Friday 18 March 2011

Two superb poems: two contrasting philosophies


Aubade by Philip Larkin

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.


Psalm 49

Hear this, all ye people; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world:

Both low and high, rich and poor, together.

My mouth shall speak of wisdom; and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding.

I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp.

Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about?

They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches;

None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him:

(For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever:)

That he should still live for ever, and not see corruption.

For he seeth that wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish, and leave their wealth to others.

Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names.

Nevertheless man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.

This their way is their folly: yet their posterity approve their sayings. Selah.

Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling.

But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave: for he shall receive me. Selah.

Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased;

For when he dieth he shall carry nothing away: his glory shall not descend after him.

Though while he lived he blessed his soul: and men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself.

He shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light.

Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish.



Larkin's Aubade is perhaps the best English poem written over the past six decades? - well, for quite a long time. That is the opinion of many mainstream poetry critics, and it is my opinion also.

And yet, masterpiece though it surely is - when I (by chance) turned to look at Aubade after reading Psalm 49, I could not but notice the gruesome narrowing from a universal, metaphysical, prophetic perspective to Larkin's merely personal statement of nihilism.

For Larkin, death negates life, an irony that is absurd: death makes him, personally, terrified by its implications; but for the Psalmist death underpins life with a tragic ballast: death fills him with sorrow for the world.


And in particular, I felt the contrast between Larkin's apparently modest, blunt, plain man's 'no nonsense' pragmatism - and the actual, underlying arrogance, glibness and superficiality of his casual discarding of the wisdom of the centuries - discarding the perspective of prophet and common man as regards death.

For Larkin death is nothing; for the Psalmist death has tremendous, overwhelming density.

Larkin's (famous ) dismissal of religion as "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die" - is that really how the ancient metaphysics of the Psalmist struck him when he said? "Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling."

And if it did, what does that tell us of Larkin as a representative modern man?


The Psalmist's prophecy of Christian salvation comes only after his profoundly (in the sense of heavily, weightily) serious hymn of the existential nature of the human condition of a society for which death was the end of worldly human delusion ("They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches"), exchanging this for an eternal reality of Hades: "He shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light."

Larkin speaks - or reports - as an isolated, observing self.


It is the characteristic modern stance of seeing through all that rubbish from past generations which struck me so forcibly about Aubade on this reading.

Larkin's arrogance is that of the isolated self whose pride at its own autonomy is based on an habitual sneering sense of its own superiority; when the self dislikes what it has made of life, then it takes pride in telling itself how bravely it is taking the nasty medicine of life.


Just how, exactly, did Larkin see though the perspective of the Psalmist and - suddenly, for the first time in history - recognize all-that-stuff as obviously absurd?

So obviously absurd as to require no more justification than mere statement: what amounts to pointing and smirking.

And why is this supposed to be an advance in understanding?


Of course, Larkin stands for us all, he is a modern Everyman; his poem is great because it depicts with searing honesty our own habitual default state.

Yet, Larkin's poetic depiction is easy to mistake for searing honesty about metaphysical reality (that is a consequence of its poetry, the sense of a general validity).

But it is not honesty about general reality, Larkin's poem is searing honesty about personal sin; a very common but distinctively modern state of sin.

Larkin's inferiority to the Psalmist derives from the fact that he had no framework from which he could perceive this depicted terror of death as a consequence of sin: the master sin of arrogant, self-sufficient pride.


Larkin, as a representative modern, felt the consequence of sinful pride, but could not perceive the cause: his only constructive suggestion was characteristically modern: to attempt a life of continual distraction, not to think about it: people or drink.

Larkin envied those he believed to attain this state naturally: those too dumb or unreflective to perceive the human condition, those for whom life came and went without recognition of what was happening.

Larkin envied people like that! The Psalmist pitied them.



The Crow said...

Should man, then, see his end,
an ending to his life?
And death his one true friend,
an end to all his strife?

Should man then, see his death,
a foe set at the gate?
To steal, at last, his breath,
no matter, long, it wait?

To dwell, this life, forever,
in safety, moving not.
And leap to glory, never,
so wretched is man's lot.

Or make his life, its living,
and live it to its end.
To free it from misgiving,
then heavenward gladly send.

Graham Asher said...

Good for Larkin. His bravery and clarity of vision are inspiring. He was not arrogant but honest.

Bruce Charlton said...

Honest AND arrogant!