Philip Larkin‘s poem “Aubade” is one of the most profound poems on death that I’ve ever read, conveying the existential terror of death as well as our impotence in its face. I’ll let the poem speak for itself.
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.
4 thoughts on “Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” (A Poem About The Terror of Death)”
Good poem. But let’s not think about death. Just make up stories about an afterlife – yeah, that solves the problem. And don’t devote any of our vast resources in to postoning or preventing death. Better to spend billions on sporting events.
One could argue that most things are no different whined at than withstood.
You might be right, whining generally doesn’t do much good, unless you can elicit sympathy.
Has always struck me as an almost comical evocation of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, the premise of which was that everything we say, do, create—you name it—is motivated (more or less obviously) by our terror of and denial of death. You don’t hear much of Becker’s book anymore, although it created quite a stir when published in ’73 (four years before Aubade). I think there’s a reason for that; and despite elements of greatness in Aubade, I think its tilt toward silliness implicates some of the same considerations explanatory of Becker’s decline and fall. We can find and experience meaning in our short lives, but not immured in a self-centered and referential Hamlet mode. That’s a bit conclusory and glib, but it’ll have to do for here.
Incidentally, the poem evokes Robinson Jeffers for me: not because of stylistic similarities but because reading Jeffers’ selected poems, moving though some are, and despite regular occurrence of memorable, even great lines, there’s a pessimism so utterly relentless that at times—as with this poem—it strikes me as just too much, as, in fact, just silly.