Po-Chop: Philip Larkin: Poem XXVI from The North Ship

Philip Larkin“This is the first thing / I have understood: / Time is the echo of an axe / Within a wood.”


In this poem, Philip Larkin appeals to the reader’s sense of sound and rhythm to craft an illustration of time that is simple, elegant, and chilling. Like the echoing axe, we don’t see time at work; yet it steadily and incessantly chops away at us. And as with the unseen tree—perhaps indistinguishable from the thousands of others in the wood—it won’t be long before each of our lives is cut down.


The power of this quatrain is intensified by Larkin’s skill with metered verse. He uses accentual meter: the first and third lines each contain three strong beats, the second and fourth lines each contain two strong beats. Larkin’s decision to use accentual meter is clever because it echoes many common, contemporary nursery rhymes, playing nicely into the notion of “the first thing understood.” However, the beats also beautifully illustrate the echo of the axe so the reader can actually experience each blow. These qualities culminate in a vision of innocence being steadily, violently hacked to death. Now let’s all thank Larkin for time well spent.

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