‘Afternoons’ is a poem in which Larkin focuses on a snapshot of life in what we would call a housing estate. He observes a group of mothers taking their children to the park one afternoon, and proceeds to comment on what he is observing, and relate that to life in general, as is typical of Larkin’s poetry. The very title of ‘Afternoons’ itself is interesting, as it invokes in the reader an immediate sense of time. This poem is not about the beginning of an event, or the end of an event, it concerns a time in between the beginning and the end. The afternoon is towards the end of the day, but not far enough into it to be called evening. As we discover on reading the poem, this clearly represents the stage in life that the mothers are at: they are far enough along their span to be with child, taking their son or daughter to the park regularly, thus they could not be associated with the morning of youth, and yet are not old enough to be represented with the age of evening. This is echoed with the first line of the poem: ‘summer is fading’ – the new birth of spring is gone, and the time of growth and prosperity that is summer is about to pass. Thus, the mothers are at an equally ambiguous time in their lives. The verb used here is also interesting; ‘fading’. This is a word that inspires disappointment and sadness – Larkin is not presenting an optimistic view of the passing of life, rather an immediate sense of the slow, imminent, unavoidable aging process that we all come to dread. This theme is continued in the next line with the leaves falling to the ground in ones and twos. Autumn is approaching, and is represented through the self–destruction of the local trees, perhaps indicating to the reader that there is nothing to look forward to through the passing of time – the only product of it will be sadness and pain, as the trees seems to be representing through their degenerative cycle. Also, following this sentence through to the fourth line, we see that these trees that are shedding their leaves are, in fact, bordering the local recreation ground. That Larkin chose to illustrate his autumnal description with these specific trees implies that he does not see this recreational ground as being a permanent feature. The leaves all around it are shedding their leaves - almost in resentment of that which goes on within their wall – the falsity of the life lead by the inhabitants of the park. These leaves could also be representing a sense of repetition and cycles within the park – each year the tree will grow new leaves and shed them once again, as each year there will be families that conceive new children and families that part with their own, their children having grown up from their ‘swing and sandpit’. This implication is strengthened with the description of what the mothers do to their children as ‘setting them free’. This could be in reflection on the inevitability of them being set free from the shackles of childhood, and let loose in the modern world when they feel ready to grow up and start their parents’ cycle again.
However, an alternate reading of this phrase could be in reference to a line in the second stanza:
‘And the Albums, lettered / Our Wedding, lying / Near the television…’
Returning to the fifth line of the first stanza, we see these afternoons described as ‘hollows’. They are not anxiously awaited moments in the day where the parents get to see their children shine with happiness: they seem to be empty gaps, barely filled in with an unpleasant trip that the children probably pestered them endlessly for. Developing on the metaphorical use of ‘Afternoons’ in the title that I have suggested, the word ‘hollows’ here could be being used to describe a much larger period of time. The age when the mothers are tired the day long, and the children are driving them up the wall – each day blends in to the next, letting the months drift by without the…