Poetry corner (3): Philip Larkin

The Knife has commented before on Clive James’ poetry, particularly in relation to his age, illness and his mortality. Standard stuff for poets, but done with a rare skill and poignancy.

Of course, if one is religious in some way, death, for all its terrors and uncertainties, is not the end. Easy to say, but I frequently see this at work. The comfort is real. The Lectio Divina addresses it beautifully, all the way from the 4th century:

Grant to life’s day a calm unclouded ending,
An eve untouched by shadows of decay,
the brightness of a holy deathbed blending
With dawning glories of the eternal day.

On the other hand, if you don’t have that benefit, real or not (see Pascal’s Wager for help), then things can be pretty bleak. No-one likes to be depressed or made that way, but Philip Larkin, with Aubade, produced a real masterpiece. He died youngish (63) in 1985 of cancer of the oesophagus. The poem was written 8 years before his death.

William Wordsworth famously hinted at the numinous, the divine that may lie somewhere beyond our daily lives, with Intimations of Immortality, the answer to Larkin’s pessimism.  Larkin, unable to agree, sees only mortality. An aubade is a morning verse, often to a lover. If you have ever spent a whole night  of stress and no sleep, you will empathise.

AUBADE, by Philip Larkin

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 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.
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.
Amemento mori by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671
A memento mori by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671

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