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A commentary on Philip Larkin's "Aubade"

Can it be fairly claimed that Ernest Becker's "The Denial of Death" was a significant influence on the theme of Larkin's swansong?

By Andrew ScottPublished 2 months ago 9 min read
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Statue of Philip Larkin at Hull Train Station / Wikimedia Commons

In the sense that death is to Larkin like bitterness is to a good coffee, the question does seem ridiculous. The topic of the fear of death has been as much a part of Larkin’s output as any of his other favourite themes, since it clammily took hold of him in his twenties.

Aged fifty-two in 1974 when he first began working on this poem, it is hard to imagine that Larkin could have been unaware of Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning book published the same year, most especially as he had made a career out of librarianship. This, notwithstanding Larkin’s apparent disavowal of books in his 1960 poem, “A Study of Reading Habits”; his distaste seemed to have been aimed more at escapism, something that could never have been said about Becker’s posthumously published book.

Could this man of doom and gloom have been an altogether more complex character? This is suggested by this last line from his much earlier (1955) “An Arundel Tomb”: “The stone fidelity / They hardly meant has come to be / Their final blazon, and to prove / Our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love.”

Perhaps, as shall be explored below, Larkin was beset or even tormented by a kind of hopeless hope: the object of his devotion so near, yet just out of reach of his questing hands. That glittering prize, set infinitesimally beyond the bounds of where he would let himself go.

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

Right away, in the first line of the first stanza, Larkin’s distractions that he uses to distance his psyche from the terrifying fear of death are introduced: overwork, and alcoholism. In this, he is hardly alone … especially for his time. We are all too aware of many such examples among our peers and forebears. Perhaps including ourselves. The ‘soundless dark’ before the dawn provides the perfect backdrop to his contemplations of these fears, unleashed, no longer bound behind the barriers of daily abstraction: the apparition of “unresting death” that’s “really always there” - the monster underneath the bed of his daily regimen of distractions.

Reading “Aubade” makes it clear, in this first opening salvo, that this overwhelming fear of annihilation dominates – when it is allowed to. Even to the extent that it paralyzes progress in the life of the voice of poet. As Professor Becker puts it: "when the forward momentum of activity is no longer possible" matches up grimly with Larkin’s turn of the phrase “Making all thought impossible ...” - as the event of his fears creeps closer "a whole day nearer now".

As many commentators have pointed out before now, Larkin realises first and foremost that contemplation of "how / And where and when I shall myself die" is merely "[a]rid interrogation" - a process that doesn’t help him achieve any goals in his life. But he cannot help be compelled to be drawn in to regard the ghastly spectre "Of dying, and being dead", which, as well as horrifying him, holds him in place, in stasis, unable to do anything else but be paralyzed by his existential dread.

Photo by Ahmed Adly on Unsplash

Larkin’s second stanza takes up the thread where the first had left off – utter paralysis, as his "mind blanks" in the glaring light of the spectre of death. He makes it clear though as the text progresses that the origin of these fears lie "not in remorse" for acts committed or indeed omitted, "nor wretchedly" from his efforts to "climb / Clear" of any notion of original sin and condemnation which may overhang him. No, instead, the nameless dread he faces is the "total emptiness for ever / The sure extinction" that is so vast and overwhelming that he "shall be lost in always". His vast and unmapped dread cannot do otherwise than to call to mind the phrasing in Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship”: a "dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour" - echoing down the stygian hallways of dread all the way from 1903, and surely an influence on both Larkin and Becker.

Larkin’s gripping depiction of the dread of annihilation continues with "Not to be here / Not to be anywhere" - the immediacy and rapidly approaching doom he faces is brought up close and face-to-face with the reader with his simple, stark "And soon". This existential fear - "nothing more terrible, nothing more true" – is, as Becker has put it, not something merely limited to any growing psychosis as Larkin approaches the end of his life, but something central to most of our lives. It is so terrifying because, according to Becker, "to see the world as it really is is devastating"; it is a fear that "is natural and is present in everyone". This is why, as has been noted elsewhere, Larkin draws the reader into the gloomy picture he creates as “Aubade” progresses.

Moth eaten cloth / Wikimedia Commons

In the third stanza, the narrator firmly brushes to one side three often-used strategies to circumvent this ever-present fear of death. He starts by appealing to distinction: "a special way of being afraid" – it is not like our other phobias in life, and thereby not likely to be overcome with similar strategies. Mere "tricks" like this aren’t convincing to him. “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade” religion, to him, is a thing of the past, that “used to” have a hold on him. He is no longer convinced by songs and shows, gaudy costumes, ritual and dogma – very unsatisfying for a thinking man like Larkin, and the rest of his audience by association. Lastly, he deals with the objection that it would be unreasonable to fear that which one does not feel with the pithy yet punchy "this is what we fear", expanded to "no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with". Nothingness – the annihilation of the self. And nothing to interact with either – no input, no interface with anything. Thereby this objection he too dismisses as "specious stuff".

This absence of feeling in death is underlined with finality in the final line in this stanza as the blankness of the "anaesthetic" to those who have experienced it "from which none come round". It is this horror, this ‘unresting death’ from the first stanza, that far from being an eventual repose into blankness, is instead as Becker writes:

At times like this, when the awareness dawns that has always been blotted out by frenetic, ready-made activity, we see the transmutation of repression redistilled, so to speak, and the fear of death emerges in pure essence. This is why people have psychotic breaks when repression no longer works, when the forward momentum of activity is no longer possible.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

In the first three lines of Larkin’s fourth stanza, the narrator tries to re-focus his captivation by this existential fear to how this dread appears to him in his daily life. The "standing chill", the "unfocussed blur" that remains however much he tries to resist it "just on the edge of vision". However, like a reluctant penitent dragged back to the confession booth, in his third line Larkin admits the paralysis that this dread has inflicted on his daily life. With a shock he is dragged back into the present darkened room, when he is alone with his thoughts. The author of which is no less than his stark remembrance of the inevitability of that which he dreads most. The poet’s voice, on being brought back to confront his nemesis, reacts with "rage" - as hot as a "furnace" - that inevitably calls to mind Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”.

Being without "People or drink" is, in the particular circumstances of the way Larkin lived, to be in a state of terror, in which he is left alone, as Becker describes it, "to see the world as it really is … devastating and terrifying … it makes routine, automatic, secure self-confident activity impossible." The self-paralysis of Larkin’s existential dread – and by extension, those the poet draws into familiar embrace – is thereby exposed for all to see. Worse, to Larkin, courage is a dead letter in the face of the inevitability of final extinction. To him, to be brave in the face of death makes no difference, other that perhaps making a few other people feel less scared. Larkin’s annihilation still happens, regardless of whether annihilation is "whined at" or "withstood".

Photo by Marisa Harris on Unsplash

Larkin reverts to something approximating a stoic position in his fifth and last stanza of the poem. As the light of dawn seeps into the room, revealing once more items of furniture in all their ordinariness, the fear is still there, "as plain as a wardrobe", that he “can’t escape / Yet can’t accept”. No closer to any way of resolving this self-made conundrum, after his early morning contemplation of, and indeed increasingly desperate manoeuvres to avoid, the terror of the extinction of self. The day beckons, and he realises he has to let go of his morbid thoughts, if for a while, to deal with the day-to-day of telephone conversations crouching to spring on him, in offices that feel like prisons. It is in interacting with this "uncaring" "rented world" in all its intricacy that Becker writes of a figurative person as someone who "literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations" that are "forms of madness – agreed madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same." All to deny – or avoid – the fear of death.

It is however the final three lines of this last stanza that are the most revealing clues to Larkin’s internal worldview. ‘The sky is white as clay, with no sun" … if there is a reference point, a source of light, he doesn’t see or admit it. "Work has to be done." - the distractions continue, without purpose. "Postmen like doctors go from house to house." Here, in this last line, Larkin still looks for hope, even amidst all the desolation and ruin of his preoccupation with his rapidly impending annihilation – he hopes for healing, delivered through the front door, by an agency that is somehow outside himself, who lacks that hope.

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

In searching for this hope amidst existential despair, both Becker and Larkin are alike. But while Larkin’s archetype is the stumbling, shambling drunk who blearily continues his hopeless search for hope, Becker instead tried in his work to sustain a thesis that would steady him, rather like journeying into the centre of a raging gyre: a quest which ultimately still failed, as he lacked – or would not adopt – the necessary framework to guide him.

It is often said that by “Aubade” is meant the romantic morning song of departing lovers: a farewell, not a goodbye, with a promise of more nights of material bliss. Many commentators have speculated that Larkin was beset by a ‘love-hate’ relationship with his existential fears, so that his "Aubade" was somehow a shrinkingly fearful longing to once more experience the intimacy of his existential despair. Instead, a much simpler explanation is that, even amidst all the ruin he described, he was still seeking hope. However hopeless he saw himself to be. His version of the “Aubade” is perhaps thus parting from a repeat encounter with his own unrequited hopeless hope. Larkin therefore seems to cut more of a tragic figure that a psychologically tormented one. If only he could have admitted that he had seen the source of the morning light, his life-long conundrum might have been resolved.

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Andrew Scott

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