Come Rain or Shine: Gin and Tonic in Philip Larkin’s ‘Sympathy in White Major’ (1974)

This month the Literary Kitchen is taking an alcoholic turn: it is that time of the year when many of us would like to be outside and enjoy a perfectly cold beer or cocktail; and for me (Nico – but maybe Amy too), when that time comes, it has to be a gin and tonic.

Gin and tonic was not at all a popular choice when I was of age in Italy; I hear it is more now. Awkwardly called ‘gin tonic’ with the ‘and’ dropped, it was considered something only suitable for upper-class bon-ton ladies of a certain age. Maybe I am wrong (Italians on the web please dispute me!) but it simply wasn’t a trendy drink option if you were just above twenty and out with your friends. Now it is more of a thing, with bars offering various types of gin to have with your tonic, as well as various types of tonic water. Back in those days more common after-dinner cocktails would be the really creamy, or anyway sweeter, heavier varieties, such as piña colada, rum and coke, daiquiri, mojito. So when I came to the UK and tried a “proper” gin and tonic, it struck me as a wonderfully light alternative (perhaps not so much on the alcohol, but definitely on the calories and general sweetness). Flowery or herbal according to the qualities of your accompanying gin, refreshing for the addition of tonic and ice, and of course zingy for the extra lemons or limes in it, it seemed to me like a lovely summer drink. Gin and tonic is, after all, the symbol of British summer.

Gin and tonic is likened to an old friend in Philip Larkin’s ‘Sympathy in White Major’. The first stanza of this poem is possibly the best poetic description of how to prepare a cocktail:


‘When I drop four cubes of ice

Chimingly in a glass, and add

Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,

And let a ten-ounce tonic void

In foaming gulps until it smothers

Everything else up to the edge,

I lift the lot in private pledge:

He devoted his life to others.’ (ll. 1-8)


Try and read this stanza out loud: the words will resound on your tongue, like ice cubes chiming when poured into a glass, waiting to be smothered by those ‘three goes of gin’ and ten ounces of tonic. I don’t know what Amy will think of this, but this stanza always makes me think of Louis MacNeice’s ‘The Brandy Glass’. In MacNeice’s poem, the atmosphere is all but summery: whilst snowing outside, the ‘last diner’ sips brandy and looking at his glass begs: ‘Only let it form within my hands once more’. The scenes and the poems are quite different, yet in both instances a man sits alone enjoying his drink, which may be the reason why I think of the two poems together, or possibly because Larkin was actually influenced by MacNeice’s poetry in his collection High Windows, which ‘Sympathy in White Major’ belongs to. Or, possibly, because these are my favourite instances of drinks in twentieth-century poetry. (Do send on your favourite drinking poems!)



Larkin’s poem is perhaps more of a riddle than MacNeice’s ‘The Brandy Glass’. Supposed to be a parody of nineteenth-century French poem ‘Symphony in White Major’ by Théophile Gautier, a symbolical hymn to whiteness and purity by way of describing a beautiful white woman, Larkin’s poem is indeed a parody since the only actual white things he mentions are the ice cubes in his gin and tonic. At the end of the first stanza, Larkin quickly shifts to a ‘he’ after having described his g & t: ‘[h]e devoted his life to others’. Who is this hero we feel we should be grateful to, and does that mean he is preparing a gin and tonic in memory or in honour of this mysterious person? In the third and final stanza we finally start to reason whether this ‘he’ is actually the gin and tonic:


         ‘How many lives would have been duller

Had he not been here below?

Here’s to the whitest man I know –

Though white is not my favourite colour.’


Could it be, then, that the poet is talking directly to his gin & tonic? The whitest man he knows is then truly a “man of ice”, while Gautier’s woman was only suggestive of a cold and icy beauty, and the whiteness of the gin and tonic is also not one of purity but rather of pleasure and enjoyment: indeed, what makes our lives less dull according to Philip Larkin. The poet is talking to his glass of gin & tonic (not too unlike MacNeice’s poem): the man who devoted his life to others is not truly dead or in need of our sympathy, but rather is the gin that keeps offering its alcoholic indulgences to men and women in its many afterlives, meaning the sympathy really comes from the drink, and the whiteness from the lovely chiming ice cubes.

I don’t know if you’ll find gin and tonic a particularly sympathetic drink but it is not doubt refreshing. You’ll find my recipe of the gin and tonic below (although I went for the classic lime instead of Larkin’s lemon, adapting it from Gary Regan’s recipe). Do enjoy it responsibly and the Literary Kitchen wishes you a wonderful summer wherever you are – come rain or shine!!



Ingredients (makes 1 Gin & Tonic)

2 ounces of your favourite gin *

3 ounces of tonic water

1 lime wedge

enough ice cubes to fill a highball glass



1.      Fill your highball glass with ice cubes

2.      Pour your two shots of gin

3.      Fill up with tonic water

4.      Enjoy! Cin cin! Prost!



Gary Regan, The Joy of Mixology (Random House 2003).

Stephen Regan, ‘Larkin and the Movement’, The Cambridge History of English Poetry (CUP 2011).

* for the pictures in this blog post, I have used Mason’s tea-infused dry Yorkshire gin, courtesy of my friend Nathalie.

** you can find the full text of ‘Sympathy in White Major’ here .

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