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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6 thoughts on “This Poem Will Change Your Life

  1. Incredibly honest, vivid, and universal feelings I think everyone has about death (whether they say so or not). I certainly had many of these thoughts as a believer in an afterlife; even that belief doesn’t guarantee you’ll like what’s to come more than what you have now. All of us fear death, but I think there is a power unmatched in the view that death is final. It’s much the same as the smaller view that actions are final and will not ever be erased – such a view makes you think before acting. This view of death makes you think and LIVE…before dying.

    • Definitely. There are a lot of feelings someone has when they think about death, when they really realize what it means to them. Larkin expresses so many of them here. I’ve only really felt the fear he expresses here a couple of times. The triviality of what we do every day is something I’ve felt countless times. Both of those things have been felt while a believer and while not.

      With death, especially, people sometimes SAY something, but don’t really mean it. I think there are very few people who legitimately look at death with the confidence of knowing they’re going some place better. When in the moment of falling from a cliff or with a gun to their head, they’ll still be WISHING they could live and feeling the terror of dying.

      Because of the hero-martyr Joseph Smith, I thought a lot about whether I’d be willing to die for my religion, and you probably did too, right? I did all the time! Hero-martyrs are all through the scriptures. We talked about it so much that I might even have been a martyr (I certainly daydreamed about it enough), if I was in the situation where someone was trying to force me to deny my belief, or something. But in every way where we weren’t very prepared to die, I think we would have fought for life.

      The people who DO truly, truly, 100% believe they’re going to heaven can be very dangerous, either to themselves or to others. The rest of us are somewhere in between, I think – neither fully recognizing that death is coming nor fully believing we’ll live on. I’d like to explore what affects those beliefs have on us, even if we don’t fully believe or always recognize the truth of what we say we believe.

  2. Enjoyed, if that is the right verb. I have not read or heard this poem before. Makes Thomas Hardy sound quite cheerful! As the son of a late Church of England priest I was of course indoctrinated in the concept of an afterlife….. a concept that I have had no difficulty in disabusing myself of.

  3. Operating, if I may, from an atheistic perspective (or doing my best–which may be easier for me than most think):

    Aubade resounds with me also–I think, though, that I’ve only felt those deep levels of terror when I’ve been thinking quietly for a while and my mind tries to conceive of nothingness. It has only come in spasms, and hasn’t lasted very long–almost like there’s some protection built into my brain that won’t allow such extended contemplation until my sanity is ready, or perhaps never.

    The only comforts I’ve ever felt with respect to the finality of death have been a few rare moments while interacting with my kids. Moments so replete with intense inner satisfaction as to drive my curiosity; I’ve many times attempted to replicate the above-mentioned spasms of terror at death during these joyful moments, and have been unable to. What results, rather, with what I believe to be complete sincerity, is the following: “If I died right now, I would be alright with that. My kids are here, and I had this moment.”

    It seems a logical result of evolution, that my offspring should be my only effective comfort in thoughts of death. I wonder if Mr. Larkin ever had any kids?

    • Buddy. This was fantastic to read! Nathan and I OFTEN have something happen to us during the day where him and I will say or do or think the same thing at the same time, a few times in a row, and it always boggles our mind who much we think alike. I think the same could be said for you and I, in a lot of ways, and it’s always awesome to hear someone else echo thoughts you’ve had yourself.

      I’ve also only had “glimpses” of comprehending what nothingness means. They usually don’t last that long, but they’re profound. On the other side of experience, I only have glimpses of comprehending how ridiculous it is that we’re even conscious. A couple of days ago, while watching Ender’s Game at a pub/theater, and having been thinking about death and life for the previous week, I had one of those moments. I was looking at the suds on the side of my beer glass, the way the light was reflecting off them, shifting as the suds slowly lowered, and it hit me how absolutely ridiculous it is that I even have the ability to comprehend, appreciate, take note of, the things that are happening around me. Our consciousness is baffling. In the vast nothingness of space, nearly everything that happens happens to be witnessed by nothing and no one – yet here I am, on a small rock in a small corner of a galaxy, appreciating the way the light reflects through the suds in my glass.

      Life is an amazing thing. Regardless of whether it continues, life is incomprehensibly precious and amazing.

      Thanks again for writing out your thoughts.

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