Self's the Man

Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.
He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she's there all day,

And the money he gets for wasting his life on work
She takes as her perk
To pay for the kiddies' clobber and the drier
And the electric fire,

And when he finishes supper
Planning to have a read at the evening paper
It's Put a screw in this wall -
He has no time at all,

With the nippers to wheel round the houses
And the hall to paint in his old trousers
And that letter to her mother
Saying Won't you come for the summer.

To compare his life and mine
Makes me feel a swine:
Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.

But wait, not do fast:
Is there such a contrast?
He was out for his own ends
Not just pleasing his friends;

And if it was such a mistake,
He still did it for his own sake,
Playing his own game.
So he and I are the same,
Only I'm a better hand
At knowing what I can stand!


From the offset, we get the sense of a sarcastic, cynical and flippant character. “Oh, no one can deny / That Arnold is less selfish than I”. The colloquial “oh” gives a sense of how he brushes it off, and he seems to be boastful of his selfishness. Into the next few lines, he presents a stereotypical image of marriage as entrapment, “married a woman to stop her getting away” and the ironic aside, ‘Now she’s there all day” as though his “less selfish” friend didn’t know what he was letting himself into. Notice how he refers to her as a mere “woman” – not a lover, and there seems to be, at least from the persona’s perspective, no love in the relationship.

His negative view of women continues into the second stanza. “Perk”, another example of colloquial lexis, is a work bonus. That the woman takes “the money he gets” seems to present her as selfish, and almost like a prostitute, being paid for sex, and the uses direct speech “It’s Put a screw in this wall” mocks the women’s stereotypical words and undermines them, the imperative making her seem interfering and controlling. Direct speech is used again for the mother’s words: “Saying Won’t you come for the summer.” Again, mocking and scornful, this utterance holds pseudo-snobbishness.

After considering all the dislikeable things that Arnold has to do (a list in the third stanza of things connected with the conjunction “and…and…” creating a moaning, immature attitude), the persona concludes where he started, “Oh, no one can deny / That Arnold is less selfish than I”. As with ‘Mr Bleaney’, a colloquial register is adopted, such as “kiddies’ clobber” referring to toys, “perk”, and “nippers”. It shows the lack of respect the persona has towards anything regarding the family.

But moving into the sixth stanza, there is something of a volta, signalled by the contracting conjunction “but”: “But wait, not so fast: / Is there such a contrast?” The poet claims that Arnold, too, was just “out for his own ends” and “if it was such a mistake / He still did it for his own sake / Playing his own game.”

He concludes that “he and I are the same” and both are selfish, but he is better “At knowing what I can stand / Without them sending a van”. The “van” is a mental institute’s mode of transportation, suggesting that Arnold is going mad in his situation.

This negative view of marriage could be argued to represents Larkin’s own negative view of marriage. However, all the impressions are just filtered through the persona’s eyes, much like ‘Mr Bleaney’. It could be that Arnold has a happy marriage, most of the time, for every complaint is stereotypical and unimaginative. Even if does Arnold constantly moan in the pub about his marriage, the persona has a simplistic, unsympathetic view, while the childlike rhyming couplets (which often stretch the rhyme scheme, “dryer” and “fire”, for example), augment the dislikeable, immature character. Larkin, a master of sounds, deliberately makes the poem jarring to read, and it seems that he presents the persona as a satirical character, one we can laugh at, until his the last line.

In the final line, there is the first hint of insecurity and vulnerability in the persona, “Or I suppose I can,” much like the “I don’t know” that deflates ‘Mr Bleaney’. The persona perhaps becomes aware of his own inadequacy, admits that his previous attitude was just a cocky façade to make him feel better about the emptiness in his own unmarried life. He is, perhaps, unsure that he can stand this – that while marriage can drive you to insanity, so, too, can loneliness. It’s a chilling ending.

Back to the Top