An interviewer once remarked to Larkin that” Your favourite subjects are failure and weakness” How far do you agree that failure and weakness are favourite subjects in the ‘Whitsun weddings’. In the answer you should either refer to two poems in detail or range more widely.
The poems ‘Mr Bleaney’, ‘Dockery and son’ and ‘Wild oats’ are all presented with the subjects of failure and weakness. Failure is to be disappointed with something you have wanted to achieve or attain and so the subject of failure in the poems will be seen as someone being unsuccessful. Weakness means the flaw or fault thus giving the person limitations in their plans.
In the poem Mr Bleaney, Larkin uses the first five stanzas to describe the room and Mr Bleaney’s life. We get the impression of an uncomfortable, plain, functional room. Larkin gives us this impression by calling it a ‘hired box’. This describes Mr bleaney’s room but can also refer to Mr Bleaney’s coffin. Larkin goes on to describe the room, ‘Flowered curtains, thin and frayed’. The curtains seem to become Mr Bleaney himself. The overall sense of chilliness and dreariness which comes from the room extends to Mr Bleaney himself, whom we imagine to be thin, shivering and isolated, with little protection from the outside world and the “frigid wind” which better fitting curtains might have provided. This lack of protection shows the failure in Mr Bleaney’s life.
Larkin goes on to talk about Mr Bleaney’s ‘strip of building land’. The word ‘strip’ associates with the strip of window left by the ill-fitting curtains, and therefore relates to the skinniness and the poor quality of Bleaney’s life and ‘frame’. The fact that it is ‘building land’ suggests that it is not promising or fertile land. This also shows the weakness and failure by the failure of his way of life and the infertility of the land.
Larkin continues to describe the state of Mr Bleaney’s garden; ‘Tussocky, littered.’ ‘Tussocky’, meaning untidy, and ‘littered’ suggest that Mr Bleaney’s allotted patch is certainly not pastoral. These two words together create a harsh sound; which emphasizes the fact that Mr Bleaney’s garden is harsh and unfriendly. Nature and litter work against Mr Bleaney. This also shows the subject of failure even in the smallest of subjects-Mr Bleaney is not good in the garden.
‘My bit of garden properly in hand’. This line seems to suggest that, amidst the chaos of his surroundings, Mr Bleaney had tried to develop some sort of order, however unsuccessful he has been. This once again shows him being unsuccessful and failing.
Larkin describes Mr Bleaney’s room ‘Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb’. Once again the details are used to build up a sense of the frighteningly insufficient and comfortless quality of life and highlights that Mr Bleaney lives with only the most basic requirements. This gives seems to give Mr Bleaney a uncaring attitude to life and also shows his weakness of a loveless life. Also the absence of possessions suggests failure, as he has no good income to buy them.
Larkin also shows the subject of failure through his own life. Larkin seems to relate himself to Mr Bleaney in the third stanza. ‘Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags on the same saucer-souvenir’ Larkin seems to see himself as partly unsuccessful in the way Mr Bleaney is.
Larkin goes on to describe Mr Bleaney’s lifestyle. He the bleak, predictable routine in his life, ‘I know his habits-what time he came down, his preference for sauce to gravy’ This could be a big flaw in Mr Bleaney’s life, his routine. This could suggest that his life was unfulfilling and boring and the subject of failure is brought up again.
This description of the ‘frigid wind’ along with the reference to the “fusty bed” conjures up the sense of the (sexually) unfulfilling quality of Mr Bleaney’s life.
The colloquial word, ‘plugging’ used in the fifth stanza, suggests Mr Bleaney battling against the odds, striving for fortune. Mr Bleaney, in the poet’s mind, fights on at the football pools just as he had with the garden. Larkin seems to be condescending towards these goals. Because of Larkin’s attitude it shows Mr Bleaney to be a failure.
Larkin begins the sixth stanza with a ‘but’. There is a clear change of mood at this point. The word marks the limits of the poet’s assured knowledge, and Larkin becomes more introspective and reflective.
On the last line Larkin writes ‘I don’t know’. Larkin refuses, to declare his own views about the value of Mr Bleaney’s life. This may be because of the similarities to his own but he seems to have already deemed Mr Bleaney’s life a failure.
Larkin is saying that each of us, when it comes down to it, leaves little behind when we die to show for our lives? And in that sense we are failures.