Thursday 26 January 2017

Aubade and Matin

I'm off on my (English) travels again for a few days, but I'll leave you with a couple more poems from the TLS anthology - one very well known, the other far less so.
 Philip Larkin's Aubade is perhaps the most famous poem to have made its debut in the TLS. The last long poem he published, it is quintessential late Larkin, uncompromisingly bleak, aghast at the prospect of oblivion. But, as ever with Larkin, the beauty of the poem's shaping creates subtle and nuanced counter-melodies...

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 done, 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 for ever,
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 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.

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.

Thirteen years after Aubade, in 1990, Larkin's friend Kingsley Amis published Matin, his own take on the early-morning experience of groping one's way back to the waking world.  When Larkin and Amis were young, it seemed clear that the former was going to The Novelist and the latter The Poet. As we know, it turned out quite otherwise, but Amis continued to write poems, even after he apparently signed off on his poetic career with his Collected Poems in 1979. Matin is a slighter work than Aubade. Amis awakes more relieved to be free of his troubled dreamworld than terrified of what faces him; his timor mortis is no more than a 'small thought'. If nothing else, this poem makes a fascinating pendant to Aubade.

(Or: Homage to Mogadona)

Awake at last, groaning with relief,
In dull daylight, I struggle to remember,
Then promptly to forget, that clouded scene
(Urban always) full of unknown people
Busy at something, talking, hurrying,
Perhaps searching or playing. Not that they
Ignore me, no, they are most interested;
They move closer with rapid hands and eyes
And what must be machines, tall ones, small ones
That dart about like animals, and animals
Like no animals anywhere. And I
Have to get out, or get home, find my book,
Or find my wife. What is this place?
Three jockeys - are they jockeys? - strut forward,
Walls lurch and crinkle, a dark sky shows through;
A headless bulk bobs at me, stirring up
Only sluggish bewilderment, not fear,
Not so much fear.
                              Awake at last, I huddle,
Swill water, grope for glasses, slippers; now
Mocktown must fade, but not the small thought
Of being suddenly back
Among the frozen tramcars and thick poppies
With no daylight at the end.


  1. "Matin" reminds me of Charlie's morning dream in The Old Devils. I gather that Charlie's fear of night and solitude were based on Amis's own.

  2. I'm sure you're right George - Amis was certainly not short of terrors. The 'hero' of The Green Man has similar nocturnal problems too. I wonder if all that drink helped or made matters worse...

  3. Every night I pass now is like one or other of these two versions. Vespers.