The slums. The imagery created both camouflages and

The
dissonance between image and reality is a common theme that Larkin explores in The Whitsun Weddings. Throughout the
collection Larkin registers the changing social and cultural climate of the
late 1950s and early 1960s due to mass consumerism. This can be seen in
‘Essential Beauty’ where Larkin builds up an image of the perfect life that is
promised to us through an ensemble of advertising hoardings and then
characteristically takes that dream away by showing us the tawdry reality of real
life. Throughout the poem, and indeed the rest of the collection, there is a
vivid rendering of the changing social texture of England and a sustained
interest in the changing values of its people through this new period of
affluence where they have “never had it so good”1.

The
opening of ‘Essential Beauty’ emphasises how these advertising hoardings in
“frames as large as rooms” try to obscure the grim realities of ordinary life:
they “block” streets, “screen” graves and “cover” slums. The imagery created
both camouflages and contrasts the dreariness of urban life as they “shine
perpetually” as organised and flourishing “groves”. The word “aligned” suggests
how neatly ordered the world of advertising is, how it seems able to repel all
disturbance and threat; in the advertisements even the cats are neatly
“quarter-profile”. They pander to an aesthetic of beauty which is standardised:
that of “how life should be”. They appeal to our need for fulfilment and
perfection by promising a “well balanced family,” a life of “smiles,”
prosperity and even perpetual “youth” are available in “that small cube” or the
“cups at bedtime”. However, the key point that Larkin is trying to communicate
is that this collage of images from advertising are “beyond this world” and just
a “seductive haven from the imperfections of real lives dominated by
unhappiness”2.
The truth is that these images “reflect none of the rained-on streets and
squares / they dominate”. They are “cold” and look down upon our “live imperfect
eyes” which seek “the home / all such inhabit”. Pursuing their promise of
success leads only to disillusionment; the reality of the “dark raftered pubs”
is “the boy puking his heart out in the Gents,” he is barely old enough to
drink and has attempted to drown his sorrows. This can also be seen with the
pensioner paying “a halfpenny more” for the brand of tea designed to appeal to
him, “Granny Graveclothes’ Tea,” only to “taste old age”.

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The
final image of the poem intensifies the painful feelings of desire and
exclusion that run throughout the poem. The “dying smokers” are beguiled by the
object of their desires, “that unfocused she,” which is “walking towards them;”
miraculous and Chirst-like, “as if on water”. The vagueness of “unfocused”
conjoined with the urgent, sharp simplicity of the monosyllabic “she” implies a
“ubiquitous icon of feminine seductiveness”3. However, his “match” was
never “lit up” or “drag ever brought near,” a metaphor for consistently
striking out with women, which creates pathos for the writer’s unsatisfiable
desire. Ironically, when the smokers die with their dream standing “newly
clear,” they are still deluded by erotic dreams, “smiling, recognising and
going dark” perhaps happier than they would be facing the truth.

The
way that Larkin has structured ‘Essential Beauty’ is a key tool in portraying
the effect that the advertising hoardings have on people and the dissonance
between the images they create and the reality of life. Larkin’s choice of two sixteen
line stanzas gives the effect of standing beneath one of those towering,
daunting displays in “frames as large as rooms” that are inescapable, “face all
ways”. Another way Larkin mimics the failed expectations of the adverts he
describes is by allowing our rhyme expectation to be sold short; this can be
see with the use of the word “shine” at a place where we would automatically
expect a rhyme for “loaves.” Furthermore, he uses a new line to cut
off the verb “shine” from the adverb “perpetually” giving the effect of both
words being strangely stressed. This highlights the ironic contrast of the
glossy advert to the dingy streets, graves, and “rained-on slums”. Larkin
further emphasises this point by juxtaposing the fantastical image promised to
us from the adverts of “how life should be” with the grim “gutter” that it lies
“high above” in the very same line.

1 20th July 1957, British
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan

2 1989, Sanders, J, Longman Critical
Essays, Philip Larkin: The Poems, Beauty and Truth in three poems from The      Whitsun Weddings, Page 44

3 1995, Swarbrick, A, The Poetry of
Philip Larkin, Page 116