The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397

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...

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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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

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 child,” suggests that the speaker’s isolation and loneliness are innate, the result of his “wrong beginnings.” One thinks of a personal, secularized, post-Freudian version of Original Sin. At the same time the phrase stresses the high value of life to the speaker: There is “only life,” and only one life, separating him from annihilation. Indeed, the speaker’s “only life” replaces the beloved in the traditional aubade. The narcissistic implications are part of the poem’s grim and astringent humor, which also leads the speaker to describe death as “the anaesthetic from which none come round.”

The line “Death is no different whined at than withstood” is a good example of both the traditionalism and subtlety of Larkin’s prosody. The alliterative pairs, “death”/“different” and “whined”/“withstood,” are divided by a caesura, and at least three of the alliterated syllables bear stresses, so that the line conforms fairly closely to the ancient pattern of Old English alliterative verse.

There is at the end of “Aubade” an expansion of vision that suddenly and almost painfully involves the reader, who up to this point has perhaps merely sympathized from a distance with the speaker’s private terror. On the word “meanwhile,” the focus shifts from self to society, just as the fifth stanza moves from an open to a closed form. The phrase “telephones crouch, getting ready to ring” (one expects this last word to be “spring”) suggests a fatal menace about to thwart hopes of connection with others.

The sky is “white as clay,” as if blanched with horror at what daylight discloses, and though the poem is an aubade, there will be, the spondee emphatically insists, “no sun.” Then the trimeter announces bluntly, “Work has to be done,” and the poem concludes with the image of postmen “like doctors” going about their work. Weak substitutes for physicians or priests, they seem to be paying brief and indifferent house calls to a whole world that is terminally ill.

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