Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
“Aubade” articulates an ancient poetic theme, one expressed by the Latin tag timor mortis conturbat me (“the fear of death confounds me”). This tag appears as a refrain in a number of medieval poems, such as the lyric by William Dunbar known as “Lament for the Makars” (1508). The tag alludes to the brevity of life in the Middle Ages and to the hope in an eternal afterlife in heaven that will console humanity for the harshness of the mortal world.
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However, the terror of death as expressed in “Aubade” has quite a different origin. The speaker’s emotional predicament is not the result of the threats of disease, war, or social collapse, those constants of medieval life. It is the result of the unprecedented conditions of individual existence in the late twentieth century, relatively secure in the physical sense but assailed mentally and spiritually by a profound sense of loneliness and desolation.
The title “Aubade” points ironically to the speaker’s predicament. He awakes alone, having no beloved to share his existence. When the sun eventually rises to dispel the literal darkness, it casts no warmth or enlightenment. “An only life” is all he has. When parted from it, as he must be by “unresting death,” he will be nothing, nowhere, erased forever. Secular, scientific skepticism has produced an “intricate rented world” that people inhabit temporarily, which is typically urban and technologically developed. It keeps one safe from physical harm and usually pacified by its routine demands. Yet under this life is a vacancy that sometimes leaks menacingly through. All this busyness then seems merely another drug to keep the nothingness in abeyance. The speaker’s personal anguish is merely an intensified version of the existential isolation faced by everyone in the modern world.
Is there any comfort to be taken from this very dark poem, or does it suggest that the only valid responses to life in the modern world are nihilism, despair, and suicide? “Aubade” can be viewed as a guardedly affirmative statement, or at least as an artistic performance that is, perhaps in spite of itself, on the side of life. The poem is painfully honest: Its confession of weakness and cowardice paradoxically required great courage to make. Moreover, it challenges readers to identify with the speaker and confront in themselves what they share with him: the essential isolation of the modern self. It offers none of the traditional consolations of philosophy; yet the terror that it movingly articulates comes from the very high value that the modern world attributes by default to life itself. People love it with instinctual passion and cannot bear the thought of being parted from it, for they know that it is all they have.
At once grimly humorous and deadly serious, Larkin’s “Aubade” is one of the classic articulations of the twentieth century existential predicament. It is also a masterly verbal construct, drawing a deep strength from and implying great faith in the poetic tradition.