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.