Philip Larkin, Part II: We Need the Toad

Does anything gnaw at the guts of Americans today as much as the fear of unemployment? And not just temporary unemployment, but more or less permanent, life-crippling, un- or under-employment? The fear of being JOBLESS AND STAYING THAT WAY as per a recent headline in the New York Times?

In yesterday’s PJM I wrote about the English poet Philip Larkin, who died 25 years ago this year. One of the things he wrote about best was the subject of jobs: Poems that are realistic, hard-nosed assessments of the necessity of work and the throat-tightening fear of not having it, of losing it forever, of falling through the cracks and disappearing -- a living death, with the victim (as Larkin envisioned it) usually ending up in a cheap, rented room staring through a window at meaningless clouds. We’ve all seen people like that.

In his memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens (a huge admirer of Larkin) recalls how, when he was young, he and his pals suffered from what they called “tramp dread.” Literally, the panic of never becoming anything, of succeeding at nothing, and turning into what Americans now call “homeless people” and used to call “bums.”

Perhaps there is something universal in this, as I suffered from the same worry at the same age, though there was no rational reason for it. “Tramp dread” is the fear (as Larkin wrote in his great poem, “Toads Revisited”) of:

Being one of the men
You meet of an afternoon:
Palsied old step-takers,
Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,
Waxed-fleshed out-patients
Still vague from accidents,
And characters in long coats
Deep in the litter-baskets –
All dodging the toad work
By being stupid or weak.

“Stupid or weak”: It sounds cruel, but even if you’re not foraging in garbage cans, even if you’re dressed in a suit and going eye to eye with drones in Personnel three times a day, that’s exactly how extended unemployment will make you feel.

Most of us won’t become homeless, of course. Most of us, many of us, will continue to work. We’ll continue to marry, hold jobs (or part-time jobs), and raise children we both love and resent. In “Self’s the Man,” Larkin examined the phenomenon of the married working man from his childless bachelor’s perch.  He knew that just because we need jobs it doesn’t mean we like them:

Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.
He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she’s there all day,
And the money he gets from wasting his life on work
She takes as her perk
To pay for the kiddies’ clobber and the drier
And the electric fire,
And when he finishes supper
Planning to have a read at the evening paper
He has no time at all…

That was published in 1958. It’s still funny. It’s still true. It’s the stuff of a thousand sitcoms. Having a job, unless you’re making a fortune or are lucky enough to love your work, inevitably leads to dreams of escape, along with a profound sense of resentment that vast portions of your life are being swallowed up in giant, daily gulps. As he put it in “Toads:”

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

The cold-blooded toad, one of the more hideous though common amphibians to be seen outside of a reptile house (in the fairy tale, the toad or frog is the antithesis of Prince Charming), was Larkin’s preferred symbol for the old 9-5. Yet he acknowledged what is inescapable for most of us: That “something sufficiently toad-like / Squats in me, too.” The toad is within and without; only gypsies, rebels, drop-outs, lunatics, professional free-loaders and those who don’t need the money (“The shit in his shuttered chateau”) can get along without it.