"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
When I was a child, I thought,
Casually, that solitude
Never needed to be sought.
Something everybody had,
Like nakedness, it lay at hand,
Not specially right or specially wrong,
A plentiful and obvious thing
Not at all hard to understand.
Then, after twenty, it became
At once more difficult to get
And more desired – though all the same
More undesirable; for what
You are alone has, to achieve
The rank of fact, to be expressed
In terms of others, or it’s just
A compensating make-believe.
Much better stay in company!
To love you must have someone else,
Giving requires a legatee,
Good neighbours need whole parishfuls
Of folk to do it on – in short,
Our virtues are all social; if,
Deprived of solitude, you chafe,
It’s clear you’re not the virtuous sort.
Vicariously, then, I lock my door.
The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
Ushers in evening rain. Once more
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.
Brace yourself, I’m going to talk about rhyme schemes. But first, read this poem aloud.
Thanks awfully. So, we have a lyric poem about solitude. (Lyric poetry has nothing to do with rhythm or form, it means a poem of personal experience or emotion usually in the first person.) I chose it because it shows how to handle rhyme without letting it be the boss of your poem. Larkin uses perfect rhymes (like cat/sat/mat), but tempers and disrupts them. The poem has strength and structure without feeling like a nursery rhyme. How does he do it?
Here’s the boring bit. You probably remember breaking down rhyme schemes at school, but to refresh your memory consider the following extract from a work of genius:
I do not like them
Here or there.
I do not like them
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
The rhyme scheme is ABABCC – ‘them’ in line 1 rhymes with ‘them’ in line 3, ‘there’ in line 2 rhymes with ‘anywhere’ in line 4, etc. Now look at the first stanza of Best Society:
When I was a child, I thought, A
Casually, that solitude B
Never needed to be sought. A
Something everybody had, (B)
Like nakedness, it lay at hand, C
Not specially right or specially wrong, D
A plentiful and obvious thing (D)
Not at all hard to understand. C
Each stanza goes ABA(B)CD(D)C. There are strong or ‘perfect’ rhymes – thought/sought and hand/understand. There are further chimes too, shown here with brackets. ‘Solitude’ and ‘had’ don’t rhyme, nor do ‘wrong’ and ‘thing’, but your ear knows that they are related somehow. Larkin is using consonance – repeating consonant sounds. Every stanza has the same scheme, so in the second verse it’s get/what and expressed/just. The consonant lines separate the strong rhymes which would otherwise dominate the sound, so it feels more like quiet clockwork than the loud chimes of Big Ben. Larkin breaks the pattern further by going, not CDC(D) as we might expect, but CD(D)C.
He is meticulous about punctuation, using it to mask that regular metre. The line breaks constantly carry the sense over the line, to further camouflage the rhyme scheme. It’s the punctuation marks, not the line breaks, which tell you where to pause or breathe. The exclamation mark – Much better stay in company! makes that, well, an exclamation obviously, something declamatory and insincere.
The vocabulary is mundane; gas-fires, not gossamer. The words don’t draw attention to themselves. Not one of them feels as if it is shoehorned in to fit the rhyme scheme (except possibly ‘legatee’). Nor does Larkin cram in any clumsy inversions like ‘I down the street did walk’ to get a cheap rhyme. It takes effort to make something as slick as this.
He goes to all that effort to disguise the machinery of the poem, so that the meaning isn’t obscured or encumbered by the clanking of cogs. It surprises me that he stuck to the convention of using a capital letter at the beginning of each line, which few people have done since. For me it creates a little jolt with each line.
By the way, every line has eight syllables, and most are iambic (they go ti-TUM, not TUM-ti). I won’t dwell on that – the point is, this is a highly structured poem which doesn’t feel archaic or mannered. It’s crafted, but the craft doesn’t overwhelm the sense. You notice what he’s saying before you notice how carefully he said it. Like Adrienne Rich’s poem yesterday, it’s a meditation on solitude. I’m not sure Larkin enjoys it as much as she does, but it’s still essential to his sense of self.