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Larkin and Housman on sex

January 15, 2013

Dry-Point and “The Nettle Poem”

Dry-Point is not about the dry-point technique of etching with a sharp needle, but about sex. Larkin originally paired it with another poem on the same topic, nominally about a different way to make pictures, but he never bothered to publish Oils, and most experts agree it was not much good. But everyone thinks Dry-Point is a masterpiece.

I disagree. It doesn’t rhyme, and the grammar’s all wrong. Repeated exclamation marks! Readers shouldn’t have to look up that Birmingham refers to the allegedly tawdry jewellery made in that city. Annus Mirabilis and High Windows said so much more, and said it better. We don’t read poetry to learn that sex often disappoints, and we don’t read Larkin for poems that need explaining.


Endlessly, time-honoured irritant,
A bubble is restively forming at your tip.
Burst it as fast as we can –
It will grow again until we begin dying.

Silently it inflates, till we’re enclosed
And forced to start the struggle to get out:
Bestial, intent, real.
The wet spark comes, the bright blown walls collapse,

But what sad scapes we cannot turn from then:
What ashen hills! what salted, shrunken lakes!
How leaden the ring looks,
Birmingham magic all discredited,

And how remote that bare and sunscrubbed room,
Intensely far, that padlocked cube of light
We neither define nor prove,
Where you, we dream, obtain no right of entry.

Philip Larkin
Here’s the untitled “Nettle Poem”, no. XVI from A Shropshire Lad. It’s not about nettles either, but no-one needs telling what it is about.

It nods and curtseys and recovers

It nods and curtseys and recovers
When the wind blows above,
The nettle on the graves of lovers
That hanged themselves for love.

The nettle nods, the wind blows over,
The man, he does not move,
The lover of the grave, the lover
That hanged himself for love.

A E Housman

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Will permalink
    March 8, 2013 12:59 am

    You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about, and clearly know nothing about poetry, Philip Larkin, and probably sex. I knew the man at Hull and he would laugh to scorn your amateur and faintly impertinent non-interpretation. And I mean that with all possible dis-respect.

    Permit me to also point out that you haven’t even replicated the poem correctly – it is “fast” not ‘far’ (line three) and “scapes” not ‘scrapes’ – line nine.

    The poem WAS published with a companion piece entitled “Two Portraits About Sex” – another ‘fact’ you seem to have overlooked.

    • March 8, 2013 7:16 am

      Goodness! What can I say? I should have realised the original title of the paired poems clarifies the subject. And thanks for pointing out the text errors, now corrected.

      • Will permalink
        March 8, 2013 7:45 pm

        Well done for correcting the errors of fact and swallowing my diatribe, which, if it offended in any way, I apologise for.

      • March 9, 2013 8:55 am

        No worries. Better to be abused than ignored.

        I’m a great, albeit amateur, fan. Mostly, I just rave – this was a rare chance to find fault. I know good poems needn’t rhyme, but Larkin’s mostly do, and I like that. And he’s rarely obscure, and I like that.

        How did you know Larkin?

    • Nancy the fire fighter permalink
      March 5, 2017 7:53 pm

      This is honestly a LOL moment for me. It is a Sunday evening and I am browsing the internet for some interpretation of ‘Dry Point’ for my A level English Lit class tomorrow morning…and… I come across this…

      @Will – let me just say you are absolutely badass for defending Larkin the way you did.

      You the man Will.

      You IS the man.

      @Jim… thank you for accepting Will’s (fire) response with such humility.

      #SecretLarkinFan (or not so secret)

      P.s. Why am I procrastinating?

  2. Geoff permalink
    May 10, 2019 4:31 pm

    You might at least spell Housman’s name correctly.

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