Wednesday 29 November 2023

'Not to be here, Not to be anywhere'

 On this day in 1977, Philip Larkin signed off on 'Aubade', reckoned by many (including Frank Wilson Of Books Inq)  to be his last great poem. He had worked on it for some while, and completed it after the death of his mother, probably the most significant woman in his life. 'Aubade' is certainly his bleakest and most direct expression of the timor mortis that haunts so much of his verse, and Larkin himself described it, aptly enough, as his 'in-a-funk-about-death' poem. His particular, horribly acute fear is simply of extinction, of ceasing to exist. As Larkin acknowledges, this is not a rational fear – 'No rational being can fear a thing it will not feel' – but that doesn't make the terror any less real. While some of us might find 'the anaesthetic from which none come round' quite a comforting notion, it clearly scares the living daylights out of Larkin – 'Not to be here, Not to be anywhere'. There is, of course, more to this poem than the poet's death funk: it is exquisitely wrought and framed to perfection, and it ends on one of Larkin's most beautiful stanzas...

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.


  1. Kinbote: As St. Augustine said, "One can know what God is not; one cannot know what He is." I , think I know what He is not: He is not despair, He is not terror, He is not the earth in one's rattling throat, not the black hum in one's ears fading to nothing. I know also that the world could not have occurred fortuitously and that somehow Mind is involved as a main factor in the making of the universe. In trying to find the right name for that Universal Mind, or First Cause, or the Absolute, or Nature, I submit the the Name of God has priority. V. Nabokov in Pale Fire

  2. Thanks for that – a great quotation (from a great novel).