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Paul Williams

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Critical Appreciation of the Poem Mr Bleaney By Phillip Larkin
By Paul Williams
Last edited: Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Posted: Wednesday, February 09, 2005



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This is an appraisal of the poem Mr Bleaney by Phillip Larkin and serves as an example of how poetry can be critiqued. The poem itself is one of my own personal favourites because in many ways it represents a similar situation to which I now find myself.


Poet: Philip Larkin
Poem: Mr Bleaney
Volume: The Whitsun Weddings
Year: Published/Written in 1955

'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.' Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
 
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.'
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook
 
Behind the door, no room for books or bags -
'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try
 
Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits - what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why
 
He kept on plugging at the four aways -
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.
 
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
 
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

 

 

 

 

A CRITICAL APPRECIATION OF THE POEM MR BLEANEY

BY PHILP LARKIN

 

‘Mr Bleaney’ by Phillip Larkin is essentially a poem about a circumstantial situation that is given as dramatic monologue, and rather like a drama, tells a story that is full of lucid mystery.  There are two distinct scenes in the poem, in the first, which occupies the first three stanzas, of this seven-stanza poem. The reader is presented with a landlady showing a perspective lodger a room that has been vacated by her previous tenant, the mysterious Mr Bleaney. Mysterious in that he seems to be an ethereal entity, and is never presented to the reader, except as a metaphor for what has gone before. Appearing in the first half of the poem in a recollected past, the landlady’s past. The first half of the poem is slow and deliberate and helps to create a macabre feel to the poem. A change of pace occurs in the second half of the poem though not immediately apparent. It does seem to be despairingly urgent, as Mr Bleaney subtly moves from a recollected past to an observed present, through his mediation with the new tenant.

 

Larkin has used the landlady and to some extent Mr Bleaney, as the focus for the humour in the poem but it is the landlady who comes across as the comic if somewhat pitiful character. The ironic humour is used as the lighter side of the poem to contrast its dark overtones and highlights the contrasting duality that is inherent throughout.

 

It becomes apparent as the drama unfolds that Mr Bleaney had been a simple but predictable man. As the landlady shows her client the dingy room in the first stanza, one gets a sense that the landlady regret’s the loss of her last tenant. It was his utterly predictable routine that she had come to depend on, and forces beyond her control had taken this away from her.  In the tonal quality of the landlady’s speech one can almost hear the resignation in her voice and it almost sounds as if she’s tutting.

 

 

 

‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed

The whole time he was at the Bodies, till


They moved him.’

 

The reader is not told the reason for his departure, but it is inferred that ‘they’ moved him away, who ‘they’ are we are not told, the use of the word ‘Bodies’ would seem to suggest undertakers but in fact it could have been his employers. We are left to make our own decisions as to the fate of Mr Bleaney. Larkin’s use of the word  ‘Bodies’ perhaps places emphasis on the landlady’s regret but it is in fact a colloquial term for manufacturers of Car bodies in the Midlands.  A term, which has now sadly died out, along with what was once a thriving industry in the Midlands in the 1950s and 1960s the reader is given further clues to confirm the era in which the poem is set, (the Mid-1950s, which is when the poem was written).  Such as ‘The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.’  Is in fact a crystal radio set, which were very popular items in post-war Britain, other clues may be gleaned by the social behaviour of Mr Bleaney, his going away in the summer holidays to stay with the ‘Frinton folk’ and visiting his sister’s at Christmas, practices that are no longer as popular as once they were. The setting of the Midlands is also confirmed later in the poem, during the lodger’s recall of Mr Bleaney’s habits.

 

–‘And Christmas at his sisters house in Stoke’-

 

But perhaps the most effective use of the word ‘Bodies’ is to give the opening scene a cold eerie feel that sets the ambience for the whole poem.  This eerie feeling gradually builds into a dark brooding atmosphere that pervades throughout the whole poem, and as it develops becomes tinged with ironic pessimism. The poet’s choice of words contribute greatly to the impression ‘The frigid wind’ suggesting a cold ice laden wind but it also suggests how fragile life is and the situation the lodger finds himself in.  The ‘fusty bed,’ with the associated smell it evokes, even the name ‘Bleaney’ suggests a ‘bleakness,’ phrases like ‘grinned and shivered, without shaking off dread’ all combine to emphasise the cold dreariness of the poem and give it a chilling edge. A mood that is highlighted by the graphic description of the room, described as a ‘hired box’ in the poem, it evokes an atmosphere of Spartan dinginess that is given added emphasis by the low-wattage light bulb and a pair of ill fitting flowered curtains.  A bed and upright chair are the only pieces of furniture in the room. The bed is a ‘fusty bed’, the imagery is strong and brings forth the smells associated with a room that has been empty for a while, untouched by human hand, elements crucial in adding extra emphasis to the ‘hired box’ image of the room, on which the essence of the whole poem hinges.

 

‘Flowered curtains, thin and frayed, fall to within five inches of the sill,

 

The thin and frayed, ill fitting curtains and the window that they frame, overlook a strip of tussocky littered building land, giving the window the appearance of a stage. A stage in the theatre macabre, on the stage, images of neglect and despair, reflecting perhaps, the social and economic climate of the time, coated in dark humorous Irony.

 

‘Mr Bleaney took my bit of garden properly in hand’


 


The garden he took ‘properly in hand’ is in fact ‘tussocky littered’; reflecting the landlady’s pathos and dependence upon her former lodger, his departure has seen the garden fall back into disrepair, the irony being is that we don’t know if he ever dug her garden. This dark comic irony can also be seen in stanza four when the lodger stuff’s his ears with cotton wool.


 

Stuffing my ears with cotton- wool, to drown


The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.


I know his habits-what time he came down,


His preference for sauce to gravy, why


 


The lodger has come to know Mr Bleaney his habits and routine via symbolic metaphor, a crystal radio set Mr Bleaney encouraged the landlady to buy, this is used to stress, the landlady’s constant jabbering about her former lodger. The lodger stuffs his ears with cotton wool because he does not want to here any more about Mr Bleany, who is already infringing on his lifestyle, the irony being that there is no escaping the fact that, no matter how much he tries to disassociate from Mr Bleany.  He and Mr Bleany are the same. A more conventional form of irony can be seen in the first line of stanza three.


 

'Behind the door, no room for books or bags'


 


 The lodger’s desire is for room for books, but his desire is thwarted by the small size of the room. A room that is representative of the previous tenant and his lifestyle. Mr Bleaney had no books only the bed to lie upon.  Now the new tenant must take his place and do the same and reflect on how he has come to be in his situation. Larkin brings the cold acceptance of it all to the fore, in the lodger’s acceptance of the room. It is said with such finality that it strikes like a hammer blow, to heart of the being, ‘I’ll take it.’  In this verbally terse comment there is the essence of prevailing gloom and the questioning of a sense of worth in relation to the room.

 

 The transition has now taken place; the second half of this drama deals with the contrasting duality between the new lodger and the previous tenant. The lodger is now the occupier of the same ‘hired box’ as ‘Mr Bleaney’, who now is brought into an observed present by the lodger.

 

‘So it happens that I lie


Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags


On the same saucer-souvenir, and try.


 


The lodger now laid on the bed becomes intertwined in Mr Bleaney’s world, the same saucer-souvenir; a symbol of the commonality the two men share. It is in this observed present that Mr Bleaney begins to encroach upon the lodger’s own lifestyle and ultimately upon his own sense of identity.  Mr Bleaney becomes the speakers double even though the lodger could never have known his thoughts he and Mr Bleaney become one. This is expressed by the lodger’s own actual experiences and which lead him to wonder if ‘Mr Bleaney’ underwent the same experiences. The lodger’s speech is questioning and pessimistic, the key word is the lodger’s use of But.  He is wondering if Mr Bleany saw himself measured by his surroundings, if he felt undervalued and inadequate, was his sense of worth reflected in his surroundings?  Is this all Mr Bleaney had to show? This room, the same room he now occupies.  His predictable routine, The ‘Frinton folk who put him up during the summer’, the football pools he did week in week out.

 

‘He kept on plugging at the four aways’


 


 In some vain hope that a win on the pools would help him escape his current lifestyle, his landlady’s dependency upon him, and all the other aspects of his lifestyle that determined ‘the man’.  This is what he had to tell himself was home. This is also what the lodger now has to tell himself is home.

 

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind

Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed

Telling himself that this was home,

 

 

Throughout the poem the contrast between the two men is heavily stressed; they are two distinct figures but who are none the less identified with each other because they are both measured by the ‘one hired box’ of the rented room. This presents a deep-seated fear for the lodger, the fear of being trapped in the same cyclic anomie as the previous tenant. This becomes apparent in the chilling conclusion to the poem when the lodger asks not only himself but also the reader and by implication everyone else; is this how we evaluate our lives? Our sense of worth reflected by our surroundings, is this how Mr Bleaney saw himself as small and insignificant?  The answer to which only Mr Bleaney knows.

 

That how we live measures our own nature,


And at his age having no more to show


Than one hired box should make him pretty sure


He warranted no better…


 


 Phillip Larkin wrote ‘Mr Bleaney’ in 1955 in a series of poems The Whitsun Weddings, he presents the reader with a poem written in a local context, which not only makes the poem more accessible but also gives the poem character. The points that the poem raises are frighteningly relevant today and are another reason for its accessibility.   Larkin gives every word in ‘Mr Bleaney’ a unique tonal quality that is set with a chilling ambience. A bleak and depressing poem, reflecting the sociological and economic state of mid 1950s Britain ‘Mr Bleaney’ carries a sombre message that places the emphasis on uncertainty rather than certainty. Serving to reinforce the pessimism inherent in the poem.  One certainly gets the feel that the poet himself was going through a particularly depressing period of his life and use’s the departed Mr Bleaney to express his emotions but the intention of the poem is much more implicit than just the emotional expression of the poet.  Larkin’s message becomes clear the more you read the poem. We are asked to take a look at our own lives and consider how we might evaluate our sense of worth, and how we measure it.  Larkin was asking himself the same question, unfortunately he could not answer it, he left that to ‘Mr Bleaney.’

 

Paul Williams © 1997


 

 

 
 
 
 
 

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Reviewed by m j hollingshead 3/6/2005
interesting read
Reviewed by Chanti Niven 2/11/2005
Hi there!
I recently posted an article about how to critique and so this was a fascinating read for me. Thank you for posting it Paul. How about posting it on Lasting Impressions as well? I think it will be valuable for all our members.
Take care
Chanti
Reviewed by Tinka Boukes 2/9/2005
Wow Paul you truly didpost something very powerful here!!

I can only say...I am stund in the way this was done!!

Excellent ...and thanks for this masterful posting!!

Love Tinka
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