Philip Larkin, Aubade

Larkin’s “Aubade” begins:

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.

The rest is here. It doesn’t need annotation, except that an “aubade” is a song or poem spoken by a man to his forbidden lover at daybreak, when he must flee her bed. (Yet there’s only one person in this bed.)

Also, it might be relevant that the man who published this poem was a 55-year-old Englishman, single, reputed to be grouchy and alcoholic; an academic librarian in the Northern industrial city of Hull who would publish just a few more poems before his early death. Knowing that information, we might be tempted to place the “room [that] takes shape” as “light strengthens” in Yorkshire in 1977–rather than, say, Boston in 2012. In fact, we may think we can identify the room as the one behind the upstairs window in this building, which was Philip Larkin’s home:

105 Newland Park, Hull

I was a small American boy in England around that time. My family lived in a series of furnished, rented homes and stayed in bed-and-breakfast hotels and friends’ houses, so I recall many English bourgeois homes in those years. I can picture the “curtain-edges” and room “plain as a wardrobe” that are named in the poem and can supply other details left unmentioned: the thickly-painted electrical wires stapled to big baseboards, the framed prints of village life, the hinged windows, and the aroma of cigarettes, mothballs, and rising damp.

But look: this isn’t really the statement of a “half-drunk” middle-aged Englishman, talking to us from his bed as dawn breaks on an overcast day in 1977. He would have no means to communicate his morbid thoughts to a global audience 35 years hence. What we are actually reading is a poem, very carefully constructed over many hours or perhaps months and published in the Times Literary Supplement. Fear didn’t really make “all thought impossible,” because the author conveyed subtle thoughts in intricate verse. Despite the overwhelming volume of poems published in journals like the TLS, this one remains a staple of anthologies and seminars not because it reports the early-morning panic of a middle-aged bachelor, but because of its form.

The poem is written in a consistently natural, vernacular voice, yet it fits neatly in five 10-line stanzas with the rhyme scheme ABABCCDEED. The A, B, and C lines are of ten syllables each: regular iambic pentameter. The D lines of each stanza have 9 syllables, and the E lines are of irregular length to emphasize a phrase that occupies a whole line in each stanza: “Of dying, and being dead,” “Not to be anywhere,” “Nothing to love or link with,” “Lets no one off the grave,” and “Work has to be done.”

Reading those five lines in order reveals that work is of almost equal weight to death in the poem, which begins “I work all day,” and ends with postmen going from house to house. The real Philip Larkin worked as a senior university administrator, so he may have had one of those “locked-up office[s]” where “telephones crouch, getting ready to ring.” The telephone is an instrument of human connection–potentially a tool “to love or link with”–but for a bureaucratic worker, it mostly threatens chores, complaints, and orders.

Yet the real Philip Larkin also worked as a poet. Unlike the narrator of the poem, the author had a gift, an audience, and a life mission. It cost him labor and care to write and publish verse that used familiar forms to report common experiences. When he refers in “Aubade” to “what we know,  / Have always known, know that we can’t escape,” he is addressing a group, a “we.” He is building a community to which he will also belong. Although the telephone and the postman convey the messages of an “uncaring / Intricate rented world,” the poem demonstrates care and demands sympathy.

The narrator mixes two rhetorical modes: confessional (“I … get half-drunk at night”) and didactic. Sometimes he sounds like an atheist preacher, insisting that religion is just “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die.” But this isn’t a sermon or a treatise about the fear of death in a godless universe. It matters that “brocade” rhymes with “afraid,” and “die” with “try.” (Notice the contrasting senses of each pair.) The depressed doctrines of a grouchy old man would hardly matter, but it took skill and hope to turn those thoughts into an intricate and coherent poem.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.