#9 “Aubade” (Philip Larkin)

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.


11 responses to “#9 “Aubade” (Philip Larkin)

  1. This poem reminds me of the other poems that we’ve looked at about death. I think Larkin is in the similar frame of mind as Keats. Although, Keats had a romanticized idea of death, Larkin had a defeatist attitude about it. Even though the attitude is different the idea is still the same. Death is inevitable and after your, our, my demise life will continue as normal. Sure some people will be sad and some will feel the loss but for the majority of people their lives won’t be affected in the least. Larkin reminds me of Frost in the way that, I feel, they need to be the center of attention. Larkin seems so dissatisfied with his life, it just seemed as though he wanted to leave something of himself behind. It’s not about his fear of death, in my opinion, but more of a fear of being irrelevant. I think this poem is his way of lighting a chair on fire. He wants to be remembered that is his real problem with death. If we are remembered we have achieved a kind of immortality, which is what we all want. We all want to feel as though our existence has had an impact on others.

  2. Some people are terrified of dying as Philip Larkin writes. The thought of how one is going to die and what to expect is scary for some. For others it is something far from their minds. Here it is something that is thought of and is a very scary thought. Masking death by working and drinking to maybe make it all go away…to not think about it. That maybe it will all go away. He talks about “The good not used, the love not given, time Torn off unused” which maybe even though he says he does not regret it, I think that a part of him does. What happened to all that time and love and good that was not used? The being lost in travel he talks about he wonders what happens after he dies? Where does he go? Is there really a “purgatory” where the souls go or what happens? It doesn’t matter whether you are good or bad here on earth. He says “Being brave Lets no-one off the grave.” As a person begins to accept death, which is inevitable, then “Slowly light strengthens” and a person is able to finally accept and leave the world a little more peaceful. Yet, the other way to deal with it is to not deal with it as he says in “Have always know, know that we can’t escape Yet can’t accept.” So, one can either go not having peace and being afraid which makes things harder and scarier or one can accept and go peacefully and it isn’t so scary after acceptance. Life goes on for everyone else…”Postmen like doctors go from house to house.” Postmen, like doctors deliver news of all sorts. Here they may deliver news about death. But, life goes on.

  3. This poem made me feel very melancholy; however, I enjoyed its matter-of-fact approach to death. I think something interesting that was mentioned in class is the idea that the speaker is in dialogue with another person who could seemingly be posing objections to what Larkin is saying. What makes me somewhat agree with this idea is the fact that Larkin in so few words seems to cover all the bases referring to death; he dismisses the idea of religion in two lines, and mentions time gone to waste in a few lines as well.

    Another interesting piece of the poem is where Larkin states, “this is what we fear—no sight, no sound, no touch, or taste or smell, nothing to think with,” referring to his fear of not being able to feel when he dies. Perhaps if Larkin accepted the idea of not being able to feel anything, then since “no rational being can fear a thing it will not feel,” he would get rid of his fears of death in general.

    “Death is no different whine at than withstood,” seems to say to me that no matter what, death will still come; whether you whine, kick and scream the whole time, or stand up against it, eventually it will still happen.

  4. This poem is so plain and simple and at the time complex. It talks about issues that the everyday man goes through. It looks at death at all angles. I don’t think that he is sad nor that he wishes death. He just sees it for what it is. I liked how he spoke about those who don’t fear death. Being brave is just another way of saying not scaring others in the process of thinking about death. Death comes for all and in life there is nothing more certian than it. It is a fact of life. Many people go through life working their way through. Days go by that don’t come back. Everyday is another one less and one more closer to death. The person works and drinks afterworth. I personally don’t see much harm in that. If the person seems to be alone, well that helps him pass the time. The person also talked about religion and how it is a way for those who can’t explain death feel some type of comfort. To think that once death arrives one doesn’t stop existing. Like i said the speaker covered all angles of the mentality of death in the human population. I liked this poem due to it is straight forward and i agree with the majority of it.

  5. kursteilnehmur

    This is one of the poems in which the speaker cringes with fear. The speaker of the poem does not have any hope; he has lost faith in dreams. What will become of his life? I think he is wandering on the brink of insanity, but strangely he can “keep it together” without much difficulty. He is a pathetic meatbag of lost humanity stuffed in cheap binding clothing. He has no pride, no fervor nor gusto to see him through to another life of happiness. Despair breeds an unwelcome friend of despondency. His mind is trapped in its own twisted logic. He sees the only a scientific method, a great human accomplishment in the making. Does he believe in a God or god? I think not. He develops this fear of death because of his apparent lack of faith in another world or life after his current one. I have found that those who believe in an afterlife or a cycle of life are less afraid of death than those who have nothing. He is so overcome with grief and misery thinking of death that he eventually drives himself to accept the fact that he will die, and there will be nothing more. The speaker creates an environment of nothingness for eternity that he believes he will wind up in. No more consciousness, laughter, song nor drink will accompany him to this dismal fate. He casts off courage and religion as if they are nothing in particular. His mention of a postman suggests he believes in post. He knows of Doctors, and of the sun. He believes in telephones and ordinary things. He only believes in what he can touch, see, hear, smell or taste. The only ideas that he accepts follow a specific criteria. These are merits of an educated man in a modern society. He does not have much room for fantasy nor idle chit chat. Could it be that he thought too hard about a paradox? People don’t usually think about death very often. Some don’t think of it because they fear it. Others don’t think about it because they need not fear it at all. In the end some are convinced that chocolate is the best, and the rest like vanilla.

    Joey: So, what happens when you’re wrong?
    Nick: Well, Joey, I’m never wrong.
    Joey: But you can’t always be right.
    Nick: Well, if it’s your job to be right, then you’re never wrong.
    Joey: But what if you are wrong?
    Nick: Okay, let’s say that you’re defending chocolate and I’m defending vanilla. Now, if I were to say to you, “Vanilla’s the best flavor ice cream”, you’d say …?
    Joey: “No, chocolate is.”
    Nick: Exactly. But you can’t win that argument. So, I’ll ask you: So you think chocolate is the end-all and be-all of ice cream, do you?
    Joey: It’s the best ice cream; I wouldn’t order any other.
    Nick: Oh. So it’s all chocolate for you, is it?
    Joey: Yes, chocolate is all I need.
    Nick: Well, I need more than chocolate. And for that matter, I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom and choice when it comes to our ice cream, and that, Joey, that is the definition of liberty.
    Joey: But that’s not what we’re talking about.
    Nick: Ah, but that’s what I’m talking about.
    Joey: But … you didn’t prove that vanilla’s the best.
    Nick: I didn’t have to. I proved that you’re wrong, and if you’re wrong, I’m right.
    Joey: But you still didn’t convince me.
    Nick: Because I’m not after you. I’m after them.

  6. “Aubade” is one of the more interesting writings on death that I have seen, and can see why it deserves its place on the countdown. It is a little strange with my idea that poets like to romanticize things sometimes, and in this poem it’s the exact opposite. It’s simply a rational look at death, and how we deal with it, and the most importantly, its inevitability. The way that Larkin pieces the poem together is also quite good, how at the beginning he makes the setting night to coincide with death, the end of the day matches with the end of life. His choice of words in the second stanza, “the sure extinction” is particularly powerful to me, it seems to say along with his lines in the fourth stanza that after death we simply just don’t exist anymore, and not only that but he makes it seem like anything we’ve accomplished during our lives is simply gone or insignificant. Like the blog post says, the phrase “Death is no different whined at than withstood.” is a powerful phrase that sums up his ideas on the inevitability of death and how none can escape. Even with all this his poem kind of ends on a different note, showing that even though we give so much thought to our own deaths (and it’s obvious he gave a lot of thought about his), life still goes on the same as it would whether you’re alive or not.

  7. During the “preamble” of the poem the class was told that many people who knew Larkin said it was a great representation of a state of mind he was in for a period of his life. I think that is the function of the poem to give a window into the mind of the poet; a feeling he was carrying within himself. The whole first stanza is flooded with the speaker referring to his/her self. The speaker does state his description of death in a “matter of fact” form but He is not looking at the topic in all it’s angles instead he quickly dismisses certain angles and continues in the description of death. The fact that he does express his point of view as the only explanation only aids in encapsulating his state of mind. This poem i think sounds more “emo” “idie” than anything, it reminds me of singer/song writer Conor O’berst.

  8. The character seems very disturbed but at the same time you feel really bad for him. It’s sad to see someone alone and depressed and their life just passing them by. And they have no care in the world it seems. To me it seems the character is looking forward to death, that he doesn’t have anything to look forward to in life. So why not wonder around wondering if your death will be painful and if anyone will miss you. We all have moments were we wonder about death and what’s on the other side no matter if you have religious beliefs or not or go to be sober or drunk. It seems he doesn’t have hope for life or death. Some people hope that theirs something great on the other side it seems he’s not hoping at all. Only expecting what he’s getting in his life..nothing. One of my favorite quotes is: “Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.” -Anon. Maybe the character in this poem missed this quote or maybe wasn’t around for it. But it would have been something great for him to go by in his life. Especially if he felt there was nothing for him in the afterlife. I would live it up if I thought that way. Some people have said that would like to know when they will die and how. I don’t think that would be smart especially looking at this character he really doesn’t know when he’s going to die and he’s already drinking and driving himself crazy. It’s to a point he can’t sleep at night. It was a great read.

    All our knowledge merely helps us to die a more painful death than animals that know nothing. ~Maurice Maeterlinck

  9. This is a very powerful poem not only because of the theme that its within it but also because of the tone in the poem. it seems very dark, isolated, it also gives you a sense of saddness. the speaker of the poem without a doubt is very miserable but not ready to give up his life. the speaker sees his life being wasted and he knows that but cannot do anything about it. like the professor said, there are two approaches on death, you can accepted or kick and scream all the way to the end. in this poem the speaker clearly is taking the second one.

  10. The last few lines of the fourth stanza really spoke to me. “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.” Basically, to me, this means that not fearing death as a means of preventing it will never do you a damn bit of good. Fear or no fear, you’re still going to die. Instead of wasting energy trying to fight off death, you might as well just go ahead and accept it.

    There was much discussion in class about the last line of the poem. “Postmen like doctors go from house to house.” To me, that line reiterates that death is ultimately inevitable…it will always happen. Sooner or later, a doctor will come to your house. A postman will come to your house. Death will come to your house.

  11. This poem reminded me a lot of my grandparents. They live very far away in Central America, and the few times a month we talk to them, all they can talk about is how their death is close. It’s actually become quite funny actually, and something my mom and her siblings joke about because their death has been “close” for the last six years now. Their view on death though doesn’t seem to be like that of the speaker’s in the poem. The speaker seems to be afraid of the thought. It seems like he lives in fear. Fear that his death can occur at any given moment. Living like this, limits a person. Limiting yourself to living life because you fear death is in a way like living dead. People that fear death and don’t enjoy life, do not live life like it should be lived. I know that at any given time I could die, I could die after this sentence…however, I do not let this come in the way of my life. We could be bombed tomorrow without expecting it. The speaker understands that death in inevitable but it seems like the idea of his own death terrorizes him. I know that life isn’t always what we want it to be, but you have to make the best of what you have and appreciate that, you have to love life to live life, and in that time, ignore the truth that death is inevitable making it possible to do so.

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