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.
From time to time, the thought of death materialises in your mind. It doesn’t only happen at funerals. Sometimes the thought comes when you lie in bed and sleep refuses to come. Your head is foggy with exhaustion, shadows shift on your blankets, and everything seems like a nightmare you don’t remember. Or sometimes you walk past a homeless person on the streets of Vancouver, and you try not to think about their life but you can’t stop. What if you were that person wrapped up in a torn sleeping bag? What if you had to constantly juggle life and death, hoping for the best? These thoughts tumble in your mind and they are far from pleasant, but you think them nonetheless. You may not be depressed and you may not be a pessimistic person, and yet the “soundless dark” (l. 2) beats drums in your head until the “light strengthens” (l. 41) and life becomes brighter than death.
Philip Larkin understands the contrast of light and dark, of life and death. Is that not why the words sound so similar? His poem, “Aubade,” explores the hopeless thoughts of death, but he somehow ties it into this idea of constant daily life. The world wakes up, goes to work, drinks at night, goes to bed, wakes up. The Earth keeps going round and round like a spinning top, and there is sureness in the knowledge that it will keep spinning forever—until one day it ends…for you, at least. One day you won’t wake up. One day there will be “nothing to think with, nothing to love or link with” (l. 28-29). And this, Larkin argues passionately, is what every human is terrified of. You “can’t escape, yet can’t accept” (l. 43-44). You fear, like Augustus Waters in The Fault In Our Stars, oblivion.
The fear of “how and where and when” (l. 6-7) you will die also emerges in your mind. Will it be painless? Will you suffer for years before mercy lets it end? Larkin claims that “death is no different whined at than withstood” (l. 40); you still want to greet death with honour, but it doesn’t change the certainty of dying. Larkin emphasizes, though, the idea of death more than dying. It’s not the fear of how you die as much as the fear of staying dead, of never feeling or thinking or being again.
You think all these things whether you want to or not, and then they slip away again. Moonlight slips into your bedroom and dances on the floor. You arrive at your destination in Vancouver and all thoughts of the homeless disappear. “The curtain-edges grow light” (l. 3) and the world wakes up as usual. Darkness will come again, and one day it will take you too, but for now the light is brighter. For now, there is nothing you can do but embrace the light.