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December 2002

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

It’s sometimes said that Larkin ‘dried up’ after High Windows and wrote nothing worth preserving thereafter. But there were three or four outstanding poems between its publication in 1975 and his death 10 years later: ‘The Mower’, ‘Love Again’, ‘The Life With a Hole in It’ and (best of all) ‘Aubade’.

The subject of ‘Aubade’ is death, which he’d visited many times before. But this is a late poem, with neither the controlling symbolism of ‘Next, Please’ nor the brutal distancing of ‘The Old Fools’. Here he faces death head-on, with naked dread and almost shaming self-pity. With a stab at Keats, who found the prospect of it ‘easeful’, Larkin calls death ‘unresting’ and itemises its horrors. His morbidity sounds almost Victorian in places. But that doesn’t stop him being Shavianly quotable (religion is defined as ‘that vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die’), or angrily, sensuously asserting the value of life (death’s greatest crime is to leave us ‘no sight, no sound,/No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,/Nothing to love or link with’), or getting the better of those who advocate stoicism (‘Being brave/Lets no one off the grave’).

I’ve never seen the case against death made so powerfully. The power is in the plainness. But only a great poet could have written the last lines.

Blake Morrison

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