“Toads” is based on an extended analogy and presents a common complaint: In order to afford the enjoyments of life, people spend so much time working that the labor often overshadows and ultimately spoils their enjoyment. Philip Larkin, who compares work to a toad, takes the complaint one step further by confessing that although he is envious of those who have conquered work, he cannot break free from the expectations of the system because “something sufficiently toad-like/ Squats in me, too” (lines 25-26). It is this final, greater toad that prevents Larkin from ever fulfilling the romantic dream of getting “The fame and the girl and the money/ All at one sitting” (lines 30-32). “Toads” is thematically divided into four sections. The first section, stanzas 1 and 2, sets up the problem and introduces a toad as a metaphor for work. The toad “work” squats on life, soiling six days out of seven, a disproportionate percentage, but “wit” or cleverness seems to be a solution to the despair it causes. Stanzas 3 through 5 look at the people who have banished the toad. Such people include “lecturers, lispers, loblolly-men and louts” as well as the outcasts of society. The speaker is amazed that although these people have shunned the “accepted” way, no one is a pauper and “No one actually starves” (line 20).
In the third section, the narrator tries to visualize himself as someone who could make a similar leap past the socially accepted and expected, but he finds himself unequal to the task. He cannot muster the courage to shout out a defiant “Stuff your pension!” (line 22). This could only be accomplished in his wildest dream. The second toad, introduced in stanza 7, is the reason that he cannot make the jump. This toad is passivity, and its hunkering inside the narrator is as ruinous to positive action as the toad work’s squatting is to the better part of the week.
The final section of the poem is the last stanza, which brings the two toads together. The narrator says that having one toad does not necessitate having the other. In other words, working does not necessarily mean that one has a passive nature, and being passive does not mean that one can avoid the burden of work. The narrator points out, however, that it is difficult to overcome either the fear of nonaction or the depression caused by work if both amphibians are acting simultaneously.
Larkin’s own responsibilities as a university librarian could well have caused personal frustration and prevented a more complete dedication to his writing, but he seems to recognize that such “work” is necessary for him as well. At times, it even provided inspiration and motivation for his poetry. In an order almost like a formula, Larkin seems to confess that he is torn between irreconcilable differences. Though he wrestles with the problem, there is no quick solution, and the conclusion suggests that an insoluable problem will remain.
The major and most obvious poetic device that Larkin employs is the extended metaphor of a toad, first representing work and then a sense of conformity or a reluctance to oppose the majority. Larkin’s toad work “squats” on life, impeding action and poisoning the workweek while the second toad impedes any attempt at rebellion against socially accepted norms. Ironically, when one thinks of toads, verbs such as leap and jump come to mind. Larkin’s toads, however, neither leap nor jump but remain sluggishly inactive, “heavy as hard luck,/ And cold as snow” (lines 27-28). These two similes indicate why the narrator of the poem is unable to make the leap...
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out of the restraining mold of his present life into a new one: He chooses to remain motionless like the toads, constantly appearing ready to move but resisting the urge.
The choice of the toad as a symbol is also significant because of the English slang word “toadie,” which suggests an individual who caters to others’ ideas and complies with society’s demands. Larkin also uses irony, however, when he depicts those who have escaped the toad work as less than stellar examples of what humanity can become. Several are described as worthless or contemptible, yet another connotation of the word toad.
Another technique utilized by Larkin is the interjection of humor into a potentially depressing poem. Through near rhyme (for example, other/either, truth/both in the final stanza), he establishes a playful abab pattern that does not mesh with a tragic message. The lively l alliteration of stanzas 3 and 4 also balances out the sinister s sounds of stanza 2 and the heavy h sound in stanza 7. The diction chosen also defies the reader to interpret the poem too seriously. Characteristically, Larkin also opts for British colloquialisms such as “loblolly-men” and “nippers” and selects lower-class speech when the narrator is motivated to rebel by shouting “Stuff your pension!” (line 22).
Larkin also relies on dual meanings provided by words that can function as either nouns or verbs. Thus lines 33 and 34 may be read as “one bodies the other one’s spiritual truth” or as “one body [is] the other one’s spiritual truth.” This is also true of the word “hunkers” in line 27, which can mean either “to squat” or “haunches.” In either reading, the heaviness of the body or the squatting suggests the difficulty faced by the narrator who wishes to leap but finds an immovable force preventing him. Dual meaning is also suggested in the verb “Stuff” (line 22) and the noun “stuff” (line 24).