A critical analysis of Philip Larkin's 'Mr Bleaney'

Richard Davie once claimed that whilst he “recognised in Larkin’s [poetry] the seasons of present-day England, [he also] recognised… the seasons of an English soul”. 1 In fact Philip Larkin’s very interest in human nature, together with his dislike of “… self-indulgent romanticism… “2, contributed to the character and final draft of ‘Mr Bleaney’.

By pulling the life and personality of the ordinary English bachelor with that of the poetic personae who is about to buy into Mr Bleaney’s apartment, not to mention his life and ways, Larkin is able debate whether ‘how we live [actually] measures our own nature’, a fear that plagued the author as well as the poetic personae. As we are escorted around Mr Bleaney’s apartment the landlady describes how he stayed there ‘the whole time he was at the Bodies’.

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To be at ‘the Bodies’ suggests that Mr Bleaney’s stay in the apartment and even on this earth was only temporary. His body appears to be just a casing, thus implying that Mr Bleaney was simply the shell of man who was waiting to die. His life is empty, lonely and predictable. The poem’s simple ‘AB’ rhyming scheme also emphasises the predictable, routine and limited life of Mr Bleaney, hence a life with only one pattern.

Through the eyes of the narrator Mr Bleaney appears to have separated himself from the wider world, staying true to what is familiar, hence spending ‘Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke’, a line that has been quoted as the saddest line in the history of English poetry3. He even seems separated from himself, hence his first name is never mentioned. This ‘stiff-upper lip’ image, suggests his failure of ever being close to anyone. The only glimmer of optimism appears in his constant ‘plugging at the four aways’.

His life is almost like a gamble, a hope that around the next corner is a new and glamorous new lifestyle. The narrator however, may have been searching for this new lifestyle, hence that of the autonomous male, also reflecting Larkin’s parochial outlook. At the opening of the poem the poetic personae appears to glorify Mr Bleaney’s single life, hence possibly the reason why the apartment was brought in the first place. He holidays by himself and chooses not to read or travel, at least not abroad. It has been suggested that the ‘hired box’ is simply “a… disgusting [way in] which the male can preserve his ego”.

By buying into the ‘Bleaney World’ the poetic personae escapes from the outside world, especially from the “excess of opportunities and choices”5, that were around at that time. Mr Bleaney avoids these and lives his own life, without a wife or children. Yet, almost as the years pass the personae realises that he is becoming Mr Bleaney and how the ‘hired box’ has become a metaphoric coffin, and instead of becoming ‘free agents’ Mr Bleaney and the narrator, have become mere “tenant[s] who [are] at the beak and call of an anonymous and autocratic landlady”.

Mr Bleaney, after all depends on his sister’s independence for his Christmas celebrations and a married couple for the holidays. Additionally the lack of books is substituted for the ‘jabbering set’, which is important as at the time ‘Mr Bleaney’ was written Larkin had recently moved into an uncomfortable apartment where he complained that the radio was “a nightmare”7, a mere way of rotting the brain.

Instead of being independent Mr Bleaney has become almost numb to the rest of humanity. In the end Mr Bleaney’s so-called life is ideal without really being a life. In this sense Mr Bleaney and the narrator are both extremely isolated, Mr Bleaney’s only form of communication being the ‘jabbering TV set’, whilst the poetic personae interestingly tries to ‘drown [out the sound]… with cotton wool’, in some way the former ears have already been ‘stuffed’ by it.

However this isolation is also shown in the distance between Mr Bleaney and nature. Like Larkin who on the one hand was an “extreme humanist [who made] himself numb to the non-human world in order to stay compassionate towards the human”8, Mr Bleaney doesn’t contemplate the ‘frigid wind tousling the clouds’ choosing only to emphasis his own control by taking the ‘bit of garden properly in hand’. Mr Bleaney is “cut off from the organic annual cycle”9 and lives only by his own rules.

Effectively there is a lack of romanticism in Mr Bleaney’s life; hence instead of being involved in the metaphorical world of the narrator, the ‘Bleaney world’ is that of an ordinary man living in a rented flat. Whereas the burst of metaphoric language may be indicative of Larkin’s desire to break “from the authentic expression of feeling in poetry”10, Mr Bleaney may be respected by the personae at the end of the poem simply because he had found his own contentment in the real world.

The metaphoric language is not the only interesting feature of ‘Mr Bleaney’. There is a complication of metre, line endings and syntax. The syntax reaches its climax in the final stanza where “there is a wealth of subordinate clauses”11, rather than constructed sentences that had characterised the previous stanzas, and a “use of negatives which creates a sense of helplessness and entrapment”12.

The fragments and negatives may resemble the argument that occupies the narrator at the end of the poem, hence whether his way of life is representative of his ‘inner self’. Whereas he may have felt superior to the ‘Bleaney world’ at the start of the poem, there is a sudden change at the end when he realises his life is the same, thus he starts to assess his own worth through Mr Bleaney. The latter may have been content in his small world, though it becomes clear that this is not enough for the narrator.

His confusion and fear is emphasised in the “long periodic sentence”13 of the last two stanzas, which appear to be separate from the rest of the poem. Here there is a sudden realisation for the narrator, the delayed ‘I don’t know’ echoing throughout the rest of the poem eclipsing what the narrator had been convinced he was better than. In the end neither Mr Bleaney nor the narrator ‘warranted no better’ than a ‘hired box’. Mr Bleaney’ is an exploration of a small world and is concerned primarily with the self-revelation of the narrator, not to mention the author, as when regarded an insight into Philip Larkin, ‘Mr Bleaney’ is a breaking away from “his [own] self protecting privacy… “14. The narrator realises that the small world of Mr Bleaney has become the same small world that he belongs to. The main figure of the poem, therefore is not ‘Mr Bleaney’ but the narrator, who struggles with the worth of his own life.

Whilst he may have learnt to respect Mr Bleaney simply because he is content leading an ordinary life, he may also resent him for making him realise that he isn’t a superior figure, but belongs to the same real world as Mr Bleaney, bringing about the “sudden collapse of his own morale”15. ‘Mr Bleaney’ is an intelligent poem that explores ideas of male identity, loneliness, simple modesty and false fantasies bringing them all into small yet equally complicated real world.

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