Memorable among the poems in The Less Deceived (1955) that brought Larkin his first fame, “Toads” is a comically exaggerated, self-directed harangue whose speaker seems easily identifiable with the Hermit of Hull. The poem’s work-driven man trades six days of his week for economic security, meanwhile giving up “The fame and the girl and the money” that “windfall” types might get with their “wits” or “blarney.” The strong sensory impact of the opening rhetorical question makes the poem hard to forget: “Why should I let the toad work/ Squat on my life?” In nine quatrains of rough dactyls, the persona goes on to reach a partial, chilling answer: “something sufficiently toad-like/ Squats in me, too;/ Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,/ And cold as snow.”
The poem’s main image provides an “objective correlative”—to use the term suggested by the Anglo-American poet/critic T. S. Eliot—for oppressive daily work that suppresses the life of which the individual dreams. (A pun in “toady” as “fawning underling” lurks under the conceit.) The other life that the speaker decides is not for him, the unrealized romantic alternative to a workaday world, gives the poem its main contrast. The word “Toads” rules the poem as image, witty symbol, personification (or animation), metaphor, and analogy; but the text engages many other “poetic” devices. A second rhetorical question, echoing the first, heightens its animated little comic drama with simile: “Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork/ And drive the brute off?” (“Wit” is echoed later as “wits” and finally identified with “blarney.” Since the poet as crafty talker is at work in the poem, the foils of librarian and happy-go-lucky poet may be partly what the speaker imagines.) The phrases “skinny as whippets,” “Toad-like,” and “heavy as hard luck,/ . . . cold as snow” show other similes that sharpen the imagery. Further details sketch manly risk-takers living “up lanes/ With fires in a bucket,” eating “windfalls and tinned sardines.” The Popean wit of this last image (technically called zeugma) derives from Larkin’s pairing of things intangible and sensibly concrete, both objects of the verb “eat.” Hyperalliteration in the third stanza, especially, reinforces the poem’s comic tone, even as the catalog “Lecturers, lispers,/ Losels, loblolly-men, louts” is congruent with the mock-epic, one remote model for the poem.
The speaker’s mention of the inaccessible “stuff/ That dreams are made on,” echoing William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623), helps set up the poem’s romantic foil. In this detail, the text is reminiscent of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” where Prufrock thinks of the inimitable actions of Hamlet as the obverse of his own. Ultimately, in fact, it is hard not to compare Larkin’s resigned persona with Prufrock, for both are timid men whose “love songs” go unsung. Like Eliot and others, Larkin shows skill at using startling conceits to make the “stuff” of his poem memorable. While Prufrock’s mind drifts toward the genteel (and Eliot’s toward free verse), Larkin’s speaker stanzaically envisions a downscale society where something chancier would replace propriety.
Formally, the quatrains of “Toads” exemplify rowdy versions of the four-line “common meter” stanza, long serviceable in English verse. The dactylic meter is an “oomppah-pah” that blusters on. Half-rhymes typify the abab scheme: In fact, no exact rhymes occur. Such pairings as “poison/ proportion” and “bucket/ like it” are clever in the manner of Lord Byron. Larkin’s conversational “blarney” also employs colloquial diction, disruptive dashes, exclamations, italicized phrases, and contractions. The phrase “All at one sitting” is a pun full of irony, given both the toad’s “squatting” stance and the nonsedentary life needed for one to get fame, love, or wealth. Dialectal words help individualize Larkin’s speaker, who speaks of “losels” (worthless persons), “loblolly-men” (louts), “nippers” (children), and “hunkers” (haunches), and who says, “Stuff your pension!”
Unlike the rest, the poem’s last stanza is obscure; the pronouns are ambiguous, the antecedents remote. The verb “bodies” seems vaguely transitive. Probably “one” and “the other” (and “either” and “both”) refer to the “two toads” previously mentioned—one squatting “on my life,” the other squatting “in me, too.” The plural title seems to be a main clue that helps identify these two referents. Thus “one bodies the other/ One’s spiritual truth” means that the outward tendency to be a workaholic, symbolized by the outward “toad,” is an emblem of one’s inner reality. If the first “one” is the squatting toad and the second “One” the man on whom it sits, the idea may be that work gives an individual his or her “spiritual truth.” The fact that the speaker rejects the affirmation he asserts makes his last pontification doubly gnomic. Here the pedantic librarian’s voice supplants the breezier blarney that dominates the poem—though wit is a common denominator in both modes. However one reads its end, the poem’s serious theme is that a fatal temperamental workaholism, while paying the bills and securing the pension, fails to bring such footloose fulfillment as one can fancy.
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