Reasons for Attendance

by Philip Larkin

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Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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