Talking In Bed
Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
‘Talking in Bed’ by Philip Larkin was the poem that inspired me to study Philip Larkin for my university dissertation. My thesis was to discuss the cathartic effect that Larkin’s poems had on the reader. Admittedly, in hindsight, it perhaps wasn’t the best angle to look at Larkin’s work (although I did get one mark off a first, so it must have had some merit!!) However, I still believe in the essence of my thesis; reading Larkin’s poems makes you feel better.
Larkin’s poems were predominantly quite depressing. However, he wrote about subjects that would be close to the hearts and minds of most of the readers: love, death, employment, faith, societal changes. People could relate to his poems and these subjects would be as relevant today as they were when Larkin wrote them. Whilst the reader can feel comfort that Larkin shares their worries, Larkin also tends to offer some kind of perspective to these worries. Larkin often refers to the universe as a whole and how in the grand scheme of things, our personal dilemmas and concerns are transcended by a bigger force.
‘Talking in Bed’ is no different. From the title, the first impression is that this is a poem about a very simple, ordinary activity that most couples would undertake on a regular basis. However, the first line is ominous by the use of a single word in the middle of the sentence. “Ought” implies that actually, while the concept of two people having a chat before they go to sleep should be an easy situation, sometimes it isn’t. The ambiguity of “Lying” further reinforces this as it is unclear whether the poetic voice is considering the physical action or the notion of deceipt. “[G]oes back so far” suggests that this couple have been “lying” together for some time, either with, or to, each other. In their most intimate domain, i.e. their bed, this should represent an openness in their relationship where they can talk about anything without any kind of barriers, but the words will not come to this couple, as “more and more time passes silently.” This could be referring to the time spent on this one occasion that is being described or a longer period of time containing many bedtimes.
Considering the wider environment, as a comparison to the enclosed space of the bedroom, Larkin goes on to describe the storminess of the atmosphere outside, reflective of the atmosphere in the bedroom. Changing the subject to the weather also mirrors the “go-to” topic when people don’t know what to say to each other. Larkin’s oxymoronic phrasing to describe “the wind’s incomplete unrest” highlights the outdoor conflict and the noisiness of the wind and its dramatic effect on the clouds as it “builds and disperses” them, also referring to the emotions between the couple as they “build” up to say something but then change their mind. Perhaps this is a reference to their relationship as a whole, as they realise there are dark, stormy times ahead, and that this is beyond their control. This is further implied as Larkin describes the “dark towns heap[ing] up on the horizon”. The use of the word “heap” enforces the idea that the couple have little control over the outcome of their relationship. The final line of the stanza sounds bitter as the poetic voice states that, in reality, their relationship troubles only matter to the couple in question. The almost monosyllabic sentence shows no contradiction as the poetic voice seems angry that the problems the couple are experiencing are so unimportant to the world outside the couple’s bedroom.
Continuing into the final stanza, the first line reminds the reader of the distance between this couple despite their close quarters. The poetic voice sounds confounded by the fact that the couple find it “still more difficult” to express themselves with honesty. In the final two lines, the poetic voice admits the reason for this difficulty. The couple do cannot bring themselves to say things that are “true and kind” because they do not feel them but at the same time, they do not want to hurt each other by saying things that are “not untrue and not unkind”. The usual intimacy between the couple has dissipated over time and all that is left are the irritations as they have become more familiar with each other.
The poem ends on a hopeful, albeit rather tenuous, note. The couple must have feelings for each other if they cannot bear to upset each other, as they choose to remain silent rather than upset their partner. The mass of contradictions throughout further reinforce the sense that this is not a finished relationship, rather a relationship that requires nurturing.
‘Talking in Bed’ could be reflective of a lot of couples who have been together for a long time; the more time they spend together, the more things they find that irritate them. However, over time, a decision is made whether these annoyances can be tackled, or at least tolerated. I choose to see a sense of hope in this poem, although i’m not sure that this would be Larkin’s intention!