Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” is the greatest English-language poem about death. Or perhaps, one should say the greatest poem about a certain view of death. Millay’s “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” captures the irretrievable loss of death for those who survive. Millay’s “Dirge without Music” is a great statement of defiance of death: “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground”; by contrast, Emily Dickinson can be blankly affectless in the face of death:
I reason that in heaven
Somehow, it will be even
Some new equation given;
But what of that?
And Dylan Thomas is famously angry (or angry at the thought that a loved one might not be angry at the prospect of dying):
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Larkin is different. “Aubade” is less emotional than all these poems but Dickinson’s, but far more elaborate and analytical than Dickinson. “Aubade” is in some ways an essay on death. It has features in common with some of the great essayists’ thoughts on the “great stage-curtain.” Francis Bacon said “Of Death” that “It is as natural to die, as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful, as the other.” But Larkin would answer that it isn’t the pain of death that he’s worried about, but the absence of pain:
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.
Montaigne asked “how is it possible a man should disengage himself from the thought of death, or avoid fancying that it has us, every moment, by the throat? . . . Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.” For Larkin’s speaker, conversing and being familiar with death merely means that death has us all the more by the throat. Unlike Keats, “half in love with easeful death,” Larkin is flat-out petrified, and every additional thought of death
brings “furnace-fear when we are caught without / people or drink.”
But unlike even the most succinct prose essay, Larkin’s poem condenses whole territories of argument into single phrases. Fifty lines here say more than entire books can, and say it in a memorable, almost inevitable way that is scaldingly unflinching. “Death is no different whined at than withstood.”
That tremendous line shows another aspect of Larkin’s work: he tended to place the big payoff, the great line that serves as the kernel of a great poem, somewhat before the end of the poem, with the final few lines or last stanza as a denouement or (to use a more musical term) a coda. It’s not that he backs off a majestic statement, or qualifies it in any way, but that his more ironic sense of rhetoric won’t let him end a poem the way a high Victorian like Tennyson or Matthew Arnold would. He knows there’s always something more to be said. But that doesn’t prevent him from having his say.