How Work Is a Duty Comparing Two Poems

Category: Duty, Poem
Last Updated: 25 May 2023
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“Work is a duty”: Compare and contrast two poems you have studied in the light of this statement. It’s safe to say that “Toads” and “Toads Revisited”, both by Philip Larkin, have two very different viewpoints to work. Although written by the same poet, I feel they discuss the statement about ‘duty’ interestingly; both relay their points in a number of clever ways. Looking at “Toads”, in the perspective of the poet, we start to see that there is certain imagery in the poem that tells us a lot about the poets’ view on work.

The fact that the poet effectively sees work as a “sickening poison” tells the reader he feels work, in essence, make us ill. To a certain extent we realise that Larkin actually despises work: seeing it not as a duty but as a corruption. This imagery of “poison” gives a very dark and sinister atmosphere. In contrast, “Toads Revisited”, also by Larkin, has the opposite atmosphere and imagery. From line one of the poem (“walking around in the park”) we see that the mood is light, and therefore guess that the poem is in favour of work being a ‘duty’: Larkin uses happy and joyful imagery. The lakes, the sunshine, grass to lie on”. The way Larkin uses that sentence – “grass to lie on” – puts the reader in that relaxed and tranquil state of mind, perhaps the grass represents life and how it “should” feel good to lie back and not work; but somehow all this relaxation “doesn’t suit” the persona of the poem. Relating this back to the statement of how “work is a duty”, Larkin is trying to say (with his imagery in “Toads revisited”) is that we cannot call work a “duty” as it is not so, according to him. Instead it is a choice. I will further expand this point later on.

Larkin goes on to describe tramps: “palsied old step-takers”. A “duty” is a legal or moral obligation to carry out an action, and from what Larkin displays here is interesting: how can we be obliged if we have the choice not to? Duty or not, tramps and the homeless, the unemployed and the benefit-misusers still exist to this day. Also in “toads” we see the image of homeless people when Larkin talks about “squatting”. The imagery of these types of people makes us see that the duty to work and having the choice to work are two very different things.

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With “Toads” it is similar, as we see the perspective of, what looks like, a working class man, we are presented the images of folk “living on wit”. It still seems that the persona of the poem sees work as a choice. Instead of people are obliged to work, the persona (Larkin) gives the impression that people are obliged not to work: “why should I let the toad work”, but yet they do have a choice to this day. Forgive me, but a rather humorous piece of imagery I picked up on was that of someone in a “squat” (Toads).

Squatting could mean both homeless people looking for somewhere to settle, or it could resemble someone excreting (to be frank). This links to the work “duty” as it is sometimes called the same thing: I thought this was interesting. To be able to fully understand the views of both poems we must carry out analysis is several different ways. Another way of looking at this poem is in terms of its rhyme and rhythm or tone; and how this may or may not give the impression that work is a duty. With “toads” we notice a rhyme scheme called ‘half rhymes’: when a word sort of rhymes but doesn’t.

For example “work” and “fork”; “soils” and “bills”; “poison” and “proportion”. The fact that the words almost rhyme could mean Larkin wants us to take note how things just aren’t quite right. Duty and choice comes back into play here: and here is where I think Larkin contrasts the two rhyming words in very interesting ways. He wants us to see that there is only a slight but significant difference in the way one is made to work (duty) and the way one chooses to work (choice). In “Toads revisited” the same thing occurs: “Park” and “work”; “noises” and “nurses”.

This further illustrates the point of how duty and choice are only slightly but significantly different. In terms of rhythm, “Toads” resembles some very interesting ideas using it. For example, how Larkin says “lecturers, lispers, losels, loblolly-men…” it is not only a mouthful of words to say, but the rhythm is different, in this little phrase, (on the alliteration of L) to the rest of the poem. This resembles two things: how in our lives there are difficulties, which come at spontaneous moments, which we just have to surpass. And also, the words are a mouthful to say resembles how work is difficult and takes effort.

This is further illustrated by how you can’t have “the fame and the girl and the money all in one sitting”. The representations and underlying meanings of the way both poems are written in terms of syllables/rhythm/rhyme show how because work is so hard, people choose not to do it. It is disagreeing with the statement, that to work is an obligation. There are various ways in which we can interpret these two poems, and compare and contrast these interpretations to the statement. I firstly interpret that in “toads revisited”, Larkin wishes to convey why it is he is in favour of working, and how he does/doesn’t portray it as a duty.

Firstly, Larkin explains how not working is “not a bad place to be”, enticing the reader and making us falsely interpret his view (we think that he is taking a day off and thinking about how not working would be better). The poet tries to influence us about work, to some extent he does make it seem as if we are obliged to it: “turning over their failures”. This not only is a play on words (turn over, a word linking to economics and how if you work you will earn money), it also shows what will happen if you do not work: you will fail.

In essence Larkin is making us see that working is a more of a duty than a choice, but still it is ones choice to work. In “Toads” we see Larkin presenting different ideas. Taking a very defiant view on work, he makes work seem more of something one should be ashamed of. He belittles it: “just for paying a few bills”. This quote I find highly interesting: its apparent Larkin recognises the point of working, but the persona in the poem does not. To this we are confused by: is Larkin purposely outlining work’s purpose (of paying bills) and disagreeing with them, just so we see it?

To explain further, could the persona be saying “just for paying bills” as if he is against work, but actually he is saying this so that the point of working is to make money is raised? For “toads revisited” the ideas and interpretations are different: for now it seems that these are expressions of Larkin’s own views and attitudes to work. He is in effect dreaming about people working in the poem: “watching the bread delivered…”. Larkin does however recognise that it is hard to work, but he mentions how rewarding it is afterwards: “nowhere to go but indoor”. This is also a way in which the poet describes work not as a duty, but as a choice.

But the balance is heavily pointed to being a duty, as an obligation to work is in essence the obligation to having a fun lifestyle simultaneously (“no friends”). Looking at the poems from a slightly different angle, the picture changes a fraction. Reading the poems in such a way to understand class struggle at the time the poems were written, and to explore the conflict between the privileged and working class people, is called a Marxist view. The way the poet in “Toads” calls the working class “brutes”; and for the rest of the poem the working people go unnamed, as if they are not worthy of a name.

This can tell us a lot about the social context, the fact that there was a lot of hate among the working and the privileged. It tells us how the persona from “toads” makes us see how the privileged looked down on the working class, as “toads” to some extent, as toads are small. If I have learnt anything during analysing, comparing, and contrasting “Toads” and “Toads revisited”, it’s that you can never be sure as to where exactly the poets views lie by just looking at the persona of the poem. We must break down the poem and transpose it to a more comprehendible structure before we even begin to.

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How Work Is a Duty Comparing Two Poems. (2017, Apr 30). Retrieved from

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