It seems that to Philip Larkin, life is merely a prolonged death. Within ‘Nothing To Be Said’, Larkin explores the inevitability of death, suggesting that no matter who you are, where you are, or what you do, death is absolute, and always approaching.
The poem is split into three six-line stanzas, without a regular rhyme scheme. The first stanza focuses on people, drawing together examples of different groups around the world. The second focuses on the activities and endeavors of those people. Yet, the final is more philosophical, dividing people into two groups – those to which death does not matter, and those which are frozen in fear at its approach.
Many argue that this ‘Nothing To Be Said’ is deeply depressing. It’s easy to see why, the poem is essentially about the inevitability of death and how we are all, in our own way, ‘slowly dying’. The pointlessness of life is palpable in Larkin’s writings, no matter what anyone does, it still seems like a waste. This interpretation is more obvious, and the one I will look at more closely within the analysis.
Yet, although depressing, the poem could also be read as a tribute to the unification of humanity. While death is inescapable, the fact that it is approaching everyone is a binding characteristic. This certain end is what gives life a purpose, and facing it together as a community is something oddly beautiful. Within the first stanza, Larkin focuses on ‘families’, ’tribes’, and ‘nations’, exemplifying this sense of community. Even within the straying ‘nomads’, Larkin uses the plural, suggesting a sense of unity. Death cannot be escaped, but how and with who we choose to spend our time is something controllable. Perhaps within this pessimism, there is a binding light. Humanity, although doomed, is in it together, pushing onwards towards the end.
Larkin employs an omniscient narrator to house the persona of ‘Nothing To Be Said’. The narrator looks down upon the world, seeing the great tribes, cities, and individual people within it. The voice is oddly reminiscent of a sort of god, watching over the earth. By writing from this perspective, he imbues his writing with a sense of grandeur. The thought of death suddenly seems all-encompassing, surrounding the everyday plights of life completely. The mundane individualities of life are swept away by one looming presence: death. This perspective allows the tone of the poem to take on a solemn sense of knowing. It’s almost as if death itself is watching humanity, much bigger than all else, waiting for the end.
Analysis of Nothing To Be Said
For nations vague as weed,
For nomads among stones,
In mill-towns on dark mornings
Life is slow dying.
The collocation of the noun ‘nations’ and the adjective ‘vague’ begins the poem with an odd mismatch. Something that seems enormous and impressive to a human, a whole ‘nation’ is something tiny and ‘vague’ to the voice of the poem. This could be a reflection of how death is much bigger than life, seemingly watching from afar. The employment of a zoomed-out view of humanity, ‘vague as weed’, ‘among stones’, gives the idea of death looking down upon humanity as a human would look down on ants. The tiny everyday workings seem insignificant to a being of a much larger scale. Within the first few lines, death is solidified as an enormous and powerful force, much greater than that of humanity.
The creation of the atmosphere using ‘dark mornings’ bolsters the tone with a soft solemnity. Before the day has truly begun, the darkness of the morning is spreading out across the world. This early and quiet time of day is eery in its stillness.
Once the tone of ‘Nothing To Be Said’ has been established, Larkin flows into the core sentiment of the poem: ‘life is slowly dying.’ The use of enjambment allows for this statement to arrive seemingly out of nowhere. The sudden and inexplicable nature perhaps a reflection of death itself. The statement is oddly paradoxical, how can something slowly die if death is but one moment? Yet, Larkin’s sentiment remains firm – life, each day, is one day closer to death. For Larkin, the process of life and indeed living, is just stalling the inevitable end. A classically bleak Larkin sentiment.
So are their separate ways
Of building, benediction,
The day spent hunting pig
Or holding a garden-party,
Larkin explores the different ways in which people are spending their finite time within this stanza. Different religions, ‘benedictions’, projects ‘building’, and pursuits of ‘money’ are all reduced to the same sentiment – pointless. Each moment spent upon earth is just another ‘way of slowly dying’. Larkin is incredibly pessimistic here, reducing all of humanity’s acts into a series of wasted time. By painting death on such a large scale, Larkin makes human life feel incredibly small. The first four lines of this stanza flow seamlessly onto the final bleak sentiment, repeated again from the first stanza. The statement, ‘slowly dying’ is followed by an end stop, with the solemn finality being echoed in the blunt finish of the sentence and the forced pause.
Within the third line, ‘measuring love and money’, Larkin reduces humanity to an overly materialistic society. Both ‘love’ and ‘money’ are measured as if they were both commercial commodities. Something often talked about in poetry as being pure and beautiful, ‘love’ is reduced to a quantitative figure. This commercialization of humanity makes the world seem even smaller, all things dear being reduced to one sentence generalizations. Larkin, through this omnipresent narration, paints humanity as incredibly feeble, unimportant, and small. That is, compared to the certain abyss which is to come.
Hours giving evidence
Or birth, advance
Means nothing; others it leaves
Nothing to be said.
As the ‘Nothing To Be Said’ draws closer to its end, it is interesting to note that the previously used article of time, ‘day’ has been shortened to ‘hours’. The poem is close to the end, a subtle reflection of the closing certainty of death. Perhaps Larkin is willing the reader to focus more on how they are spending their time. As death is drawing near, why waste time on something that doesn’t make you happy? A similar sentiment on living in the present is made in his other poem Next, Please. You can read our analysis of ‘Next, Please‘ here.
We now arrive at the third repetition of the word ’slowly’, always echoing throughout the poem. This continuous, monotonous, and yet ever so tiny creep of time is an eery faucet to the poem. The use of this word helps to build the somber tone, the slow certainty of the death being a constant reminder.
The final three lines of the poem are grammatically isolated from the rest, being proceeded and finished by an end stop. This is the most philosophical part of the poem, where the lens zooms in and focuses on the individual. To some, the thought of death is not bothersome, just something that will happen and that’s it. Yet, to others, the sheer magnitude of death is a paralyzing thought. That slow creep towards the abyss is something deeply unsettling. Larkin asks the reader to self-identity. Are you one of the people that is not bothered by death, or is it something that terrifies you?
The titular line of the ‘Nothing To Be Said’ is also the last, with a cyclic sense being evoked through the mirroring. Life may begin again, but it always returns to the same, ‘slow’ end.