Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” : A Critical Appreciation
An aubade, deriving from the medieval French word for dawn, is a lyric poem with no prescribed form in which the poet typically celebrates the beauty of his mistress as the sun rises and he must leave her bed: John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” is a well-known example. Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”, however, is an ironic variation on the themes traditionally associated with this kind of lyric. In this poem, the first-person speaker describes a typical early morning when, waking alone in the darkness before the dawn, he contemplates the terrifying inevitability of his own absolute extinction.
The speaker states that he is in the habit of working all day, getting “half-drunk at night,” and then waking involuntarily in early morning darkness to contemplate the horror of his death, which is always one day nearer. He then clarifies the source of his dread. He is not in despair at having wasted his life. He is simply in existential terror of certain personal extinction.
It is not the thought of missing out on doing good and spreading love in the world; “time / Torn off unused” (12-13), nor is the thought of dying without making up for his failures and transgressions what scares the narrator. What scares him most is the loss of all sensory recognitions and self-awareness.
As the fear of death is a universal and ever-present anxiety, human beings have and will forever continue to develop strategies to deal with that inevitable end we must all reach. In Aubade, Larkin reflects on these coping mechanisms, and explains how they fail to work for the subject of his poem. He contemptuously dismisses as potential consolations of both religious faith in the afterlife and the rationalist assurance that one cannot be hurt by what one cannot feel. Religion is simply a worn-out charade, while rationalism fails to take into account that the idea of the total loss of sensation is precisely what is so terrifying about death.
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 one cannot make any decisions. There are a lot of things that may or may not happen, but the one guarantee in life is that everyone 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. Death will come whether you whine about it or not.
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. The world is uncaring; it has no sympathy for the plight of man. The complicated world is rented to us, and we have to give it back when we die. 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.
Each stanza follows the rhyme pattern of: ababccdeed, which reinforces his twine theme of loneliness and death. The poem is written in iambic pentameter (with variations) that reinforces the monotony of life. Philip Larkin was famous for his writing dealt with real life tragedies, fears, and thoughts of average man. The poem is full of symbolism. The very title, “Audabe” , creates anticipations in the minds of the readers but Larkin’s aubade turns to be anti-aubade and this sad sarcasm only underlines contrast and irony used by the author.