By Dr Oliver Tearle
An aubade – the term is from the French – is a song or poem in praise of the dawn, but Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ is somewhat different. Although the meditation in the poem takes place during the early hours of the morning, there is none of the celebratory zest found so often in poetic aubades. Instead, Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ is a poem about death, and specifically the poet’s own growing sense of his mortality. You can read ‘Aubade’ here; in this post we offer some notes towards an analysis of this, the last great poem Larkin ever wrote.
Philip Larkin completed ‘Aubade’ in November 1977, and the poem was published in the Times Literary Supplement on 23 December – ruining quite a few Christmas dinners, as Larkin himself predicted. He had begun the poem in 1974, the year that his final collection High Windows appeared, but he laid it aside and returned to it three years later, in the summer of 1977.
But it was the death of Larkin’s mother, in November of that year, that seems to have inspired him to finish the poem. Yet the poem is about Larkin’s death first and foremost, and offers a stark and harrowing vision of human mortality.
In summary, ‘Aubade’ is about the poet waking at four in the morning to ‘soundless dark’ and being gripped by the terror of his own death which, with the dawning of a new day, is ‘a whole day nearer now’. He cannot say how, where, or when he will die, but that doesn’t stop him from contemplating his own demise – a horrifying thought. So powerfully does the prospect of death grip the mind that it makes the mind go blank about anything else, though not because of any feelings of regret about what he didn’t do with his life but should’ve – time wasted, or how he could have been a better, more loving person – but because the most terrifying thing about one’s own death is the ‘sure extinction’ it promises.
Larkin then dismisses religion, which in former times proved effective in consoling us about our own deaths, and convinced us that we would be going to a ‘better place’. But Larkin also dismisses the false consolation found in saying ‘it’s not rational to fear something you won’t be able to feel’, since that doesn’t help us while we are living, breathing individuals to make friends with death: indeed, it is the very loss of feeling, human solidarity and companionship, and all sensory experience which, for Larkin, is the most startling thing about death.
Most of the time, awareness of our own deaths – and of their inevitability – hovers just on the edge of vision, in the corner of our minds, as it were. We can say of most things ‘it might never happen’, but we know that’s not true of death. When we’re on our own and don’t have drink to dull our awareness of death, we are very quickly and strikingly reminded that we are going to die some day. Being brave in the face of death may console others, but doesn’t help oneself.
In the final stanza of ‘Aubade’, having analysed the nature of his own fear of death, Larkin returns us to the setting of the poem which provides it with its title: the dawning of a new day. The outlines of the furniture in his bedroom begins to take shape in the growing light of dawn, and the truth of the matter – his own sure and certain extinction – comes into shape as plainly and solidly as the wardrobe in the room. But a new day is coming, and the usual cycle of telephone calls, work (something Larkin has already analysed in ‘Toads’ and ‘Toads Revisited’), and the arrival of the morning post is upon us again.
‘Aubade’ is a depressing poem, although – as Stephen Fry has said in conversation with Jonathan Bate – it remains a popular poem because it reminds us that out of dark and depressing thoughts, great art can come. There is something consolatory about it, for all its bleakness. Christopher Ricks is fond of quoting Frank Kermode on the limitations of some art which is ‘too consolatory to console’, the implication being that we sometimes like our art to face uncomfortable truths and to transmute horrifying realities into great poetry. ‘Aubade’ is one such example. We may not feel consoled by the message – we’re not meant to – but we can take heart from the fact that, out of such melancholy meditation (and it was very real to Larkin, as was the getting half-drunk at night as a way of coping with it) can come a great poem like ‘Aubade’.
The summary of the poem we’ve provided above spells out what is already spelt out in pretty clear terms the main argument of ‘Aubade’. But some analysis of the images and language Larkin uses reveals new layers to this poem of stark hopelessness. The description of the world as ‘Intricate’ and ‘rented’ conveys at once the complexities of human relations but also the literal fact that we are all merely ‘renting’ the planet, for the time that we exist on it. In the grand scheme of things, we are all tenants rather than owners.
The nod to Oscar Wilde’s supposed dying words about the wallpaper – ‘One side will have to go’ – offers a glimmer of the trademark Larkin wit, sardonic, tongue-in-cheek, grimly ironic. But since they were Wilde’s putative dying words, as he lay in bed in a rented Paris room, the parallel suggests that the bed in which Larkin wakes will soon become his death-bed.
Similarly, the description of light strengthening as ‘the room takes shape’ calls to mind the line from Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Going’, which describes the poet’s experience of seeing ‘morning harden upon the wall’. Morning hardens and, in so doing, shuts off whole avenues of possibilities which we could have pursued in life, but didn’t. This is another reminder of the ‘time / Torn-off unused’ which Larkin refers to earlier in ‘Aubade’.
But the most striking image in the whole poem is perhaps that found in the final line, which describes postmen going from house to house, like doctors. It harks back to a bygone age when it was common for the family doctor to visit people in their homes, but it also calls to mind the spectre of death once again: a doctor visiting the house to administer the last medication to a dying person. Postmen delivering letters are, by contrast, a reminder of one of life’s constants, something – like the newspapers coming out every day – that life will go on for others even when it has ceased to exist for you. (Although these days, in fairness, the continued survival of the Royal Mail and the printed media remains in jeopardy.)
‘Aubade’ is Philip Larkin’s final great poem; after this, he would write a handful of good poems, such as ‘Love Again’ and ‘The Mower’, but ‘Aubade’ was his swansong in many ways. After this, the muse deserted him. But then death was his great preoccupation in his final years, and how could he have given that subject any more poetic life than he did in ‘Aubade’?
If you’d like to read more of Larkin’s work, we recommend The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin. Discover more about his poetry with our commentary on ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, our thoughts on Larkin’s short masterpiece ‘Days’, and our summary of Larkin’s great poem about the environment.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Statue of Philip Larkin (author: Dragoon47, 2013), Wikimedia Commons.