A reading of a classic poem about advertising
‘Essential Beauty’ (1962) is one of several poems Philip Larkin wrote about the gulf between advertising and the real world. Like another poem he wrote in 1962, ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, ‘Essential Beauty’ examines the promises that billboard advertisements make to us and how starkly the reality of people’s lives differs from such aspirational messages. You can read ‘Essential Beauty’ here.
Before we proceed to an analysis of this poem, a quick summary. ‘Essential Beauty’ is divided into two stanzas. The first offers a series of images from contemporary posters advertising a range of products: Oxo (‘that small cube’), Ovaltine (‘cups at bedtime’), and so on. Many of these were genuine adverts, or Larkin’s distilled summary of their typical contents. These advertisements offer their products as the key to attaining the perfect life: a well-balanced family, a life of ‘smiles’, ‘how life…
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