May 19th, 2020


Toads Revisited

A misprint spreads halfway round the world while a copyeditor is still tying her laces and making the bows come out even.

I had occasion to reread Philip Larkin's "Toads" today, and (having a cat on my lap) decided to pull it from the internet rather than consulting my first edition of The Less Deceived (although I have of course since checked that). You can find it in many places on the web, but I happened to pull down this copy.

All was going well, until I came to the penultimate verse. Here are the last three, for context:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don't say, one bodies the other
One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
When you have both.

See the problem? Yes, that "of" in the second line should be a "to." The trouble with the alternative reading is that it doesn't make any fucking sense.

Naturally, I looked elsewhere on the internet, and found that the poem was widely distributed in both versions, but that the "of" examples seemed, if anything, to be in the majority, especially on sites aimed at the public rather than academia. You can even hear it read aloud that way in a gruff, down-to-earth voice, as here.

It's such an obvious mistake that it's hard to believe that no one spotted it. The sad truth is, I suppose, that people either a) don't expect poetry to make sense or b) don't expect to understand it. Or both. And that, if both, it's hard to lose either.