An aubade, deriving from the medieval French word for dawn, is a lyric poem with no prescribed form in which the poet typically celebrates the beauty of his mistress as the sun rises and he must leave her bed: John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” is a well-known example. Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” is an ironic variation on the themes traditionally associated with this kind of lyric. In this, Larkin’s last major poem, the first-person speaker, who is closely identified with the poet himself, describes a typical early morning when, waking alone in the darkness before the dawn, he contemplates the terrifying inevitability of his own absolute extinction.
The speaker states that he is in the habit of working all day, getting “half-drunk at night,” and then waking involuntarily in early morning darkness to contemplate the horror of his death, which is always one day nearer. He then clarifies the source of his dread. He is not in despair at having wasted his life, because he has accepted that it was his innate destiny to always have to struggle against difficult odds. He is simply in existential terror of certain personal extinction.
He contemptuously dismisses as potential consolations for his mortality both religious faith in the afterlife and the rationalist assurance that one cannot be hurt by what one cannot feel. Religion is simply a worn-out charade, while rationalism fails to take into account that the idea of the total loss of sensation is precisely what is so terrifying about death. He notes how his fear of death stands most of the time at the edge of his awareness, kept at bay by human relationships or by the numbing effect of alcohol. However, when he wakes alone in darkness, there is nothing to insulate him from the full ferocity of his terror. Even courage seems useless, for however bravely one faces the end of one’s life, one still ends up dead.
In the final stanza, the light of dawn begins to give form to the speaker’s surroundings, and one might expect that this would console him. However, as objects emerge from the gloom he sees only more clearly the truth of death. Outside, the urban world prepares to return to life after the night, but to the speaker, existence seems indifferent and temporary, and he sees through its routines to the cruel emptiness beneath.
Forms and Devices
Like many of Larkin’s best poems, “Aubade” is elaborately wrought in a traditional manner yet reads almost as clearly as good prose. It opens strikingly with a metrical tour de force: Each of the first three lines is a complete sentence. The effect is to warn the reader that prosaic bluntness will here replace the traditional aubade’s tendency to the rhapsodic. The poem is strongly unified by a series of perceptual tropes that reflect the movement from darkness to dawn. It begins with the speaker in “soundless dark” seeing “what’s really always there” and culminates in the simile of death seen “plain as a wardrobe” as the dawn light conjures form out of darkness.
Each of the poem’s five ten-line stanzas has an ababccdeed rhyme scheme. An open quatrain is succeeded by a couplet and then by a closed quatrain, allowing for considerable variation of movement within each stanza and giving each stanza a self-contained quality. The dominant meter is iambic pentameter, except for the penultimate line of each stanza, which is—usually—a trimeter. There are many subtle rhythmic variations to reduce monotony: For example, some significant first feet are reversed (trochaic) for emphasis, and may even rhyme internally, as in “Making” and “Waking” (lines 2 and 6); some of the couplets have feminine rhymes; and the short lines sometimes indicate a dactylic contrapuntal rhythm.
“An only life” exhibits Larkin’s ability to coin striking phrases that have a rightness and inevitability yet do not disrupt the informality of the poem’s diction. The phrase, constructed on the analogy of “an only...
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