This Poem Will Change Your Life

philiplarkin

Aubade, by Philip Larkin, hardly needs any introduction if you’ve heard it before or if you’ve read a few atheist writings.  After reading it once you’ll likely not be able to forget it, and if you’re anything like me you’ll recognize many feelings you’ve had before.

It was good enough at expressing what it does (I’m not going to interpret it for you, that would kill it) that it made it into Christopher Hitchens’s compendium of Atheistic writings, The Portable Atheist.  I’ll give you part of Hitchens’s introduction to the piece, followed by the poem in print and a fantastic reading by Larkin himself.  Read it first and then watch the video – the images will come out much more strongly if you do.

Intro

An aubade is a poem about lovers parting at dawn; in this instance, Larkin’s love is life itself, accompanied by the grim but honest realization that it does not extend beyond the grave and the we delude ourselves by imagining otherwise.

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Larkin’s reading

My thoughts

I love so much about this poem, but I’d rather leave you to your own thoughts than mine.  I’ll just point out my favorite parts.  The first is the way he introduces the thoughts – waking up to “soundless dark” at four in the morning.  The second is the statement that “An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never,” because sometimes I feel that way.  The last is the conclusion, “Postmen like doctors go from house to house.”

How did you react to this poem?  What parts did you like the most?  What did it make you feel?  Please leave your comment below.

This poem, along with my introductory article (Death of an Atheist), introduce many themes I’d like to discuss over the next few weeks as part of a series on Death, Life, and AtheismClick here for more info, follow, and join the conversation!
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The Death of an Atheist

Have you ever woken up from a dream–an intense dream–and had the emotions of that dream carry over into consciousness long after you awoke?  Last night that happened to me.  As I lay in bed, depressed, I had one overwhelming thought:  in all likelihood I will be completely forgotten within four generations.  This thought wasn’t depressing.  It was just a realization, a cool-headed analysis of the reality of the passing of time.  I was feeling depressed, but for a different reason.  But now I’m getting ahead of myself – let me go back to the beginning . . .

Death

I had a dream the other night, and in the dream my sister Emily had died.  I was notified, by telephone or in person, I don’t remember.  Have you ever sought to dwell on a negative thought just so you could bring up a specific emotion in yourself?  Like when you want to feel angry so you think about someone bullying your little brother, or when you want to really feel pain so you look at pictures of friends you haven’t seen in years?  Well that’s what I did in this dream.  I visualized my sister as the sweet kid and strong adult I knew she was, saw the relationship we had, and the one we never had because of distance, being too busy, or just because of apathy.  I felt the pang of regret for not having become closer to her when I had the chance.  It seems my dreaming brain wasn’t yet satisfied with the depth of my remorse, so it conjured up something greater – after dwelling on my sister for a while I also realized I was the only one still alive in my immediate family.  Of all the depressing dreams I’ve had in my life I’ve never been the only survivor left in my family.  I felt alone without them.  My gene pool, the people I grew up with from infant to adult, the only people on earth I have any real connection with beyond mere friendship, the people who could steal from me, or ignore me, or just have such a different personality from me but who I would love anyway–my family–was completely gone.  I was in a room, maybe a waiting room or a funeral parlor, and there were people all around me, but they were strangers, not my family, not my blood, and I didn’t care about them.  I was alone.

Awake now, sitting in my bed, drinking a glass of water, I realized I need to make some changes.  Because all I have is this life.  You see, when I die – hopefully as an old man while peacefully sleeping, or maybe while I’m on a mountain doing what I enjoy with those I love – I’ll be gone.  There won’t be a judgment; a cloud where I’ll eternally play harp music or a hell where I’ll eternally burn.  There won’t even just be blackness.  I will be dead – unable to perceive even the absence of light and conclude that I’m lonely.  Unable to feel, observe, think, regret, hope, or DO anything.  I will never exist again.  It’s not a happy thought, but it’s a realistic thought, and I have no reason to seriously believe any other philosophy.

This is important to me, because there will be no second chance to make something happen if I fail to do it now.  No procrastination.  No thinking, “Well, I loved Emily, and we didn’t have as good of a relationship as we could have, but we’ll have the chance for that when I pass away.”  To believe so is to rob yourself of the truth, and to rob yourself of the chance to create truly amazing relationships now.  If I want to have real meaning in my life I have to do it now.  Right now.

Purpose

Alone in my dream, with other people around me but none of my family, no one who had any reason to remember me, I realized that by all realistic expectations I will be completely forgotten within four generations, and mostly forgotten by three.  Think about it for a second – what do you know about your great great grandparents?  I know very little about my great grandfathers and almost nothing about my great-greats, even though I’m named after one of them.  I’m sure they did some good things, and certainly their decisions still silently impact my life today, but I don’t know their humor, their accomplishments, or their stories.

Your mom undoubtedly told you you’re special, most moms do, but I grew up in a religion that taught me I’m something even more than special.  You see, I was chosen before the world was even created to be born in this difficult time, given the truth, the simple and enlightening truth, to take to others lost in the gray confusion created by Satan and years of sin.  I was sent on a mission to convert others to the teachings that would literally save them from everything bad in this world and the next.  I was sent to change the world . . . or at least a good chunk of it.  I was told I’d live forever, and that death was just another beginning.

I now realize the only reason I’m here is because my parents had sex and the biological processes worked the way they’re supposed to.  No grand purpose, no all-powerful being guiding my decisions, no big impact on the world I’m destined to accomplish.  By all probable expectations I will have been born, lived, and died without causing even a minute difference to the world, or at least not a recognizable one.  Undoubtedly one of you is saying to yourself, “Well, everything we do has an impact and we can never comprehend how much we changed those around us.”   You’re absolutely right.  But go climb a mountain and look out over a valley.  Open up an atlas and look at the world.  Look at the largest cities, and marvel at the size of them, the sheer number of people who are living right now.  Marvel at how small you are.  Realize billions have come and gone, affecting only those in their immediate vicinity and were forgotten with everyone else.

The fact is within four generations no one will remember my name.  Unless of course I’m one of the few – if I write something truly great, star in some groundbreaking movie, or accomplish some great political reform that has my name attached to it.  But even then the futility of it all makes that quest hollow.  Self-aggrandizement solely for the purpose of having your name memorized by future generations is an altogether unfulfilling purpose to live for.  I won’t care if I’m remembered – I’ll be dead!

And that simple realization helps me gain real meaning in the life I live today.

Life

This moment–right now–laughing with friends, helping a stranger, learning everything I can, hanging out with family, struggling on the climbing wall–ENJOYING every moment I can in the fullest sense of the word–that’s what life is about!  ENJOYING my family.  ENJOYING each of my friends; their unique humor; their unique outlook.  Taking joy from helping the one, from caring about someone enough to listen to them, to teach a child something that will help, to give them confidence so they’ll believe in themselves.  These are the little things that make life great.  Being remembered, my name being engraved on some wall, written in some text book, or repeated by my descendants, is of little importance to me.  What pride is there to be had when I’m a corpse?  None of that is important.  It doesn’t matter if the stranger I help remembers me, or if the kid I teach praises me – all that matters is that I did something to make his life a little brighter, a little lighter, a little happier.

The fact is – all I have is this life.  These moments, written down in the book of my life – individual, fleeting experiences I have while the pages turn more and more quickly – is all I can guarantee.  So I LIVE.  I LIVE each day; each moment I can.  I revel in the weaknesses that make me ME, laugh at my inability to overcome them, and put one foot in front of the other and try again.  I appreciate each person around me, doing my best to not see them as society does–as a consumer, a product, a beauty or a beast–but as complex individuals with their own great stories.  I become honest with myself, and open my heart up for others around me so they can actually see the real me, and I hope they’ll do the same.

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” 
Macbeth, act V, scene v

A tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing.  This thought does not depress me – rather it motivates me to learn to really live a full life.  I will not be “an idiot, full of sound and fury,” thinking so highly of myself while I live and then being forgotten – my life having meant nothing.  Rather, I know I’ll be forgotten, and try to live my life according to what brings me and those around me the most joy.  The truth is I have no purpose given to me from outside myself.  No God telling me I’m important.  No teacher giving me false hopes and delusions of grandeur.  The purpose of my life is solely up to me to create and to enjoy.  And I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it!
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What do you think?
This is part of a series–Death, Life, and Atheism–where I’ll be compiling some of the best literature and poetry about death and atheism, along with some thoughts of my own.