Andrew Motion has claimed Larkin’s poems ” explore the gulf between deception and clear-sightedness, illusion and reality, and solitude and sociability-.
Larkin employs a range of linguistic and literary techniques to enhance continuing battle between illusion and reality, and in looking at “Sunny Prestatyn” and “Essential Beauty”, Larkin also focuses on his discontent with modernism.
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The irony contained within the title “Essential Beauty” is that the beauty is an illusion, and underneath all the billboards that “block the ends of streets with giant loaves” there is a harsh reality, only hidden behind the images of aspiration. There are many contrasts in the first stanza between the reality of the gutters and “rained on streets” and the “well- balanced families” that appear on the hoardings. These patent foods inflate the idea of value and convey a world of a mass culture that is consumerist; exactly the type which Larkin despised.
Following the first stanza with the imagery of a certain utopia-like world, the reader is forced to face reality. The advertising is all surface with nothing underneath: “Pure coldness to our live imperfect eyes”. All these ideals will never be reached. The image of the upper (“crust”) class family – “the white clothed ones from tennis clubs”- is meant to portray another ideal of a family, however, the reality is the “boy puking his heart out in the Gents” showing that the family is just as dysfunctional as the rest of society. All sections of society are victims of this advertising, as even the pensioner exploited to buy Granny Graveclothes” Tea.
The final image of the smoker seeing an illusion is surreal, yet chilling. The big illusion portrayed in cigarette advertising is nothing more than a big illusion, possibly one of the biggest. All the promised ideals of a better figure and sex appeal are not achieved and as he breathes his last, he sees a light at the end of the tunnel.