DAVID LODGE HAS insisted that the `difficult subject' of death in Larkin's verse `is, we can all agree, a "nonverbal" reality, because, as Wittgenstein said, it is not an experience in life'.(1) One can only imagine Larkin enjoying one of his best philistine chortles over this half-truth.(2) Lodge alludes to Tractatus 6. 4311, `Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death'. Death, to be sure, is that undiscovered country from which no traveller returns -- in Larkin's kindred words, `The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always' -- but our wordy thoughts about the undiscovered country, including those of Wittgenstein, are of necessity in the world.
English verse has certainly made word-homes for death's multiplying meanings. Being an American and a student of Yvor Winters, I think of Philip Pain, whose Daily Meditations (1668) were among the earliest poems published on these shores. Here we find the baseline tradition of Timor mortis conturbat me from which both Larkin and Shakespeare vary:
Scarce do I pass a day, but that I hear Someone or other's dead, and to my ear Methinks it is no news. But oh! did I Think deeply on it, what it is to die, My pulses all would beat, I should not be Drowned in this deluge of security.(3)
If not drowned in a deluge of security, forgetful of `what it is to die', what should one be? And what, really, is it to die? Add to the mental universe of this lyric the possibility of an epicurean view of death, and we have (or can get to) Hamlet's `To be, or not to be'. Remove from Pain's harrowing little poem fear of judgment in the afterlife, while leaving in the epicurean vistas, and we have (or can get to) Larkin's `Aubade'. Only a metaphysical formalism would want to say that `Aubade' is, in anything but an honorific sense, out of this world.
Begun in 1974, finished in 1977, and first printed somewhat ironically in the Christmas issue (23 December 1977) of the Times Literary Supplement, `Aubade' was the last substantial lyric Larkin wrote. The work has received much commentary for a modern poem. `I remember reading it', Marion Shaw disclosed to Andrew Motion, Larkin's biographer, `and it upset me so much it nearly ruined my holiday. A lot of us felt like that'.(4) The speaker of `Aubade' awakens at four in the morning to a flare-up of timor mortis: `the dread / Of dying, and being dead, / Flashes afresh to hold and horrify'. In this passage from the end of the first verse paragraph, alliterations first spill over the lines, then in the last one huddle into two clusters (`Flashes afresh' and `hold and horrify') evocative by way of Hopkins of the mournful poetry of the Anglo-Saxons; it gives a fair idea of the tonal range of `Aubade' to note that Larkin repeats the effect at the end of the fourth stanza, this time infusing the alliterating half-lines with Marvellian irony: `Death is no different whined at than withstood'.
`Aubade' has been thought the final triumph of a mordant author who was from the beginning obsessed in the manner of a medieval or Renaissance poet with the blunt theme of death and decay. In The North Ship (1951), his earliest and mostly arid collection, we hear of `the first thing / I have understood: / Time is the echo of an axe / Within a wood', updating in a characteristically brutal direction the old trope of time's harvesting scythe.(5) When asked by Raymond Gardner to explain his morbid preoccupation with death, Larkin replied, reminding us for once that he was but a generation removed from Sartre and Camus, `If you were sentenced to death by firing squad, but were told that you would not be shot today, nor tomorrow, but eventually, would you not think about your predicament a great deal'?(6) `Cemeteries, general wards, loneliness, death, death, death', he writes in a late letter, summarizing the imaginative haunts of his late verse. `Pippa has certainly passed.'(7) Others have discerned in `Aubade' the ultimate victory of a coarseness, a cowardly cynicism, that even his best poems fight against with more or less success.(8) `Aubade' does in fact fairly cry out to be answered. Its echoes are answers. I agree with Donald Hall that, however stark the poem may seem in paraphrase, `if you don't walk out of the theatre humming the tune, you don't read poetry'.(9)
`The fear of dying', Hall maintains, `daily companion of many, found its Homer, Dante, and Milton in Philip Larkin'.(10) Although the sentiment is right, the examples seem to me entirely wrong. There may be just a touch of Dante (by way of Eliot) in the character sketches placed here and there in Larkin's work: Mr Bleaney the former inhabitant, the early breeding Dockery, the cartoonishly married Arnold of `Self's the Man', the longstanding patron of `Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel', the businessman on the brink of the 1929 crash in `Livings I', the rapturously solitary lighthouse keeper of `Livings II'. But Homer and Milton trod different paths. In truth the fear of dying found its Shakespeare, or rather its second Shakespeare, in Philip Larkin.
Comparing a modern writer to Shakespeare risks …