As Bad as a Mile by Philip Larkin

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Larkin establishes the scene of the poem straight away, ‘Watching the shied core, Striking the basket,’ so the reader understands he has thrown the core of an eaten apple towards a garbage bin, but missed. What’s interesting immediately is the line gap in this opening scene and the word ‘watching’. This throw would have taken half a second, but he’s watching it as if it is in slow motion. As if he is anticipating intently and waiting for the result; this throwing attempt means something to him.

The second line ‘Striking the basket’ is followed immediately by ‘skidding across the floor’ with no line break this time. This is meant to be read faster as if time is sped up to normal speed again having witnessed the apple miss we are back to reality.

He then muses about the result, at first I thought this should read ‘Less of luck and more of’, but then I realise this isn’t an expected occurrence. The ‘less and less of luck’ suggests in this moment the idea of luck is draining from his thoughts and the ‘more and more’ suggests his psyche is filling up with something else.

The line drop, the only one in the poem, is entirely intentional. It’s his moment of thought and reflection before he comes to the realisation ‘of failure’. The pause adds the emphasis on the ‘failure’ making it all the more dramatic. It practically leaps off the page as the most memorable word of the poem.

Technically, this pause is also the moment in the poem when the reader takes their first breathe, and what do you do after inhaling breathe? You exhale, or almost sigh out the words ‘of failure’ as I did upon reading the poem out loud. When you take a deep breathe, you also tend to slouch upon exhaling, which I don’t think is entirely unintentional on Larkin’s part. You are reenacting his very physical reaction just by reading the poem. He goes for the bin, he misses, he curses and then comes to the realisation he was doomed to fail from the start with a sigh and a slouch into his chair.

But it doesn’t end there. Larkin doesn’t just shrug it off, as established before, this throw meant something to him. And the failure begins to ‘spread up his arm’ taking over his whole body, but not just his whole body but the past too. ‘Earlier and earlier’ is the intentionally repetition used again to signify the change in mood as the failure doesn’t encompass just his present but spreads to his past. ‘The upraised hand calm, the apple unbitten in the palm,’ Larkin is now suggesting he was doomed to fail, even before eating the apple, his fate was always to miss the basket. He is a failure.

And that is where the poem ends, and I like that ending. I like the idea that something so small and insignificant can have great meaning to people. That’s how I can be, that’s how anyone can be. It’s a universal idea, and explores and illuminates greatly the mind of the poet.

But then I wonder further. Why an apple? Why not a pear, or a banana peel, or a crumpled up piece of paper? Is it possible the choice of the apple has meaning?

There are two famous uses of an apple in history and literature that I can think of.

The first is Isaac Newton; an apple falls on his head and he discovers gravity and changes science. I can imagine Newton sitting there looking at the ripe, full apple as his mind is a wonder with tremendous revelation. Larkin is contrasting this; he’s throwing away a used apple. He’s paralleling Newton’s ripe success, with his perceived failures.

The second use of the apple is of the forbidden fruit that Eve eats. In Western Europe this fruit is always depicted as an apple. Maybe Larkin isn’t lambasting himself for missing a basket, but this is a metaphor for a woman.

The apple is the love he shared with a woman; it was once ripe and delicious like a fruit but as time has passed it has been eaten away and decayed. He is depressed at the failure of the relationship that once held such optimism, and now it has drained away. But, to Larkin at least, he sees himself as a failure in love anyway. This was expected even when the forbidden fruit was ripe with possibility. He knew he would mess it up somehow; and he did.

Final thoughts

Larkin is easily a favourite poet of mine. I can only ever think his failure described his is perceived failure, because this is an effortlessly brilliant poem that, while simple, depicts everything you need to know within it’s sparse language.


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