Lesson on 'Mr Bleaney' by Philip LarkinCarol Atherton
'Mr Bleaney' is a poem that provokes a lot of debate amongst sixth-formers, and is therefore an excellent text to work with at the beginning of the AS level course when you are trying to establish a sense of group identity and encourage collaborative learning and speculative thought. It is a perfect example of what Emily Dickinson called 'telling it slant': it creates a sense of the title character through sharply-focused observations of the room that he used to live in. This lesson encourages students to reflect on Larkin's narrative methods through a detailed exploration of the text.
- To explore how a poet builds a sense of place and uses this to give us clues about character
- To develop skills of close reading
- Quotations from the poem (see development) printed out on slips of paper
- Poetry Archive recording of Philip Larkin reading 'Mr Bleaney'
- Data projector and whiteboard
- Copies of the collection 'The Whitsun Weddings' for study of the text of the poem (alternatively you could project the text onto the whiteboard
Teaching sequence of activities
Begin by showing students the quotation 'How we live measures our own nature' (which could be projected on the whiteboard). To what extent do they think this is true? Ask students how much they think you can tell about someone from the kind of place they live in and the things they have in their home. (You could even prepare them for this in advance by asking them to bring in an object that they think says something about them. Alternatively, find some images of contrasting rooms from interior design magazines: what might these rooms say about the people who live in them?)
Students, in pairs, to study the following quotations from the poem:
Flowered curtains, thin and frayed
A strip of building land, tussocky, littered
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb
No hook behind the door, no room for books or bags
The frigid wind
The fusty bed
The jabbering set
Ask students to discuss what impression they get from these descriptions. How could they sum up the kind of place being described here? Ask them also to spot recurring sound patterns: what can they say, for instance, about the alliteration on 'f', 's' and 'b'?
Share ideas with whole class.
Ask students to predict what kind of person might live in this room. What kind of lifestyle and relationships might this person have? Will they be happy with the way they live?
Listen to Larkin's reading of 'Mr Bleaney' at least once. After their second listening, ask students to write down their impressions of Mr Bleaney. Share these impressions.
Give out the text of the poem, which is in the collection 'The Whitsun Weddings' (Faber & Faber, 1964). You might also want to give students access to the hypertext version of the poem at 'Mr Bleaney hypertext', which contains glosses of some of the unfamiliar expressions used, such as the references to 'the Bodies' and 'the four aways'.
Students, in pairs, to read the poem and explore the following questions:
- Who are the two speakers in the poem?
- What kinds of structures and routines governed Mr Bleaney's life? Did he gain any kind of satisfaction from these?
- How does the mood of the poem change at the beginning of the penultimate verse? (Students could consider, in particular, the effect of words such as 'grinned' and 'shivered', and the fact that Mr Bleaney has to 'tell ... himself that this was home').
- How does Mr Bleaney's life reflect on that of the narrator?
Each pair to share one observation they made about the poem, and one question they would like the rest of the class to consider. Aim to get them to focus, in particular, on the narrator's feelings at the end, and the closure of the gap between him and Mr Bleaney.
Ask students to think about one of the following quotations in the light of their reading of 'Mr Bleaney':
- 'The typical structure of [Larkin's] poems ... [is] a debate between hope and hopelessness, between fulfillment and disappointment'. Andrew Motion, 'Philip Larkin and Symbolism', in Philip Larkin: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. by Stephen Regan (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1997), p. 43.
- 'Larkin sought out these uninspiring places because for him they weren't uninspiring but settings appropriate to the kind of poems he wrote'. Alan Bennett, 'Alas! Deceived', in Writing Home (London: Faber & Faber, 1997 ed.), p. 565.
- '[The] gaps and silences [in Larkin's work] hinted at deep and unresolved conflicts in the writer's private life'. Stephen Regan, 'Larkin's Reputation', in Larkin with Poetry: English Association Conference Papers, ed. by Michael Baron (Leicester: English Association, 1997), p. 49.
- '[Larkin] just couldn't connect ... Better to remain solitary, alienated, than to endure the pain of human entanglements'.Terry Eagleton, quoted in Gary Kissick, 'They turn on Larkin', in 'The Antioch Review, Winter 1994'
- 'Larkin's poems seem to come to us very appealingly as the expression of a personality disclosing itself with self-deprecating honesty' (from Andrew Swarbrick's essay 'Larkin's Identities', in Regan, Stephen ed. (1997) Philip Larkin: Contemporary Critical Essays, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
- Ask students to consider other examples, in their reading, of the relationships between place and character.
- Philip Larkin: The Whitsun Weddings (Faber & Faber, 1964)
- Andrew Motion: Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life (Faber & Faber, 1993)
- Monitor: Down Cemetry Road, a 1964 BBC documentary in three parts in which Larkin in interviewed about his poetry by John Betjeman 'Part 1', 'Part 2' and 'Part 3'