Slant Rhymed Quatrains in Irregular Meter
Lots of Larkin's poems are formally and metrically strict. He was a guy that liked a pattern. That being said, he wasn't afraid to have a little fun. "Toads" is a great example of how form and meter can be used in unexpected ways, with unexpected results.
When we think of something being in a form, we think of predictability. A form means we know what to expect, we know what's coming next. In "Toads," Larkin plays with this notion of predictability. The first place this happens is in the "rhymes." Why, you ask, did we put the word rhymes in quotation marks? Glad you asked. It's because those "rhymes" aren't really rhymes at all, at least not in The Cat in the Hat kind of way.
Think of it this way: we all know what a rhyme is, right? (If you answered "No" or "Wrong" get ye to the Shmoop Literature Glossary posthaste.) The rhymes in "Toads" don't fit the definition of full or perfect rhyme. They have some similar sounds, or they look similar, but they just don't have what it takes to be perfect. (Poor little imperfect rhymes, we know how you feel.)
Larkin is using what the literary world likes to call slant rhyme or half rhyme, like "life" and "off" (2, 4). He's also using something called eye rhyme, like "blarney" and "money" (29, 31). It isn't that Larkin didn't have the poetry chops to come up with the perfect rhymes. All you have to do is look at a few of his other poems to see he is pretty much a rhyme master. No, Phil did this for a reason.
Why, you ask? Well, slant rhyme gives the illusion of rhyme, but you never really get the auditory satisfaction of hearing a true, perfect rhyme. The experience of hearing slant rhyme can leave you wanting more, feeling a little unsatisfied, a little cheated. (Sheesh—this is starting to sound like our last relationship.)
Our response to eye rhyme can be similar. The words look like they should rhyme, but the sound just isn't there. We feel like we're missing out on something, or that something we want or need is being kept from us. We're missing that rhyme-y sound we anticipate when we see those similar-looking words on the page. It can be kind of, well, disappointing.
The poem's meter also makes us feel a bit unfulfilled. It never seems to settle into one regular pattern or rhythm. The term "irregular meter" means that the poem uses several different metrical patterns. Take a look at the first stanza:
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
and drive the brute off? (1-4)
See? The stressed and unstressed syllables don't fall into one, nice pattern. If you really search, you'll find that the lines do alternate between uneven ("uneven" meaning there's often an extra syllable dangling here and there) trimeter (3 metric feet per line) and uneven dimeter (2 feet per line) in a variety of patterns. But that's a far cry from the order and balance of a poem in, for example, iambic pentameter. As a result, the rhythm of the poem kind of comes in and out.
We can see the alternating, uneven trimeter/dimeter lines pretty well in stanza 7. Careful, don't let the occasional extra syllable fool you.
For something sufficiently toad-like (3 feet)
Squats in me, too; (2 feet)
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck, (3 feet)
And cold as snow. (2 feet) (25-28)
Can you see it? It seems kind of random—but trust us, there is a method to Larkin's madness. For example, check out that spondee "hard luck." The hard, double stress sound mirrors the notion of "hard" in the content. Larkin didn't want his description of bad luck to sound soft and melodic. He wanted it to thump in your ears and have a foreboding feel. Mission accomplished.
One of the things that heightens the unfulfilled feelings we might get from the poem's meter is the fact that the poem is in quatrains. Very often, quatrains signal that the poet is going to use form and meter in a fairly traditional way. Not our pal Phil (at least not this time.) Here again, we expect something, but we don't get it.
So, to answer the question you probably asked a couple paragraphs ago, the reason Larkin avoided perfect rhyme, regular meter, and used quatrains was to make the poem's form mirror the content. The form mirrors the speaker's feelings of dissatisfaction coming from an incomplete, imperfect life. We don't get what we want or expect from the poem's form and meter just as the speaker fails to get what he wants from life. The form and meter work together to put us in the same boat as the speaker, to make us feel the same way he does. Larkin uses half rhyme. The speaker feels he's living a kind of half-life, with work taking up too much of his time. The speaker's life is incomplete. He never gets "The fame and the girl and the money" all at the same time (31). Just like we never get full rhyme or regular meter all in one stanza. Or do we?
There is actually one stanza where we see regular metrical patterns and one perfect rhyme. Can you find it? Yup. Stanza 6 has it all. Check it out:
Ah, were I courageous enough
to shout Stuff yourpension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on. (21-24)
Those end words, "enough" and "stuff," sound nice and rhyme-y, and the end of the quatrain has a pretty regular line of dactyls, followed by and iambic line. Looks like we can have it all at the same time—"the fame and the girl and the money," or in this case the quatrain, the regular meter, and the perfect rhyme. All the pieces are there. Hooray! But wait, what about the content? No sooner are we rejoicing in our feeling of a full, complete poem-and-life then we realize this stanza is all about "the stuff" of dreams.
So, the one time all these elements come together, the meter gets regular and the rhymes get perfect, is in the stanza about something that only happens in dreams. Bummer. Looks like things are going to stay irregular and imperfect back in the real world.
Congratulations. It's not a dream. You really did make it through "Form and Meter."