‘Wires’ encapsulates the gruelling and unforgiving limitations that ensnare living beings on this earth. Electric fencing prevents the cattle from roaming beyond their field and, although the older ones are now wiser, the younger steers are willing to venture at the cost of painful experience. The mind can roam endlessly but the body is a prisoner within the confinements of a relatively claustrophobic existence, where the only escape is through death. The ‘old cattle’ representing the mature and experienced individuals ‘know they must not stray’
Like Keats who discovers and accepts the cycle of death and birth in the ‘Ode to Autumn’, Larkin presents an optimistic anthem to the discovery of Spring in ‘First Sight’. Spring for a person living constantly in the British Isles is a relief after grey days of wintry weather. It is the ‘Lambs that learn to walk in snow’ – ‘Newly stumbling to and fro’ that make the discovery. However, before, they have to confront the ‘vast unwelcome’ and ‘the sunless glare’ that approaches them in the vast expanse of wintry snow’.
The unlimited and inhospitable infinity of a landscape of snow offers no prospect of shelter or comfort. Yet it hides a lurking and unforeseeable future that can surprise us with the beauty of the world that, at least temporarily, since after it wakes it will grow, shifts to a greenery of hope and prosperity even though it may be beyond conscious control.
This poem enthusiastically anticipates the full bloom of spring that new born lambs never imagine. In concise phrases, it expresses the anticipation of a season of wealth, splendour and fertility in ‘Earth’s immeasurable surprise’
Because they are as large as rooms, Larkin’s billboards block the ends of streets and create their own ‘reality’ that does not necessarily conform with the concept of what they should be representing. They impair one’s vision of reality. They screen the reality of death symbolised by the graves and cover the sordid poverty found in the slums. In Larkin the large bill-boards are non-representational symbols of an essential beauty that is, nevertheless, bitter and disappointing when the truth about its reality is contemplated. They are clear, idyllic groves but not of what life really is but ‘of how life should be’. The widely unquestioned notion that balance, happiness, wealth, ideal climate and rejuvenation seem to depend on advertised consumables like Oxo cubes, is presented as a ludicrous sham.
In the second stanza, the tennis-player who is vomiting in the lavatory, perhaps as a result of too much alcohol, is conveniently ignored in the advertisement for beer. Neither are the penalties of old age underlined in the advertisement for Granny Graveclothes’ tea.
Towards the end of ‘Essential Beauty’ we encounter the elusive femme fatale – “that unfocused she” – a recurrent motif in Larkin’s poetry. She seduces the punter with the advertisement for cigarettes. She frustrates and seduces the man because she does not deliver what she seems to be promising – ultimate sexual satisfaction. Moreover, she never provides the actual satisfaction of the cigarette, nor does she even light a match, but when she smiles with recognition, everything goes completely dark succumbing to the inevitable mortality.