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Death in Philip Larkins The Trees

Zhang Dandan
Abstract: Death is considered as one of the eternal themes in poems as well as in
other literature works. Yet different poet takes different attitude towards death. In
Larkins poems, death holds a significant position. Besides, it is regarded as a huge
fearful thing to Larkin. Not only the doomed terminal in social life makes him scared,
but the death in nature also scares him a lot. Taking The Trees as an example, this
thesis reveals Larkins dread feeling to death.
Key words: Death, Philip Larkin, dread feeling, The Trees

If Eliot is the one who dominate the British poets in the first half of 20 th
century, Philip Larkin is undoubtedly in charge of the second half. Yet different from
Eliot, theres no abstract obscure mystery or gorgeous illusory thought in Larkins
poems. Furthermore, against to Elitism and Scholarism, Larkin puts forward the
sense of anti-elitism and the view of non-hero and applies to his poetry writing.
As an extraordinary representative of the English Movement and Antimodernism, Larkin places his ideas and values on his poems, creating some
colloquial, understandable poems which are very popular and well-received in public
Larkins poems are restricted into several themes, as Lv Aijing (2001:53-55)
mentions, which are the desire, the time and the death. As an essential idea, death runs
through Larkins poem in all of his writing careers. The Trees is a representative poem
to express Larkins attitude towards death.
The Trees
The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said.

The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again

And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of gain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh

In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is death, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Beginning to leaf is usually regarded as a symbol of hope or vigor or something

very promising. As a Chinese poem reads wild grasses spread o er ancient plain;
with spring and fall they come and go. Fire tries to burn them up in vain; they rise
again when spring wind blew (translated by Xu Yuanchong, 2012), the year after
years sprouting reveals the tenacious life of the grass and the endless circle of life.
Yet in The Trees, the similar image presents a total different idea and value from
Grass on the Ancient Plain.
In the first stanza, Larkin describes a picture in which a tree is burgeoning and
the greenness is spreading out. However, a scene that could have been very positive is
changed immediately within the same sentence. From the content, the greenness in
the fourth line, referring to the buds, is considered as a kind of grief. Since the

meaning of the second line should be relevant to the fourth line, the something in
the second line which is almost being said must mean some bad thing that is
doomed to happenthe fact that everything will die. Larkin treats buds and
greenness as grief and doomed death in the first stanza, creating a huge
contrast with readers common sense. To some extent, Larkin is tearing up the good
things in front of the readers to deepen a sad atmosphere.
If the first stanza is a description, then in the second stanza, Larkin explains the
reasons for he sees sadness in the sprouting. Firstly, humans gradually dying hurts
Larkins feeling. Then the positive answer to the rhetorical question whether trees die
too adds his grief. The yearly refresh of the tree is not a rebirth but one step close to
death. Trick delivers a message of self-deception. No matter how hopeful and
vigorous the buds look like, the rings of grain is such strong evidence to overturn
the illusion. Everything is dying. As mentioned above, it is death that is inevitable.
After the description and explanation in the first two stanzas, Larkins strong
emotion is finally expressed in the last stanza. To Larkin, every time the tree sprouting
leads one step close to its death. However, the trees are just unconscious about that
and spare no effort to grow flourish. They mistreat every sprout as a rebirth and cant
wait for any moment to begin afresh. The three afresh show the trees
forwardness and anxiousness as well as Larkins fear. Actually, the more restlessly
and eagerly the trees want to flourish, the more fearful to death Larkin shows. As an
onlooker, the inevitable death of the trees scares Larkin and reminds him the
inevitable death of all the creatures including human beings that they may be just the
same as the trees who are eager to go to die without knowing it. Though the
inevitability of death is scaring, the unconscious eagerness to death is much more

Apart from the interpretation of meaning above, there are some great writing
skills in The Trees that help to convey the poets ideas. This poem is written in classic
four-line stanzas, with a regularly conversational rhyme arrangement of abba. With a
good command of the language, Larkin adds the beauty of music to this poem, not
only forming an echo in sound, but keeping poems emotions together to better
impress the readers. Whats more, the rhetorical devices used in the poem, like
personification and metaphor, renders the expression more vividly.
Another two extraordinary English poems David Herbert Lawrence and Thomas
Hardy also write poems on the theme of death, yet they show quite different death
view from Philip Larkin.
Different from Larkins fear for death, Lawrence, in some of his poem, such as
Change, Phoenix, considers that life and death can be converted and the soul is
immortal. He sings praises to death, regarding death as a necessary way for a feeble
body to gain new life. (Zhang Dahua, 2004: 98-101). Yet Hardy indicates that death is
a natural destination for human beings who have experienced so much difficulties and
frustrations. It means a soul finally regains the peace, which can be summarized as
over-lasting rest. (Wan Yi, 2006:107-109)
The Trees is a representative of Philip Larkins poems on theme of death.
Different from other poets attitudes towards death, Larkin clearly expresses his fear
in his poem The Trees. Following the description-explanation-expression order,
Larkin firstly create a contrast by creating his own image the trees which is
completely different from the image in readers mind. Then he gives his explanation
of this image and finally through the trees unconscious eagerness to go flourish (to
die) expresses his huge fear for death.

Xu Yuanchong,2012,
, .
(Wan Yi) 2006 ,(),
(Zhang Dahua) 2004 ,
(Lv Aijing)2001