Study Guide

Aubade Analysis

By Philip Larkin

  • Sound Check

    Despite all that meter and the end rhyme, "Aubade" doesn't really sound too, well, poet-y. It sounds more conversational, like the way some fairly-educated, grumpy guy would talk. The word choice and the descriptions are all pretty down to earth. If you don't believe Shmoop, just check out line 1: "I work all day, and get half-drunk at night." It doesn't get much more real-world than that (and we don't mean the MTV show; we mean the actual real world).

    Sound-wise, Larkin also mixes in some interesting consonance in this poem. Line 5 is a good example:

    Unresting death, a whole day nearer now. 

    Hear those repeated Ds and Ns? That's it. It ties the line together nicely, making each word seem like it fits, belongs exactly where it is. In this line, the consonance also subtly reinforces the connection between "death" and "day." Remember, in this poem daylight doesn't push death away. Death is still there when the sun comes up. It's not as simple as sunlight and vampires in Larkin's world.

    Larkin lays some more consonance on us in line 10:

    Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

    This time it's the Fs and Hs that steal the show. In this line, the repeated sounds kind of mimic the flashing action the line describes. Just like the meter and rhyme scheme of the poem, the use of sound here ties the delivery together in a subtle way, helping the main idea along. Neat, huh?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    At first glance, the title of this one functions on a pretty basic level: it tells us what kind of poem it is—kind of like titling a sonnet… "Sonnet." However, upon closer inspection (time to get out those magnifying glasses, Shmoopers), this title functions on another level as well.

    Traditionally, an aubade celebrates the arrival of dawn—the light of day pushing away the darkness of night. It can also be a kind of morning love poem. The typical situation has something to do with lovers parting (sometimes out of necessity) at sunrise. There might be a little sadness in the departure, but at least their love endures. Now, let's assume you already knew what an aubade was. When you read Larkin's "Aubade," did he give you what the title set you up to expect? Nope. There are some pretty major aubade-components missing.

    First of all, Larkin's speaker is alone and we don't get the sense that there was any lover in the picture. He worked, drank, slept a bit, and woke up depressed in the wee hours of the morning. If we stretch it, we could say that he's not alone; death is with him in the room (and everywhere else, really). When morning does arrive, our speaker tells us that, "One side will have to go," but it doesn't seem like death gets the message because it feels like he's still hanging around. Worst sleepover ever.

    So, what does this title do? It sets up an expectation, and then doesn't deliver. This creates a sense of disappointment and that disappointment hangs over the poem like a dark cloud. It's as if Larkin, with this title, is trying to let us know that we aren't going to get what we expect. There is no great payoff in life (or after it); there is no lover; there's only death. There is no celebration of dawn's arrival. In fact, the sun doesn't even show up ("The sky is white as clay, with no sun")! The arrival of day doesn't signify the conquest of life's light over the death's darkness. It just announces another day going through the mundane motions of daily life until death—permanent night—finally arrives. Now, all aboard the good times train.

  • Setting

    "Aubade" takes place in the speaker's house—more specifically, in his bedroom. He wakes up before dawn and can't go back to sleep. He stares at the dark windows anticipating dawn's arrival. He's still there, in the bedroom, when the light does come: "Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape" (41).

    While the physical setting of the poem is pretty fixed, the speaker's mind ranges outside the room. He imagines the telephones waiting to ring in "locked up offices" and all the people about to awake and begin the day. Still, for the most part, the setting is pretty stagnant. It's just a guy in his room at night, thinking about death. This stagnant setting amplifies the feelings of being trapped, in a sense, with death. The room feels inescapable, just like death—as the speaker reminds us many, many times in the poem—is impossible to escape.

  • Speaker

    Our speaker is, well… how can Shmoop put this without sounding too mean? The guy (and we're just assuming it's a guy) is a huge drag. His drinking habits put him well outside the range of a social drinker. He sounds like he hates his job—we imagine some kind of soul-sucking desk job. He seems fairly educated, but not elitist or academic. He doesn't seem to have anyone special in his life. Shmoop imagines lots of dirty dishes in the sink, crumbs on the coffee table, and a pretty funky smell in this guy's pad.

    Despite the fact that the speaker is dealing with the terrifying prospect of his own death, his tone stays pretty even. He doesn't seem overly emotional. We get the sense that this isn't our speaker's first time waking up and contemplating his pending doom. This probably isn't his first night sitting alone in a dark room with death. And for that, in a weird way we have to admire him. He's not logging onto Facebook or DVR'ing Dancing with the Stars. Sure, he may be depressive, but he's engaged with the BIGGER TRUTHS of life—and death. He's not trying to cover them up with trivial pursuits; he faces them head-on. Of course, he (or at least his personality) pays the price for that kind of attentiveness.

    Is this speaker Larkin? Well, from what we know of Larkin's life, he certainly seems to share some of Phil's feelings and beliefs, but it's always a good idea to separate the poet from the speaker. What we can say for certain is that this speaker is definitely not the guy you want to turn to for any kind of a pep talk. He's a gloomy Gus, but give him a break. You'd be grumpy too if death kept showing up for sleepovers.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    This one isn't all that difficult in terms of meaning. Bring a light snack and some comfortable shoes and you should be fine. However, your emotional toughness will be tested. You might just want to pull the covers over your head and stay in bed for a couple days after reading this one. Fight the darkness, Shmoopers. Fight!

  • Calling Card

    Life Stinks and Then You Die

    Conversational tone? Iambic pentameter and rhyme? Wish you had never read the poem because now you're so depressed that fifth period seems absolutely out of the question? If you can check off all of these boxes, chances are you just read a Larkin poem.

    "Aubade" is a great example of the tone, form, and subject type that Larkin is known for: disappointment, monotony, death, and the fear of death. Take a look at Larkin's "Dockery and Son" (especially the last four lines) and "Days" for more of the same. When you finish, take yourself out for an ice-cream cone. You'll need some cheering up.

  • Form and Meter

    Aubade in Rhyming Iambic Pentameter

    An aubade is typically a poem that celebrates the arrival of dawn. An aubade can also be a kind of morning love poem, often centering around two lovers parting at dawn (check out "What's Up With the Title?" if you're dying to know more). Dawn arrives in Larkin's "Aubade," but Shmoop wouldn't call it a celebration. And the speaker of Larkin's poem wakes up and watches day break alone. Actually, Larkin kind of uses the aubade form in an ironic way to emphasize the poem's theme of death's ultimate triumph over life (like night's triumph over day). Way to take all the fun out of it, Phil.

    Still, Larkin clearly had a good time putting this poem together. As a poet, he was all about form and meter, and "Aubade" is a great example of how he used form to amplify and highlight aspects of content and theme. Let's take a look at those iambs first, shall we?

    An iamb is a pattern: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Say "allow" out loud and you'll hear a real, live iamb in action: daDUM. Put five of those little suckers together and you have iambic pentameter ("penta-" means five). "Aubade's" first few lines set up this pattern:

    I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. (1)

    Read the line aloud and you'll hear the daDUM daDUM pattern.

    So, why did Larkin use iambic pentameter in "Aubade?" Good question. Think about the major themes in this one. Death and the futility and monotony of life certainly stand out. The repeated patterns reflect that monotony. There are deviations that hint at glimmers of the unexpected, but the surprises are usually unpleasant—not a surprise party with balloons and cupcakes (man, we loves us some cupcakes). The pattern also reinforces the feeling of knowing beyond a doubt what is coming next (in this case: looming death).

    Since most of "Aubade's" lines follow the iambic pentameter pattern, when a line breaks the pattern it really stands out. Larkin takes advantage of the jarring sense we get when a pattern is broken. Take a look at line 7 for a good example:

    And where and when I shall myself die.

    Notice anything different here? Yup, the pattern is broken. The line is bouncing along nicely, one iamb after another, until the end. There, where there should be an unstressed syllable, comes a stressed one. And the word that's stressed, "die," is kind of the point of the whole poem. The line ends with a thud. The sound of those stressed syllables right next to each other mirror the speaker's feeling when he realizes death is looming. So, the metrical deviation mirrors and emphasizes the line's content. That's kind of cool, right? Okay, cool might be too strong, but hey, we like it.

    Speaking of metrical variation (and trying oh-so-hard to stay awake with that kind of talk), Phil changes things up near the end of each stanza. The second-to-last line of each stanza (the penultimate line for those of you looking to boost your SAT vocab scores) breaks away from the iambic pentameter pattern he sets up. These lines are shorter than the other lines in each stanza and they sound different. These differences guarantee that they get lots of attention. Take a look at line 9 for a taste of what we're talking about:

    of dying and being dead

    Looks different. Sounds different. This line starts and ends with iambs, but the middle of the line is different. There is an anapestic foot here (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one), right smack dab between the iambs. And check out the stressed word that's hanging off the end of the line. Why, it's our old pal death. Larkin reallly wants us to think about death.

    Line 19 is another shorty (the shortest in the poem) and another good example of how Larkin breaks away from the iambic pentameter pattern to make a point:

    Not to be Anywhere,

    Here we have two dactylic (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables) feet. If you read the line aloud, you can hear the DUMdada DUMdada rhythm. Try it. You'll like it. By establishing this smooth rhythm and then cutting it off abruptly, the sound of the line mirrors, in a sense, the sudden end of a life. The fact that the line is so short and ends so abruptly leaves the reader hanging—kind of dangling in the white space between the longer lines before and after. The reader is left there for a moment between lines, in the white space, not really anywhere. Get it? The metrical change mirrors the line's content and feeling.

    We're not done yet, though. Larkin has another formal trick up his puffy white poet sleeves—rhyme. The poem follows a strict rhyme scheme: ABABCCDEED. Rhyme can be used to create emphasis and mirror content in much the same way breaking from an established metrical pattern can. You don't have to dig very deep in the poem to find a good example. Just check out the end rhyme in lines 1 and 3: "night" and "light."

    Besides reminding Shmoop of our Death Star nightlight (we know you're jealous, try to move past it), there are a couple other interesting aspects to this rhyme. In terms of meaning, night and light are very nearly opposites (night is dark). And visually, the two words look very similar. In fact, a single letter prevents one word from actually becoming the other. When we consider what Larkin is saying in the poem about death being the ultimate victor over light and life, this rhyme definitely emphasizes one of the poem's main themes. Just because the night ends, that doesn't mean death has been defeated or pushed away. In fact, he tells us that the dawn of each new day, the coming of the light, really signals "unresting death [eternal night], a whole day nearer." Light will eventually become night.

    Larkin uses the same trick in stanza 4 with "brave" and "grave." This time, the rhyme emphasizes the idea that being brave doesn't get you any further from death: "Being brave / Lets no one off the grave" (38-39). "Brave" and "grave" are close in sound and visually as similar as "light" and "night." If you are brave, you are just as close to death as a coward. The cowardly and the brave all end up in the same place, anyway.

    See? We told you that Larkin put a lot into the structure of this poem. In all things, he made choices to underscore the central preoccupation of the speaker, and the inevitable sense of doom brought about by looming death—not exactly a laugh fest, we admit, but a stunning accomplishment nonetheless.

  • Night-Darkness-Death

    Well, by now you know that Larkin's "Aubade" doesn't fall into the feel-good poetry category. It's pretty dark. So, it isn't too surprising that the poem relies on dark imagery to set the mood. Larkin also sets up an extended metaphor: night and darkness represent death throughout the poem.

    • Line 1: The end word of the poem's first line is "night." The placement is significant. The line begins with day and ends with night. We are left for a moment to consider that darkness. Not only does the word "dark" come at the end of the first line, there is a full stop (a period) at the end of the line. That forces us to spend a little more time in the dark.
    • Line 2: Just in case we didn't get enough darkness hanging out with "night" in line 1, Larkin describes the "soundless dark" of pre-dawn in line 2. Describing the dark as "soundless" makes it feel kind of void-like. We know that we can't see in the dark, but this dark is also so silent that it seems soundless. It's as if the night is so dark that no stimulus can penetrate it.
    • Line 5: It doesn't take Larkin very long to get to death. Line 5 starts with "unresting death." See the progression? "Night" in line 1, "dark" in line 2, and "death" in line 5. The gang's all here!
    • Lines 6-10: Things are escalating here in stanza 1. We started with night, moved onto darkness, then to death in a kind of general sense, and finally we arrive at the very personal and frightening notion of our own imminent demise. The night and the darkness seem to have triggered the speaker's thoughts of death and dying.
    • Lines 17-20: Things just keep getting bleaker in stanza 2. That "sure extinction" the speaker talks about is none other that Larkin's ol' buddy, death. Larkin describes the experience of death as, "Not to be here, Not to be anywhere." Does that description remind you of anything from stanza 1? How about that void-like sightless and "soundless dark" description of night? Keep that connection between night-dark-death in mind—Larkin is just getting warmed up.
    • Lines 27-30: Larkin expands on the description of death's void: "No sight, no sound, no touch or taste or smell." Again, this description of death echoes that "soundless dark" description of night from stanza 1. 
    • Line 37-40: Yup. How about some more death? This time Larkin makes sure to burst that last bubble of hope we might have been holding onto: be brave and face it, accept death and live life. Larkin thinks that's fine, but he wants you to know it doesn't matter. Death is the same for the brave and the cowardly alike.
  • Day-Light-Life

    Wait a minute. Maybe Larkin isn't all gloom and doom. The poem does contain some day-light imagery. And he even sets up another extended metaphor with light-day representing life. But before you start feeling all shiny and happy, remember this is our buddy Phil. He can make even a sunrise a bummer. He's so good that even his light is dark. He's basically the poetry world's Darth Vader—but, you know, in a good way.

    • Line 1: Like "night," "day" gets a shout-out in line 1. However, it doesn't feel all that cheerful. It kind of reminds you of that feeling when you wake up and realize you have three midterms and, to top it off, meatloaf is on the school lunch menu. In other words, there's absolutely no good reason to get out of bed. (If the meatloaf is awesome at your school, Shmoop is happy for you. It was just… bad at ours.) We get the sense that our speaker wakes up with this feeling everyday.
    • Line 3-7: This section starts out with positive potential. The speaker anticipates the room slowly getting lighter as the sun rises in the morning sky. You can almost (almost) hear the birds starting to chirp. But Larkin won't let things get all bright and happy. The thought of a new day doesn't lead our speaker to thoughts and feelings of new beginnings. He starts thinking about death and when he will die.
    • Line 11: When we think about light we usually associate it with positive feelings and ideas—you know, things like sunshine, warmth, and knowledge. But leave it to Larkin to find and focus on the negative aspects of light. "Glare" is a good example. Sure, glare is an aspect of light. But you never hear folks saying, "Wow that glare really feels great; let's eat lunch outside today." Glare is unpleasant. It hurts your eyes. It makes it hard to see. Chalk it up to another example of Larkin making the light feel dark and negative.
    • Lines 41-44: Finally, the daybreak that our speaker anticipated way back in line 3 arrives. The light "strengthens." That sounds pretty good, right? The light is getting stronger. Day is overpowering night. And if light and day are stand-ins for life, and dark and night are stand-ins for death, it looks like life has made a comeback. Light and life are overpowering darkness and death. Ah, but not so fast Shmoopers. The room gets light, but all we see is that death is still there, plain as day, "plain as a wardrobe." Come on. Did you really think Phil was going to end this on a happy note?
    • Line 48: If you needed anymore convincing that Larkin is trying to take all the shine out of light and day, here it is. Dawn breaks "with no sun." The sky is the kind of muddied, off-white color of clay. Shmoop doesn't hear any birds chirping. Do you?
  • Steaminess Rating

    G

    Traditionally, an aubade can certainly be a bit steamy—it's a morning love poem after all. However, were talking about Larkin here. In his aubade, he skipped the steamy stuff so he could fit in more darkness and depression. Thanks for nothin', Phil.