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Aubade

May 25, 2013

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 anasthetic 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.

–Philip Larkin 1977

COMMENTARY: Martin Heidegger says somewhere–I can’t seem to find the
quote online–that’s it only in solitude that people face the angst of
death and fully understand what it means to be temporary. When we have
company the logical awareness of death doesn’t produce an emotional
response because, in those self-forgetful moments, the “I” that dies
is taken over by the “we” that doesn’t. Something like that. Notice,
as the poem progresses, how Larkin switches from ‘I’ to ‘we’–as a
means of comfort? as a way of letting philosophical rhetoric displace
fear? And also notice how he ends the poem with a bitter but also
freeing description of the outside world–the world of offices and
phone-calls and correspondences–banal, clay-white, and sunless as it
may be–is also mankind’s medicine, the means of deflecting these
critical fears. Postmen are doctors in that they bring contact and
correspondence (a suggestion here of language and poetry) into the
solitude of the house.

The language in “Aubade” is a little uneven, but there are some
moments of dead-on description. “Arid interrogation,” “furnace fear,”
“uncaring, intricate rented world” and several dark maxims:
“religion….that vast moth-eaten musical brocade/ invented to pretend
we never die” and “being brave/ let’s no one off the grave/ death is
no different whined at than withstood.” The rhymes (set in a 10 line
pattern that has a name I can’t think of) are natural and unforced and
add to the solitary desire to “link” as he says in the second stanza.

I should say, as a sort of afterthought that it’s interesting to
compare this poem with Donne’s aubade “The Sun Rising. I think they may
have more in common that the genre, though I’m hard pressed at the
moment to say what it is. I should say, as a second afterthought,
that, aptly but unfortunately, this was the last great poem Larkin
wrote.  After its publication in 1977, he had 7 years ahead of him in
which he wrote little.

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