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Analysis of the Poem "Wants" by Philip Larkin

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin and a Summary Analysis of "Wants"

Philip Larkin's short poem "Wants" focuses on the fundamental human need for seclusion, the desire to be alone in a quiet personal space, escaping from the noise and madness of the social whirl.

Further, it also suggests that 'beneath it all' there is oblivion running on by itself, like a kind of script error in the background we humans cannot ever control.

Being a melancholic introvert and a technically astute poet who sought publicity it could be said that Larkin was well qualified to comment on this issue.

He was put off by the common crowd yet wanted his poems to be read and appreciated, so had to 'perform' for an 'audience' despite never giving public readings. His natural disposition craved aloneness:

'I would say, yes, I was and am extremely shy.'

(Interview by post with Robert Phillips, 1981)

Through poetry, he could express these inner feelings and create art out of inhibition. In some of his poems, for example, "Reasons for Attendance", he positively shuns the dancing party who are young and having great fun, much to his dislike.

Yes, he can be glum, yes he is a party pooper, yes his poems sometimes are a 'debate between hope and hopelessness, between fulfilment and disappointment' (Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate of GB); but out of this grey negativity there comes a silver lining: a poem worth exploring.

Larkin also brings a tongue-in-cheek kind of humour to the poetic stage. Tinged with irony and dark philosophy he often seems to enjoy having a go at institutions such as marriage and timetabled social events, and turns his nose up at the idea of sex, or sex with love, which he treats with sarcasm and mundane wit.

"Wants" also touches on existentialism, our reasons for being. Are we social animals who cannot live alone (as Plato offered) or have we inborn tendencies to go it alone because we cannot handle societal pressures?

Larkin is suggesting that we all have thresholds, that sometimes we can't help but feel like getting the hell outta here, one way or the other. Clearly, the speaker in this short poem wants to get out and is tempted by the idea of ultimate freedom, similar to that desired by Hamlet in Shakespeare's tragedy, from Act III, Scene I:

To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, 't is a consummation

devoutly to be wish'd.

First published in Larkin's XX Poems (1951) and again in The Less Deceived (1955) "Wants" is so typical of the reluctant poet who worked most of his adult life in a university library, seeking order and quiet, but ended up a hero for some, which it is said, almost frightened him.


Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff -
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death -
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

Analysis of "Wants"

"Wants" is a free verse poem without a rhyme scheme or steady metrical beat. It relies heavily on repetition for its effect, the repeated beginning and end lines sandwiching the interior in both stanzas. This is called parallelism.

First Stanza

The rather dramatic and romantic first line could easily have come from a character in a Shakespearean tragedy. It being Larkin however we know that the speaker, if not the actual poet, is voicing the feelings of the melancholic Englishman, renowned for his reticence and shyness.

Nowadays, in the early 21st century, psychologists recommend time alone, they say it is therapeutic to wind down, avoid the hustle and bustle of a hectic social life and just relax, solo, in nature or in a quiet space.

Larkin uses an interesting turn of phrase in the second line—'sky dark with invitation cards'—as if his mind is the sky and he's gloomy because he keeps getting invited out when all he wants is to be by himself.

Repeated use of However . . . reinforces this idea of annoyance, of the outside world forever dictating. Sex is seen as something we're directed to take part in, a cold and formulated exercise.

The speaker's cynical approach to the social side of life continues with the image of family gathering to have their photo taken, a symbol of togetherness and conformity and love.

Then the same line underscores—the wish to be alone, away from others, far from the madding crowd.

Second Stanza

Beyond and beneath . . . if the first stanza focuses on a wish, the speaker dreaming of being alone, of being left alone, of going off to find peace and a less involved kind of life (think of Yeats and his Lake Isle of Innifree . . . I will arise and go now . . . ), the second stanza concentrates on existence.

There is an undercurrent running continuously through the speaker's life. This is desire of oblivion, perhaps an unconscious energy the speaker has little control over.

This desire is present regardless of time, deadlines, attendance here and there, health, security, children, fear of dying, and the lengths people go to avoid death.

And again, the repeated line and that word oblivion—the state of being unaware or unconscious—is this a fall into the abyss or a mere forgetting?


100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2020 Andrew Spacey


Ann Carr from SW England on January 24, 2020:

As always, Andrew, you give an interesting insight into the poet as well as the poem.

I like Larkin's poetry, from a brief study of it at school. Melancholy, yes, but as you say, also humorous albeit tongue in cheek.

Now I understand the contrast between his wish to be read and his wish to be left alone, having read the above. Quite a dilemma for him!

Thanks for the explanation and analysis and for reminding me of this poem.