Poem: Phillip Larkin, ‘Aubade’

I’ve decided to post a poem a day for national poetry month.  Yes, I know it’s an American awareness-raising exercise and I’m British, but a). my partner is American, she’s going to do it and I don’t want to feel left out b). it’ll help me clear the backlog of poems I want to post c). some of my readers are American.  Britain’s poetry month is in October, so I may do it all over again then.

First up, one of my favourite poets, Philip Larkin,  with one of the greatest poems ever written about the fear of dying.

‘Aubade’

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
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.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
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.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That 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,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
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.

Phillip Larkin

Why start with such an apparently bleak poem?  It’s the poem of the moment because my father is dying and I’ve been thinking a lot about death and witnessing the fear it induces, as well as personally experiencing the intimations of mortality and death anxiety that result when someone close to you becomes terminally ill.  In its unusually direct confrontation with death anxiety, this poem offers one of those ‘welcome to the human race’ moments; death is something we all fear and, though we are able to sublimate the anxiety most of the time, sometimes it bursts out and overwhelms us, usually at around 3am.  I really admire Phillip Larkin for looking it straight in the eye.

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