Sorrow in the Conservative Soul
How Philip Larkin's 1958 poem describes the sense of loss that haunts the conservative worldview.
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left, Shaped to the comfort of the last to go... ~ Philip Larkin, "Home is so Sad"
Philip Larkin’s quietly devastating poem “Home is so Sad” was written while the poet was visiting his mother’s house soon after the tenth anniversary of his father’s passing. The poem, like that familial home, is burdened with the weight of this absence, oxymoronically loaded with emptiness.
And oxymoron is the tool with which Larkin ushers us into his sad home. The first line of the poem greets us with a statement that would be otherwise ordinary if, instead of “home”, he’d told us that “the house was so sad”. A house is an object stripped of personal affect, a building among many others; a home, by contrast, is that place that gives us so many clichés about being “where the heart is”, a place that evokes family, comfort, joy. For it to be sad is a deft way to introduce us to the melancholy of the poem, as well as the often gloomy disposition of its poet.
Before attending to the details of syntax and imagery that decorate the hallways of the poem, it’s worth considering the structure of the poetic building. In the first of two stanzas, we take stock of the home as it stands, “bereft”, lacking “anyone to please”, a thing defined by its empty space. We have the fact that it is “shaped to the comfort” of those who are no longer there, and that it has lost its “heart”. The second stanza, via the broken sentence that ends the first and begins the second, takes us back to what it was, or what it was intended as, “a joyous shot at how things ought to be”. Here, we become wistful, nostalgic.
This is our first glimpse of the conservative outlook in its gloomiest moments. The present culture is dressed up as a home, taking the appearance of a place designed for us to live, and yet it’s built around an absence (or various absences). The progressive also notices that something is missing, but she looks to the future, wondering what might come tomorrow, or be built tomorrow, to occupy the empty space. The conservative, on the other hand, looks back. In a less optimistic mood, he remembers what once filled the emptiness and memorialises the past; in a more hopeful frame of mind, he actively tries to revive those almost-forgotten things. The conservative knows what has been lost and hopes for the house to be a home again.
Each line of the poem contains ten syllables (all except one line, which we’ll come to). This reliable metre creates a stable, predictable beat that leads the reader through the poem. It is a manifestation of the comfort and safety offered by a healthy home. There may be something boring about this to the culturally avant-garde who reject traditional poetic forms, who wish to tear the photos off the walls and madly redesign each room to be something that subverts its expected role – a toilet in the living room, a bed in the kitchen. But even this kind of reinvention depends on something like a house to work within. The conservative simply doesn’t want the home totally destroyed.
Let’s enter the poem and look more closely at what’s inside. After our introduction to the sadness of the home, we are told that it “stays as it was left”, the impressions of its last inhabitants still evident, an image that evokes the shape of a now absent body still pressed into the mattress, the seat of the sofa not yet sprung back from whoever sat on it last. Loss has only just settled into the house, suggesting this home is a liminal space between what was and what is. Its happiness is not so long ago as to be merely something we are told once existed, like a dry piece of historical data; it is something within living memory, its simultaneous closeness and distance a taunt, evoking the desperate hope that perhaps it can be seized again, perhaps it is not too late to save the home from dereliction.
Except that we are quickly led by the unfinished sentence to its conclusion on the third line: “As if to win them back.” Not “in the hope of winning them back” or even “trying to win them back” (which would fit into the syllabic scheme). No, it is only “as if”. The home only gives the appearance of making an effort. It is resigned to its loss. What better expression is there of the darkest night of the conservative soul?
Then we have the longest sentence in the poem, which is tellingly split in two. While the sentiment of the whole statement tells us that the home doesn’t have the “heart to put aside the theft and turn to what it started as”, the way this sentence is broken reveals something deeper than its surface meaning. The first line of the second stanza is also the second half of the divided statement, which in this context reads as an injunction: “turn again to what [the home] started as”.
What follows (still part of that long, enjambed sentence) is as concise a definition as you could hope to find of what conservatism is at its heart: “A joyous shot at how things ought to be, long fallen wide.” Come to think of it, this could also serve as a definition of progressivism too. Both aim at an ideal, how life itself or society broadly “ought to be”; the conservative does so with reference to what used to be, the progressive with reference to what could be. Both perpetually fall wide.
Conservatism at its worst can suffocate, oppress, and leave no room for improvement or invention. That it has this totalitarian tendency when left unchecked is no more an indictment of all conservatism than it is a slam-dunk against progressives that they can also go too far, can lead to chaos and a culture incapable of sustaining a community spirit. Conservatism can turn the home into a prison and progressivism can tear the home down. This is why functioning societies have always been a balance between the two. Both sides have “long fallen wide”, but each side keeps the other in check.
It is undoubtedly a feature of the conservative soul to tend towards nostalgia, which etymologically suggests the pain of homecoming. In the final lines of Larkin’s poem, the sadness of the home is present in the return itself, a heartsickness caused by paying attention to the details that make up what was once home: “the pictures and the cutlery. The music in the piano stool. That vase.”
The shortening sentences become fragments, shards of nostalgia and loss that embed in the heart. When we reach the terse two-word sentence that closes the poem, Larkin hits the reader with his final trick to unsettle us even as we consider items that, in ordinary contexts, would be cosy and reassuring. This last line is eleven syllables, one more than contained in the previous lines, so that subconsciously something feels off here – like ending a song on the wrong note or an extra beat that destabilises the inner metronome. “Vase” is the additional beat, which adds to its out-of-placeness, the discomfiting feeling that an otherwise familiar item is inherently wrong somehow.
Perhaps this is where the conservative soul sits in the house of contemporary culture – always slightly out of place, never quite fitting in with the social schema that has been laid down by newer generations over the cultural composition arranged by prior generations. The fly in the ointment, to some; a call to clarity, for others. The conservative soul is the still small voice that speaks of longevity and connection through time amidst the cacophony of recently found voices not yet singing a shared melody. It is (in G. A. Cohen’s words) the desire for “slowing down the rate of change and ... conserving what is valuable”. It is the stranger in a strange land. It is, in the end, that vase.
Home can be so sad, but it wasn’t always, and perhaps it can be happy again.
• Home is so Sad, in “The Whitsun Weddings”, Philip Larkin (1964)
• G. A. Cohen quoted in “Slippery Things”, Simone Gubler, in TLS (2022)