In general, most of Larkin’s poems leaned towards the myopic and the miserable, and it is no wonder to discover that, as Larkin grew older, his focus in writing turned from an exploration of the minutiae of living towards a rumination on death; although he’d covered the topic in one way or another throughout previous works, later poems of his, such as ‘Ambulances’ gave it a far more nuanced look. Larkin was fascinated by the idea of the human condition – death is a part of that condition, and its randomness, closeness, and inevitability are all themes that Larkin found especially interesting to analyze. ‘Ambulances’ is one such poem, written for the collection ‘The Whitsun Weddings’.
‘Ambulances’ is an exploration of the pervading sense of death that occurs in constrained societies; in cities, especially, death is ever-present due to the differing ages of the population, the inherent risk of city life, and other factors. Although nowadays, death is far less common than it was in, say, the Medieval era, there is still a stigma and a fear surrounding the question of death, and it is perhaps this reason that led Larkin to explore it in poetry.
‘Ambulances’ follows the route of an ambulance through rush hour in the city, chartering its course and its meaning.
Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.
From the opening stanza of the poem, which can be read in full here, Larkin makes a point of showing how elite, almost, ambulances are – they are ‘closed like confessionals’, implying privacy and divinity to an ambulance, and indeed, to death itself; as vehicles, they are hardly considered sacred, but for Larkin, at this moment, they are. There is something mysterious and pervasive about an ambulance, and the way Larkin writes about it puts it apart from everything else – it ‘threads / loud noons of cities, giving back / none of the glances they absorb’, and seems to be almost floating along the road, never quite touching the living population. It brings to mind a kelpie or a siren, a wailing woman who is only seen at the moment of death.
However, Larkin points out that ‘all streets in time are visited’, thereby proving that there is no real triumph over death. Everyone is going the same way, regardless of whether or not they want to go there.
Then children strewn on steps or road,
As it is carried in and stowed,
The moment of death is captured outside of the viewer; it is transformed through the eyes of ‘children strewn on steps or road, / Or women coming from the shops’, and because it has suddenly become a sideshow, it contrasts and conflicts with the previous stanza, where the ambulance was written about as a ‘confessional’. Although death is a very private moment, there are always those on the fringe edges that catch sight of it and stand, and gawk.
Notice the dehumanization of the word ‘it’, and how Larkin focuses not on the actual corpse but on the stretcher, always skirting around the issue of death, never quite approaching it head-on.
And sense the solving emptiness
They whisper at their own distress;
The ‘solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do’, writes Larkin. For Larkin, at least in this stanza, he questions why we bother doing the things we do; there is no point to life, as we will all wind up dead and in the ground at the end of it, sooner or later. However, Larkin’s point is that this is not something known to people, and it is only when we witness or around death that it occurs to us that there is an end to life, an end to existence, there is a blank nothingness to follow (something that Larkin was particularly afraid of) our lives.
For borne away in deadened air
Of families and fashions, there
However, Larkin does not merely write that life ends, and there is nothing after; he first points out what the end of life means – ‘the unique random blend / of families and fashions’. At the end of life, that is all that is left of a person: their family, habits, and memories are strewn across a generation or two. It could be argued that there is not, in fact, any emptiness, however, this is not a point that Larkin explores – it is not something that the dead person understands or knows after they are gone, and this is specifically about death in all its self-centred application; death as an experience only for the deceased, and not for the people who struggle on afterwards.
At last begin to loosen. Far
And dulls to distance all we are.
In the final stanza, Larkin finally explains what death is: ‘the exchange of love to lie / unreachable inside a room’; even the power of love, life, and family cannot push death aside, and it is the ultimate fate of man to die. Here, the ambulance is referenced again in ‘the traffic parks to let go by’; it is the room that puts the people who have died ‘unreachable’ to all the things that they lived for; however, this is not the only point that the ambulance makes. Larkin references it as a kind of omen, stating that it ‘brings closer what is left to come, / And dulls to distance all we are.’ As a reminder of death, the ambulance reminds us all that we are not immortal and we will not survive forever.
The final stanza also points out that every brush with death we experience – however indistinct – further isolates us, makes us introspective and forces us to ruminate on our own experiences, our own lives, and our own fragile existence.
Part of Larkin’s fear of death stems from the disease that Monica Jones, his friend and eventual girlfriend, suffered from in 1983. Her symptoms were so severe, affecting so much of her life, that regular care became necessary for her, and she moved into Larkin’s home so that he could tend to her. Two years later, Philip Larkin himself began to suffer from symptoms of oesophageal cancer, and he died on 2 December 1985, at the age of 63, after having collapsed just the previous month.
He is buried at Cottingham municipal cemetery, near Hull, close to the entrance.