Philip Larkin (1922-85) was arguably the finest poet to emerge in post-war Britain, as evidenced by the huge interest still shown in his work, and the offer of the Poet Laureateship that was made to him in 1984 (which he declined).
After graduating from Oxford University in 1943 Larkin became a librarian, and from 1950 to 1955 was sub-librarian at Queen's University, Belfast. It was while he was there that he met and had a brief love affair with a young assistant librarian named Winifred Arnott. She was undergoing her librarianship training and in 1954 left Belfast for London to complete her professional qualifications, later becoming engaged to someone else. The "Young Lady" of the poem under review was Winifred Arnott.
The poem appeared as the opening poem of Larkin's second collection, entitled "The Less Deceived" (published in 1955, the poem under review was written in August/September 1953), which is generally regarded as the first collection to reveal Larkin as a mature poet. The collection title is significant, being based on Ophelia's comment to Hamlet about being "the more deceived" regarding his feelings for her. In these poems, Larkin expresses his wariness and scepticism about matters of the heart, resorting to mockery and self-mockery to make clear his wish to be as undeceived as possible.
The title "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" introduces the mocking tone right from the start, with its recollection of poems from a previous age with similar titles but which took themselves much more seriously (such as Wordsworth's "Lines Written in Early Spring").
The opening lines ("At last you yielded up the album, which / Once open, sent me distracted") set the scene in which the poet has apparently been pleading to see the album which the "young lady" has been reluctant to reveal. The reaction that the poet reveals when allowed to do so gives a strong hint as to why such reluctance was justified, in that he uses terms that suggest that he is "devouring" the images he sees ("too much confectionery", "my swivel eye hungers"). Larkin is mocking himself as a "dirty old man" (although only aged 31 at the time) who is overkeen on seeing pictures from the adolescence and young adult life of the woman he is dating.
Winifred Arnott has indicated (according to Andrew Motion's biography of Larkin) that the album did exist, although it was in fact two separate albums. Some of the contents mentioned by Larkin were real, but others were invented or altered for the purposes of the poem. For example, the "trilby hat" that Larkin found to be "faintly disturbing … in several ways" was actually a beret, and the photograph was of Winifred taking part in a student Rag stunt. What "disturbed" Larkin, although the tone is one of amusement rather than real worry, was probably the fact that Winifred was wearing a false moustache. Had Larkin mentioned this in his poem it would have made this line much clearer.
There is a great deal of sexual tension in this poem, and it is obvious that Larkin not only fancies the girl but envies her the attention she has had from other men in the past and continues to have now. There is barely concealed sexual imagery as the photos switch from "In pigtails, clutching a reluctant cat" to "furred yourself, a sweet girl-graduate". The word "pussy" does not need to be stated, although the words on the page sound innocent enough. Larkin could have been referring to a fur-lined academic hood in the second of these lines, although Winifred Arnott was a graduate of Queen's University, which did not use fur in its hoods (this style is typically associated with Cambridge University).
The prurient tone of the poem in confirmed in the third stanza in which the poet states that: "From every side you strike at my control" and then mocks the girl's earlier admirers as "disquieting chaps" who are "not quite your class … on the whole". Larkin's aim is clearly to control and possess, and his insistence in wishing to look at her pictures can be regarded as an unpleasant act of voyeurism.
However, there is a shift in tone in the fourth stanza as Larkin turns his attention from the subject of the photographs to the concept of photography itself, with its artless (at least as far as these amateur "snaps" are concerned) portrayal of reality. Mockery turns to mock-heroic in "o, photography" which is "faithful and disappointing" in that it "will not censor blemishes". The line "what grace / Your candour thus confers upon her face" could almost have been written by Alexander Pope, the 18th century master of the mock-heroic.
What really upsets Larkin is that the reality conveyed by these photographs is that of the past. The photographs are of the girl, and he toys with the idea of stealing one in order to possess her in one respect, but they are of her as she used to be and not how she is now. This is "a past that no one now can share", and it is the future that matters. The photographs hold her "like a heaven", in that it is another, inaccessible, world in which she lies "unvariably lovely" (with "lie" being used punningly to suggest that the truth of the present, including the woman's double chin as mentioned in the fifth stanza, is belied by the images of her when younger and slimmer).
Although there is a worrying prurience about this poem, especially when one takes on board the knowledge that Larkin was a keen voyeur of "girlie" magazines and his desire for a picture of Winifred "bathing" was no doubt to add to his "leer at" collection, there is also a considerable amount of tenderness here. The early mocking tone changes as he uses words like "cry", "grief" and "mourn" when he appreciates that he cannot be part of Winifred's future and that the memory of lusting after the girl in these photographs will be the closest he will get to her. He is aware that he had no part in her past and that the same will apply to her future, and the double exclusion "leaves us free to cry".
"Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" therefore contains an interesting development as it proceeds, starting from voyeurism, reflecting on the nature of photography as a cruel device for preserving images of an unobtainable past, and leading to the realization that a photograph of a departed loved one will, because it is faithful, be disappointing by being "smaller and clearer as the years go by"; smaller as the memories of the person fade, but clearer because the photograph will eventually be the only memory that remains.