Larkin in the Dark

larkin

By definition, an aubade is “a dawn song expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak” (Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary). Today, for the first time, I read Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” thanks to a tip within the New York Times Book Review.

No lovers for Larkin. And I learned this was his final poem. Fitting, that, because in 50 lines, the chill of reckoning with our own demise gets about as raw as you will ever read it. Larkin speaks of “the total emptiness for ever / The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.

Looking for the emergency exits between stanzas? Larkin has blocked them off. Religion and the afterlife, you say? “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die.” Logic, you cry?

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.

Ok, then. Larkin is clearly trapped himself here. With a lover called Death-in-Waiting,  yet, and apparently he’s beginning to see the light “through a glass darkly.” Dawn brings no succor, in other words. Simply a cold, unrelenting realization:

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.

Man. It’s enough to make you wish you were never born just so you don’t have to die. It’s that good. In the spirit of Halloween, where death is all a joke, here it is in toto, where the joke is on us.

 

Aubade
by Philip Larkin

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.

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