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Poetry of Departures

Poetry of Departures

What is more terrifying: staying the same forever or venturing into the wide unknown? British poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) examines the dichotomy between home and the risk of a new, unfamiliar place in his 1955 poem "Poetry of Departures." Using colloquial diction and a hefty amount of irony, Larkin examines if it's better to forfeit a comfortable life for the sake of novelty or forever live inside the comfort zone. Written by a man who himself lived in the same town for 30 years, the speaker's ultimate decision is predictable (if not disappointing and ambiguous).

Poetry of Departures At a Glance

Written By

Philip Larkin

Publication Date

1955

Form

Four stanza poem separated into sets of eight lines (octaves)

Meter

Inconsistent

Rhyme Scheme

Inconsistent

Poetic Devices

Simile

Idiom

Transferred Epithet

Irony

Repetition

Oxymoron

Alliteration

Frequently noted imagery

Home

Specially-chosen junk

Good books, good bed

Flushed and stirred

Undid her dress

Nut-strewn roads

Crouch in the fo’c’sle

Stubbly with goodness

Tone

Critical, snide with undertones of uncertainty

Key themes

Home as familiar and tedious

The unknown as exciting and risky

Meaning

Giving up a comfortable life for the sake of novelty and excitement may not be worth the risk

Poetry of Departures by Philip Larkin

"Poetry of Departures" was first included in Philip Larkin's second collection of poetry, The Less Deceived (1955). It was this collection that earned Larkin recognition in literary circles and positioned him as one of the most promising up-and-coming English poets in the post-war period.

In many ways, "Poetry of Departures" reflects Larkin's own life. Born in Coventry, England to a cold, distant family, Larkin stayed in England for almost his entire life. His father was a Nazi supporter and after World War II, Larkin was fearful of leaving the country. He never travelled to America or Canada, and he rarely even travelled throughout Europe. England was his emotional safe haven.

In 1955, Larkin moved to Hull, a coastal town in Northern England. He accepted a position as head librarian at the university, and although he thought very little of the town at first, he lived and worked there for 30 years until his death. Just like the speaker in "Poetry of Departures," he could never quite leave the place that he called home.

In a 1964 interview with BBC, Larkin said this about Hull:

"I never thought about Hull until I was here. Having got here, it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, I think even its natives would say that. I rather like being on the edge of things. One doesn't really go anywhere by design, you know, you put in for jobs and move about, you know, I've lived in other places."¹

Poetry of Departures Poem

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,

As epitaph:

He chucked up everything

And just cleared off,

And always the voice will sound

Certain you approve

This audacious, purifying,

Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.

We all hate home

And having to be there:

I detest my room,

Its specially-chosen junk,

The good books, the good bed,

And my life, in perfect order:

So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd

Leaves me flushed and stirred,

Like Then she undid her dress

Or Take that you bastard;

Surely I can, if he did?

And that helps me to stay

Sober and industrious.

But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,

Crouch in the fo'c'sle

Stubbly with goodness, if

It weren't so artificial,

Such a deliberate step backwards

To create an object:

Books; china; a life

Reprehensibly perfect."

Poetry of Departures Summary

The speaker hears about a man who just left town without any warning. It was a man he didn't know, but the speaker admires that he could just leave everything behind and start a new life. The speakers states that he thinks everybody secretly hates home and all of the possessions they collect throughout their lives. He knows that he hates his "specially-chosen junk" (13) and his attachment to superficial things. He gets emotional hearing that the man just left and feels his cheeks flush as if a woman just took off her clothes or someone challenged him to a fight. He tells himself that he could do the same if he wanted, but just knowing that he has the option to leave at any time keeps him "sober and industrious" (23).

He realizes that running away from one life might seem superior to the tedious life he has now, but in reality it's just an artificial illusion to hope that life will be better somewhere new. He doesn't know if the risk in moving will be worth giving up the safety of the place he knows, so he stays in the "reprehensibly perfect" life he is comfortable in (32).

Poetry of Departures Literary Devices

The dominant literary devices in "Poetry of Departures" are irony, simile, oxymoron, and repetition.

Simile and idiom

The poem starts with the use of a simile and an idiom in the first couple of lines. These use of both is to show how distant the speaker is from the man who decided to move and what the speaker thinks of his leaving. The speaker says,

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,As epitaph:He chucked up everythingAnd just cleared off" (1-4)

The first line is a slight exaggeration of the idiom "secondhand." The idiom, usually used in context of "to hear something secondhand" means that the information has passed through two people. Instead of hearing information from the source, it gets passed between people, making the information less reliable and more susceptible to other people's interpretations. The fact that the speaker has heard about the man leaving town "fifth-hand" (1) shows that he is very removed from the situation and never knew the man or even his reasons to move. The speaker is an uninvolved commentator who is simply reflecting on the idea of leaving, rather than the man himself.

Idiom: a group of words with a meaning that cannot be deduced from the words themselves, but rather a collective knowledge

The simile compares the man's leaving to an epitaph, a message honoring someone who has died. To the speaker, the man's leaving signals a definite end. He's not just no longer present, his absence is like a death: permanent, forever, and hopefully bringing him to a better place. To the speaker, at least, there is no coming back from leaving.

Can you think of any famous epitaphs? How does Larkin's idea of an epitaph compare to how they're traditionally presented? Why might he have done this?

Poetry of Departure, gravestone, studysmarter

Fig. 1 - The speaker compares what other people in town say about the man's leaving to an epitaph, depicting how final and serious the speaker takes it.

The poem uses simile again two stanzas later to elaborate on the speaker's feelings towards leaving. He says,

So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowdLeaves me flushed and stirred,Like Then she undid her dressOr Take that you bastard;" (16-20)

The simile shows how emotional the speaker is about the thought of leaving. He equates it to a sexual encounter or a fistfight. It is at once both enticing and dangerous. He desires it and fears it at the same time.

Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like/as.

Transferred epithet

The next literary device that the speaker uses is a transferred epithet. Like simile, this shows that the subject of the speaker's musings isn't the man himself, but rather the idea of moving and reinventing one's life. The speaker calls the man's leaving town

This audacious, purifying,Elemental move." (7-8)

The man himself is the audacious one, in reality, because he made the decision to change his life. The speaker, however, turns the focus entirely to the move itself, referring to the move as fearless and brave in addition to purifying at the basic level.

Transferred epithet: a descriptive phrase or adjective that is used to describe one thing is transferred to a related object

Irony and repetition

The second stanza switches the focus away from moving and towards the ironic opinions the speaker holds towards home. The speaker's life is comfortable, familiar, and "perfect" (15), filled with things he himself picked out. But at the same time he hates home and the superficial relationship he has with the objects in it:

We all hate homeAnd having to be there:I detest my room,Its specially-chosen junk,The good books, the good bed,And my life, in perfect order:" (10-15)

His entire depiction of home is ironic because he provides no evidence that warrants the hostility he feels towards it. In fact, all of the things he doesn't like about home are presented with positive connotations. He even uses the word "perfect" to describe the comfortability of his life. But the very thought of being so comfortable makes the speaker uncomfortable. He craves excitement and newness in his life and is disappointed by the calmness and order of being in a familiar place.

Irony: a situation in which there is a contrast between what the reader or a character expects and what actually happens

He hates being home, not because of what it has, but because of what it lacks. It lacks conflict and excitement, which the speaker believes will make life interesting. He wishes to move away because he believes that would provide him with the tension that makes life exhilarating.

 Poetry of Departure, bookshelf, StudySmarter

Fig. 2 - The speaker resents the orderliness of his "perfect" life, including the books he specially chose.

This repetition of the word "good" in this stanza also represents the orderliness of his life that has come to be so tedious. Everything he owns is good and predictable, not new and exciting.

In the final stanza, when the speaker reflects on what life would be like if he were to leave and start over again, he uses repetition to show that life in a new town wouldn't be different enough to warrant such a switch. Instead, that life would morph to look just like his current one:

Books; china; a lifeReprehensibly perfect." (31-32)

This will be described in further detail in the oxymoron section below, but it is worth noting that the idea of books and a perfect life are repeated. No matter how much things change, in his quest to build a good life for himself, the speaker will eventually grow bored of being comfortable and crave conflict again.

Oxymoron

The poem ends with the oxymoron "Reprehensibly perfect" (32). The speaker realizes that no matter where he goes, his desire for a simultaneously comfortable and exhilarating life is unattainable. He only wants to move because he thinks different places are alluring in the sense of their mystery and newness. And he only hates his home because its well-known and intimately familiar. But no matter where he moves, his day to day will eventually become familiar and boring to him again. Nowhere he moves to will be strange and exciting forever; the longer he stays the more knowable and boring it will become.

The speaker decides to stay where he is because of this oxymoron. His home is "reprehensibly perfect" (32), but it is home: a familiar place full of warmth and comfort. He realizes that it isn't worth it to take a risk and move. It may begin as a fun adventure, but eventually it become a place of predictability and resentment like anywhere else.

Oxymoron: a figure of speech that juxtaposes two contradictory terms close to each other to create a contradictory statement

Read the poem aloud and consider what other poetic devices Larkin uses throughout. Do you notice any of the sounds repeating within the words? Do you notice any internal rhyme? What can you conclude about how the poem's sound effects its content?

Poetry of Departures Diction

The diction in "Poetry of Departures" is predominately informal and colloquial. This contributes to the humor of the poem as well as positions the speaker as a common person. He isn't fancy or formal. Instead, his word choice reflects that of many working class people who are disillusioned with adult life.

The speaker uses colloquial words and slang like "chucked up" (2), "junk" (13), and "stubbly" (27). He talks like a regular guy on the street, not like he's reciting stuffy poetry. He also uses vulgar language ("bastard" in line 20) and flippantly discusses sex ("she undid her dress" in line 19). He seems very open, even though he is cynical and pessimistic.

There are a few times that the speaker's diction shifts to be more poetic. When he discusses the move, he calls it audacious, purifying, and elemental (7). He doesn't just say he works hard, he says he's "Sober and industrious" (23). And he refers to a comfortable home life without conflict as "Reprehensibly perfect" (32). All of these tricky, poetic words are used to define the speaker's central conflict. He wishes it was easy to just get up and move, but he realizes it's much more difficult than it seems. There are layers to place that he hasn't quite uncovered and, like big poetic words, the decision to stay or leave is difficult to fully understand and is open to interpretation.

Poetry of Departures Themes

The major themes in the poem are home as familiar and safe but tedious, and the unknown as exciting and new but risky. The primary tension is between the conflict inherent in these two themes.

Home as familiar and tedious

The speaker is extremely critical of the idea of home from the second stanza. He uses words like hate, detest, and junk to describe the life that he has built for himself. If it wasn't for the positive words interposed with the negative ones, the reader would think that the speaker holds an entirely negative view of his home.

Ironically, the other words he uses to describe home are "specially-chosen," "good," and "perfect." There isn't anything physically wrong with home, rather it's his own perception of the place. It has every objects he needs and wants, it is familiar, and it is orderly. But its perfection and familiarity have caused it to become boring. The speaker is obsessed with the idea of leaving home, not because there is anything wrong with it, but because it is "reprehensibly perfect" (32).

The unknown as exciting and risky

On the other hand, the speaker seems almost obsessed with the idea of the unknown and the unfamiliar. He equates hearing about other people leaving to the adrenaline rush of a sexual encounter or taking a punch in a fight. He glamorizes the unknown, saying he would

...swagger the nut-strewn roads,Crouch in the fo’c’sleStubbly with goodness, ifIt weren’t so artificial" (25-28)

He doesn't literally want to walk through streets with tree nuts on the ground or hide out below the deck of a ship. But he wants his life to be simultaneously that easy and that adventurous. He says "stubbly with goodness" (27) to depict that he is so carefree and so busy enjoying life that he doesn't have time to shave.

Just like home, he doesn't specifically say why he fears the unknown. The reader has to infer that he is fearful of the risk involved in restarting one's life. He says that lifestyle would be "artificial," meaning its not natural but rather manmade and impossible to sustain. Whether he's afraid that this new life might turn out to be "reprehensibly perfect" or just reprehensible, that is not a risk that the speaker is willing to take.

Poetry of Departures Meaning

Throughout the entire poem, the speaker argues that he wants to leave. He hates his home, his things, and, in essence, his life. But there is something keeping him firmly rooted to home. When he thinks about moving and diving into the unknown, it is really fear that holds him back.

Of course, he doesn't come right out and say that he's scared of the risk inherent in leaving a familiar place. But he does note that he doesn't want a life that is "artificial" (29), even if choosing the safe path feels like "such a deliberate step backwards" (30). Because the truth is there is no guarantee that if he upends his entire life he will be happier.

Poetry of Departure, Door, StudySmarter

Fig. 3 - The speaker chooses to stay with the familiar instead of risking the unknown

Think of that old adage, "the grass is greener on the other side." In the first half of the poem, that is the logic behind the speaker's desire to move: he thinks that there is more excitement waiting for him somewhere else. But he quickly realizes that giving up a comfortable life for the sake of novelty and excitement may not be worth the risk.

The poem is about the inherent tension between living a comfortable life in the familiar and taking a risk by adventuring into the unknown. Our speaker decides that, for him, a boring life of comfort is worth more than diving blindly into the unfamiliar without any assurance that it will be better.

Poetry of Departures - Key Takeaways

  • "Poetry of Departures" was written by poet and librarian Philip Larkin.
  • It was published in his second collection, The Less Deceived, in 1955.
  • Larkin himself rarely left England and settled in the town of Hull for 30 years, reflecting the speaker's reluctance to leave home.
  • The poem uses predominately informal and colloquial diction with a few instances of poetic diction for effect.
  • The main themes are home as familiar and safe but tedious, and the unknown as exciting and new but risky.

References

  1. Larkin, speaking on BBC's Monitor, 15 December 1964

Frequently Asked Questions about Poetry of Departures

"Poetry of Departures" is about the tension between risking it all and leaving the familiar behind or staying for stability. 

The diction is mostly informal and colloquial, using curse words and flippant language.  This positions the speaker as a working class, relatable man who is disillusioned with life. He also uses a few instances of poetic diction to stress the ambiguity and unknowns behind the decision. 

 It was written and published in 1955. 

"Poetry of Departures" is a free verse poem. 

Home as familiar and tedious

The unknown as exciting and risk

Final Poetry of Departures Quiz

Question

Who wrote "Poetry of Departures"?

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Answer

"Poetry of Departures" was written by Phillip Larkin. 

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Question

When was "Poetry of Departures" written? 

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Answer

It was written in 1955 and published in The Less Deceived

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Question

How does "Poetry of Departures" mirror Larkin's own life? 

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Answer

Larkin rarely left his home country of England. He also lived in the same town for 30 years. 

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Question

What is the diction of "Poetry of Departures"? 

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Answer

"Poetry of Departures" uses mostly formal and colloquial diction. There are a few instances of poetic diction for effect. 

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Question

What is the tone of "Poetry of Departures"? 

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Answer

The tone is critical and snide with an undercurrent of uncertainty. 

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Question

Why does the speaker compare hearing about the man leaving town to an epitaph? 

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Answer

It shows that, to the speaker, leaving is a definitive end and a serious occasion. There is no going back. 

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Question

What does the speaker compare the prospect of leaving to in the third stanza? 

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Answer

He compares the news to a woman taking off her clothes or a fistfight. It shows that the idea is exhilarating and dangerous.  

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Question

Why does the speaker hate his home? 

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Answer

It is too perfect for him. Everything is orderly and boring, from the books to his bed to everything else he has collected. He craves excitement and novelty. 

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Question

What are the themes in "Poetry of Departures"? 

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Answer

Home as familiar and tedious

The unknown as exciting and risk

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Question

What is the meaning of the poem? 

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Answer

Giving up a comfortable life for the sake of novelty and excitement may not be worth the risk

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