“Aubade” by Philip Larkin
The full text of the poem is available here.
Philip Larkin is, maybe, an acquired taste. It helps if you think a lot about death. My father died a week before my birthday in April 2011. He also liked to quote Larkin (and when he did this be the verse).
So maybe I acquired the taste early. Larkin was not a dashing figure like young Ezra Pound or middle-age Robert Lowell. No, this egg-shaped man wasn’t handsome, but he was the author of lines that are plain and painful enough to be more beautiful than most.
On to “Aubade”
One of the things that sticks out about Larkin is his use of rhyme. The only other semi-contemporaries I think of who regularly used rhyme are Robert Frost and W.H. Auden. It’s interesting to note that most modern poetry journals (taking “Poet’s Market Guide 2012 as a representative sample) are adverse to rhyming poetry. Although, honestly, if you read the above 3 you’ll see that almost all human experience has been reduced to rhyme better than anyone else can do. Cowboy, define yourself different.
Larkin’s “Aubade” is broken into 5 stanzas of ABABCCDEED. A wiser man than me on Yahoo answers called this:
> built from a Venus and Adonis stanza (ababcc) followed by an envelope stanza (deed); the metre is a rough, naturalistic iambic pentameter, but the ninth lines are short, roughly iambic trimeter.
Ummm, yeah. That’s a great analysis, so instead of touching on that, I’ll point out my favorite parts.
Go ahead and read the poem if you didn’t. You’ll want to read it aloud and take your time. Here it is again.
Larkin is well heralded as the poet of the working class. He was a librarian first and poet second (at least as far as taxes were concerned), so his lines are often grounded in a well-understood idiom.
To open it as:
> I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
That’s gorgeous. He immediately establishes his credentials not just as a working man, but as a person. “[H]alf-drunk” is a term that everyone can recognize, either as a limit or as a goal, but neither to the exclusion of the other. I’ll spare you a discussion of line 2 (but check out [this article])
This is a poem about death. Larkin doesn’t hide it. “Death,” “die,” and “dead” are on lines 5, 7, 9. This poem is about confronting death, but the first cowardly foray wouldn’t tell you that. And then it’s gone, absent until it’s only other appearance in line 40 (of 50).
But confrontation really is the key. Or rather, maybe, the lack thereof. Here, “the mind blanks” (line 11) and “[n]o trick dispels” the approach (line 22). Yet Larkin tells us that “Most things may never happen: this one will.” (line 34). So the first 4/7ths of the poem avoids the issue and the last 1 3/4 stanzas admit it. He is defining death through negative space and our complicity as relayers helps to define it.
Larkin finally confronts this looming fear in line 42 (of 50). And his brave confrontation? It is that fear that he views “plain as a wardrobe.” A wardrobe. Eh. As plain as plain could be . . . yet as omnipresent in the bedroom as the wardrobe? Truly this is meant to kindle our fear of the ominous. . . yet banal; the mundanity of death.
Larkin takes it as inescapable, inevitable, but also pedestrian. Death, although worthy of 50 lines of a heretofore unknown rhyme scheme is a wardrobe. What then, is this wardrobe?
What do I bring to the wardrobe?
I’m convinced that there is an audience for which poets write. While they may ostensibly aim for the lowest common denominator with a literal rhyme (like Shakeapeare), no true writer means only what he’s says unless he does.
This “wardrobe” looms large in my reading. It isn’t any closet or chest in my room, but there is a concrete wardrobe there in my mind.
When my father died, he left a closet full of man’s clothes to go through. My brother an I divvied it up, but I can still picture it. That poetic misprecision that lets me mishear poetic phrases lets me missee his closet. My dead father’s wardrobe still hangs there with ties I can’t bring myself to wear or throw away (although they are terrible). There’s an awful vest and even more terrible shoes.
So while Larkin’s wardrobe was probably his business suits and daily accoutrements, for me that wardrobe is a fugue of my own past, my future in suits, and my dead father. To me, that “plain as a wardrobe” carries the weight of generations. Larkin might have viewed his own death, hanging there in creases and folds, while I see that same wardrobe as the continual birth and death of my bloodline. Each cancer is another son, waiting to take another tie or belt or shirt or vest, thinking that it carries strength and, no, the eventual destruction of all egos.
I got way sidetracked, but Philip Larkin is one of the pre-eminent poets of our time. He’s dead, so I don’t worry too much about how you find his back catalog. Aesthetically, however, I’d recommend that you find a used version of the “Collected Poems” arranged in chronological order. It’s far more inspiring and helpful for young aspirants to see how much of his work was uncollected while he was writing his “masterpieces.”
While he was best known for “Aubade” and “This Be The Verse,” his other work is tellingly brilliant. For those of you who feel like you won’t be masters, I think that looking at the comparison between Larkin’s unpublished work interspersed with his collection might give you hope. Well, maybe not hope, but a better sense of perspective.
Sometimes that’s enough.