Poetry Wednesday – Philip Larkin


I discovered Philip Larkin while searching for an aubade.  I was editor-in-chief of my university’s literary magazine known as Aubade and we did a poetry reading.  I wanted to read an aubade, which is a poem written about daybreak, usually about two lovers parting.  Philip Larkin has a beautiful poem entitled “Aubade” that is just amazing.  Larkin is not really known for his cheer, but there is always something hopeful about his negativity.  It seems completely incongruous, but it’s there.  I was only going to post “I Have Started to Say” because it resonated with the way I have been feeling lately, but then I decided I couldn’t pass up posting “Aubade” also, which for me is a more technically well-done poem.

“I Have Started to Say”

I have started to say
“A quarter of a century”
Or “thirty years back”
About my own life.

It makes me breathless
It’s like falling and recovering
In huge gesturing loops
Through an empty sky.

All that’s left to happen
Is some deaths (my own included).
Their order, and their manner,
Remain to be learnt.

I like this poem because it is simple.  It takes a concept that you begin to understand, I suppose around my age because I’ve never thought it before.  That time is moving so fast and I can’t believe sometimes just how fast.  “Like falling and recovering/in huge gesturing loops/through an empty sky” is a particularly thoughtful line that I relate to.  I remember when I first realized that there will never be an October 28, 2009 ever again.  Once a minute has passed, it has passed forever.  That was earth-shattering to my little brain.  How did I know that I lived that moment as well as I could?


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.

What is so unique and fascinating about this poem is the fact that it takes a known form, the aubade, and turns it on its head.  Instead of being about the parting of two lovers at dawn, this is about a man parting from life.  He is pondering his own death as dawn rises.  I like these two poems together because they are connected, both by what they say that is similar and the way they are different.  The first poem is not overtly concerned with the speaker’s own death and it seems that it is only after some thinking about it that they reach the conclusion of “Aubade”.  I am not well-versed enough in Larkin’s poetry to know for sure which was published first, but I like what these two poems say to each other.  Favorite lines: “Most things may never happen: this one will” and “And realisation of it rages out/in furnace-fear”.

What do you think of Larkin’s take on life and death?  What do you think of the conversation between these two poems?


2 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday – Philip Larkin

  1. I finished a novel last week – The Amnesiac by Sam Taylor – that is full of references to Larkin, especially Aubade. I think you’d like it!

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