Mr. Bleaney, like many other poems written by Philip Larkin, is a dramatic monologue in which the character of a man called Bleaney has been portrayed. The person, whose name is Bleaney, is depicted as a poor fellow without any belongings, and without any house of his own.
He had been living in a boarding-house in a room which was inadequately furnished; and some of his habits have also been specified by the speaker in the poem. Bleaney used to prefer sauce to gravy; he used to spend his summer holidays with his relatives in Frinton: and he used to spend his Christmas with his sister in Stoke. But the speaker in the poem does not know whether Bleaney was aware of the fact that a man’s nature and character could be judged by his mode of living and his habits. Bleaney seems to have been a somewhat eccentric kind of old man who had no money, and who had no literary or artistic tastes either. He was evidently working in some factory or workshop, and he also used to look after his landlady’s garden. We have in this poem a character-portrait, very vividly rendered. We get the feeling that we have actually met this man.
Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of this poem is the colloquial style in which it is written. There is a bit of dialogue too in the poem. The landlady tells Larkin that Bleaney used to look after her bit of a garden, while Larkin tells the landlady that he would take this room. Besides, the poem has a neat and compact structure. It does not have a word too few or a word too many. There are no digressions or superfluities in the poem. The imagery is striking and yet perfectly realistic. Larkin has handled a dramatic monologue with as great a success as Browning achieved in writing his dramatic monologues. The poem consists of quatrains. There is a regular rhyme-scheme, with alternate lines rhyming in each quatrain.
The Mode of Life and the Habits of Bleaney
This poem portrays an imaginary individual who is given by the poet the name of Mr. Bleaney. This individual is depicted as a poor fellow without any belongings and without any house of his own. He had been living in a boarding-house in a rented room which was very inadequately furnished. It is evident that Mr. Bleaney was as shabby to look at as this room was and still is. Some of Mr. Bleaney’s habits have also been specified. For instance, he preferred sauce to gravy, that he used to spend his summer holidays with his relatives in Frinton, and that he used to spend his Christmas with his sister in Stoke. But the speaker in the poem does not know whether Mr. Bleaney was aware of the fact that a man’s nature and character could be judged by his mode of living and his habits. We have here a vivid portrait of an eccentric kind of old man who had no money, and who also had no literary or artistic tastes. He was evidently a man who lived from hand to mouth, and who had had no ambition in his life.
The Similarity and the Sharp Differences Between the Speaker and Mr. Bleaney
The poem is a monologue which brings out Mr. Bleaney’s character from the description which the speaker gives of Mr. Bleaney’s mode of living and his habits. But this is a poem in which the speaker’s own character is also revealed to us through that description. The speaker’s skilful portrayal of Mr. Bleaney is a self-portrait, but only partially. Mr. Bleaney has been portrayed in such a way that we can visualize the speaker a. own person and his own character because of the implied comparison and contrast. The speaker seems to resemble Mr. Bleaney in certain ways, though there are sharp differences also between the two men. The crux of the portrayal comes in the closing lines in which the speaker specifies the criterion by which a man’s nature can be judged. The resemblance between the speaker and Mr. Bleaney becomes evident to us when the speaker tells the landlady that he would take this room in which Mr. Bleaney had previously been living. And yet the speaker speaks somewhat disapprovingly, and even scornfully, about the previous occupant of this room. To some extent, we can identify Larkin himself with Mr Bleaney because Larkin had at one time actually stayed in a boarding-house, and had felt greatly annoyed by the noise which the radio used to make in the neighbourhood. Larkin had referred to the radio as that “blasted” wireless-set.
Imagery; Close-Knit Structure, and the Colloquial Style
The portrayal of Mr. Bleaney develops in the poem in a coherent and logical manner. The imagery in the poem is vivid enough. The details of the contents of the room and the habits of Mr. Bleaney have been depicted in a very realistic and graphic manner so that we can see the room distinctly and visualize Mr. Bleaney living there. The poem has a neat and compact structure. It does not have a word too few or a word too many. There are no digressions or superfluities in the poem. The speaker is not a glib man. But even more striking than the imagery and the close-knit structure of the poem is its colloquial and conversational style. Although the speaker is evidently speaking to himself aloud, we get the feeling that he is speaking to somebody who is present before him.
Critics’ Comments: Some Autobiographical Matter in the Poem
One of the critics tells us that there is some autobiographical matter in this poem. “The jabbering set” in this poem is a radio-set; and Larkin had, on one occasion, written a letter to a friend denouncing a radio-set because it prevented him from sitting, thinking, and writing. Besides, Larkin had once stayed in a boarding-house in a room which he had found to be mean and shabby. He had felt that the horrible surroundings of his room were a “misfortune” for him. Thus it seems that Larkin’s own life in that boarding-house and Mr. Bleaney’s life in the room in this poem were almost interchangeable. Another critic says that this poem turns directly on a comparison between Larkin himself and Mr. Bleaney, so that Mr. Bleaney becomes the speaker’s (or the poet’s) double. The contrast between the two men is also heavily emphasized; they are two distinct persons who are nonetheless identified with each other because they are both “measured” by the “one hired box” of the rented room. The differences between the men are quite clearly delineated. Mr. Bleaney is an extrovert, who was favoured by the landlady and whose voice continues to chatter in the form of “the jabbering set” which he had made her buy. But the poet is an introvert who wants some space in the room for his books, who lies down on the bed, and whose only verbal comment is a terse reply to the landlady: “I’ll take it.” There is a flatness and a prevailing gloom in this description. Yet the poet tries to come to grips with a larger question through an emphasis on uncertainty rather than on certainty. In spite of all his transparency, the departed Mr. Bleaney remains a mystery. It is impossible to know Mr. Bleaney’s thoughts. In fact, this poem has the strange, lucid quality of a murder mystery or a spy novel, in which the investigator or detective tries to reconstruct a dead or departed man’s life and thoughts. Mr. Bleaney seems to have been such a simple fellow that we feel we have met him and heard him, and yet we also experience a kind of uncertainty about him. The poem constitutes a private argument, signalled by the word “but” in the final, long sentence which takes up the last two stanzas. A complicated and involved question is asked in these two closing stanzas. Did Mr. Bleaney feel measured by his surroundings? The poet himself feels undervalued—or shocked to find that he himself measures so little in these terms. If Mr. Bleaney was worth almost nothing if judged by his bare lodgings, then the poet would also have the same feeling about himself.
Another critic says that the long sentence at the end of the poem marks a shift in attitude, from the speaker’s satiric spleen to the collapse of his own morale. This critic says further that the burgeoning subordinate clauses and accumulating negatives of the final two stanzas create a sense of hopelessness and entrapment. Whether or not Mr. Bleaney himself felt small and insignificant, the poet does have that feeling about himself, and the poet is thus simply expressing his own feelings through the departed Mr. Bleaney. The uncertainty in an otherwise stark and obvious situation heightens the pessimism inherent in the poem.