The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.”