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Great poems adapt to our needs over a lifetime of reading them. Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” written in his last decade of life, and arguably one of his greatest poems, has come to mind again and again as I read through my colleague’s posts, reminding me of what seems to be an almost a seismic shift in the American poet’s relation to work. For most of the poets invited to write for Harriet this month the fact of teaching poetry, runs like a seam of precious metal through the bedrock of their belief systems. Their blogs reflect issue-enhanced, agenda-laden lives. This is a departure from the “life of poetry” that Larkin, or Auden, or Stevens led, all of whom had day jobs and wrote poetry in their spare time and none of whom taught, save Auden for a short while. Their blogs are also a testament to what over at least three decades has been a movement away from that hoary, largely white male-dominated world of canonic poetry, whose exclusivity holds no place in today’s world.
On the other hand, this shift, and the institutional basis upon which it has been founded, marks another distinction, between poetry as vocation and poetry as career. A career in poetry tends to include an array of extra-poetic concerns and in the most extreme cases (increasingly apparent among younger poets) uses poetry to further those concerns, uses poetry instrumentally, that is. This is the only way to explain why none of the invited poets seem to be writing much about poems, per se. (Though Rigoberto González just posted a review of Reginald Shepherd’s posthumous book, Red Clay Weather, this comes as an exception to the norm). In most blogs, poems might be mentioned in passing, but as something incidental to the more important matters of the business of poetry, and the businesses for which poetry has become a messenger. To cut to the chase, I keep wondering if poems of “Aubade’s” magnitude, its quiet magnificence and deep emotional core, will still be written in America.
The subtext of Larkin’s poem is work. The poem is also, more prominently, about regret over time wasted and, mostly, it is about the inevitability of death and both a gut and philosophical fear of that inevitability. How emotion and intellect combine is one of the marvels on the poem. A variation on the English Ode, at once meditative but propelled forward by a strong sense of dread, it reads like well-honed Keats. Its title, “Aubade,” means that it should be a celebration of dawn. It is anything but, as dawn in the poem signals one more day consumed, “Unresting death, a whole day nearer now[.]” The compression and abruptness of the opening line is like a knock on the head: “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.”
The theme of work runs through Larkin’s oeuvre from the beginning; the sailors at work in “The North Ship,” those who failed at work (“Mr Bleaney,” “Toads Revisited”); the traveling merchant in the great poem “Lives.” There is even a poem, “At Grass,” about retired racehorses. In “Aubade” work opens and closes the poem and runs through the language of the central argument. “Aubade” doesn’t have an agenda, really, and the narrator also has no agenda and does not even admit to being a poet. We only know that he works, gets drunk, fears death. And the poem itself, even though it is scrupulously formal, doesn’t seem to know it is a poem at all. It behaves more like a black-gowned judge somberly handing down the ultimate sentence. The criminal, waking out of a fog of alcohol, is basically defenseless. The narrator of this poem is looking at the glare as surely as Ivan Ilyich did, except there is no resolution, no self-forgiving moment. His mind goes blank, and not at the life ineptly lived but the only real truth it has had to live by, “total emptiness for ever…nothing more true.”
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.
Even death itself works, unrestingly. Its proximity is measured as our work cycle is, by days: “a whole day nearer[.]” Larkin doesn’t mince words; there is no political background noise, no attitude, none of the palliatives of constructed optimisms; this is a selfish poem, the words of an insomniac with one thing on his mind, aware that he is merely torturing himself (“Arid interrogation”) but helpless to stop.
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 anaesthetic 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.
“This is a special way of being afraid[,]” a “furnace-fear[,]” that suggests living Hell. As in other instances in Larkin, especially in his early poem “Church Going” where the church itself, “this accoutred frowsty barn,” is a synecdoche for the whole institution of belief and redemption, “Aubade” is less than charitable towards religion: “[r]eligion used to try, / That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die…”
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.
Morning presents the narrator with a dilemma: without the distraction of belief, without “[p]eople or drink[,]” what we know — it dawns on us — is unacceptable. The conclusion: “One side will have to go.”
This curious dictate hardens the syllogistic economy of the equation: either we know and accept what we know, or we don’t know (or sublimate what we do know) and don’t accept bodily death as final. One or the other. “…what we know, / Have always known, know that we can’t escape, / Yet can’t accept.” The sentiment and the language recall the last lines of Beckett’s The Unnamable: “…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Except, at this point the choice is dropped; work and its daily commonweal kick in — in a rather grim lyrical passage, work (call it life) is the real default mode. In this sense Larkin’s conclusion recalls the last stanza of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a poem that Larkin would have known well. The notion of “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster…”