In the short poem “Talking in Bed,” Phillip Larkin captures almost perfectly the strange sensation of lying in bed, alone with a partner. Indeed, that phrase “alone with a partner,” is a perfect characterization of the societal twilight to which Larkin feels subjected. Larkin, however, characterizes it better, as a “unique distance from isolation.” One is not alone, of course, but that intimate bed-sharing is definitely not the same sort of company as society. It lies in the middle ground, not isolation, but certainly isolating, as it were.
In the poem, honesty slips away from a couple lying in bed. Larkin reflects ruefully on the paradox that presents itself: in such private quarters, honesty should come naturally. However, lies and “words untrue and unkind” feel much more natural. This is a juxtaposition of the familiarity of two people in constant, intimate contact with their mutual (and overriding) sickness of each other and desire not to start a stupid fight. As a consequence silence rears up, and in the silence, there is a searching for words; a searching for something nice to say.
This image represents an interesting and subtle slight-of-hand, chastising the image of the bedroom as a deeply intimate place. Instead, Larkin looks at it as the antechamber to total aloneness. This is reinforced by Larkin’s characterization of the outside world of cars and towns: “None of this cares for us…” Behind the closed doors of the boudoir, two individuals become momentarily dead to the world, which for the most part tries gingerly not to think too hard about what is likely happening behind those doors. At most, a dirty joke (filled with the sorts of glorious words for which Larkin himself is famous) and a knowing laugh is the most attention the rest of the world is willing to penetrate the bedroomly barrier with.
In addition, the isolation felt by those in the bedroom is two-way. Not only does the pair feel the middle-distance pseudo-isolation from each other brought on by lame attempts at talking in bed, but they also engage in the more complete isolation from the world that exists outside the window.
This is no good, these pointless barriers and silly attempts at small talk. Larkin, one might think it fair to guess, would advocate saving one’s time in the bedroom for doing the one sort of communal activity that beds are made for, and leaving the talking for the dinner table.