” “both are satisfied,” “Or lied.”