Analysis of Philip Larkin's "Aubade"
An "aubade" is a morning love song (it is the opposite of a serenade, which takes place in the evening). Sometimes it is written about when lover's separate at dawn. Or, as in this poem, a song or poem announcing dawn; the lover in this scenario is death, when the sun comes up the looming threat of death seems to magically dissipate. Each stanza follows the rhyme pattern of: ababccdeed, which reinforces his theme of "loneliness of age and death". Philip Larkin was famous for simple style of writing, because it was relatable to the everyday working man; his writing dealt with real life tragedies, fears, and thoughts. Larkin was involved with many women over the years, but he was a serial bachelor, and with that brought its own kind of loneliness; a loneliness which caused him to reflect on things that most people try very hard not to think about, especially unpleasant things like death. In this poem, Larkin talks about the routine of life, and how it is meant to distract us from what will one day happen to all of us-death.
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. (lines 1-10)
Stanza one reflects on the duality of the world: the daylight hours are when we can escape the truths of the universe and fool ourselves into believing that we can control our lives; however, the darkness of the night brings the truth to the forefront, we are forced to accept our mortality. The narrator "works all day" to make money so he can buy fancy things or what not, but it is all in vain, because when he dies he can't take any of what he earned with him. Also, working can be a sort of an escape for a worried mind, because when you work you have to concentrate on the task at hand not on existential questions. He is forced to "get half-drunk at night," in order to block out the truth of existence, which is that everyone dies. Drunkenness allows him to momentarily escape from his fears and loneliness. He doesn't want to think about his own mortality, but he doesn't have a choice; the darkness of night will not let him forget. "Waking at four to the soundless dark" is referring to the hour before sunrise, when the sky is slowly starting to lighten. Everyone is still asleep, but soon they will be waking up. The narrator seems to believe that he is the only one who is awake, and the only one who knows the truth. The loneliness of knowing this truth, in a way, makes him feel slightly superior to others, who choose to remain ignorant. Knowing the truth also causes loneliness; what is the point of cultivating relationships when they will just end in death. He stares down the darkness, confronting what fears him most, trying to gain the upper-hand on death. "In time the curtain-edges will grow light," meaning that the sun will rise and the other truth will be revealed. In the metaphorical sense, curtains/veils are used to disguise the truth. "Fog and cloud cover are often referred to as veils. Both the noun and the verb are used as extended sense to refer to intentional concealment (e.g. "thinly veiled references")". The night disguises the other truth; whereas it is true that everyone will die someday, it is also important to remember that we are alive now, and must live life to the fullest. What's the point of existing if you are too scared of death to live? Living is far more important to us than death; we don't know what death is like, all we know for sure is what living feels like. "What's really always there" is death, which is hidden by the light of day. "Unresting death, a whole day nearer now;" death never ceases, it is constantly approaching. The thought of death makes "all thought impossible," because he becomes consumed with the when, where, and how's of his death; this "arid interrogation" gets him nowhere. Arid is defined as being very dry/unproductive; so "arid interrogation" means that he is asking unproductive questions. Even though he knows that there is no point in stressing over something that he cannot stop, the "dread (great fear) of dying, and being dead" grabs a hold of him once again and scares all over again.
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. (11-20)
In stanza two, the narrator tries to prove to Death that he is not scared of dying. "The mind blanks at the glare" that is exudes from the truth. His mind is overwhelmed by all of his thoughts about death. His mind does not blank in "remorse" (a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs) for all the good that he was not able to do, or the love he was unable to share, or the time that he wasted; nor does it blank "wretchedly" (inferior, poor in quality), because he was unable to overcome his faults. "An only life," meaning a life that is unquestionably the best; "wrong beginnings" is referring to the faults that are passed down to us by our parents. The mind blanks at the thought of being empty and extinct forever lost in the vast expanse of death. He fears not being anywhere whether it is heaven or hell; he wants so badly to have some part of him live on after his body dies. Death will come soon, and all of these terrible thoughts won't matter anymore. There is nothing more true than death; we can't run or hide from death, nor can we cheat it.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That cast 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 anaesthetic from which none come round. (21-30)
In stanza three, the narrator deals with the reasons why we fear death so much. Knowing that we all WILL die someday produces a special kind of fear that cannot be dispelled by any trick. In this instance, "trick" is referring to religious doctrine. Religion gives people reason, and it makes death not seem so scary. The narrator is saying that religion is all full of lies, and "that cast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die." A cast is when you shape something by pouring it into a mould; religion is a cast, it consists of many stories and doctrines to help shape individuals into "better" people. "Moth-eaten" means that it is old or out-of-date, decayed, and has flaws. "Brocade" is typically made with silk fabric and has a raised design, and is woven on a draw loom. Larkin uses it here to describe a sort of musical tapestry; where the music is the sound of people talking and the pattern is a pictorial story of man. It is a story to help explain immortality, the immortal soul, and the afterlife; it is like scripture that teaches morals through stories. The whole purpose of religion is so that people don't get distracted by the fact that they will die; if you don't believe that death is the end then you won't fear it. Something is "specious" when it seems to be genuine, correct, or beautiful but is not really so. The "musical brocade" is specious; it is only a trick. "No rational being can fear a thing it will not feel" is the kind of nonsense that the musical brocade spouts. What religion does not seem to understand is that not being able to see, hear, touch, taste, smell, think, love, or connect with others ever again is what we fear the most. "Anaesthetic" is used here metaphorically; anesthetic is a substance that causes reversible loss of consciousness (typically used to perform surgery without pain), but here death is the ultimate anesthetic which has no reversing agent. Death is final.
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 realization 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. (31-40)
The narrator accepts that death is coming whether he likes it or not. "And so it stays just on the edge of vision, a small unfocused blur;" death is on the horizon, coming nearer and nearer with each passing day. "A standing (permanent) chill" of terror that "slows each impulse (a force that starts a body into motion) down until you cannot make any decisions; you are so terrified by death that you stop living your life. There are a lot of things that may or may not happen, but the one guarantee in life is that you WILL die, and the realization of this causes a violent and uncontrolled anger spew forth like a furnace when we are alone or without alcohol. Having courage in the face of death doesn't help anyone; what do we really know about death? Maybe we should be scared. Bravery won't save you from death. Death will come whether you whine about it or not.
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. (41-50)
The darkness becomes light, night turns into day, and death doesn't seem so looming anymore. The sun rises, and he can finally see clearly again. The truth "stands plain as a wardrobe;" we know that we can't escape death, but we can't seem to accept our own mortality. "One side" of us, meaning our bodies, will have to die. The world is about to awake and start the day. The "telephones crouch" (stoop or bend low) in anticipation of the exhausting day ahead. Telephone is personified in line 45; telephones can't really crouch. The world is uncaring; it has no sympathy for the plight of man. The intricate (complicated) world is rented to us, and we have to give it back when we die. "The sky is white as clay, with no sun" is an image of a new day and a renewed hope. Routine is comforting because we always know what is coming next, there are no surprises. Work helps us to lose ourselves in the tasks at hand, and death is far from our minds. Death is still right around the corner, postmen and doctors alike bring news: good and bad.