Nomination: Ambulances [10 January 1961. From The Less Deceived]
Rather like ‘Aubade’, this poem is a portrait of Larkin’s fear and contemplation of death. Yet it manages to cleverly encapsulate the entire human story within just five verses. From ‘the exchange of love’ in conception to a summary of a life filled with ‘families and fashions’, he makes it perfectly clear that we will all end our days within a small, confined box, ‘unreachable inside a room’ and the traffic of ongoing life will part and let the dead move through, as if flinching in denial of its inevitable consequence.
The poem tackles the human need to ignore death in a ‘whisper at their own distress’, as if by offering sympathy, we can cheat death and push it away as someone else’s problem. Larkin also argues that ‘all streets in time are visited’, like in ‘Aubade’ when ‘Being brave …. Lets no one off the grave’. He reiterates that we cannot avoid it, but like an ironic lottery, we all hope that the ambulance will not come to our door, just yet.
In the second verse, Larkin describes the aroma and pace of life, the ongoing population, the children ‘strewn’ and the women going shopping as if nothing had happened, the smells of food – but then the sick person is ‘stowed’ away, so as not to spoil the idyllic view of family life and its fragrant perpetuity. His own questions on faith emerge again with, ‘And sense the solving emptiness …. That lies just under all we do’. In these words, we feel the hopelessness in our meaningless existence that leads only to death. We feel dull in our own fragility, cut off by our own denial and frightened by the inevitability of what is to come.
It is clear that Larkin’s ambulances are a one way ticket ‘closed like confessionals’ and they tell no secrets – rather like the mystery of death, with its precarious religious overtones, where nobody really knows whether there is eternal life or if it is simply something that ‘dulls to distance all we are’. Whilst some may feel this is a gloomy and pessimistic poem, it can also be viewed as an opportunity, not to fear but to seize the chance, make your mark on the world and leave a legacy that can be remembered within the sea of forgotten faces.