Summer is fading:
The leaves fall in ones and twos
From trees bordering
The new recreation ground.
In the hollows of afternoons
Young mothers assemble
At swing and sandpit
Setting free their children.
Behind them, at intervals,
Stand husbands in skilled trades,
An estateful of washing,
And the albums, lettered
Our Wedding, lying
Near the television:
Before them, the wind
Is ruining their courting-places
That are still courting-places
(But the lovers are all in school),
And their children, so intent on
Finding more unripe acrons,
Expect to be taken home.
Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.
Classic Larkin: vivid imagery, simple language, and super depressing.
This poem has a very particular and strong point of view, and it is precisely the kind of poem that would be penned by a life-long bachelor who wrote “get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself.” On the simplest level, it’s a straight forward depiction of suburban ennui. The narrator envisions young mothers at a playground, their own needs and desires smothered by the requirements of children and domestic work. The first line - “Summer is fading” - firmly tells us this is a poem of diminishment, not increase, and Larkin makes explicit the irony that the freedoms of childhood are dependent on the servitude of their mothers. I find particularly evocative the image of a disregarded wedding album lying undisturbed near the television. The album is titled “Our Wedding,” but there is a clear sense of isolation and estrangement in the mothers’ lives. The married couples don’t stand together; rather the mothers are alone at a playground with their husbands elsewhere.
My favorite bit of prosody is the tragic line break between the second and third stanza. The former “courting places” aren’t dormant. Rather the emotional joy and intensity they once offered is now lavished on younger people. I also like the word “thickened” here. I picture someone’s aged hands, grown larger and more calloused, their smoothness eroded away by time.
The poem’s title gives it an ostensible timelessness. Larkin implies that this is not the story of one afternoon, but instead, it’s a scene repeated day after day, year after year, generation after generation. Yet, while Larkin aims at presenting us with an eternal conundrum, the problem and scenes described are actually rooted in a very specific time and place. The dramatic tension finds its source in the relegation of women to domestic work, a phenomenon that doesn’t full crystalize until the Industrial Revolution. “Prior to the industrialization of the Western world, family members worked side by side and the workplace was located mostly in and around the home. With the shift from home-based to factory production, men left the home to sell their labor for wages while women stayed home to perform unpaid domestic work.”
Further placing the poem in a particular historical moment are the particularities of the protagonists’ lives. Wedding albums, like all photography, is obviously less than two centuries old. Similarly, when Larkin describes the playground as “the new recreation ground,” he inadvertently highlights the fact that playgrounds are, historically speaking, still relatively new. They arose in Germany in the second half of the 19th century. They were created as a place where children could be taught how to correctly play. “Humanitarians saw playgrounds as the solution to cramped quarters, poor air quality, and social isolation. This new concept could keep children off the dangerous streets and help them develop their physical health, good habits, socialization skills, and the pleasure of being a child.” Playgrounds were not free-form at first, but instead, trained instructors taught children how to properly organize their playtime. Progressive social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like John Dewey, saw playgrounds as one way to improve the lives of the urban poor. Later groups like the Outdoor Recreation League provided slides, seesaws and professional play leaders to children in low-income areas, but they did not become common fixtures in public spaces around the world until well into the 20th century.
Larkin’s poetry typically abounds with the minute of daily life, the quotidian objects that seem insignificant but will define us to future generations. Reading his poetry through this lens is an intellectual way of augmenting the blunt emotional force Larkin commonly provides.
Bonus material - here's an audio recording of Larkin reading this poem himself!