Talking in Bed – Poem Analysis

‘Talking in Bed’ is a poem by Philip Larkin, which was published in 1964. The poem takes the everyday occurrence of two people lying in bed together, and then explores a whole range of thoughts and emotions associated with relationships. Larkin was born in 1922, and died aged 63 from cancer. His father introduced him to literature, particularly the work of poets T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence, which influenced Larkin throughout his career. Like fellow ‘Love Through the Ages’ collection poet Elizabeth Jennings, Larkin worked as a librarian for much of his life.

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This poem could be included in the AQA English Literature exam as part of the ‘Love Through the Ages’ Post-1900 Anthology, meaning that it is important to study, understand and revise this poem. Click here to see notes and analysis for all poems in the ‘Love Through the Ages’ Anthology.

Talking in Bed - Poem Analysis

Interpreture gives ‘Talking in Bed’ a difficulty rating of 2, which means that it is deemed to be relatively straightforward. The meaning and themes will be easily understandable by the majority of students, even on a first read, and the short length of the poem prevents it from becoming overwhelming. There are still a range of language and structure techniques to consider despite the length, with a variety of options for analysis and comparison.

‘Talking in Bed’

The title of the poem is mundane and normal, describing a common occurrence with no indication of a special event or message. To that extent readers may interpret it as showing the poem to be real and personal, rather than describing a fictional environment. Alternatively, readers may begin to think for themselves what could be different about ‘Talking in Bed’ for there to be a poem written about it, which is particularly likely for those familiar with Larkin’s other work. It is important to consider that the location “in bed” has been specified. This ensures that there is no need for scene setting or further explanation due to “in bed” already holding a variety of connotations and ideas with regard to personal relationships.

Talking in Bed - Poem Analysis

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‘Talking in Bed’ Context

‘Talking in Bed’ in many ways is a typical poem by Larkin, in that an everyday idea or concept is explored so as to better understand its overall meaning, particularly in relation to society and individual lives. His poems are often pessimistic and gloomy – with recurring themes of mortality, doomed relationships and loneliness. These are issues that were very  personal to Larkin, as, despite having had several long-term relationships, he never married, and was often depicted as sexually unfulfilled and lonely.

Larkin also plays with words and their meaning a lot in his poetry, with the use of “lying” in this a typical example of his kind of writing style.

Structure and Language

Throughout ‘Talking in Bed’ there is a semantic field of dark weather and environments, with descriptions such as “wind’s incomplete unrest” “clouds” and “dark towns” helping to build a negative feeling and atmosphere. The pathetic fallacy of describing the wind as in “unrest” is particularly effective due to the link of ‘resting’ to the title of the poem, indicating to the reader that these negative descriptions of the environment is a reflection of the unhappiness being experienced in this relationship. Also notable is the use of “incomplete”, which perhaps indicates that worse is yet to come, both in terms of the physical weather but more importantly in this relationship – perhaps a breakup or separation?

A key structural element of this poem is the use of consistent tercet stanzas. This length helps to ensure that there is still a key theme to each stanza, but that there is also a relatively quick pace to show the passing of time. Some readers may consider the use of this structure strange as the poem is about a couple, with this introduction of a ‘three’ idea perhaps indicating at a third party involvement in the relationship; or alternatively that the couple have become so distant that there may as well be a third person between them. While the stanza structure remains consistent, the rhyme scheme decays in complexity to just “find” “kind and “unkind” in the final stanza, perhaps reflecting the lack of effort now being put into maintaining the relationship.

The use of enjambment, particularly in the transition between the third and fourth stanzas, helps to demonstrate the isolation felt by both people in the relationship. By interrupting the flow after “distance from isolation”, Larkin adds physical separation between words, in addition to a degree of confusion for the reader, and having to continue the poem across a stanza break. This would help the reader to empathise with the situation, generating sympathy and sadness. A reader may also find it interesting that the enjambment follows an arguably confusing line, one that is almost oxymoronic, further emphasising the difficulty in dealing with this situation.

Important Lines

“Lying together there goes back so far”

As with many uses of the homonym “lying” there is a potential double meaning to be considered by the reader.  While a ‘resting’ interpretation of this line is still effective at showing a typical relationship and societal standards, a ‘false statement’ interpretation opens the line up to indicate fault on both sides due to the use of “together”. Some readers may also note the focus on the past with “back” to perhaps indicate the loss of the relationship over time, or even a criticism of traditional relationship expectations.

“Yet more and more time passes silently”

“More and more” is a common phrase, but works effectively in this situation by emphasising how common and regular it is. The idea of time passing “silently” is also interesting because it shows the distance and sincerity of their relationship, no longer sharing moments together in happiness, but instead, in silence. There is also a degree of sibilance in “passes silently” with the ‘s’ sound creating a sense of apprehension and distrust.

“Or not untrue and not unkind”

Ending the poem on such a pessimistic line demonstrates to a reader that there is little hope left in this situation. The negative tone, along with the rhyming couplet with the previous line, makes it very memorable and emphasises a ‘trapped’ feeling. That something mediocre and ordinary is the most that can be hoped for in the relationship of these two people would also help to create sympathy for them, particularly as there is no clear assignment of blame.

‘Talking in Bed’ Themes

As part of the theme of love present with all poems in the ‘Love Poetry through the Ages’ Anthology, ‘Talking in Bed’ specifically considers ideas related to the breakdown of relationships plus honesty and truth.  This poem effectively examines the way in which a normal, everyday occurrence can reflect difficulties in a relationship, with simple ideas such as silence and double meanings helping to show a reader how relationships can become strained. The focus on talking leads to the idea of truth and honesty, particularly with ideas of “truth”, kindness and “lying”.

Quick Focus Questions

  1. There are many elements of the poem that are presented as a three. Identify one example, and then consider how it many impact the reader’s understanding of the poem.
  2. Consider the use of language in the opening line of ‘Talking in Bed’. Identify two effective uses and analyse why they are effective.
  3. What is the significance of the word “emblem” in the first stanza?

While ‘Talking in Bed’ is an accessible poem, there is still lots of potential to analyse language and structure in order to find a range of interesting connections and points. There are a range of similar themes and ideas too with ‘One Flesh’ from the Love Poetry Through the Ages collection, with a comparison between these two poems providing many opportunities to evaluate the effectiveness of different techniques.

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Larkin did marry, a close friend from his life, but there’s rumors that he was never faithful to her and had many mistresses

Do you have a source for that? There is reference to him having a relationship with Patsy Strang which resulted in a pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage, but not marriage. There is an interesting article in The Guardian about Larkin’s views of marriage from letters with his mother.

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