Aubade: Death Recognized

New poem I’ve found by Philip Larkin: Aubade.

This poem is great for its unabashed emphasis on the realization of Death.

Sure we all think of Death from time to time, but Larkin points out how for some of us intellectuals, death is not only omnipresent, but ineffable.

This poem does not hide that it is about what happens after we realize we are all going to die:

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 anesthetic 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.

What to emphasize? I like the lines: “Making all thought impossible”. I occasionally encounter friends who claim, “How frightful! We are all mortal!”. They’ve just had a reminder or epiphany, and are now wandering aimlessly, uncertain of what comes next. I have to stifle my response of, “Yeah, I know…it’s all I’ve been able to think of for the past few years, and you’re not being helpful.”

I guess what I really mean to say is, “I understand the poem is scary. Life is scary. DEATH is scary. But…”

If there is no risk of death, life has no meaning. I don’t mean that sentimentally, I mean it literally. It’s an inexorable bookend to our life, as Guare put it, and thus it encapsulates it for us. It is scarily unpredictable, but to overthink it can be like obsessing about the inevitable curtain call of a play while you’re watching Act II.

As hopeless as it can feel, as hopeless as it is, it’s important to continue to live life, sometimes like you don’t know death’s coming. Relearn your ignorance as best you can. It’s just as important for students to continue studying for exams as it is for old folks to keep track of their homes and lives; continue on with your life’s purpose (whatever you can choose it to be) until that curtain call. Do not let “Death look gigantically down“. Acknowledge its power, and then return to your “rented world.”

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