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May 2006

Nomination: Aubade [29 November 1977. The Times Literary Supplement 23 December 1977]

‘Aubade’ was published in the Times Literary Supplement in December, 1977. Regarded as his last great poem, it is constantly referenced and deeply revered: for many, an unnervingly unambiguous work of art. The opening line, which sets the stall for the whole piece, must surely have satisfied the expectations of most Larkin enthusiasts at the time:

I work all day, and get half drunk at night

Straight away we know that this is going to be an honest, intensely personal piece of work. It’s only after several readings, however, that it becomes clear how beautifully written it is; how all rules of rhyme and meter are, forgive me, religiously adhered to and yet, read aloud, it sounds like free form. Constant reference to it is easy. Not unusually for Larkin, there are no lines wasted here.

Death pervades his masterpiece just as it appeared to haunt him throughout most of his adult life. He measures its approach as a prisoner would count down the time before his release, though with opposite purpose.

Unresting death, a whole day nearer now

His ‘arid interrogation’ of the subject appears beyond his control. He confronts it but to no avail: the answer is always the same.

The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always

No punches are pulled – there is no allusion here. Larkin shoots from the hip. He is, at turns, angry and sad. His turmoil increases as he considers death’s most dreaded consequence: the loss of all senses.

That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,

We are going along with him. We understand his pain. We know that death means these things. So then, just at the right moment, he delivers, for me, the poem’s most devastating line:

Nothing to love or link with

And, instead of anger, sadness spreads out.

He dismisses the weapons others use against fear of death – religion and courage – as supremely ineffective and suggests our only means of escape rests with diverting our attention elsewhere:

And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink

Eventually, light drifts into the room, making the truth appear ‘as plain as a wardrobe’. We are brought back to normality with a blisteringly incisive summary of the way life is:

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

If anybody has summarised life as we know it more astutely and succinctly than this, I am unaware of it. But he doesn’t leave it there. He closes with a line as enigmatic as it is beautiful:

Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

His death within eight years of its publication confirms the essence of the poem: in the end we all lose the unwinnable game.

Steve Jones

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