Meaning, “I love you” (Larkin’s “The Trees”)

The Guardian Review reports that Philip Larkin describes his poem The Trees as “‘very corny’ to his lover, Monica Jones, and to himself (…) as ‘bloody awful tripe'”.

The poem is about a moment of life in which there is “something almost being said”. It isn’t said – there is relief and then grief that the moment has passed – disappointment – that this something has not been said. The failure to say it leaves an unnerving, feeling. What is the something that was almost being said? Surely, “I love you”.

The “corny” final line – “Afresh, afresh, afresh” – describes the repetition of this moment – and its passing, the disappointmet, the unnerving – in such a way that we become weary of our failure to say this “something”. The repetition of “afresh” empties it of freshness, the speaker is weary of the moment and its passing, of his failure to say it.

Perhaps, though, the “afresh, afresh, afresh” is genuine, affirming the moment’s return. Only on this second reading does Larkin’s comment that the poem is “bloody awful tripe” or “corny” make sense, because it is the awful fear of speaking “bloody awful tripe” – or, the suspicion of being sentimental – that keeps us from saying this. Does the poem say, “I love you”? Insofar as this poem does say it – albeit without saying it – does Larkin denigrate it.

On the other hand, the “bloody awful tripe” could describe the poem’s failure to say, “I love you”.

Anyway, is it truly meanable and sayable, just like that?


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