“Aubade” – Philip LARKIN

Larkin began writing “Aubade” in 1974 but only finished it three years later, after the death of his mother. It was first published in the TLS in 1977. The poem opens just before daybreak to a “soundless dark” in which the speaker is kept from sleep by his existential vulnerability. Despite the promise of dawn, he senses that there is “nothing more terrible, nothing more true” than our end, “the sure extinction that we travel to”; disillusioned, he pulls back the “vast moth-eaten musical brocade” of religion and ushers in what Pearl K. Bell once called “the melancholy truth of things”. At the poem’s close, the strengthening light seems to assuage his explicit anxiety. He looks out, not quite reassured, at the austere clockwork of modern capitalism: “Work has to be done. / Postmen like doctors go from house to house”. – Nikita Biswal, Times Literary Supplement (TSL)


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 used, 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 forever,
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 cannot 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 anaesthetic 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.

Extract from “Aubade” in Devs (Episode 7), a TV series written and directed by Alex Garland (2020).

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