Born Yesterday by Philip Larkin

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love –
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.

© Philip Larkin. All Rights Reserved.

Philip Larkin never ceases to amaze me in his consistently unconventional approach to writing. As a full modernist, no work of his reflects this better than ‘Born Yesterday’, his poem for fellow writer Kingsley Amis’ newborn daughter Sally. The poem itself focuses upon the need for society to be grateful for the simplest and most humble things in life – despite them being somewhat mundane. He begins with a fabulous metaphor to depict the child as being a ‘tightly folded bud’, reminiscent of a flower just before blooming, whilst the verb ‘folded’ could possibly evoke the image of a coiled fetus in it’s mother’s womb. The title itself – ‘Born Yesterday’ in context of the idiomatic phrase to depict ignorance is a seemingly innocent notion in Larkin’s poem. As birth is the dominant subject of the poem, the mental image crafted by this metaphor is most fitting. In portraying the swaddled child as being one and the same as a ‘folded bud’, the reader may infer that (as we have learned from biology) both have the plant-like potential and ability to grow into something rather beautiful which is another issue Larkin goes on to address in the following lines.

Larkin’s choice of structure is also a point of interest, discussing firstly those virtues that are expected to be bestowed to a newborn child, speaking of ‘being beautiful’, ‘innocence’ and ‘love.’ He quickly addresses that he will not be wishing her these things as he claims to recognize that others’ shall. He goes on to note that if fate has designed that she will gain such virtues as these then she is indeed ‘a lucky girl.’ Larkin then goes on to draw a stark contrast between what our society has taught us to think will bring us happiness and what he has found can bring contentment also. This vivid juxtaposition is further evident through Larkin’s manipulation of language, pairing colloquial terms like ‘stuff’ and informally addressing  the subject in the doting phrasing of ‘well you’re a lucky girl.’ with traditional poetic devices.

The second and final stanza of ‘Born Yesterday’ is one of my favourites in all the poetry I’ve ever read, I just adore the matter-of-fact tone Larkin takes up here. I’ve always found comfort and reassurance from these lines as it (in true Larkin style) suggests that one can find happiness and joy through being granted little or no extraordinary qualities. Larkin ostensibly contradicts the gleaming positives of the virtues described in the first stanza, offsetting them with dull and mundane facets, claiming them to be ‘an average of talents.’ Despite this, we must understand that Larkin is not countering his claims. He asks his reader to instead concede that being extraordinary with ‘uncustomary’ talents may ‘pull you off balance’ and make you lose sight of necessary values. Larkin prompts us to explore what are the truly valuable aspects of  life and those that amount to superficiality and unhappiness. The final lines confirm the sincerity of the poet’s wishes for the child, praying that it have (if only that) happiness in whatever form it presents itself, no matter how run-of-the-mill.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)