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Do you enjoy reality television? Do you like to watch people struggle openly with the big questions: Life, Love, and Death (especially death)? If you do (actually, even if you don't) Philip Larkin's poem "Aubade" has something for you. This stuff is intense. You're not going to see the folks on The Real Dance Pawn Shop Hunters of the Swamp grapple with issues any more real. Really.
In "Aubade," the speaker wakes up in the predawn darkness thinking about the inescapability of death. This is a bit… odd, given that an aubade is a traditional kind of poem involving lovers. Usually, it features the man leaving the woman at sunrise, after a romantic night together. But that's not really the case for our speaker. What's more, this isn't the first time he's felt this way. This guy knows tons about how to be afraid of death. In the poem, he outlines what he fears about death and why nothing can make that fear go away. Yes, this poem is a bummer, but then again so is most of the stuff on TV.
Lots of Larkin's poems explore death and sadness. Larkin once said, "I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, […] most people are unhappy, don't you think?" It seems much of his writing life was spent in preparation for, or at least in consideration of, unhappiness and death.
Larkin wrote "Aubade" fairly late in his career (it was published in 1977) and some people consider it to be his last major work. This guy didn't write tons of poems by poetry bigwig standards, but he had lots of big hits (or at least the poetry equivalent of hits). Today, Larkin is considered by many to be one of the finest English poets of the 20th century. He died in 1985 at the age of sixty-three.
It might have happened when you were alone, walking on a gloomy day. Or, perhaps like the speaker in Philip Larkin's "Aubade," it hit you in the middle of the night when you couldn't sleep. Regardless of the situation, chances are every one of us has contemplated the how and where and when of our death. It can be a pretty unsettling realization that we are all zooming toward the same end. This might be why there are so many poems about death. So, why would we want to spend our time reading this (or any) poem about death? Fair question.
Larkin's poem is a little different, though. It certainly doesn't pull any punches. He doesn't try to romanticize death or sugarcoat it (mmm, sugar). We get the sense that he is speaking to us in a very honest, straightforward way. He isn't trying to teach us about death or how to deal with it. He doesn't take on the role or the voice of the great and worldly artist or philosopher. He doesn't lecture. He is one of us—just a regular Joe (or Phil) trying to deal with a big fear. He's kind of saying, "Look, I'm freaked out by death most of the time and this is making my life tough." Even if the thing that freaks you out isn't as big and universal as death, it's still easy to relate to someone saying, "I'm scared. I struggle, and I don't have the answers." It makes us feel connected in some small way to the poem's speaker, regardless of what our own personal struggles happen to be.
Despite this poem's gloomy subject and imagery, it can actually be weirdly comforting to read. The comfort comes in knowing that we are not alone in grappling with the things that freak us out. When you read this poem, you'll realize that we aren't the only ones lying awake at night, staring at the ceiling.
All Larkin, All the Time
Check out the Larkin Society's home page for all things Larkin.
This is a great Larkin bio plus links to other Larkin poems from our friends at the Poetry Foundation.
All about the Aubade
Larkin's "Aubade" is mentioned in this article about the form, and there are links to tons of other aubades from many different poets.
Here are some quotes from Larkin on a bunch of different topics. Okay, mostly they're about death and unhappiness. Sorry.
This is a video interpretation of Larkin's "Aubade" set to a catchy beat. See what you think. What do you imagine Larkin would think?
Here's a chance to hear Larkin read "Aubade." Spoiler Alert: the images are a little gloomy.
We Got a Fever, and the Only Cure is More Larkin
Here's another reading by Larkin (audio only this time).
This is a fetching picture of Larkin as a young man.
Here is a picture of Mr. Sunshine later in life.
Sure, he's smiling in this one, but look at that sky behind him.
An Almost Perfect Poem?
This article from The Telegraph puts "Aubade" on a pretty high pedestal. What do you think?
Larkin Talks to The Paris Review
Larkin answers all kinds of questions (even though it seems like some of them he'd rather not).
Updike on Larkin
John Updike takes a careful look at Larkin's Collected Poems in this article from The New Yorker.
Get your Larkin Here!
Here are a bunch of books by Larkin (including his novel A Girl in Winter and All What Jazz, a collection of his music criticism and reviews). Click away.