Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album (from The Less Deceived)
At last you yielded up the album, which,
Once open, sent me distracted. All your ages
Matt and glossy on the thick black pages!
Too much confectionery, too rich:
I choke on such nutritious images.
My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose -
In pigtails, clutching a reluctant cat;
Or furred yourself, a sweet girl-graduate;
Or lifting a heavy-headed rose
Beneath a trellis, or in a trilby hat
(Faintly disturbing, that, in several ways) -
From every side you strike at my control,
Not least through these disquieting chaps who loll
At ease about your early days:
Not quite your class, I'd say, dear, on the whole.
But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes
Like washing-lines, and Halls'-Distemper boards,
But shows the cat as disinclined, and shades
A chin as doubled when it is, what grace
Your candour thus confers upon her face!
How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place,
In every sense empirically true!
Or is it just the past ? Those flowers, that gate,
These misty parks and motors, lacerate
Simply by being over; you
Contract my heart by looking out of date.
Yes, true; but in the end, surely, we cry
Not only at exclusion, but because
It leaves us free to cry. We know what was
Won't call on us to justify
Our grief, however hard we growl across
The gap from page to page. So I am left
To mourn (without a chance of consequence)
You, balanced on a bike against a fence;
To wonder if you'd spot the theft
Of this one of you bathing; to condense,
In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer the years go by.
For years, I kept this poem on my fridge, and although it’s one of Larkin’s longer poems, it was the first one point I learned by heart. Using the mundane act of a man looking at his crush’s photo album, Larkin whips up a fluid discussion of the power of photography and the simple tragedy that everyone we meet contains their own “past that no one now can share.”
In discussing this poem, I’m going to refer to the speaker as “he.” In fairness, his gender is never revealed. One could totally reinterpret the male gaze of this poem as coming from a female speaker. But we’ll go with “he” if for no other reason than we know this poem is autobiographical. Larkin wrote it about Winifred Arnott, a woman he met while he worked as a librarian at Queen's University in Belfast. They became close friends, and she inspired two poems, this one and “Maiden Name.” Andrew Motion, Larkin’s authorized biographer, wrote in an article for The Independent that “He [Larkin] told a friend that he wanted to 'fall on her like a lion on its daily hunk of horseflesh'. Winifred saw it differently: 'We never went to bed together, but I think he liked me because I was cheerful. A lot of people he knew weren’t.’ Arnott added that “‘There were, in fact, two albums, not one…and there isn't a picture of me wearing a trilby hat. On the other hand, I'm afraid to say, there's definitely my double chin, he got that right. And there's also one of me bathing.’”
The poem is painful yet also really funny. It has a wickedly comic tone. When speaker describes the men in her photos as “Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole” it’s really dickish line but also really hilarious. Likewise, every time I’m in a photo and someone commands, “Say cheese,” I recall Larkin’s putdown of “hold-it smiles as frauds.”
Humor aside, though, this poem is fundamentally tragic. Deeply so. What is about photography unsettles the speaker? Why does he describe her photos as “Too much confectionery; too rich”? Why does he “choke on such nutritious images”?
First, the speaker highlights the ability of photos to wound us with their honesty. They refuse to cover up dull days, disinterested cats, double chins, and loser boyfriends. A photo “will not censor blemishes/Like washing-lines and Hall's-Distemper boards.”
But that first type of pain pales in comparison to the second, the way photos exclude us, showing us the personal past of another person that we can never be a part of “however hard we yowl across/ The gap from eye to page.“ That line break is a clever visual representation of this rupture.
The fact that someone’s personal history estranges them from others serves as a source of pain in other Larkin poems, as in his unpublished poem “When first we faced and touching showed.” Both to my chagrin and expectation, the older I get, the more I understand this stanza from the poem:
The decades of a different life
That opened past your inch-close eyes
Belonged to others, lavished, lost;
Nor could I hold you hard enough
To call my years of hunger-strife
Back for your mouth to colonise.
Throughout “Lines on a Young Lady’s….”, Larkin writes with a sense of inevitability, as if the poem espouses simple, unobjectionable, capital-t Truth. The speaker is passive, acted upon rather than acting out. He puts the onus on the young lady and the photos, saying these images “lacerate/ Simply by being you; you/ Contract my heart by looking out of date.”
But, of course, the speaker is active one here. He’s the one looking at the album and the one choosing how to react. The person he is addressing here has done nothing. Hell, the “you” he is addressing in that phrase is her photo, not ever her person. Throughout the poem Larkin makes the speaker’s thoughts seem obvious and unobjectionable, yet he doesn’t engage the fact that this is not the only way of experiencing a photo album. One could write a poem, with an equally common sensical tone, that hails photos as wonderful talismans which let us see, and therefore access, the pasts of people we meet in life. The tragedy of Larkin’s oeuvre is his general refusal to even consider the cheerier option, let alone accept it, when thinking about the passage of time. Larkin is the original Debbie Downer. Sometimes I wanna scream at his speaker here, “Are you fucking kidding me? You can get away with a photo of her in her bathing suit! Quit bitching, and get over the fact you weren’t there for the swim!”
The whole poem Larkin points to photography’s crystalline accuracy, and in the last stanza we see a contrast to this perfection: the false clarity of human memory. Over time, our recollections of another person become simplified and idealized. Early in the poem, the speaker harps on the young lady’s flaws, yet by the end he describes her past as “invariably lovely.” She has become “a heaven,” an interesting word choice for the atheist poet.
In this last stanza, Larkin also does a subtle move, and he makes it the only stanza that lacks the first person. In this quiet way, Larkin expands the subject of this poem. The speaker is removing himself as the only focus of this drama because he knows this experience is universal. Larkin met Winifred in 1951. She had graduated Queen’s University, Belfast the year before, and she was staying on for another year to consider her future career. He knew she’d be around only a short time, and even within that short time, she became engaged to her London boyfriend and their flirtation ended. Yet, something about this brief experience inspired this great poem.
Indeed, this poem works cause it describes so many interactions we have. You get older and you have brief loves, some consummated, others not. The years go by and their memory recedes even while retaining an emotional clarity. The people we knew become “smaller” and “clearer.” The smallness is true. Over time, people’s remembrances of friends and lovers typically fades and we distill their essence into select bits of the individual we used to know. Before, we knew the whole person, how they walked and talked. Now, all we might be left with is an image or two. Maybe a photo up on the fridge. While the smallness is true, the following adjective - “clearer”- is ironic. True, their memory becomes simpler and in that sense clearer, but only because we forget the nuances and rough edges. That’s not reality; That’s idealization. And therein lies the fundamental irony of the poem only revealed in its ending: it’s precise those truthful photos of the past that lets us retain our idealized false remembrances of others in the present.
Boom. Mic drop. Fuck yeah Larkin.