Easy Literature Notes does contain affiliate links and advertising; I will make a small commission if you click on ads or purchase something after clicking on one of my affiliate links. Links and ads do not influence my thoughts or opinions, they are only there to help monetize this website. Have a Wonderful Day!

Analysis of Philip Larkin's "Aubade"

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" (Greenblatt 2566). Philip Larkin was famous for "average Joe" 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 routineness of life, and how it is meant to distract us from what will one day happen to all of us-death.

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")" (Biedermann 365). 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.




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 (see Larkin's poem "This Be The Verse"). 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.

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.

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.

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.

Sources

Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian, 1989.

Greenblat, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. 8thed. New York: Norton, 2006.

Published on January 30, 2012 by Sophia Brookshire © All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. This is an atheistic meditation, anticipation, and unflinching interpretation of death. It is one of Larkin's greatest works. Line 35, and what follows is a reference to Dylan Thomas "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night":

    "And realization of it rages out"

    Thomas, like Larkin was susceptible to some mental frailty, and in the first line, drink is mentioned, being Thomas' preferred method of pushing away the fear of mortality - or the rage against dying light. But notice too, that Larkin does not completely commit himself to oblivion, unlike his fellow poet, preferring only to be "half drunk" - so at least, only partly hiding from his mortal predicament. This allows him the cocooned semi-conscious safety of the partially inebriated, doubtless at least in part giving rise to the inception of this great work.The atheist temperment is further in evidence, held in the clipped English disgust of the lines:

    "That cast moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die,"

    Which are less reverential than the (at least partly) gentle understanding of the decline in western organised religion, in the poem "Church going", it's title having a clever dual meaning, buried in the ritual and the decline of this national institutionalised way in which a nation averted it's eyes from the inevitable final act.

    Interesting post, and good to see this work, being the best introspective poem on the subject, from one of the greats of the twentieth century still being discussed.

    ReplyDelete