“But, with the final completion of ‘Aubade’ three years later in 1977, his literary life would be effectively over.”
Forty years ago today, Philip Larkin put the finishing touches on “Aubade,” a poem he had started writing more than three years earlier. Depression, alcohol, multiple ailments, the mysterious drying up of poetry. He had never been prolific. The arc of his career, and much else, was the opposite of Geoffrey Hill’s. When he finished “Aubade,” Larkin was fifty-five and he would live another eight years, but the major work was over. The reading public first saw “Aubade” in the Times Literary Supplement on Dec. 23, 1977 – a bleakly Larkinesque Christmas present, and the greatest poem written in English during my lifetime.
Anyone who knows the drinking life will recognize the existence Larkin describes – the impossible morning, aching desolation and self-loathing, fears like a fever that wrack the body and mind, the certainty that nothing will ever change, hopelessness beyond expression. But to fear death, one need not be a drunk. “Aubade” requires no explication de texte. The reader brings with him everything he needs. The writing is remarkably dense with experience, horror pared into aphorisms that never come off as smug or cute:
“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.”
[The sentence at the top is from James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (2014).]