So writes Philip Larkin to his girlfriend Monica Jones on Nov. 8, 1952. Larkin was thirty years old and author of two novels and a collection of poems. He would live another thirty-three years and his best work lay ahead. The therapeutically minded might diagnose depression. Some of us think of Sir Thomas Browne and Emily Dickinson. Not to write of death, to carry on as though it were an unpleasant rumor, unsubstantiated, better left unexamined, suggests callowness, an absence of fortitude.
“I can’t imagine how people can say `no use worrying about it, it’s inevitable.’ That’s exactly why I worry.”
That’s Larkin to Jones again, on Feb. 19, 1955. To another friend, Winifred Arnott, he writes on June 7, 1977:
“I get less used to the fact of death as I grow older, & I was never very used to it.”
Larkin, eight years before his death, published “Aubade” in the Times Literary Supplement on Dec. 23, 1977. It’s his last indisputably great poem, one that makes admirers and detractors alike uncomfortable. All the quotes above from Larkin’s letters, and many more, can be found in the notes to “Aubade” in The Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), edited by Archie Burnett.
Larkin died on this date, Dec. 2, in 1985. I learned about it in my office on the third floor of the Albany County Courthouse, from the New York Times. The setting was Larkinesque – sharply cold outdoors, cloyingly hot indoors from the steam radiator hammering beside my desk. I was at an age – thirty-two – when the good ones seemed already to be passing too quickly. In “Aubade,” Larkin writes: “Death is no different whined at than withstood.” Except to those of us who go on living.