Next, Please by  Philip Larkin – Summary & Analysis

Next, Please by  Philip Larkin Study Guide

About the Author 

Philip Larkin is widely considered as one of the greatest English poets of the second part of the twentieth century. He was born on August 9, 1922, in Coventry, England, to Sydney Larkin (1884-1948) and his wife, Eva Emily Day (1886-1977). His sister Catherine, also known as Kitty, was ten years his senior. His father introduced him to the works of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and, most importantly, D.H. Lawrence. His mother was a tense, passive woman.

His first collection of poems, The North Ship, was published in 1945, followed by two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), but he rose to popularity in 1955 with the release of The Less deluded, followed by The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1965). (1974). From 1961 to 1971, he was The Daily Telegraph’s jazz critic, and he authored essays that were collected in All What Jazz: a Record Diary 1961-71 (1985), and he edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973). He received numerous honours, including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Following the death of John Betjamin in 1984, he was given the title of poet laureate but declined.

His poems are distinguished by what Andrew Motion calls a “very English, glum accuracy” about emotions, places, and relationships, as well as “lowered sights and diminished expectations,” as defined by Donald Davie. Eric Homberger referred to him as “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket”—Larkin himself stated that deprivation was to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth.

W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats, and Thomas Hardy have all affected Larkin. His poems are written in highly structured but adaptable poetry styles. Jean Hartley described them as a “piquant mixture of lyricism and discontent,” but anthologist Keith Tuma thinks that there is more to Larkin’s writing than its reputation for bleak pessimism.

Summary of Next, Please

Next Please is a poem written by Philip Larkin. This poem is included in Larkin’s second volume The Less Deceived.

The poet, in the very opening lines of the poem, clearly addresses the core theme of the poem, focusing on how human life revolves around hopes and expectations. We are all caught up in the web of life, where we are continuously busy going forward with enthusiasm, bursting with bright aspirations and faultless intentions, no matter how difficult the present appears. However, the poet believes that too much optimism about the immediate future is futile because the future is always shrouded in mystery and, more often than not, our plans can take unexpected turns where things do not necessarily turn out the way we expect them to and, even worse, leading to the final turn of our lives i.e., ‘death’ for some of us, whereby even the slightest possibilities of our fulfilled hopes and expectations, plunging us into despair. Perhaps this is why the wise and old often remind us that the key to having a full life is to live in the now and focus on our blessings rather than constantly harping on the unknown future.

The poet highlights that death is continually gaining on us with every passing instant through the days, months, and years, as we flip through the calendars oblivious to the fact that death has the ultimate power to stop us short at any given moment. Regardless, it is an all-too-human tendency to wait for all the good things to fill our life, in the hope of which we spend all of our plans and efforts. We eagerly await the advent of our long-cherished ambitions and dreams, which often seem to elude us without ever becoming a reality. At other times, when such moments do occur, we find it difficult to hold onto them because they slide through our hands like sand. Thus, the poem evokes a picture of an armada or fleet of warships that symbolically characterises the promises as well as the challenges of our near future, which we anxiously await but appears to procrastinate by taking its own sweet time. The learner may agree that we often overlook the beauty of living in the now and cherishing the here and now while we wait for better things to come our way.

“Next Please” has the feel of a shop or a doctor’s waiting room, and the final stanza’s references to death hint at the solution. This is Death’s summons! The Grim Reaper is loudly proclaiming this title to us all.

As implied by the title, the poem is self-explanatory. Larkin’s diverse topics are grounded in truth and an empirical tone. He delivers to the reader the concept that death is a natural and unavoidable part of life for all humans. Similarly, though in a different context, Larkin very plainly refers to our insights that nothing can stop us as humans. In other words, our aspirations are limitless. However, the real, empirical view indicates the inverse, namely that our desires are like to a ship without an “anchor.” The poem begins with the following:

“Next Please” begins with a declaration of the emotional concept it is addressing:

Always too eager for the future, we Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then, we say,

Then a parable begins, with the poet clutching the reader’s arm on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea. He is not referring to the terrible habit of anticipating things, but rather to the bad habit of expecting things in the first place. Larkin uses the phrase “Something is always approaching” to confirm that there is something to anticipate and to allow the reader to discern precisely what aspect of anticipating things he is referring to; anticipating a specific event does not constitute an excuse for anticipating extravagant consequences. Larkin demonstrates that these expectations are based on unproven assumptions.

The poem goes on to elaborate the concept through a metaphor. Life’s events are seen as a line of approaching ships. 

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear the sparkling armada of promises

Long-awaited, they are now prepared to dump their cargoes into the poet’s and reader’s lives. (Throughout, Larkin uses the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us.’) Larkin employs the term bluff to demonstrate that one’s outlook on the future is speculative; it is based on pure supposition. The forgotten item (death) serves as the underlying foundation for all other expectations; an armada can be identified as anything linked with war, and the primary end of war is death. This is a tale, deliberately exaggerated and made absurd, with description taking the place of meaning, but it is done for the poet’s own purposes:

though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,
Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way

However, regardless of their distinctions, these vessels and their cargoes are unreal. Yet, the poet asserts, we deserve everything they do not bring. They owe us for our patience: we should be compensated. Of course, there is no such thing as a reward in this case. At its heart is the implicit assumption that what is sought takes the form of a metaphor, shimmering but illusory, but what occurs is intellectually impenetrable, real, and unavoidable.

The terms “flagged” and “figurehead” refer to an idealisation of the future that is not grounded in reality; the ideal is simply a pleasant way in which man “[arches his] way,” or visualises his journey, into the certainty of death. When a circumstance presents itself to man, he is prone to believe that nothing but the best will result.

Our vision of the future is like someone waiting for ships from a cliff. When we watch, the ships approach as though in hope, but become increasingly evident. As a result, our hopes and dreams are unabated. This in and of itself is a divine gift to continue and never cease. The wishes sparkle brilliantly in our mental portrayal’s eyes. When we are disappointed, we attempt again and begin dreamily visualising our desires.

Oliver Boyd believes that: 
In the poem, the ships are glittering sailing vessels, with ornamented figureheads – the objects of our desires are always more attractive before they are realized. When they are realized they begin to pale; the ships reach us, but do not anchor. They turn and recede once more into the distance. 

Larkin is demonstrating that our hopes are never realised, but when they are, the realisation is just brief.

Here, Larkin employs the gleaming ships to symbolise our multicoloured dreams. These wishes fill our hearts with joy, and we eagerly await the ships that will bring our want to fruition. We rush to accomplish our goals throughout our lives and especially while we are young, yet only disappointment awaits us.

But we are wrong;

Here, the author extinguishes man’s hope for a better tomorrow. And it is at this point in the works’ emotional and metaphysical development that they divide. Larkin’s poem drops comedy like a mask to unveil what he perceives to be the future truth. Suddenly, a portal appears:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black- sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back a huge and birdless silence. In her wake, no waters breed or break.

Death itself comes, at the end, in the form of a metaphor.

This poem is written with care and finesse. Every facet of meaning and adornment is carefully balanced. Underneath the humour lies an emotion that is only rescued from dread by its orderliness; beneath that, the fear of the loss of order cannot be articulated because it is quiet. Only one ship is looking for us, and that is death itself.

When we get old, our wishes will no longer sparkle, and reality will unfurl itself like a black-sailed ship, which is the only factual symptom.

As a result, death will be waiting for us, but this time we are feeling quite the opposite. Larkin advises all humans to be modest in their desires and not to surpass the normal limit.

Larkin employs a very simple vocabulary to convey the message he wants to convey. The theme of wish and disappointment moves in a never-ending circle. Larkin, as usual, uses systematic rhymes such as AA BB, but the theme is disillusionment after a lengthy wait. The run-on lines of poetry (enjambments) continue as if a driver were very swift and eager to get to his destination, yet the poem’s climax contrasts sharply with the remainder of the poem

Interpretation the Poem

What would we find if we stripped away the workmanship, the flawless rhyme, and the humour to reveal the philosophy beneath? Human existence is inextricably linked to expectation. People spend their lives with and hoping. Surely, patience must be rewarded in some way. No, it does not. Death comes (it is the one expectation that is fulfilled), and the world ends for us.

The only time we have ever known is right now. The future and the past pollute the present with expectation and memory, which are the causes of our inattention. We would remember where we left our keys if we lived in the present.

Some people are eternal optimists, living in a condition of hopeful expectation – as Mr Micawber observed in David Copperfield, “something will turn up” It has been suggested that the average person’s mental state is one of modest and unrealistic optimism. Philip Larkin did not see the future as bright.

This poem does not wish for, regret, or despise death. In a different way, this poem considers its impact on the living. After dissuading the reader of any hope or expectation, Larkin reveals that buried among the “armada” is a lone ship seeking the dreamer—death. Larkin explains how death is the only reliable expectation that the reader may have, and yet, oddly, it brings with it none of the flourishes that other ships do. The one ship on which the reader may rely does not need to be sought out in order to be discovered, and this understanding leads to the misguided belief among humans that other things are guaranteed to be discovered- when no such promise has been made. The poem implies that one should not expect things to happen just because one wants them to, that one should not expect the future to be certain, that one should not shape the future as if it were already solidly grasped, and that one should not live in hope of a better tomorrow; one should live for the day- an uncomplicated, unequivocal truth that stands for itself and is never a disappointment because there are no expectations to disappoint.

There is a secret to reading Philip Larkin’s Next, Please, and once you learn it, that secret joyful knowledge will be yours to keep forever—to lead you through life and help you understand all those minor disappointments you have encountered. The trick is that there is one thing you can always count on, one thing you can look forward to that will satisfy your need to meet expectations, and that thing does not go unnoticed. Hopefully, death is the one thing you are banking on because it is the only thing that guarantees you and everyone else a lasting future. He offers his expertise on the disappointment brought by such arrogant hopes by using literary methods such as tone, speaker, enjambment, rhyming couplets, figurative language, and diction.

The way this poem is presented gives the impression that the speaker is the author himself, dressed in his own thoughts and ideas. Larkin once stated that he wanted readers to have the feeling of “a chap chatting to chaps” (, and the tone is that of an experienced life passing on wisdom acquired from failure. Take notice of the tone in the opening stanza. Although words like “eager” and “expectancy” have good meanings, there is tension when we hear the phrase “bad habits.”

The author utilises words like “we,” “our,” and “us” throughout the poem, creating a sense of community through collective 1st person terms and preventing stratification between speaker and audience. This establishes trust between Larkin and the reader, lending credibility to his statements; Larkin has witnessed the death of his own great aspirations, leading the reader to the only logical assertion about expectations that he can conceive.

The title Next, Please is frequently used when speaking gently to another person, as if the tenderness of the word “Please” will minimise the unpleasant character of the forceful “Next” and compel the listener to comply. “Please” is also used to indicate desire; it is an entreaty that expresses deep hope and desire, as in “will the next promise for the future please fulfil my desire!” With these various implications associated with the word “Next, Please,” the author creates a conversational tone as one who has “been there,” so to speak, and so applies the poem to the collective human experience.

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Now that the author has established a relationship with the reader, the usage of structure will highlight humanity’s natural proclivity to project expectations into the future. When punctuation is used, it produces a forced pause, and because it occurs in the context of a poem, the punctuation asks the question, “Why and what is next?” The impact creates irritation in the reader, who consequently wants to move on swiftly.

Larkin employs rhyming couplets throughout the poem (AABB ccdd, etc.), and so the reader is aware that the poem’s message is one of consistency; there will be nothing new offered, and the theme is universally constant- it applies in all instances. The first three lines of each stanza are typically in iambic pentameter, but the last line is either four or six syllables long.

The second stanza has a cinematic feel to it. This technique is quite typical of Larkin’s work. He frequently paints wonderful mental pictures for us. We are taken to a seashore cliff. From here, we can see a metaphorical “armada of promises” approaching. It reminds me of the saying “one day our ship will come in.” He premodifies this image with a three-part list: “tiny, clear, and sparkling.” This “armada” is packed with enticing “promises” and appears to be a highly appealing proposition to the viewer. However, the time-reference lexis in the second part of this stanza gives us pause: “slow”, “time”, and “haste”. He seemed to be implying that a large portion of life is spent waiting for benefits rather than receiving them. Larkin’s pivotal word “Yet” appears in the third stanza. He will frequently set up a setting, then turn the subject around with a “yet,” “but,” or “however.”

Lexis such as “baulk,” “brasswork,” and “rope” has been added to the nautical semantic area. Note the poet’s skilful use of postmodification here as well: brasswork is “prinked,” and ropes are “distinctive,” but the first line has provided us with a very clear negative land-based metaphor in the lines:

“holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment”

We have been tantalised but are destined to be let down. Such is Larkin’s pessimistic view of life.

In the fourth stanza, the anguish of missed opportunities is heightened. It begins with the alliteration of the repeating “f” sounds, and while we originally assumed the “promises” on board were monetary wealth, the very sexual figurehead image suggests our love life is also doomed to failure.

The naval lexis is clear in the penultimate stanza. Apparently, the ships will arrive and deliver their appealing cargo, but in the final line, we are faced with another of Larkin’s pivot words: “we are wrong.” We will not receive this delivery, whether material or sexual. It is all gone for nought.

Is Larkin chastising us for being duped for so long? That depends on how you read it, as well as your life philosophy.

Do you see your glass as half empty or half full? Are you naturally pessimistic or optimistic? That will influence how you approach Larkin’s verse; he may confirm your worst worries, or he may challenge you to fight your battle and indicate that life is NOT full of disappointments.

For most readers of this poem, our alleged benefits are pictured as a line of approaching ships that will unload their precious cargoes into our life.

In this nihilistic poem, Larkin clearly evokes the abyss and nothingness that follows death. Surprisingly, one student summarised the poem as being about hopefulness rather than hopelessness. He was pleased to see how we “consider that happiness is just around the corner despite its repeated failure to appear.” How do you react to this personal reaction to the piece? Do you agree? Do you agree, or do you disagree?

The explicit references to death in the closing portion are unsettling. If the first five lyrics were about life, the final stanza is about death. It is the one thing we can be confident of in life.

He seizes a naval image of a ship and conveys a grim meaning. The sails are “black.” The implications are evident. The ship itself is described as “unfamiliar,” and we see a “huge and birdless silence” astern. This is a highly emotional line. The straightforward and moving alliterative last phrase hammers home the argument with “w” and “b” to pound out the beat. We have a bleak, hopeless end to existence. There is no rejoicing; everything is simply silent and still.

Enjambments provide the impression that something will follow at the end of each line; this heightens the expectation of the final stanza, since there can be nothing to follow, and so emphasises the final words the most. Caesura inhibits the reader from wanting to linger on any one concept; the reader skims over the thoughts offered as if they are light and unimportant. The universality established by the rhyme pattern, the sensation of urgency to go on to the next point caused by enjambment, and the lack of significant weight given to thoughts owing to caesura all add to the end effect of the poem; the one thing not looking for is the one thing that must be found.

Larkin observes that we always have a plethora of hopes, that’spring eternal,’ many of which transform to expectancy and even anticipation. The hopes are all promises made by no one, only imagined by ourselves, thus approach like ships approaching a harbour. But when they do not dock, they keep going by since they were not promised to us but thinking made it so, and the facts burst on us, leaving us with just the stalks and no flowers. But, do not worry, another will arrive in a minute, possibly three at once.

Aside from taxes, the only guaranteed thing in life is death. Whatever your hopes are, the only thing you can truly expect is death. Religions may offer you additional well-defined (“every rope”) aspirations for after death, but they are promises just as flimsy as the ones we made for ourselves, and only death can be certain to happen, and with nothing in its aftermath.

And it will surprise you.

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