The title of this one tells us that it's going to be a poem set in the early morning hours (an aubade is a kind of morning love poem or a song of dawn). Sure enough, we start out "waking at four to soundless dark." Been there. Done that. Unfortunately, things don't get any cheerier. Larkin's "Aubade" seems to leave out the love aspect of the form and focuses instead on death. Great.
In "Aubade's" five, ten-line stanzas Larkin explores how we deal with death's inescapability. In the pre-dawn darkness, the speaker contemplates his own death—the fact that each day brings him closer to the end. It is a realization that colors every aspect of the speaker's life and thoughts.
In the end, dawn finally comes (thank goodness). The world begins to awaken, and the daily reality of routine and work becomes visible in the dim light. But for the speaker, a sense of life's futility seems to have become as inescapable as death itself.
(Warning: this poem scores five sad-face emoticons out of five on the bummer scale—read at your own risk.)
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
- The poem's first couple lines do quite a bit to set the tone and clarify the speaker's state of mind. We can tell that this speaker is going to give it to us straight, and the details might not be pretty. Also, he doesn't seem like a very happy-go-lucky guy.
- When we read line 1, we probably don't picture the kind of financially-rewarding, emotionally-fulfilling career we'd like to have. We imagine the kind of tedious, spirit-breaking work most of us want to avoid.
- The second half of the line confirms the sense we get in the first half. This soul-crushing job has driven our speaker to drink.
- The description, "I […] get half-drunk at night," sounds like a sad, solo activity. This isn't the "out having a good time with friends" kind of drinking. It's the other kind.
- Line 2 shows us the speaker in pre-dawn darkness. It is a "soundless dark." It feels very lonely, very isolating. We get a sense of the poem's setting: the speaker's bedroom. We don't get the sense that there is anyone else there in the darkness with the speaker. Shmoop would like a nightlight, please.
- So, with just two lines, Larkin has given us a clear sense of a speaker in a pretty dark place—literally and emotionally.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
- The speaker knows day will come, eventually. But, until it does, there's still plenty of time to stare into the abyss.
- In the pre-dawn dark, the speaker can "see" the truth, "what's really […] there." Can you guess what he sees? It probably isn't ponies and puppies. Our speaker seems more like a glass-half-empty kind of guy.
- You might have noticed there is some rhyming happening here. The "light" at the end of line 3 rhymes with the "night" at the end of line 1. This rhyme makes a strong connection between those two words. They sound very similar. They even look similar. It's kind of interesting when we consider the fact that "night" and "light" are, in a sense, opposites (since night is… well, dark). Could Larkin be trying to tell us something? Stay tuned (and check out "Form and Meter" for more on rhyme in this poem).
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
- Well, it's just as we suspected. The thing our speaker knows is always out there, the thing he can see even in the dark, is the granddaddy of all dark and negative things: death.
- Death is always there. It is "unresting." The guy in the robes and hood with the curved-blade thingy never takes a break.
- And what's even worse, the speaker knows that each time he wakes and begins a new day, death gets closer. A sunrise doesn't represent rebirth or a new beginning for this guy. It represents his methodical march toward death. Again, major bummer.
- With the knowledge of his death looming, thinking of anything else becomes impossible. All the speaker can think about are the circumstances of his death, which keeps getting closer and closer.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
- The questions the speaker asks himself about the where and when of his death are not new.
- They are "arid" (old, dried out) questions that the speaker has asked himself again and again. But still, the "dread" he feels when considering these questions (What will the act of dying be like? What is it to be dead?) is fresh and newly "horrifying" each time he asks them.
- See, Shmoop told you this one was about death. If you still don't believe, check out line 9. It's a little shorter than the others. It has three less syllables. There are only 5 words in the line and 2 of them are about death. Clearly, Larkin wants this line to stand out. He wants the death in this line "hold and horrify" the reader just like it does the speaker.
- Arriving at the end of stanza one, you may have noticed two things: firstly, you have likely slipped into a dismal funk, and there are still four more stanzas to go. (Spoiler alert: things aren't going to get any brighter.)
- The second thing you might have noticed is that there's a pattern to the rhyming end words.
- In fact, the poem follows a strict rhyme scheme. The end words in each stanza rhyme in an ABABCCDEED pattern, where each letter represents a particular end rhyme.
- If you weren't already too depressed to care, you might have also noticed a consistent rhythm in the poem, too. In addition to the rhyme scheme, most of the lines follow another pattern. They are written in iambic pentameter. (If that form doesn't ring any bells, go check out "Form and Meter" to get the skinny.)
- The rhyme scheme and meter give the poem a feeling of certainty: a sense that we know what's coming next. This feeling of certainty comes from the patterns of rhymed words and stressed/unstressed syllables. That's form working, y'all. It might be subtle, but your ear starts to expect a stressed syllable after an unstressed syllable and anticipate the end rhymes.
- When you think about it, the feeling of certainty created by the poem's form makes sense. It mirrors the poem's content.
- Larkin is talking about the certainty of death—our speaker knows for sure that death is out there in the darkness and is getting closer and closer with each passing day. The inevitability, the certainty, of death is everywhere in this one, even in the sounds and rhythms.
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;
- Remember that dread, from the first stanza, that "flashes" and "horrifies"? Those flashes create the "glare" that begins stanza 2.
- The speaker's knowledge of his pending death glares, making it impossible for him to see, to think of, anything else. But it isn't a sense of "remorse" that makes death so glaring.
- It isn't a sense of regret for things left undone and time wasted (time "torn off unused" like a blank calendar page) that make the speaker's mind go blank except for the thought of death. And it doesn't blank "wretchedly" out of anger or disappointment at an "only life," a solitary life, spent trying, probably in vain, to "climb clear of [to leave behind] its wrong beginnings."
- So, what's all this glaring and blanking about? Read on Shmoopers, read on.
But at the total emptiness of 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.
- Now we see what's causing that mind-blanking glare. It's that pesky nothingness, the "total emptiness of for ever."
- So, it isn't life's regrets or failures that haunt the speaker. It's the notion of nothingness that has his brain in knots.
- The glare is caused by the certainty of death—the "sure extinction that we travel to."
- Adding to our speaker's gloomy disposition is the fact that he sees this trip into the void of death as something that will happen "soon." No wonder this guy can't sleep.
- Line 19 really jumps out in this stanza partly because it's super-short compared to the other lines. This wasn't an accident.
- Larkin didn't forget how to count syllables and he didn't just get lazy.
- The end of line 18 and line 19 are key. They let us know what the speaker really fears: "Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere." Larkin uses form to highlight these lines.
- "Not to be here," comes at the end of line 18, so it's already going to stand out visually a little bit. But just to give it some added ummph, Larkin puts a full-stop, a period, in the middle of the line. That way, the second half of the line gets even more attention.
- Line 19 really shakes things up. Instead of the usual 5 iambic feet, this line has 2 dactylic feet. Say what?
- Basically, Larkin changes the length and the rhythm of the line to really make it stand out in terms of how it looks and how it sounds. Hit up "Form and Meter" for a closer look.
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.
- Yes, you're right. We've bitten off a pretty big piece of the poem here. But there's a reason we're going to look at this stanza as one big chunk. And don't worry, you've got a nice tall glass of Shmoop to make sure it all goes down smooth.
- This stanza starts off with a fairly ominous statement. The speaker tells us that this fear of death is "special" because there is no way to get rid of it, to "dispel" it. Bad news, indeed.
- This statement brings us to the middle of line 22 and concludes with a full-stop, a period. We don't find another period until the end of the stanza. This is the only stanza in the poem that goes 8 lines without a period.
- We know what you're thinking. So what? Well, that's actually a good question. We'd love to answer it for you, but we'd be getting ahead of ourselves. That's better than being behind ourselves, but still, let's come back to the no period thing at the end of this section. Agreed? Good.
- In the rest of this stanza, Larkin tells us about those useless "trick[s]" people use in attempts to dispel the fear of death. The first of these is religion.
- Larkin doesn't paint a very flattering picture of organized religion. He describes it as a kind of beautiful, lyrical tapestry (a "musical brocade") but it is old and tattered ("moth-eaten").
- But Phil doesn't leave it there. He goes on to say that religion was just created to help people "pretend we never die." It's safe to say that this speaker doesn't find any comfort in religion.
- Larkin also mocks the secular notion that there is nothing to fear in death since, in death, there will be nothing to feel. Our speaker calls this "specious stuff" (false, of no real value) and says the fact that there will be nothing is precisely what should be feared.
- The stanza continues with a catalog of what will be missing in death: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, thought, emotion, connection. What's more, it is a nothingness from which we never wake.
- Line 29 is another example of a line that looks and sounds different. Larkin deviates again from regular iambic pentameter, adding some extra emphasis to the line. It's another important moment in the poem, one of the key reasons the speaker has such an all-consuming fear of death: that there will be nothing to love or connect with.
- So, why did we look at this stanza in one big chunk? Well, it kind of feels like that's how Larkin wants us to look at it. Without anything to stop us (like a period) from line 22 to line 30, this thing just kind of keeps building momentum until it feels like a rant on the part of the speaker. This part builds and builds in terms of sound and intensity—the lack of periods seems to do the trick.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
- That glare, the fear of death, never goes away. It can't be ignored. The speaker is always aware of it "just on the edge of vision." Sounds irritating, right?
- It sounds like even when the speaker isn't staring directly into the abyss, the sense of it is still there, lingering, ruining what little pleasure and light the world has to offer. Death sits there, just out of view, "a small unfocused blur."
- The speaker can always feel death's presence: "a standing chill" that makes even simple daily decisions difficult. For the speaker, the specter of death affects everything.
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.
- At the risk of sounding like a broken record (see Shmoopers, records were these large, black discs that played music before CDs—ah, forget it), our speaker returns to the idea of death's inescapability. He tells us that while most of the stuff we worry about in our daily lives "may never happen," death will.
- With this "realization" comes that fear we've been hearing about throughout the poem. This time, Larkin uses some figurative language to help give us a real sense of what he's talking about.
- The realization of death's inevitability "rages out / In furnace-fear." That sounds pretty aggressive (and hot), doesn't it? He gives an abstract thing (the emotion of fear), the concrete characteristics of a furnace. It makes the fear easier to feel and visualize. This is definitely not a subtle feeling Larkin is describing here.
- The fear is most intense, it rages, when the speaker is "without / People or drink." It's most intense when the speaker is without the distraction of human contact or alcohol. Remember how this one started: "I work all day, and get half-drunk at night." Our speaker definitely seems to be turning to alcohol to dull that fear.
[…] 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.
- So, we know that death is certain and that awareness of it follows our speaker always and everywhere. Got it. Now he tells us that there's no use trying to be brave about it either. Keeping a stiff upper lip doesn't do a bit of good.
- Having courage or being brave in the face of death is merely a way to try to make the living feel better. And our speaker isn't about feeling better.
- Being brave doesn't help you escape death. It finds you whether you are a big, tough guy or you cry like a baby. The end is exactly the same.
- The rhyme between "brave" and "grave" echoes this idea. Larkin emphasizes his point by emphasizing how similar these words look and sound. In fact, only a single letter separates one word from actually being the other. We might think the meanings and associations we have with those two words are very different, but Larkin wants us to see that they are, in a sense, made of the same stuff.
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.
- Well, you've made it to the last stanza. Congratulations. Facing the inevitability of death can make it really hard to study.
- The beginning of this stanza acts as a kind of transition. Daylight is starting to overtake the darkness. So, we have the transition from dark to light.
- This transition is mirrored in the pace of these lines. Instead of a long rant (like in stanza 3), this stanza is broken up with full-stops (periods). It slows us down.
- Even though night is transitioning to day, death is still hanging around. Larkin uses a simile here ("It stands plain as a wardrobe") to give us an even clearer sense of death's obvious, unmoving presence. (Have you ever tried to move a wardrobe?
- Don't—they're super-heavy. Shmoop tried once. It was a bad day.)
- So, even though the darkness—that archetypal symbol of death—is fading, our speaker still feels its presence as strong as ever.
- Line 44 really slows us down. It has two full-stops.
- The speaker declares that, "One side will have to go." What sides? Well, he's not talking team Edward and team Jacob here.
- (Or maybe, in a way, he is. It really depends on your views about werewolves.) The two sides are light and dark—life and death. One side has to go. Guess which one ends up hitting the road. Yup—life gets the boot in this one. For Larkin, everything eventually ends in death. High five?
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.
- In the poem's closing lines, the pace stays slow. 4 of the last 6 lines are end-stopped (end in periods). The end of the poem sort of mirrors life's slow march toward inevitable death.
- While the speaker is observing the strengthening light and contemplating ever-present death, he also considers the world beyond his bedroom walls. This movement beyond the confines of the room is signaled by the word "meanwhile."
- Outside the room, every day life waits. Larkin begins this description of the everyday with some personification. Telephones "crouch" like animals waiting to pounce (animals crouch and spring, these telephones crouch and "ring.") The personification makes the usually mundane telephone (remember, this is pre-cell phone—no sleek, new iPhone here) seem a little threatening.
- The world is waking to another day. But we don't get images of sunshine and rebirth. Larkin describes an "uncaring / Intricate rented world" (47-48).
- The world is a complicated place that is only ours temporarily—sort of like that tuxedo you rented.
- If Shmoop says "daybreak," what word or image pops into your mind? Chances are images of the sun or sunrise or a warm, growing light come to mind—likley some pretty pleasant images overall.
- But Larkin has just got to be Larkin, and that means finding the gloom in even the brightest moments. So, he gives us a sunless daybreak with a sky the bland color of clay. Yuck. Shmoop would just go back to bed.
- The poem's second to last line is one of those short ones that really stands out. Even in the face of death, "work has to be done." We have to go through the motions of daily life despite the fact that it all seems kind of pointless. Remember way back in line one, "I work all day"? Even our gloom and doom speaker participates in the daily grind.
- The last line leaves us with the image of postmen going "from house to house." The description includes a simile comparing "postmen" to "doctors." We have two very different kinds of professionals here. We get the sense that Larkin wanted to name two jobs that would represent the entire spectrum of work, giving the poem's ending a kind of universality.
- What do postmen do? They deliver news. They help us stay connected with other people (remember this poem was written long before the internet and texting).
- What do doctors do? Write notes that keep us out of PE class? Yes. But they also try to keep us healthy—to keep us alive.
- Our speaker told us way back in stanza 3 that one of his main fears about death was that it meant having "nothing to love or link with." Linking, connecting—see the connection here?
- Let's look at that simile again. It might make a little more sense now. The postman helps people maintain one of the key emotional components of life—that link, that connection with other people, just like a doctor helps people maintain the physical components of life. Postmen, like doctors, give us what we need to feel alive, to push away that feeling that death is right there waiting to take us away. That distraction from looming death might come in the form of medicine or it might be a letter from your nana (Shmoop's nana is awesome—just sayin').
- So, despite the futility of it all, despite the fact that death will always win out, we still go about the job of living and try to maintain that link with the world. This certainly doesn't qualify as a happy ending, but it's as close as you're going to get with this speaker, gang.