A Poem for Our Souls

In March 1999, I was in my second semester at college and taking an "Introduction to Poetry" class. Analyzing the poem "Aubade" by Philip Larkin was hard and I'm so glad I chose to become intimate with it. The professor wrote on my paper, "You really took a risk choosing such a challenging poem."

Because the topic of the poem is his fear of dying and being dead, I thought a lot about it when I was writing the blog Before & After. Here are some excerpts from the paper I wrote when I was 19 years old:

"Larkin's poem is a confessional poem because he reveals to the reader part of his soul about a painful or intimate experience: his fear of death. His intense anxiety consumes his entire being until it is the only thing remaining in him. Frustration overwhelms him when he sees the rest of the world that works to survive without caring to actually live a passionate life."

"It's interesting to note that the title of the poem, "Aubade," means music suitable to greet the dawn. An ode to dusk would seem to make more sense since dusk would represent death. Larkin seems to believe that living must contain the thought of death constantly looming overhead."

"Death is eternal numbness for Larkin and he attacks people who perceive it differently than he does. He criticizes religion, claiming that it tries to cover-up the fear of dying. 'Brocade' is a fabric with a raised, elaborate design on it. By naming religion as 'That vast moth-eating musical brocade,' he paints a harsh picture of an intricate and falsely beautiful spectacle fabricated to assuage the horror of death."

"All people can agree upon one fact, though; death will occur, no matter what happens. When Larkin realizes this, he desires comfort. Two things that actually give him consolation now, 'people' during the day at work and 'drink' at night, will not longer exist for him in death and he will be 'caught' without either of them."

" 'Meanwhile,' during the time that passes while Larkin lies in bed contemplating the seriousness of death, the rest of the world in his mind uses the same exact moments to prepare for another monotonous and worthless day. Living or existing in two worlds cannot occur for him; Larkin says he has to choose to live in an intellectually [and spiritually] deep world or a materially shallow one. The rest of the world regards dying as another task that needs accomplishment, just as 'Postmen' deliver letters and 'doctors' care for dying people. They take death so lightly and, to Larkin, it is everything."

"Dancing in the Flames" documentary about Marion Woodman

This past weekend I watched the documentary "Dancing in the Flames" about the life and work of Marion Woodman. It's free-streaming and I totally recommend spending 80 minutes with her (http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7972/Dancing-in-the-Flames). What she says at the very beginning of the movie reminds me of what I hear Larkin saying:

"I do believe we all have a destiny. We either live it, or we escape, because we're afraid to live our own reality."

by Philip Larkin (1977)

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.