Here are my critical annotations on Philip Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ The purpose of the page is to help teachers in preparing the text, and students to write their essays. Below, I have included Tom O’Bedlam’s reading and there is a ‘further reading’ link.
Analysis and comments on form, structure, language and context
This poem may be more about Larkin’s angst that his ‘nature’ has no more value than the mundane features of his life, than it is about Mr Bleaney. For me, it is this that makes it such an interesting poem. A psychoanalytical reading of the poem leads us to consider that, whilst Larkin does not know whether Mr Bleaney dreaded his insignificance, he does fear that the way that he, himself, lives is the ‘measure’ of his own (unsatisfactory) existence. What is my view on such a reading? Well, ‘I don’t know’ (!) but it can be argued!
‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed The landlady is speaking to Larkin or, more correctly, to his persona, as she is showing the room that she is letting. (The name ‘Bleaney’ suggests insignificance and also appears in Larkin’s novel ‘Jill’.)
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till To her mind, Mr Bleaney staying so long conclusively demonstrates the room’s desirability, particularly since he wouldn’t have left at all, by choice. The landlady’s view differs from Larkins’: being moved by his employers suggests Mr Bleaney lacked self-determination and his choice of lodging has less to do with the room’s qualities than Mr Bleaney’s nature and financial circumstances.
They moved him.’ Flowered curtains, thin and frayed, ‘the Bodies’, with a distinct suggestion of death, is a dehumanised appellation and ‘They’, the grammatical agent of the sentence, is both a distant and an impersonal.
Fall to within five inches of the sill, Larkin’s observations reveal the shabbiness
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. ‘Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.’ A gender, feminist reading might see that there are elements of a misogynistic caricature in the landlady’s self-interested attempts at manipulation. Perhaps she is more a comic stereotype?
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook Larkin notes the meagre facilities despite its apparent desirability.
Behind the door, no room for books or bags – The rented room has a bare and impoverished nature: the literal description has metaphorical implications in its stiff-backed chair, the lack of hooks, its harsh lighting and no provision for reading or engaging with outside. The room is associated with the nature of the lives of its occupants and thereby has metonymic value.
‘I’ll take it.’ So it happens that I lie Larkin’s part in the dialogue is sudden, without frills and unexpected: he makes no comment and the caesura forcefully concludes the transaction.
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags The ordinariness of the lives of both Larkin and Mr Bleaney is established in the descent to the demotic vocabulary of ‘stub’ and ‘fags’. The poem’s iambic rhythm, being a feature of spoken English, lends itself to portraying everyday life and speech. To me, the use of the pentameter reinforces the theme of helpless inevitability.
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try The alliteration draws out the tackiness.
Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown The persona and Larkin blend into one, here: in his 27 April 1955 letter to Monica (‘Letters to Monica’ ed. Anthony Thwaite), when he was 32, he complains about his digs: ‘Oh the wireless – gabble gabble gabble. I have the usual wool in my ears but it doesn’t help much.’
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy. ‘Jabbering’ seems more aggressive and invasive than the ‘gabble’ of his letter, thus enhancing the contextual personal experience to provide another layer of meaning.
I know his habits – what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why Applying marxist literary criticism, one can lambast Larkin for sneering at the lives of the ordinary working class, in this presentation of their preoccupation with routine, inconsequentials, activities, empty hopes and various petty preferences. The immaculately precise alternate rhyme scheme provides the claustrophobic structure for such an interpretation.
He kept on plugging at the four aways – An inexpensive way of betting on the football results, with modestly sized wins. Whilst the middle classes certainly ‘did the pools’, it was predominately a working class way of betting, with agents calling house-to-house, to collect the forms and entry fees. ‘Plugging’ shows Mr Beaney’s hopeless persistence.
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk Mr Bleaney’s daily life is encapsulated in a rigid annual structure. Frinton was, at the time, a genteel seaside resort.
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke. His sister lives in an industrial labour heartland
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind This is suddenly a physical moment: the cold asexual wind untidies the daily and annual order which has been established …
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature, Double meaning of ‘measures’ = is the extent of, and/or the limit of. This concept is reflected in the figurative significance of the room (see above).
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure Temporary and insecure, with the added (colloquial) implication of a coffin.
He warranted no better, I don’t know. No, maybe not, but the implication is that Larkin views this life with disdain. Also see my introduction, above.
The poem and notes: Dr. Richard Dover’s page on Mr Bleaney provides some helpful exegesis and analysis.