Nomination: Aubade [29 November 1977 Times Literary Supplement, (23 December 1977)]
‘Aubade’ is a poem that makes me happy. No line in the poem is happy. None of the poem’s thoughts are designed to express happiness. Novice student readers find it repellent. The way a crow shook down on Robert Frost the dust of snow from a hemlock tree once rescued Frost from a day he had rued. So too has ‘Aubade’ lightened my mood and refilled my sails. I don’t need to wait upon grace to send a crow since ‘Aubade’ is one of the few poems I have committed to memory – not an easy thing for this sluggish mind. It is a poem that begs to be memorized.
I love exclaiming my lines while walking the always deserted back road outside our summer house on the Bay of Fundy. The words are a choir of beautiful sound, a ballet of divine movement, an open secret in which I may participate.
That I will die, I know. I suppose Larkin could be thought of as the target of Caesar’s bluster: “Cowards die many times before their death.” Not being Caesar, I am glad to have such fine company in my own thoughts of dying. But ‘Aubade’ does not shock, nor does it create fear. Rather, in visiting what we all know, Larkin’s art speaks truth so beautifully that it takes me beyond the facts, shutting out fear, depression, or whatever else Larkin is accused of dwelling on. It is difficult to highlight lines – any will equally do to suggest the way truthful beauty can transcend the downward pull of its subject matter.
“Arid interrogation: yet the dread / Of dying, and being dead, / Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.” (is it juvenile to admire such alliteration?)
“Religion used to try, / That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die,” (surely wikipedia needs this under its definition of religion – what a breath!)
“The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse / – The good not done, the love not given, time / Torn off unused…” (such astonishing negatives)
“Unresting death, a whole day nearer now…” (try to forget that line)
“An only life may take so long to climb / Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never…” (the sad vantage point of every teacher)
“Most things may never happen: this one will…” (ten cent words with a million dollar effect; in this respect the equal of Frost)
“Courage is no good: / It means not scaring others” (ouch)
“Being brave / Lets no one off the grave” (ah, the thing I was counting on…)
“Death is no different whined at than withstood” (but surely Donne…Thomas… – well, of course, death is no different)
“…uncaring / Intricate rented world…” (shades of the Buddha)
Clear, compressed, rich, mellifluous. The restrained confessional honesty quite overwhelms, and invites. His range may not be Shakespeare, but the effect is similar – how does he know us so well?
The gods have given us death and asked to see what we can do with it. Larkin made a life out of it, and uplifting art.