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Critical opinions (1): Larkin and the difficult subject.

DAVID LODGE HAS insisted that the `difficult subject' of death in Larkin's verse `is, we can all agree, a "nonverbal" reality, because, as Wittgenstein said, it is not an experience in life'.(1) One can only imagine Larkin enjoying one of his best philistine chortles over this half-truth.(2) Lodge alludes to Tractatus 6. 4311, `Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death'. Death, to be sure, is that undiscovered country from which no traveller returns -- in Larkin's kindred words, `The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always' -- but our wordy thoughts about the undiscovered country, including those of Wittgenstein, are of necessity in the world.

English verse has certainly made word-homes for death's multiplying meanings. Being an American and a student of Yvor Winters, I think of Philip Pain, whose Daily Meditations (1668) were among the earliest poems published on these shores. Here we find the baseline tradition of Timor mortis conturbat me from which both Larkin and Shakespeare vary:
   Scarce do I pass a day, but that I hear
   Someone or other's dead, and to my ear
   Methinks it is no news. But oh! did I
   Think deeply on it, what it is to die,
   My pulses all would beat, I should not be
   Drowned in this deluge of security.(3)

If not drowned in a deluge of security, forgetful of `what it is to die', what should one be? And what, really, is it to die? Add to the mental universe of this lyric the possibility of an epicurean view of death, and we have (or can get to) Hamlet's `To be, or not to be'. Remove from Pain's harrowing little poem fear of judgment in the afterlife, while leaving in the epicurean vistas, and we have (or can get to) Larkin's `Aubade'. Only a metaphysical formalism would want to say that `Aubade' is, in anything but an honorific sense, out of this world.

Begun in 1974, finished in 1977, and first printed somewhat ironically in the Christmas issue (23 December 1977) of the Times Literary Supplement, `Aubade' was the last substantial lyric Larkin wrote. The work has received much commentary for a modern poem. `I remember reading it', Marion Shaw disclosed to Andrew Motion, Larkin's biographer, `and it upset me so much it nearly ruined my holiday. A lot of us felt like that'.(4) The speaker of `Aubade' awakens at four in the morning to a flare-up of timor mortis: `the dread / Of dying, and being dead, / Flashes afresh to hold and horrify'. In this passage from the end of the first verse paragraph, alliterations first spill over the lines, then in the last one huddle into two clusters (`Flashes afresh' and `hold and horrify') evocative by way of Hopkins of the mournful poetry of the Anglo-Saxons; it gives a fair idea of the tonal range of `Aubade' to note that Larkin repeats the effect at the end of the fourth stanza, this time infusing the alliterating half-lines with Marvellian irony: `Death is no different whined at than withstood'.

`Aubade' has been thought the final triumph of a mordant author who was from the beginning obsessed in the manner of a medieval or Renaissance poet with the blunt theme of death and decay. In The North Ship (1951), his earliest and mostly arid collection, we hear of `the first thing / I have understood: / Time is the echo of an axe / Within a wood', updating in a characteristically brutal direction the old trope of time's harvesting scythe.(5) When asked by Raymond Gardner to explain his morbid preoccupation with death, Larkin replied, reminding us for once that he was but a generation removed from Sartre and Camus, `If you were sentenced to death by firing squad, but were told that you would not be shot today, nor tomorrow, but eventually, would you not think about your predicament a great deal'?(6) `Cemeteries, general wards, loneliness, death, death, death', he writes in a late letter, summarizing the imaginative haunts of his late verse. `Pippa has certainly passed.'(7) Others have discerned in `Aubade' the ultimate victory of a coarseness, a cowardly cynicism, that even his best poems fight against with more or less success.(8) `Aubade' does in fact fairly cry out to be answered. Its echoes are answers. I agree with Donald Hall that, however stark the poem may seem in paraphrase, `if you don't walk out of the theatre humming the tune, you don't read poetry'.(9)

`The fear of dying', Hall maintains, `daily companion of many, found its Homer, Dante, and Milton in Philip Larkin'.(10) Although the sentiment is right, the examples seem to me entirely wrong. There may be just a touch of Dante (by way of Eliot) in the character sketches placed here and there in Larkin's work: Mr Bleaney the former inhabitant, the early breeding Dockery, the cartoonishly married Arnold of `Self's the Man', the longstanding patron of `Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel', the businessman on the brink of the 1929 crash in `Livings I', the rapturously solitary lighthouse keeper of `Livings II'. But Homer and Milton trod different paths. In truth the fear of dying found its Shakespeare, or rather its second Shakespeare, in Philip Larkin.

Comparing a modern writer to Shakespeare risks curt dismissal, and the risk may be especially dire in the case of Larkin, who ridiculed Eliot's view of tradition, cast scorn on the allusion-happy verse of Pound, and detested virtually every writer he encountered when reading English in wartime Oxford.(11) There was, however, an exception. As Kingsley Amis wrote, `I have no recollection of ever hearing Philip admit to have enjoyed, or again to be ready to tolerate, any author or book he studied, with the possible exception of Shakespeare'.(12) Larkin of course subjected Shakespeare to the schoolboy irreverence he never outgrew. In `Toads' the desire to shout `Stuff your pension!' to one's employer is `the stuff / That dreams are made on'. `-- One of those "more things", could it be? Horatio', the last line of `Letter to a Friend about Girls', puns nastily on `whore ratio' (one of the `more things' in heaven and earth than had been dreamt of in the speaker's philosophy). The title of his first mature collection, The Less Deceived (1955), alludes to Ophelia's `I was the more deceived' (Hamlet 3.1.120).

Both Larkin and Hamlet determine never to marry. Both are melancholy and sardonic. Hamlet's `What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals -- and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?' seems an archetypal expression of Larkin's disillusioning, depriving wit. Both are death-obsessed.

Larkin became, after all, a stalwart defender of popular poetry rooted in emotions and experiences shared by author and audience, requiring no mediation by professional interpreters. What poet has touched the popular realm more profoundly than Shakespeare? The pages devoted to Shakespeare in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations reveal that the poet is remembered in the popular imagination preeminently for his verses about death. If `Aubade' does indeed catch the music of great poetry, so that readers familiar with some of it will leave the theatre humming Larkin's tune, it is largely because Shakespeare echoes in the halls of recollection. `Aubade' is a kind of answer or counter-song to the soliloquy interrupted by the more deceived Ophelia -- perhaps the most familiar piece of English verse ever written.

In order to appreciate the companionate relation of Larkin to Hamlet, we have to begin even further back, in some of the most lasting pronouncements of ancient philosophy. `I read everything', Larkin told an interviewer, `except philosophy, theology, economics, sociology, science, or anything to do with the wonders of nature, anything to do with technology -- have I said politics? I'm trying to think of all the Dewey decimal classes. In point of fact I virtually read only novels'. His favourites: Dickens, Trollope, Barbara Pym, Dick Francis.(13) Did not Larkin confide to Ian Hamilton that `to me the whole of the ancient world, the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little'?(14) But he simply can't have meant it. Witness `Aubade' itself:
   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 --

The view of religion here is dubious in its reductive ferocity. Larkin, deeply into the role of championing human fear against its bromides, even seems for a moment to lose control of his normally lucid phrasing. I am unable to find ordinary sense in `musical brocade', and `vast' doesn't help. In his prose appreciation of Andrew Marvell, Hull's other great poet, Larkin quoted J. V. Cunningham's contention that most modern readers, coming on the `vegetable love' growing `Vaster than empires, and more slow' in `To His Coy Mistress', wrongly produce the vague image of a vast expanding cabbage.(15) Perhaps Larkin's vast moth-eaten musical brocade aspires to a similarly fecund vagueness: one sees a vast wardrobe of dresses worn in church, priestly vestments, choir robes. However, the argumentative energy of the poem is not directed primarily at religion. Larkin's main target is the `specious stuff', a piece of which he appears to quote in italics. I have not been able to identify the quotation, though there can be little doubt that it comes from a real or imaginary translation of the Principal Doctrines of Epicurus or Book 3 of Lucretius' De rerum natura, or from a real or imaginary commentator on these works. Against this tradition, Larkin evokes an annihilation that, far from being the fear-killer dispensed by the epicureans, represents instead precisely `what we fear'.

Topics such as `conceptions of death in classical antiquity' customarily begin with Plato. At the end of the Apology, Socrates, having been sentenced to death, proposes that dying can mean one of two things. Either it is annihilation, in which case it is like a very deep and dreamless sleep, and therefore not to be feared, or else it is a removal to another place, where there might likely be other dead spirits, in which case the conversation could be exciting. Epicurus, the main architect of Larkin's `specious stuff', unfolded the first alternative: `Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us'.(16) The argument stands full-blown in Lucretius. Fearing death is irrational; annihilation means the annihilation of fear; the more terrible notions of the afterlife are the fantasies of guilty men. We were nothing before birth, and nobody seems to regard that fact with terror. Resuming our initial nothingness, we can count on a peaceful death. Cicero returned to the Socratic alternatives in Book 1 of the Tusculan Disputations, maintaining that the dead cannot be thought of as being wretched, or as being anything, since the dead simply are not. `Can one who does not exist lack anything?'(17)

Larkin calls the argument a `trick', in that it purports to lay our fears to rest by calling attention to the very annihilation that is the main object of those fears. He addresses the Lucretian point about preexistence in `The Old Fools':
   At death, you break up: the bits that were you
   Start speeding away from each other for ever
   With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
   We had it before, but then it was going to end,
   And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
   To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
   Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
   There'll be anything else.

The epicurean account of death as dissolving into oblivion is `true', but gets reimagined in such a way as to sanction dread, not cancel it. Lucretius argues that death-fear stems from imagining a spectator-self able to register the ravages of decomposition. But for Larkin the fact that we will break up `with no one to see' entails a horrifying obliteration of the self -- `A death to think', in the words of Milton's Eve. Epicurean consolation only screws down the fear. Referring back to pre-existence does not help matters, since that earlier nothingness resulted in `the million-petalled flower / Of being here': the beauty of the metaphor reminds us of living, of spontaneous creative power, of what we are and can only dread to be without.

Larkin was hardly the first to expose the trick. About a decade before `Aubade' was written a modern commentator on Epicurus noted that `This argument obviously avoids the main issue, since to most people it is precisely the fact that "we do not exist when death comes" that is the first object of fear'.(18) This revised epicureanism goes all the way back to antiquity; the claim that death is nothing to us was scornfully repudiated in the pseudo-Platonic Axiochus.(19) Dryden translated the passages in Lucretius `Against the Fear of Death', but remarked in his preface that this was a treacherously dogmatic and wrongheaded writer:
   But for Lucretius, he seems to disdain all manner of Replies, and is so
   confident of his cause, that he is before hand with his Antagonists; Urging
   for them, whatever he imagined they could say, and leaving them as he
   supposes, without an objection for the future.... The thought of being
   nothing after death is a burden unsupportable to a vertuous Man, even
   though a Heathen. We naturally aim at happiness, and cannot hear to have it
   confin'd to the shortness of our present Being, especially when we consider
   that vertue is generally unhappy in this world, and vice fortunate. So that
   'tis hope of Futurity alone, that makes this Life tolerable, in expectation
   of a better.(20)

Here the vehemence of Lucretius reappears, as it does in `Aubade', in an equally vehement dismissal of him. For Larkin the dogmatic exposure of `specious stuff' extends to the religious promise of an afterlife. Anti-epicureanism must ultimately confront what Dryden thought intolerable: right about death, the epicureans were wrong only about curing our fear. This revised epicureanism is perhaps the birth canal of modern post-religious sensibility.

Dryden's conventional Christian response to Lucretius makes Hamlet's `To be, or not to be' all the more curious. Hamlet does not aim at the usual happiness, and cannot be counted among the `most people' for whom annihilation is the first object of their fear. It is one of the odd classical strains in the play that its hero would like to be a good epicurean. If death were, as Socrates said, a dreamless sleep, the untroubled oblivion of the epicureans, Hamlet would gladly die. What makes him fear death, and cling to life despite his harsh catalogues of its indignities, is the possibility of death's sleep issuing in a dream. Afterlife is the `rub', the patch of imperfect turf that deflects the bowling ball of his thought from its initial target (death) to a new target (bearing the ills we have rather than flying to others we know not of).

The famous soliloquy seems on first glance the perfect inverse of `Aubade': the oblivion Hamlet craves with every fibre of his being is the oblivion Larkin dreads with every fibre of his. For Hamlet, Epicurus works; the thought of absolute annihilation cures his death fear. However, this happy epicureanism now exists in a Christian world whose main point seems to be to ruin it. Hamlet would certainly like to agree with Larkin that religion is a way of pretending that we do not die. Unfortunately, death may spirit us to another world, another existence. What can the `dream' be for Hamlet except the Christian afterlife? The whole passage can be viewed as a complaint against God for having had the meddling, outrageous idea of inventing Christianity to disturb our peaceful death sleeps. Behind the speech is also the assumption found in Lucretius and other classical writers, such as Seneca, that a noble spirit will not cling to life simply because it is life. We wish instead -- and this is the measure of our self-esteem -- to rise above its ignoble impositions, but the fact of Christianity with its dreadful dream makes cowards of us all. Epicureanism is a satisfying but thwarted ideal. Fear weds us to a life we would otherwise have the spiritual wherewithall to spurn. Christianity becomes a religion of cowardice, of irresolution and indecision, of pale thought rather than ruddy action -- and bearing up under the dispensation of Christianity is itself Hamlet's ultimate example of life's indignities.

Subjects from `To be, or not to be' appear, a bit incoherently perhaps, in the fourth stanza of `Aubade':
   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 realization 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.

It is not altogether clear to me why death-awareness `slows each impulse down to indecision'. Elsewhere, in `The Old Fools', Larkin lists the first signs of death as `Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power / Of choosing gone'. The imprecision of an ageing brain, the lessening store of the future, no doubt curtail the power of choosing, but in `Aubade' Larkin seems to think that the mere awareness of dying somehow blunts impulse. Perhaps he means that the terror itself, the all-consuming `furnace-fear' (cremation-induced?) shuts down normal decision-making, though of course it also forecloses all other mental chores. I therefore wonder if the presence of `indecision' in these lines is not primarily a tribute to the subliminal power of the puzzled, stymied will in Hamlet's soliloquy. There is a similar hitch in `Courage is no good'. Since his mind is in the grip of `furnace-fear', one can readily understand that he would have to answer a charge of cowardice. Courage, though almost reduced to politeness, does have a positive aspect -- `It means not scaring others' -- but why is it, in Larkin's Hemingwayesque phrase, `no good'? Although the speaker of Browning's `Prospice' probably dallies with false surmise in imagining that `the worst turns to the best for the brave' after the `black minute' of death, is there no virtue in trying not to scare oneself? Why should anyone suppose that courage fails simply because it cannot prevent death? The whole point of courage in this context, one would think, is bearing up, without succumbing to terror, in the face of death. `Death is no different whined at than withstood', but might not the dying be different?(21) Again, the latent echo of `Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all' in the poet's consciousness seems to account for the lines better than their manifest sense.

`To be, or not to be' is not Hamlet's last word on death. By the end of the play he has found a sort of guidance in the Christian God. Horatio wishes him a choral journey to the `rest' of heaven: peace at last seems compatible with afterlife. Within the context of Shakespeare's work, the battle between life and death in the soul of Hamlet resurfaces as the conflict between Claudio and the Duke in Act 3 of Measure for Measure. In order to be `Absolute for death', the condemned man must `Reason thus with life', and the Duke's reasoning covers some of the same ground as Hamlet's soliloquy. Life is not such a grand thing to lose. Death is a peaceful sleep. Initially convinced, Claudio becomes, when Isabella brings him news of a possible reprieve, absolute for life; death is now `a fearful thing'. In Claudio, Shakespeare imagines a Larkin whose death-fear will not be consoled by the thought of annihilation. Yet elsewhere Shakespeare is, for a writer of the Christian era, remarkably at ease with the thought of `mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything' (AYLI 2.7.166); `our little life / Is rounded with a sleep', concludes Prospero with a cosy sublimity. Epicurean death had the advantage of relieving, if one could really believe it, the troubling possibility of eternal torment.

As it turns out, `Aubade' has been attacked by an epicureanism purer than any found in Shakespeare. In his Memoirs (1991), published six years after Larkin's death, Kingsley Amis reaches back through time to voice the rebuke he should have delivered to his death-fearing friend. Like Hamlet, Amis is soothed by epicurean annihilation, but his is a true peace, no longer pestered by dreams of afterlife. Reading of `the dread / Of dying, and being dead' in `Aubade',
   I at once remembered a conversation that ended with Philip saying, `I'm not
   only [or perhaps `not so much'] frightened of dying,' then shouting, `I'm
   afraid of being dead!' And he goes on in the poem to make a show of
   tackling the answer to those who say (his italics):
   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 anaesthetic from which none come round.

Here, tellingly, with the rhyme think with / link with,
   his skill deserts him for a moment, and there is a smug finality in the
   last line. This fear had arisen in conversation too, and I should have told
   him then and there not to be a bloody fool -- if you can't think you can't
   realise you haven't any senses and aren't anywhere, and don't tell me again
   it'll be different from before you were born because (though you had
   nothing to think with then either) you could pass the time by looking
   forward to your birth. I know the paths of glory and everything else lead
   but to the grave. And on first reading `Aubade' I should have found a way
   of telling you that depression among the middle-aged and elderly is common
   in the early morning and activity disperses it, as you tell us in your last
   stanza, so if you feel as bad as you say then fucking get up, or if it's
   too early or something then put the light on and read Dick Francis. This
   poem is not to be borne in mind while reading the magnificent ones about
   the run-up to death, which comes when we have plenty to think with and

So Socrates replying to his judges, Lucretius instructing Memmius, Cicero advising his death-fearing interlocutor, the Duke counselling Claudio: Amis and Larkin assume roles in an ancient dialogue. What can `Aubade' reply to these classic objections?

It must first be said that, whether or not he had good reason to, Larkin did fear `being dead'. Only once in his work, in `Wants', do we find something comparable to Hamlet's yearning for oblivion:
   Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
   However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
   However we follow the printed directions of sex
   However the family is photographed under the flagstaff --
   Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

   Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
   Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
   The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
   The costly aversion of the eyes from death --
   Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

The body of Larkin's work attests to the seriousness of `the wish to be alone', but the falsity of a `desire of oblivion' running beneath it. Poem after poem prefers solitude to society -- a solitude aggravated, as Amis remarks, by his stammer and deteriorating hearing.(23) This fact helps us to appreciate the element of affirmation in `Aubude'. For if one is consoled by the thought of oblivion, it stands to reason that one must in some fashion devalue life. Maurice Allington, the narrator of Amis's The Green Man, suffers several acute bouts of timor mortis, but in the last pages of the novel welcomes death as the only way to rid himself of himself:
   Death was my only means of getting away for good from this body and all its
   pseudo-symptoms of disease and fear, from the constant awareness of this
   body, from this person, with his ruthlessness and sentimentality and
   ineffective, insincere, impracticable notions of behaving better, from
   attending to my own thoughts and from counting in thousands to smother them
   and from my face in the glass.(24)

Here is a down-to-earth expression of the `desire of oblivion' found in Larkin's `Wants'. On the other hand, if one fears extinction, one must love life; and this was not, for Larkin, an easy love. Yet in the throes of death-fear, the love of life comes tumbling out in a catalogue of deprivations: `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'. I'm not sure what Amis thinks unworthy about the rhyme of think with / link with, since the rhyme creates an implicit metaphor for the establishment of new connections, the weave of life, ever new, like the spring leaves of `The Trees' that `Begin afresh, afresh, afresh'. `Link' is also linked by alliteration to `love'. The passage imitates, supplies a living instance of, the connective tissue of existence -- what Freud called the life instinct, Eros, which loves and links, seeking `to combine more and more living substance into ever greater unities'.(25) In the conventional aubade, the lover bids a reluctant farewell to his beloved after a night of pleasure. Thus Larkin enumerates the pleasures he must, in oblivion, be forever without. Negations of the five senses precede the criticized rhyme: Shakespeare's `Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything' rewritten for the sake of an improved inclusiveness. What `flashes afresh' in `Aubade' is not just the terror of death, but its dialectical companion, the love of life.

Amis admits that the poem already contains the best prescription for death-fear, since `activity disperses it, as you tell us in your last stanza'. The business about turning on the light and reading Dick Francis seems little more than bluff literalism; though he appears to be berating himself for not having hammered some good solid epicurean sense, complete with a bored quotation from Gray's Elegy, into his fearful friend, there can be little doubt that Amis is above all enjoying the oneupmanship of having the last word at the expense of a last great poem. But literary history will remember `Aubade'. The `smug finality' of `The anaesthetic from which none come round' is not Larkin's, but death's -- ever waiting, ever triumphant, and in the modern world especially, symbolized by the doctor. Death as anaesthesia is Larkin's brilliantly dour rewriting of Hamlet's dreamless sleep.

Solitude reveals the deep sense in the movement from the first four stanzas of `Aubade' to the last. Larkin is so drawn to solitude that he could once mistake `the wish to be alone' for `desire of oblivion', but no more. `Wants' was written in 1950; by the 1970s a well-examined oblivion has shown itself to be dreadful. Death in `Aubade' confronts Larkin with the absolute of solitude, the ne plus ultra of what he calls, in `Love', selfishness: the self utterly alone, isolated eternally by its negation in death. This unbearably terrible extreme of selfishness produces a renewed submersion in the communal world:
   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.

Death is in the room, `plain as a wardrobe' -- a large and obvious piece of furniture, but inside it are the clothes one will wear during the dawning day. The quotidian world makes ready to open its doors, answer its phones, pay its mortgages, open its mail. The vaguely animate telephones, like the daily post at the end of the poem, flesh out the earlier idea that selves link as well as think. `Rented' has a lovely double reference to worldly economics, one of the motives behind work, and the old stoic and epicurean idea (also in Shakespeare) that life is a debt that must at death be repaid; dispersing the terror of this truth is another motive behind work. In the last line, Larkin moves from the death-as-doctor of `The anaesthetic from which none come round' to the postmen-as-doctors delivering the workaday cure for timor mortis.(26) With the prospect of work, the poem, like diurnal time, circles back to its opening words, `I work all day'.

So terror recedes, day begins. In `Toads Revisited' Larkin realizes that the `toad' within him, the part of himself devoted to work, though inimical to some of his abiding wishes, may see him through in the end: `Give me your arm, old toad; / Help me down Cemetery Road'. In the dawn of `Aubade', he takes toad's strong arm.


(1) Lodge's `Philip Larkin: The Metonymic Muse,' a chapter from The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature, (1977), repr. in Philip Larkin: The Man and His Work, ed. Dale Salwak, (Iowa City, 1989), p. 127.

(2) On Larkin's love of `needling the aesthetic reader', and ultimately `how serious the "philistine" art [of Larkin] could be', see Barbara Everett, `Art and Larkin', in Salwak, pp. 129-39.

(3) Quoted from Alastair Fowler, ed., The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth-Century Verse, (Oxford, 1991), p. 740. Though vigorously championed by Yvor Winters in his Forms of Discovery, (Denver, 1967), 107-8, Pain's `Meditation 8' remains an obscure poem; its author is not mentioned, for example, in the Trent, Erskine, Sherman, and Van Doren Cambridge History of American Literature.

(4) Motion, Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life, (New York, 1993), pp. 468-9.

(5) Larkin, Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Thwaite, (New York, 1989), p. 295. All subsequent quotations use this edition. David Timms, Philip Larkin, (Edinburgh, 1973), p. 33, suggests that the axe echoing in the wood may allude to the end of The Cherry Orchard.

(6) `Raymond Gardner Interviews Dr. Larkin About His Approach to Life and Poetry', The Guardian, 31 May 1973, p. 13. For Sartre's use of this familiar simile, see Jacques Choron, Death and Western Thought, (New York, 1963), p. 242.

(7) Anthony Thwaite, ed., Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985, (New York, 1992), p. 669.

(8) The idea that Larkin's verse is marred by a `fundamental lugubriousness' and a `cringing view of possibility' can be found in M. L. Rosenthal's The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II, (New York, 1967), pp. 233-44; A. T. Tolley notes the increasing tendency of the later verse, culminating in the `last word' of `Aubade', to assume that `experience offers not a reassuring reflection of the observer's sense of the world and of himself, but rather threatens it'. My Proper Ground: A Study of the Work of Philip Larkin and its Development, (Ottawa, 1991), pp. 132-36.

(9) `Philip Larkin, 1922-85', in Salwak, p. 168.

(10) Salwak, p. 165.

(11) For Eliot on tradition, see Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982, (New York, 1984), p. 79, and for the aesthetic sins of the modernist trio Pound, Piccaso, and Parker, see Larkin, All What Jazz: A Record Diary, (New York, 1985), pp. 22-24.

(12) Memoirs, (New York, 1991), p. 53. See also Larkin's `A Study of Reading Habits'.

(13) Required Writing, p. 53.

(14) Hamilton, `Four Conversations', London Magazine IV, 8, (Nov. 1964), p. 72.

(15) Required Writing, p. 247.

(16) Principal Doctrines II, in The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, ed. Whitney J. Oates, (New York, 1940), p. 35.

(17) A. E. Douglas trans., Tusculan Disputations I, (Chicago, 1985), p. 67.

(18) Choron, p. 62.

(19) Choron, p. 285, Note 12.

(20) The Poems of John Dryden, ed. James Kingsley, 4 vols., (Oxford, 1958), I, 395-6.

(21) R. P. Draper, in Lyric Tragedy, (New York, 1985), 203-4, raises similar questions about `Courage is no good', but assumes, mistakenly in my view, that `It means not scaring others' is intended as a false, satirical notion of courage produced by excessive fear of death.

(22) Memoirs, pp. 62-3.

(23) Memoirs, p. 64, where Amis also mentions `his tendencies in the opposite direction'. On the theme of solitude in Larkin's verse, see Alan Brownjohn, Philip Larkin, (1975), pp. 7, 18, 20. Required Writing, p. 54: `I see life more as an affair of solitude diversified by company rather than an affair of company diversified by solitude'.

(24) The Green Man, (1969), pp. 252-3. When John Betjeman wrote to congratulate him on `Aubade', Larkin noted that Amis understood the fear of death: `Kingsley sees the point: there's a wonderful page about it in The Green Man', (Selected Letters, p. 576). Candidates for the `wonderful page' include pp. 39-40, 55-7, and 87-8, but Larkin probably had pp. 109-112 in mind, where Maurice defines, in epicurean terms, the limit to such fears: `I mean you're not going to be hanging about fully conscious observing death happening to you. That might be very bad and frightening, if we could conceive of such a thing. But we can't. Death isn't something we experience', (p. 112). I suspect that some of the language from this passage in The Green Man, and no doubt the disagreement, got worked into `Aubade'.

(25) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey et al., 24 vols., (1953-64), XXII, 107.

(26) Although the last line is, as Everett notes, `purely Larkinian', (`Art and Larkin' p. 139), it may owe some of its feeling to Auden's `Night Mail', which Larkin included in his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.


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Title Annotation:death
Author:Kerrigan, William
Publication:Essays in Criticism
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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