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Wild Oats

Wild Oats

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'Wild Oats' is a 1962 poem by English poet and novelist Philip Larkin. It is a pessimistic work that explores the difficulty of maintaining a relationship while you are interested in another. Larkin uses free verse and a nonchalant tone to explore themes of love and unequal gender dynamics.

Below is a summary and analysis of 'Wild Oats'. You will also find an exploration of the poem's meaning and themes, and a brief explanation of Philip Larkin's biography.

Written in1962
Written byPhilip Larkin
FormFree verse
MetreNo set metre
Rhyme schemeNo set rhyme scheme
Poetic devicesEnjambment, metaphor
Frequently noted imageryEnglish rose
ToneConversational, casual, nonchalant
Key themesLove, gender
MeaningThe difficulty of maintaining a relationship when one is in love with another. An exploration of gender inequality in relationships.

'Wild Oats': poem summary

Let's take a look at Larkin's poem!

About twenty years ago

Two girls came in where I worked—

A bosomy English rose

And her friend in specs I could talk to.

Faces in those days sparked

The whole shooting-match off, and I doubt

If ever one had like hers:

But it was the friend I took out,

And in seven years after that

Wrote over four hundred letters,

Gave a ten-guinea ring

I got back in the end, and met

At numerous cathedral cities

Unknown to the clergy. I believe

I met beautiful twice. She was trying

Both times (so I thought) not to laugh.

Parting, after about five

Rehearsals, was an agreement

That I was too selfish, withdrawn,

And easily bored to love.

Well, useful to get that learnt.

In my wallet are still two snaps

Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.

Unlucky charms, perhaps.

Let's break down the poem into a stanza-by-stanza summary.

Stanza one

This first stanza details a period twenty years before the poem was written. Two women enter the place in which the narrator is working. The narrator notes how beautiful one is; he considers her an 'English rose'. The only thing the narrator notes about the other woman is the fact that she wears glasses. It is clear he does not think much of her appearance. This means he finds her less intimidating, and he asks her out instead of her more beautiful friend.

Stanza two

The second stanza of 'Wild Oats' details the relationship that the narrator has shared with the woman that he asked out. This stanza takes place seven years after the first. The two have shared a significant relationship together and have become engaged. However, the narrator still mentions his fiancé's beautiful friend. He notes that they have met twice in these seven years. In both instances, he believes she was trying not to laugh at him. This may suggest some manner of judgement or condescension. It could also suggest a self-consciousness on the narrator's part.

Stanza three

This final stanza tells readers that, after five wedding rehearsals, the narrator has split from his fiancé. They never successfully marry. He lists his own flaws as the reasons for the end of their engagement: he is selfish, withdrawn, and becomes bored too easily. In the closing lines of 'Wild Oats', Larkin's narrator reveals that all this time he has kept two pictures of the 'English rose' in his wallet. He muses over whether these brought him bad luck.

'Wild Oats': meaning

'Wild Oats' is often thought to have been quite a personal poem for Philip Larkin. Many believe the two women in the poem are real people. Jane Exall was the 'bosomy English rose' and Ruth Bowman was Larkin's fiancé for a time.

Larkin's poem showcases his relationship struggles and the difficulties he had in maintaining his engagement with Bowman. Despite the fact that he is not engaged to her, he mentions Exall in some manner in all three stanzas of the poem. It is clear he has feelings for her. Bowman accuses him of being selfish, withdrawn, and too easily bored. Larkin's narrator presents these as the reasons why their engagement falls apart. He seems to accept her evaluation of him.

However, the continual mentions of Exall in 'Wild Oats' suggests to the reader that Larkin's feelings for this woman may be the true reason behind the failure of his engagement to Ruth Bowman. It seems he does not want to accept this reality. The fact that he keeps 'two snaps' of Exall in his wallet suggests she may haunt his future relationships too. This is the last image that is left in readers' minds.

There is also a meaning behind the title of 'Wild Oats'. Larkin has taken the title of this poem from the well-known phrase to sow one's wild oats. This is a phrase with sexual undertones. It means to engage in often non-committal sexual relationships while young. At Larkin's time of writing in the 1960s, this behaviour would have been common and often encouraged amongst young men. However, the very same behaviour would have been seen as shameful for young women. Larkin may be using 'Wild Oats' to comment on different societal expectations for the two genders in love. It was much more acceptable for a man to end an engagement than it was for a woman.

'Wild Oats': themes

We will now move on to look at some of the important themes in 'Wild Oats'.


Love is clearly a key theme in 'Wild Oats'. Larkin's poem centres around the feelings he has for the two women he meets at work as a young man. Love seems quite difficult and complex for Larkin's narrator. He finds beautiful women whom he is attracted to so intimidating that he avoids speaking to them. He instead chooses to speak to the woman he finds less attractive and this woman ends up becoming his fiancé. Larkin's narrator approaches matters of love in an unusual way.

The narrator's relationship with his fiancé appears to be quite dysfunctional. Their engagement seems to lack much love. The tone of 'Wild Oats' is also relevant to this theme of love.

In poetry, tone refers to the mood and atmosphere readers can observe in the narrator's voice.

The tone of 'Wild Oats' is nonchalant and conversational. Larkin uses casual and everyday language. He does not convey much excitement or passion regarding his engagement. This would not typically be expected when writing about a topic such as this. Larkin's narrator uses the most descriptive language in relation to the 'bosomy English rose'. He remarks how uncommon her beauty is and refers to her by the term 'beautiful' in the second stanza of 'Wild Oats'.

'Wild Oats' shows an engagement failing because of the narrator's lust for and interest in his fiancé's friend.


Gender is also important in 'Wild Oats'. The male narrator in the poem sees the two women in very different ways.

The 'English Rose' is objectified in Larkin's poem. The narrator focuses solely on her looks. Readers learn very little about her other than her great beauty. The narrator even addresses her simply as 'beautiful' in the second stanza of 'Wild Oats'. Her personality is rarely mentioned.

The narrator's fiancé is also treated in accordance to her looks. The only thing readers know of her appearance is that she wears 'specs'. She is compared to her friend by the narrator. It is made clear that she is not as beautiful and, therefore, not as intimidating for the narrator. He never professes great love or affection for this woman.

There is a theme present throughout 'Wild Oats' of women being judged by the narrator solely by their appearance. He seems to decide their value based on how they look. There seems to be an unequal gender dynamic in Larkin's poem. It's important to note that these women are never given names nor are they ever permitted to speak for themselves.

The meanings of poems can often be difficult to know for sure. It is possible that the unequal gender dynamic in 'Wild Oats' is a product of the unequal society Larkin would have lived in when writing. But, we can also say that Larkin is exposing gender inequality in his poem. From your analysis of 'Wild Oats', which conclusion do you think is more plausible?

'Wild Oats': poem analysis

We will now analyse 'Wild Oats'. This will help us in gaining a clearer understanding of the poem.

'Wild Oats': form and metre

The form of 'Wild Oats' is free verse. This means it follows no specific pattern or rhyme scheme. This adds to the poem's conversational tone. It seems natural and realistic.

Larkin's poem is structured into three separate stanzas. The stanzas are divided into octaves. Each stanza marks a different stage in the narrator's romantic relationships.

An octave means a stanza or poem that has eight lines.

'Wild Oats': poetic devices

We will now move on to look at which poetic devices are present in 'Wild Oats'.


Larkin uses the device of enjambment in 'Wild Oats'.

Enjambment is a poetic technique in which a line runs into the next line or stanza without the use of any punctuation to separate them. This device can also be referred to as 'run-on lines'.

Larkin's use of enjambment has multiple functions in his poem. The use of this technique once again emphasises the casual tone of 'Wild Oats'. Most people speak in run-on sentences when conversing. Enjambment also creates a sense of urgency in a poem. It pushes the audience to read on and discover what happens next. An example of Larkin's use of enjambment can be seen below.

Gave a ten-guinea ring

I got back in the end, and met

At numerous cathedral cities (ll. 11-13)


'Wild Oats' is quite a realistic poem that uses straightforward language. However, Philip Larkin still makes use of metaphors in this poem.

Metaphor is a very common literary device. It is when language is used to describe something by linking it to something else that would typically be considered unrelated. For example, if you say someone is feeling blue, this would be metaphorical for feeling sad!

Larkin uses the phrase 'shooting-match' to describe flirting, or the act of becoming attracted to a person and pursuing them. This is an unusual metaphor to use. It suggests the narrator may see dating as a game of some kind. This adds to the idea that the narrator does not take relationships seriously. This can help to explain the failure of his engagement.

'Wild Oats': imagery

The use of imagery in 'Wild Oats' mostly revolves around the beautiful friend of the narrator's fiancé. Larkin first introduces her as 'a bosomy English rose'. This creates a specific and idealised view of this woman.

An English rose is a stereotype of an English woman. It refers to a woman who is naturally beautiful and appears typically English in her appearance. English roses are also often associated with virtue.

In using this image, Larkin's narrator shows how much he admires and is attracted to this woman. He uses no such complimentary imagery with regards to the woman he becomes engaged to. He again refers to his fiancé's friend as a 'bosomy rose' in the closing lines of 'Wild Oats'. Doing this leaves readers with a lasting image of this woman. A similarity can be drawn here to the lasting obsession the narrator seems to have with the 'English rose'.

'Wild Oats': Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin was born on 9th August 1922 in Coventry. Larkin often described his childhood as uneventful. He attended Oxford and met many people there who would go on to influence his work. After graduating, Larkin worked as librarian. He moved around various libraries in this profession.

Larkin published many works in his lifetime, but he is perhaps best known for his poetry. Some of his most famous works include 'An Arundel Tomb' (1956), 'The Whitsun Weddings' (1964), and 'Wild Oats' (1962).

The poetry of Larkin is often recognised for its gloomy and pessimistic tone. Larkin frequently discussed issues of love, sex, and marriage. Death and its inevitability are also often explored in his work. It is thought that many of these themes reflected Larkin's own thoughts and experiences in life.

Today, Larkin is highly respected as a literary figure that did important work to capture the world of post-war Britain. Larkin passed away from cancer in 1985.

Wild Oats - Key takeaways

  • 'Wild Oats' is a 1962 poem by Philip Larkin.
  • It centres around a pessimistic narrator that is more interested in his fiancé's friend than his fiancé.
  • Two key themes in 'Wild Oats' are love and gender.
  • Larkin uses the poetic devices of enjambment and metaphor in his poem.
  • An example of important imagery in 'Wild Oats' is that of the English rose.

Frequently Asked Questions about Wild Oats

'Wild Oats' is thought to be about two women that Philip Larkin was romantically interested in: Jane Exall and Ruth Bowman.

'Wild Oats' is a 1962 poem by Philip Larkin.

'Wild Oats' was written in 1962.

'Wild Oats' is about a man and his difficulty to maintain a relationship with his fiancé while he is also romantically interested in her beautiful friend.

It is difficult to ascertain a single most famous poem. Some of Larkin's best known poems include 'MCMXIV' (1960), 'The Whitsun Weddings' (1964), and 'Church Going' (1954).

Final Wild Oats Quiz

Wild Oats Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


When was 'Wild Oats' written?

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What are two important themes in 'Wild Oats'?

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Love and gender.

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How can the tone of 'Wild Oats' be described?

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Conversational, casual, and nonchalant.

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What form is 'Wild Oats' in?

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Free verse.

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What two poetic devices are found in 'Wild Oats'?

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Enjambment and metaphor.

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What is an important image in 'Wild Oats'?

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The image of the English rose.

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Can you remember the names of the two women that 'Wild Oats' is thought to be about?

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Jane Exall and Ruth Bowman.

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Why is the tone of 'Wild Oats' important?

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The tone is very casual and nonchalant which shows how little importance the narrator is placing on his romantic relationships.

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Can you remember the definition of an octave?

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An octave is a stanza or poem that has eight lines.

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What is the only thing that the narrator notes about his fiancé's appearance?

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That she wears 'specs'.

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