An aubade is a morning love song or the song/story of two lovers parting at dawn. Despite the title, Larking changes the events around in ‘Aubade’, focusing on death rather than a romantic evening and morning. The poem was published in the Times Literary Supplement on December 23 1977, and is, to some, one of if not the last major works that Larkin completed. Larkin’s mother died around the period that he finally returned to this poem and chose to finish it, something that some scholars cite as a source of inspiration. He died in 1985, eight years after the publication of ‘Aubade’.
Summary of Aubade
Throughout this poem, Larkin’s speaker takes the reader into his darkest thoughts, those he has early in the morning before the sun comes up. There, he thinks about his future and the fact that death is always right there at the edge of his life. There is nothing in the world that can soothe the fear of death, he says. Religion tried, but it’s useless in the face of what’s to come. The speaker also notes how it’s in these moments, when there is so “drink” or friendly faces as distractions, that the reality of death sets in. It’s going to come for you whether you whine about it or show courage in the face of it.
The poem concludes with the speaker describing the first rays of light that make their way into his room. It takes shape around him while outside people go about their lives, each one with the knowledge of death in the corner of their eye.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Aubade
The clearest theme at work in ‘Aubade’ is death/mortality. Throughout this poem, Larkin’s speaker focuses on the inevitability of death and what exactly it is that he fears about it. Unlike some, he says, he is not worried about leaving things undone. The regrets that he might have in the future don’t bother him. What he thinks about most is the blackness that will greet him on the other side of death. It’ll be like anaesthesia from which he’ll never wake up. There will be no smells, thoughts, or anything to think or smell with. He’ll be entirely lost. That state of being is incredibly intimidating.
It is important to note all universal Larkin makes the theme of death in ‘Aubade’. Clearly, all human beings and all other living things will have to face it. But, in this poem, Larkin discusses it so openly and clearly that it is incredibly easy for any reader to relate to his specific sentiments.
Structure and Form
‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin is a five-stanza poem that is separated into sets of ten lines. The lines follow a steady rhyme scheme of ABABCCDEED, changing sounds from stanza to stanza. The form is completed with the fairly consistent use of iambic pentameter. This means that most of the lines are made up of five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed.
The majority of the lines follow this pattern but there are a few, such as line seven of the first stanza, that differ. In this case, the pattern is broken. The line ends with two stressed syllables next to one another, “self” and “die” There are also examples of the opposite in ‘Aubade,’ two unstressed syllables next to one another. For example, “-ing” and “and” in line nine. This pairing of beats is known as an anapaestic foot.
Larkin makes use of several literary devices in ‘Aubade’. These include but are not limited to examples of enjambment, caesura, imagery, and similes. The first of these, enjambment, is a common literary device that is seen in the transition from one line to the next. For example, that which exists between lines six and seven of the first stanza and between lines three and four of the third stanza. There are also a few examples of caesurae in this poem. For instance, line eight of the first stanza reads: “Arid interrogation: yet the dread” and line eight of the second stanza: “And shall be lost in always. Not to be here”.
Imagery is one of the most important poetic techniques that Larkin uses in ‘Aubade’. It can be seen throughout the poem as he creates images that require the reader to use various senses to imagine them. For example, the eighth line of the fifth stanza reads, “The sky is white as clay, with no sun”. There are also several examples of similes in ‘Aubade’. For instance, the last line of the poem: “Postmen like doctors go from house to house”. Similes, unlike metaphors, use “like” or “as” to compare one thing to another.
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
In the first stanza of ‘Aubade,’ the speaker begins by describing waking up “at four to soundless dark”. This is not an unusual start to an aubade but what comes next is. Larkin’s speaker is not waking up with a lover with whom he’s just spent the night, he is instead waking up to thoughts of death. He knows that eventually, the darkness outside will give way to light but for now, he gets to look around him and see the world for what it really is— “Unresting death”. He’s a “whole day nearer” to his own death than he was yesterday.
This heavy subject matter makes the first stanza of the poem overwhelming and surprising. The speaker goes on, to say that it’s impossible for him to think about anything other than “where and when I shall myself die”. Unfortunately for him, his thoughts are consumed in this strikingly depressing way rather than with a loved one. The idea of his death is not unusual for him. He knows and has always known that he’d eventually die, but the idea of “being dead” comes upon him “to hold and horrify”.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
In the second stanza of ‘Aubade’, the speaker focuses on what it is about death that he’s so worried about. It’s the “total emptiness for ever” that haunts him, not the things left undone. He’s not so worried about the “love not given” or the time “unused”. He is thinking about what it is like to exist as nothing. The “sure extinction” that all living creatures are travelling to. Once there, we “shall be lost” in that blackness “always”. It’s hard to comprehend as human beings what it will be like to “Not be here” or “be anywhere”.
Readers should make sure to take note of line nine of this stanza. Rather than using his standard iambic pentameter, Larkin uses two dactylic feet. The line is also significantly shorter than the others around it. This means that readers should be pulled toward it and immediately realise it’s important.
This is a special way of being afraid
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
Moving on, the speaker says that the fear of death is special. It is a different way of being afraid than anything human beings experience in any other part of their life. There are no “tricks” that can “dispel” it. Religion used to do it for some, but nowadays, ancient rituals “Created to pretend we never die” do nothing.
He takes the reader through other arguments about death, ones that say that human beings should not fear something they can’t feel. He doesn’t believe that any argument or state of mind can dispel the solid, inescapable fear that’s at his heart and the heart of every other living, sentient thing. In the future, we all enter into a state of being in which there is no “touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with”. He compares it to a type of anaesthesia that takes over everything and no one wakes up from.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
The last stanzas have established that death is this overwhelming, all-encompassing thing that no one can escape. In this stanza, the speaker notes how that fear lives “just on the edge of vision”. It is a “small unfocused blur” that one can’t quite see but also can’t ignore. It holds a certainty that many other things don’t have— “Most things may never happen: this one will”.
Larkin’s speaker also makes sure to mention how the fear of death moves from being a tiny blur in one’s eye to a “furnace-fear”. When we are “caught without / People or drink,” or other things to distract ourselves with, the fear rears its head. There is no courage that can outpace death, nor will whining keep it at bay. It comes for all equally.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
In the final ten lines of ‘Aubade’, the speaker takes the reader back to the beginning of the poem. It’s early in the morning and finally, the light is starting to filter into the room. The “room takes shape” around him and everyone goes about their day, doing what they need to do. Things are in motion. Larkin uses examples of similes and personification in this stanza as he describes the telephones “crouch[ing], getting ready to ring” and the Postmen who “like doctors” travel from house to house. The postmen ring with them letters from friends and loved ones, maintaining a link, the human connection. This is the same way that doctors help keep our bodies alive. Both sides are important. All the while, despite our best efforts, death exists.
Readers who enjoyed Aubade’ should also take a look at some of Larkin’s other popular poems. These include ‘The Whitsun Weddings,’ ‘Wild Oats,’ and ‘Age’. Death is one of the most common themes in the world of poetry, as well as in the broader literary world. This poem does a beautiful job of putting down humankind’s most depressing thoughts into moving, thoughtful verse. But there are other equally impressive poems that also address death. For example, ‘Death and the Moon’ by Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Death is Nothing At All’ by Henry Scott Holland, and ‘Death, be not Proud’ by John Donne.