Study Guide

Toads Cunning and Cleverness

By Philip Larkin

Cunning and Cleverness

Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
      and drive the brute off? (3-4)

What is a pitchfork? Okay, that's a weird question. Let's start again. A pitchfork is a tool. What do we use tools for? To do work, right? And a tool like a pitchfork brings to mind hard work. The speaker wants to use his wit as a tool to do the work of freeing him from work. It seems like it's going to take lots of hard work to not work. This kind of mirrors the futility of trying to achieve a work-free life.

Lots of folks live on their wits:
      Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts—
      They don't end as paupers; (9-12)

Hmm. This seems… well, flawed. Some of these characters that the speaker lists as evidence of lives lived on wits do end up in poverty. The speaker seems to have a pretty romantic view of how these folks actually live their lives. It's probably just a case of wanting something so badly that it changes the perception of reality. Our speaker really wants to believe that there is a way out from under that toad, and he wants to believe that his wits are the way.

For something sufficiently toad-like
      Squats in me, too;
[…] And will never allow me to blarney
      My way to getting
The fame and the girl and the money (25-26, 29-31)

As the poem comes to an end, the speaker seems to realize he's dealing with some internal toad-i-ness in addition to the external toad (work). What's more, he also realizes that this internal toad, his sense of obligation, his sense of honor or duty, is going to make it impossible for him to live by his wits. That internal toad won't let him "blarney," to persuade and flatter, his way to what he really wants in life. Maybe nice guys really do finish last. Larkin sure seems to think so. (Editor's note: we don't.)

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