Next, Please Analysis by Philip Larkin

Next, Please Analysis

Always too eager for the future, we

Pick up bad habits of expectancy.

Something is always approaching; every day

Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear

Sparkling armada of promises draw near.

How slow they are! And how much time they waste,

Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks

Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks

Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,

Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead wit golden tits

Arching our way, it never anchors; it's

No sooner present than it turns to past.

Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload

All good into our lives, all we are owed

For waiting so devoutly and so long.

But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-

Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back

A huge and birdless silence. In her wake

No waters breed or break.

Philip Larkin's poem, Next, Please, is a direct look at the folly of expectancy. A light beginning develops into dark gallows-humor.

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then, we say,

and a parable begins, the poet grasping the arm of the reader on a rocky headland, looking out to sea. Life's events are seen as a line of approaching ships,

the sparkling armada of promises

long awaited, ready to unload their cargoes into the lives of poet and reader. (Larkin uses the words 'we' and 'our' throughout.) The description of the incoming vessels is side-splittingly funny. This is a parable, consciously overblown and made ridiculous, description replacing purpose, but it is done, for a purpose of the poet's own:

though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way

    But, however distinct, these vessels and their cargoes are illusory. Yet we deserve all that they do not bring, the poet says. They owe us because we have waited: we should be rewarded for our patience.In the event, of course, there is no such thing as reward. At its root is the unspoken assertion that what is desired takes on the form of a metaphor, shimmering but unreal, while that whichhappens is intellectually ungraspable, real, and inescapable. And it is here that the works emotionally and metaphysically diverge. In Larkin's poem, comedy is dropped like a mask to reveal what he sees as the future truth. A kind of portal becomes apparent:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
a huge and birdless silence. In her wake
no waters breed or break.

Death itself comes, at the end, in the form of a metaphor.

    There is a delicate craftsmanship in this poem. All aspects of meaning and ornament are carefully counterpoised. Under the humor is an emotion that is saved from being terror only by its orderliness; and, beneath that, the fear of the end of order cannot be spoken, because it is mute.

    If we were to remove the craftsmanship, the elegant rime, the humor, to look at the philosophy beneath, what should we find? Human existence inevitably depends on expectation. People spend their lives in waiting in hope. Surely patience must count for something. It does not. Death comes (it is the only expectation which actually happens) and for us the world is over.

    The only time we ever experience is now. The future and the past contaminate the present with anticipation and reminiscence which are the reasons for our absentmindedness. If we lived in the present then we'd remember where we left our keys.

   Some people are perpetual optimists, living in a state of hopeful expectation - "something will turn up" as Mr. Micawber said in David Copperfield. It has been said that the normal state of mind is one of a mild and unrealistic optimism. The future didn't look so rosy to Philip Larkin.

“Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.”(Larkin)

In this poem Philip Larkin is criticizing the tendency of people to always look to the future while neglecting the present. Larkin points out that we have a multiplicity of hopes, that spring eternal, many of which change to expectation and even anticipation. The hopes are all promises made by no-one, merely assumed by ourselves, so approach like ships towards a harbor. But then they do not dock, they keep going past for they were not promised to us but thinking made it so, and the facts burst on us and leave us just the stalks without the expected flowers.

The only thing certain in life is death. Whatever your hopes may be, the only thing you can really expect is death. Religions may o0ffer you other well-delineated ("every rope") hopes for after death, but these are promises just as airy as the ones we made for ourselves, and only death can be guaranteed actually to come, and with nothing in its wake. 

In the first two lines he sets a critical tone, saying that we are 'too eager' and ‘pick up bad habits'. He takes on this persona and describes our wishes as 'always approaching'; this implies that they never actually arrive.

The poem is dominated by the image introduced in the second stanza, that of our hopes as 'a sparkling armada of promises' that approaches the 'bluff' we all stand on. We ironically reflect on 'how much time they waste' when it is us wasting our lives by not living in the present.

These ships 'never anchor', leaving us 'holding wretched stalks of disappointment'. Larkin chooses this metaphor because a stalk represents the potential of a flower, just as we are left with only potential and no time to fulfil it.

The poet says that 'right to the last' we think that each ship will 'heave to and unload/ all good into our lives'. This means that right up to our death, we do not learn from our mistakes.

In the last stanza Larkin describes the only ship we have not been searching for, 'a black sailed unfamiliar' that represents death. He describes this ship as 'towing at her back/ a huge and birdless silence' making it seem eerie and sinister. These qualities are particularly emphasized by the brevity of the last sentence,

'In her wake/ No waters breed or break.'


Larkin's poetry has been characterized as combining "an ordinary, colloquial style", "clarity", a "quiet, reflective tone", "ironic understatement" and a "direct" engagement with "commonplace experiences”, while Jean Hartley summed his style up as a "piquant mixture of lyricism and discontent".Larkin's earliest work showed the influence of Eliot, Auden and Yeats, and the development of his mature poetic identity in the early 1950s coincided with the growing influence on him of Thomas Hardy.

Larkin's style is bound up with his recurring themes and subjects, which include death and fatalism, as in his final major poem "Aubade". Poet Andrew Motion observes of Larkin's poems that "their rage or contempt is always checked by the ... energy of their language and the satisfactions of their articulate formal control", and contrasts two aspects of his poetic personality—on the one hand an enthusiasm for "symbolist moments" and "freely imaginative narratives", and on the other a "remorseless factuality" and "crudity of language". Motion defines this as a "life-enhancing struggle between opposites", and concludes that his poetry is typically "ambivalent": "His three mature collections have developed attitudes and styles of ... imaginative daring: in their prolonged debates with despair, they testify to wide sympathies, contain passages of frequently transcendent beauty, and demonstrate a poetic inclusiveness which is of immense consequence for his literary heirs.”


The poem seems like an irrefutable comment on life. How many times haven't we felt that we are waiting (oh so long) for the good things to happen and when they do they are never as fulfilling in the realization as they are in the promise. And yes, the greatest certainty is death, the one thing that we are not waiting for but which is inevitably seeking us, after which there is nothing - not even disappointment.While the poem seems to speak of inevitability, it doesn't have to be that way:

"Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy."

The poet speaks for the 'bad habits' of expectancy. To break the inevitability of the poem, we have to break the bad habit of living for the next wonderful thing in our lives. We must live in the present, enjoying our lives as we live them. It is no use pinning our lives on some future event, which only disappoints us when it comes and sets us hoping for the next future event. 

So we can take the poem as a warning not to live our life pining for the future. If we live our life taking each moment as it comes, the richness of a well-lived life will leave us psychologically prepared for the inevitable time of death, when the black-sailed ship comes seeking us. 

Life is meaningless and death terrifying – if we live our life that way. This is the lesson of the poem.


What do we make of the title of this piece? “Next Please”? Sounds like a shop or doctor’s waiting room and the references to death in the last stanza hint at the answer. This is Death calling! The Grim Reaper is calling this title out loud to us all.

The premise of this poem is that we focus our attention on the future instead of living in the here and now. Notice the inclusive use of “we” and “our” throughout the poem. Larkin suggests we spend our entire lives waiting for the rewards the future will apparently endow to those who patiently wait for them. The irony is, of course, that from our vantage point think we are looking at our well-deserved rewards in life when in fact we are only seeing The Grim Reaper’s vessel getting closer.

The rhyme scheme is aabb and the first three lines of each are mostly in iambic pentameter, while the last line of each is much shorter and is either four or six syllables in length. Lexis such as “eager” and “expectancy” have rather positive connotations, yet there is a tension when we see the phrase “bad habits”.

The second stanza is rather cinematic in nature. This technique is rather typical of much of Larkin’s work. He often provides us with vivid mental images. We are taken to a cliff by the seaside. From here we see an approaching metaphorical “armada of promises”. It brings to mind the phrase that “one day our ship will come in.” He uses a three-part list to pre modify this image; it is “tiny, clear” and “Sparkling”. This “armada” is laden with alluring “promises” and seems a very attractive proposition to the onlooker. However, we have a hint of caution when we note the time-reference lexis in the second half of this stanza: “slow”, “time” and “haste”. He seems to be suggesting that much of life is spent waiting for rewards rather than having them.

The third stanza shows us Larkin’s pivot word “Yet”. He will often set up a scene then interject a “yet” or “but” or “however” to turn the conversation round. The naval semantic field is extended with lexis like “balk”, “brasswork” and “rope”. Note the poet’s effective use of post modification too, here: brasswork is “prinked” and ropes are “distinct”, but the first line has given us a very clear negative land-based metaphor in the lines:

“holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment”

We have been tantalized but are destined to be let down. Such is Larkin’s pessimistic view of life. The agony of lost opportunity is further extended in the fourth stanza. It starts with alliteration of the repeating “f” sounds and if we had originally thought the “promises” on board had been material wealth, now, the highly sexual figurehead metaphor suggests our love life is equally doomed to failure. The naval lexis is obvious in the penultimate stanza. Apparently, the ships will dock and deliver their alluring cargo; however in the last line we are met with another of Larkin’s pivot words as we are told categorically that: “we are wrong”. We will not get this delivery, whether material or sexual. It has all been in vain.

Our supposed rewards are depicted as a line of approaching ships that will unload their precious cargoes into our lives. In this nihilistic poem, Larkin describes vividly the void and nothingness that comes after death. The clear references to death are startling in the final section. If the first five verses have been about life, then this final stanza is about death. It is the only thing that we can be certain of in life.

He seizes the naval image of a ship and sets out a morbid message. The sails are “black”. The connotations are clear. The ship itself is eerily called an “unfamiliar” and astern; we witness a “huge and birdless silence”. This is a very emotive line. The simple and moving alliterative last line rams home the point with “w” and “b” to pound out the beat. We have a nihilistic, cheerless end to life. No celebration; it is just silent and motionless.
The extensive use of a naval semantic field produces a vivid, graphic and moving view of life… and death.

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