“Death is no different whined at than withstood.”

September 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

A friend reminded me recently of one of Philip Larkin’s final major poems, “Aubade.” Reading it again, I was struck quite unexpectedly by emotion and found myself reading it out loud several times, each time differently. I noticed in particular a weight of sighs in every reading, all distributed & weighing differently. It is self-indulgent enough to post oneself reading something, so I resisted the urge to record more than one version. The similarly minded can do that for themselves.

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.

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§ 2 Responses to “Death is no different whined at than withstood.”

  • tom altizer says:

    An incredibly honest poem about death which I did not know so I am grateful to you for it. Larkin is a strange one if only because he can be powerful and shallow at once and I do not understand how it is that he seems to be free of English radical traditions.

    • Brad Johnson says:

      Yes! I think you are exactly right to point to the strange balance — if that is what it is — between Larkin’s shallowness and power. The friend who forwarded this along to me echoes these comments of yours when she said: “bits are brilliant enough to make some of it bland.”

      If Larkin is to be included in the radical tradition, surely it is his readers who will have to do the heavy-lifting he surely would’ve resisted.

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