Philip Larkin Philip Larkin, is a famous writer in postwar Great Britain, was commonly referred to as “England’s other Poet Laureate” until his death in 1985. Indeed, when the position….
Death as a Main Theme of Philip Larkin’s Aubade
Aubade is the last poem by Philip Larkin. This poem became the culmination of his life and work and contains basic ideas of Larkin’s philosophical and literary credo. This poem became Larkin’s profound and personal investigation of the theme of death. Published in the Times Literary Supplement for the first time, this poem became a characteristic feature of his literary work. The poem is full of symbolism. The very title, Audabe, or Morning Serenade, creates anticipations in the minds of the readers and Larkin uses contrast in order to deliver his message to the readers. His aubade turns to be anti-aubade and this sad irony only underlines contrast and irony, used by the author. He uses a popular romantic title for his poem in order to underline the loss of innocence in the perception of the world.
The very first lines of the poem describe typical day of routine life of the person, who does not see any sense in his life and spends dull days and sleepless nights thinking about inevitable death.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die (Larkin 69).
The theme of death and depression is typical for the works of Larkin. The theme of death and fear of dying goes through the entire poem. Scepticism and pragmatic view on religion give special shades of meaning to the theme of death. He speaks about it without idealization and pathos but, at the same time, he does not hide his feelings of fear and despair in front of this phenomenon. His pessimistic and gloomy mood makes the poem sound accordingly. As famous Donald Hall wrote about Philip Larkin in his article, “This is the man who famously said that deprivation was for him what daffodils were for Wordsworth. Yet surely the results of this life, in the shape of his poems, are gifts, not deprivations” (Hall 117).
Larkin got the reputation of a melancholy poet. His light sorrow and gloomy intonations became a visit card of all his literary works. Mixture of wit, humour and sad irony add special zest to sad motifs of Aubade.
Dread of death creates a dark background of the poem. The author thinks about things he did not accomplish yet and describes gradual extinction and the most terrible thing.
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true (Larkin 69).
He can not stop thinking about state of non-being, which will naturally become a final destination for everybody. Being away from pathetic feelings he looks for a distinct place, which would become the house for humans after death and does not find such a place. This though deprives him of sleep and fulfills all his thoughts.
His vision of death is determined by his philosophical credo and religious beliefs. All Western tradition regards death as an eternal rest and, if not to turn to religious explanations, the death appears as a final termination of the human existence. Larkin rejects this view, calling the death “unresting”. This word combination makes and oxymoron as the term “death” itself assumes rest and calmness (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). Finally, the theme of death as an unresting thing, which does not bring pleasure and calm, becomes one of the main themes of the poem. He also uses unresting in another shade of the meaning. He turns to the word unresting in order to show that death is a phenomenon which can not be escaped or avoided by anybody. Nobody can escape death and all people are equal in front of it. As he states in the poem, “Most things may never happen: this one will” (Larkin 69).
The very structure of the poem serves in order to help the author to deliver this message to the readers. Somewhat unusual structure of the poem does not make logical pauses at the end of the stanzas. The parts of the poem are connected so closely that they turn to each other as a continuous process, where motion does not stop for a single second. Sentences do not end at the end of the lines. Larkin uses long sentences, which rest for several lines and even when they end, it usually happens in the middle of the line, so that the next sentence starts immediately. For example, “no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with” (Larkin 69). Such structure does not let the reader rest and make poses.
It reminds the readers about the flowing nature of life, when people can not stop and have a rest haunted by the unresting death. Even in the cases when there are poses at the end of the lines the sentences are not completed, and the reader can not keep long poses, since the line does not contain a terminated thought and next lines continue ideas from the previous ones. Making a pause between the lines and having a rest becomes same impossible, as having a pause in one’s life and taking time to think over important things and finish things, which are not finished.
Special structure of sentences is not the only means used by Larkin in order to attract the readers’ attention to the unresting nature and inevitable character of death. Gloomy and depressive tones of the poem show this very nature of death. The author uses sad irony and light sorrow in order to show naivety of people, who try to escape thoughts about death and pretend that this will never happen to them, even despite they are surrounded by death every day of their lives. People seek for stability and guarantees but finally it turns out that death can be the only stable thing in this world.
The second stanza illustrates the author’s attitude to religion. Larkin does not believe in the pictures of afterlife, created by different religious doctrines. His pessimistic attitude towards religions does not let him accept any kind of non-rational explanation of the life after death. “Larkin’s last major poem, Aubade is to conclude his religious poetic oeuvre with an internal argument of the poetic persona on religion and what remains after death” (Lerner 183). The author spends sleepless nights thinking about death. He spends hours trying to imagine the state, where all the senses cease their existence and a person looses all connections with the existence. Larkin goes further than just philosophical reflections about the death, he thinks about physical experience of “no-being”. As he states, “This is what we fear—no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with” ( Larkin 69).
Physical nature of death becomes the focus of Larkin’s attention. Such an attitude reduces human life to physical existence and that is the reason the author becomes so desperate to find any explanations of things, which will happen to him after death. As states Adam Stainer, “His inability to palliate his mind’s sense of panic mirrors the other figure depicted as unresting in the poem—death itself” (Stainer 16). And even her unresting nature of death is obvious. Looking for a possible description of the state of non-living, Larkin can not escape a thought that this state will last forever. He regards the death not as a single event, which causes transformation, but rather as a continuous process of perpetual anaesthesia, where people stay forever.
Larkin uses irony to show how eternal state of nothingness can be the most terrible thing, which brings neither calm nor peace. What is notable, even during short period of life people can not get rid of the threat of death. It surrounds them whatever they do and the author does his best to show this state of living under constant threat in his poem. Ceaseless nothingness appears to be the biggest Larkin’s fear and this thought does not let him fall asleep at nights and deprives him of calm and happiness when he is awake.
In the next stanza he speaks about courage, which turns to be useless in the face of death. Merciless nature of death makes no distinctions between those, who are afraid of it and who are not.
The last lines of the poem contain a deep metaphor, making a contrast between routing life and death, which he can not forget about even for a minute.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house (Larkin 69).
Postmen, walking from one house to another, symbolize for Larkin inevitable approaching of the dawn, which, in its turn, symbolizes an inevitable approach of death. He compares them to doctors, who must save people’s lives but constantly fail, as nobody can overcome death. Careless world wakes up in order to make one step towards death. For Larkin this is a phenomenon he can neither escape, nor forget.
The author does not separate thoughts about his own death from the general philosophical questions. This underlines Larkin’s perception of the death as the most private and the most common and public event at the same time.
Agnes, Michael, ed. in chief, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, fourth edition, MacMillan, 1999.
Hall, The New Criterion Vol. 4, No. 6, February 1986.
Kirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell, eds. Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 6th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2007.
Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1989.
Lerner, Laurence: Philip Larkin. In Writers and Their Works series. Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., Plymbridge House, 1997.
Steiner, Adam. Honors British Literature. Dr. Fraser. Concepts of Rest and Unrest in “Aubade”, 2005.
Salwak, Dale ed. Philip Larkin: The Man and His Work. London: MacMillan, 1989.