Home is so Sad
by Philip Larkin
I have just returned from a poetry conference. I’m tired, my suitcase full of laundry and new books. I left the air conditioning on a little too strong; now, the coldness of my living room only seems to emphasize that no one has been living here. In my absence, the dust bunnies haven’t rolled themselves to the trashcan. Old receipts and bills haven’t jammed themselves through the office shredder. The milk in the refrigerator remains past its expiration date.
The word “stanza” comes from the Italian for room, which makes Philip Larkin’s “Home Is So Sad” a very small dwelling. Comprised of two quintets (Sicilian), rhyming ababa cdcdc, the poem shifts from the abstract and the universal to the concrete and the particular. If this were a slightly longer piece, like his “This Be the Verse,” Larkin could pass from the universal to the particular and back to the universal again, starting with a generalization like “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” (1), then going to the specificity of “old-style hats and coats” (6), and ending with the booming proclamation that “Man hands on misery to man” (9). But, because “Home Is So Sad” intends to be a much quieter poem, one that moves less swaggeringly, Larkin restricts himself to two, tiny rooms.
The first half of the opening line reiterates the title: “Home is so sad.” This is the thesis statement and—as if Larkin were writing an essay or perhaps working in a highly rhetorical form like a sonnet—the poet now supports his assertion with textual evidence.
—Why is home so sad?
Larkin explains that, first of all, “[i]t stays as it was left” (1). Indeed, my dirty floors and unshredded bills are proof of such stasis. But as I read on, I find the first of the poem’s many, delicate turns. Home “stays as it was left, / Shaped to the comfort of the last to go / As if to win them back” (1-3). Suddenly, Larkin isn’t simply recounting a fact about houses, he is entering the thinking, the mind of a home emptied of its occupants. The space has chosen to remain unchanged, as evidence of its loyalty. “Nothing will move or be moved while you’re away,” the home almost says, “but, please do return to me.” The poet is able to personify home, without attracting too much attention to the device, through his use of the phrase “as if,” which allows him to slide—almost without the reader noticing—from fact into fancy.
And it is this personification that explains why the poem focuses on “home” rather than on a “house.” A house contains X number of bedrooms and baths, X amount of square footage. But a home is touched by human concerns; it is that place where dishwasher disposals and Venetian blinds are always breaking (almost willfully, I suspect), where the light can turn gold or gray depending on one’s mood. A home can feel grief, while a house remains stolidly a rambler, a bungalow, a split Colonial.
The next turn follows immediately in the middle of the third line, as signaled by a word that implies a change or a substitute or a turning: “instead.” “Instead,” Larkin elaborates, “bereft / Of anyone to please, it withers so” (3-4). Home is no longer merely sad but bereft. It is in mourning. At this point, Larkin has committed to personifying the lonely building. A child’s drawing of this home might render its windows as darkened eyes, its door a sad mouth: ut pictura poesis.
But the sentence continues, not only into the final line of the first stanza but spilling over well into the second quintet: “it withers so, / Having no heart to put aside the theft //And turn again to what it started as, / A joyous shot at how things ought to be” (4-7). With each new line, Larkin expands the picture of bereavement. The home is so filled with loss that the poet’s language becomes breathless, enjambed.
I can’t help noticing the word “turn” at the start of the second stanza. Here, home itself wishes to experience a volta; it wants to return to its own beginnings, a time when it symbolized hope. A new home is potentiality. What children might play in these rooms? What meals eaten at this table? The long occupied home no longer represents the possible. Instead—and there’s that word “instead” again—home has become a repository for sheets that need folding, rugs that need vacuuming, closets that need airing out.
Larkin ends his long sentence with failure: “A joyous shot at how things ought to be, / Long fallen wide” (7-8). The promise of the new becomes the disappointment of the lived-in home. It is a testament to the poet’s formal abilities that “Home Is So Sad” creates multiple meanings through its line breaks. As a reader, I expect the tension between syntax and line in free verse, but I don’t always look for such surprises in the line breaks of accentual-syllabic verse. Yet here they are in Larkin’s poem: “A joyous shot at how things ought to be, / Long fallen wide” (7-8). As the sentence tumbles down the page, it makes small turns from line to line, beginning with the bereft home, which then recalls for a moment its “joyous” past, and ending with a fall.
The final two lines ask the reader to stand inside the poem and survey its contents. “You can see how it was,” Larkin commands the reader (8). I turn one direction and see “pictures,” no doubt snapshots of the absented family. I open kitchen drawers to find “cutlery.” The juxtaposition of these two objects, one an embodiment of sepia-toned memory, the other gesturing toward sharpness or violence (think of “cut” imbedded in the word “cutlery”), suggests that the family may have left for some dark reason. I am reminded of Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse,” with its inanimate objects gesturing toward a mysterious family tragedy: “Something went wrong, says the empty house / in the weed-choked yard” (17-18). Or Weldon Kees’ villanelle, which begins, “The crack is moving down the wall. / Defective plaster isn’t all the cause. / We must remain until the roof falls in” (1-3). Of course, this is Larkin, which means a reader shouldn’t expect murders or other big, flashy disasters. Instead—yes, “instead” again—the calamity of the poem is simply the usual calamity: that people are so disappointing they even manage to let down their own domiciles.
In Larkin’s poem, the home’s vacancy implies a larger vacancy. When I enter the rooms of the poem, I am participating in absence. In the closing line, the reader turns to look at the “music in the piano stool” (10). Like the cutlery in the kitchen, the sheet music has been contained, put away. Melodies once drifted through these rooms, but they have been silenced. There are no fingers to play the notes. There is no one to hear that favorite song by Schubert.
The poem’s last image comes in the form of a fragment. “That vase.” The vase is intact, but the sentence is not. As the reader’s gaze falls on this final object, Larkin suggests a final turn with the breaking of his own grammatical patterns. This is the first and only fragment in a poem defined by its studiously correct, intricate syntax. And the c rhyme of “as,” “was,” and “vase” also represents Larkin’s boldest musical choice, in a poem typified by the perfect masculine pairings of words like “left,” “bereft,” and “theft,” or “go” with “so.” Pay attention, Larkin instructs through grammar and sound.
Home makes us sad to contemplate its failures. And it is saddened by our failings. Without the poem’s careful movements from its opening generalization, to personification, and finally to concrete objects situated in a particular landscape, a reader wouldn’t discover the complexity of Larkin’s opening declaration. “Home is so sad.” Put in grammatical terms, Larkin’s assertion is both active and passive: home saddens us and is saddened by us. The relationship between occupant and home is reciprocal, one in which each side affects the other.
I began this essay with the first-person and with my own home. Because “Home Is So Sad” places the reader inside its vacated rooms, the poem lends itself to an autobiographical approach. The pictures become my family photographs, the cutlery my stainless steel utensils. “That vase” is the vase to be found in any middle-class home. It is both round-bellied—a vessel that could be filled with living flowers—and it is empty. It is the possibility of more breakage to come.
Jehanne Dubrow is the author of four poetry collections, including most recently Red Army Red and Stateside (Northwestern UP, 2012 and 2010). Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Hudson Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Southwest Review. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an assistant professor of creative writing at Washington College.