‘The sure extinction that we travel to’

“I don’t know that I ever expected much of life,” Philip Larkin wrote to his lifelong friend Kingsley Amis in October 1979, “but it terrifies me to think it’s nearly over.” He had another six years of life left, but the emptiness of the end—”the total emptiness for ever,/The sure extinction that we travel to”—was much on his mind.

The poem from which those lines originate, “Aubade,” was published in 1977 in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Larkin had started it in 1974, worked at it that year, and then left it until 1977, when he finished it. “Death is the most important thing about life,” he wrote his companion, Monica Jones, when they were both still young.

By 1977, he had not been writing much poetry and he had taken to describing his existence in letters to friends as a sort of death-in-life:

Poetry, that rare bird, has flown out of the window and now sings on some alien shore. In other words I just drink these days … I wake at four and lie worrying till seven. Loneliness. Death. Law suits. Talent gone. Law suits. Loneliness. Talent gone. Death. I really am not happy these days.

Committed to portraying himself as ever-amused and ever-amusing in his letters, especially to Amis, as in the one listing his many dawn worries, Larkin was indeed troubled by the absence of inspiration. (In 1984, when the Poet Laureate John Betjeman died, Larkin was asked if he would accept the position. He quietly declined, stating that he was no longer writing poetry.)

He called “Aubade” his “in-a-funk-about-death poem,” and it is his last major poem published in his lifetime. In 1981, he called it “the only substantial poem I have done since ‘High Windows.'”

As a form, an aubade is the companion to a serenade; it is a song to a parting lover at dawn, while a serenade (usually) is sung at night. Larkin’s “Aubade” is an anti-aubade in many ways, but for two, which is why the title is the only one it could have: it is set in the glimmering dawn and it is to a departing lover, in this case, Larkin’s many fears and anxieties about life and death.

It opens with a self-conscious parody of Theodore Roethke’s 1953 poem “The Waking,” which opens with, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” Larkin: “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.”

When he decided to re-visit the poem in 1977, Larkin wrote to the novelist Barbara Pym, “I get up at 6 when I can and try to add to a poem about DEATH. Not making much progress, but one can only hope—to finish the poem, I mean.” (Larkin’s letters are populated with similar chuckling-to-himself/whistling-past-everything punchlines.)

Larkin’s active alcoholism was something from which he never recovered but openly acknowledged in his letters for decades. He worked hard and drank hard. For three decades, he was the librarian at the University of Hull, in the north of England, and in that time he managed the library’s transition into one of the best university libraries in the country. In his spare time he wrote. Like many an alcoholic, he seemed to think that each job was keeping him from perfecting the other job, and his regrets about this, which he could turn on and off like a tap until the tap of regret stayed stuck in the on position, helped fuel his alcoholism.

“Despite a life-long opposition to work,” he wrote in 1981, “I can’t think what on earth I should do without it, bar drink myself to death.”

He accepted the position at Hull in 1955, far away from the London literary scene, and never left. He rarely saw London or Oxford, even more rarely spent time abroad, never set foot in Canada or America. In 1964, a television program profiled Larkin, who by then had published two novels and three volumes of poetry and was being ranked among the best writers of his generation. Asked about his affiliation with Hull, he replied, “I never thought about Hull until I was here. Having got here, it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, I think even its natives would say that. I rather like being on the edge of things. One doesn’t really go anywhere by design, you know, you put in for jobs and move about, you know, I’ve lived in other places.”

(“Even its natives?” Perhaps it is me, but that phrase rings odd. I lived for several years far away from home and, when asked about my new neighbors, co-workers, and friends, never said about my fellow Iowans, “Even the natives” think such-and-such about Cedar Rapids. It is the phrase of someone who built nests for himself but never a home.)

He found himself in Hull the same way I found myself in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: a job was offered and accepted. “One doesn’t really go anywhere by design.” Note the defensive tone of that last phrase, “You know, I’ve lived in other places.”

“Aubade,” his last published major poem, was not collected in a volume in his lifetime because there were not enough poems for him to put together a volume by the late 1970s. It appeared in a periodical, a Christmas issue of the TLS. (To one friend Larkin wrote, “See the TLS on 23 December for a real infusion of Christmas cheer by yours truly!”)

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 anasthetic 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.
—Philip Larkin, The Complete Poems, 2012, ed. Archie Burnett

Many critics describe the poem’s last line as “ominous.” Larkin addressed this idea in a 1984 letter to the novelist A. N. Wilson: “Some doctor read that last line ‘Postmen like doctors go from house to house’ and said ‘It’s years you know since doctors did house to house visiting.’ But I said ‘No. It isn’t postmen, comma, like doctors, comma, but just postmen like doctors.’ I meant the arrival of the postmen in the morning is consoling, healing.”

“Aubade” is indeed an aubade: his beloved fears depart with the morning sun, even though the sky is “white as clay.” Larkin loved his fears, thought the end was the one fact of life worth reflecting on. Postmen bring the morning consolation that one is still alive, else one would not be receiving the mail that one receives.

Larkin at his best takes the specifics of his own life, a life he seemed to find dreary, and gives us a language in which we recognize our own universal four a.m. fears. “Aubade” is Larkin at his best, finding that emptiness’ emptiness is its own subject.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for June 22 asks us to reflect on the word, “Empty.”

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