16 July 2006

Larkin, Philip. 'Collected Poems'. A. Thwaite, ed. London, 1988, Marvell Press & Faber & Faber.

Thomas, Dylan. 'Collected Poems, 1934–1952'. London, 1966, J.M. Dent & Sons.

Albert Camus has said that the only philosophical question of any importance is that of suicide: deciding whether or not life is worth living. This makes one's attitudes towards death very important, since death is the only choice one rejecting life has. It is not surprising, then, that death is a major theme in poetry: poets often make public their ideas about fundamental question, by confronting these questions in their work. With this in mind, we shall now examine the treatment of death by two modern English poets, and see what this tells us about life.

Philip Larkin's deceptively easy style and sometimes crude humour made his work very accessible, and have helped to make him extremely popular. Yet death lurks in Larkin's poetry. In spite of his comic pieces, death seems all–pervasive: just around the corner, or just across the page; 'just on the edge of vision'(Aubade, l.31). And in reading the serious poems, one feels that it is, indeed, ever present in Larkin's mind. Not that he seems morbidly obsessed with death, but Larkin's poems show a constant awareness, and fear, of it. Death, understandably, terrifies him. Trying to cope, and live, with this ever–present terror of inevitable nothingness is subject of several poems, yet Larkin never seems to overcome it. Instead, he accepts it; he resigns himself to the terrible nothingness of death. Larkin sees death as covering us, weighing us down('Going'), and closing in on us('Traumerei')––or is it that he sees the awareness of death closing in on us? Death––oblivion––will come for us all, but some, like the miners in 'The Explosion', may escape this knowledge and the resultant terror. For it is the knowledge of death, rather than death itself, which most seems to haunt Larkin: death is 'only oblivion'('The Old Fools', l.15). Knowing that we are alive, and won't be––knowing what we will lose when we die––that is terror. That is what makes 'The Building' so frightening: in hospital, 'All know/they are going to die'(l.57). This is what his old fools are mercifully no longer aware of; this is what haunts the speaker in 'Aubade', when 'realization of it rages out/ In furnace fear when we are caught without/ People or drink'(ll.35–7). While 'Most things never happen: this one will'(l.34), we 'Know that we can't escape,/ Yet can't accept'(ll.43–4). Still, in lines such as 'Post men like doctors go from house to house'(50), Larkin seems to resign himself to death. While in asking 'Why aren't they screaming'(l.12) of the old fools, he indicates that they should resent this approaching death, that resentment melts into resignation by the final lines: 'Well/ We shall find out'. If death is inevitable, and as he says in 'Aubade', 'no different whined at than withstood'(l.40), we really have no choice but to die. Larkin's conception of death itself, of what dying is, comes out especially clearly in 'The Old Fools'. It is nothingness, 'oblivion'(l.15); he describes it this way: 'At death, you break up: the bits that were you/ Start speeding away from each other for ever/ With no one to see'(ll.13–5). The nothingness of death is the mountain of time we will not experience; his old fools are too close to the slope to see where they will soon be, and have a second childhood to shield them from the fear. But we have a better perspective, and are terrified by its vastness. Larkin('It's only oblivion, true,/ We had it before'(ll.15–6)) notes the irony of this fear, but explains it in 'Aubade' when answering the argument that 'No rational being/ Can fear a thing it will not feel'(ll.25–6). 'This is what we fear,' he says, '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'(ll.27–30). Before life, he says of oblivion in 'The Old Fools', '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'(ll.16–20). This is a special way of being afraid, he says in 'Aubade', 'No trick dispels. Religion used to try,/ That vast moth–eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die'(ll.21–4). 'But superstition, like belief, must die', he says in 'Church going', 'And what remains when disbelief has gone?'(ll.34–5) Larkin can't believe in Heaven, and this leaves nothing but nothingness after death. Yet Larkin dwells too much on this nothing. Only in 'At the chiming of light upon sleep' does he even ask, 'Have I been wrong, to think the breath/ That sharpens life is life itself, not death?/ Never to see, if death were killed,/ No desperation, perpetually unfulfilled,/ Would ever go fracturing down in ecstasy?'(ll.16–20) But it is death that gives life urgency, and the ability to sense and feel, which we lose in death, that makes life different than death, that proves to us we are alive, and makes being alive better than not being born. By concentrating on the fact that death will take these away, rather than the value that they give life––by resigning himself to death, however resentfully, instead of throwing himself vigorously back into life with a renewed sense of urgency––he devalues the very thing he mourns. Larkin seems almost to resent life for letting him experience this 'Intricate rented world'('Aubade', l.47), because it is only rented, and he will have to let it go when the lease is up.

Dylan Thomas's poetry, on the whole, has a dark feel. This may partially arise from the density and complexity of his language and imagery, but it is also likely that any poem, randomly selected, will have some reference to death, and this spectre undoubtedly contributes greatly to the sense of almost uncomfortable darkness a cursory reading of his work will give. Yet a closer reading of certain poems give a very different, and, it seems, more accurate understanding of Thomas's attitudes towards death. The sense of nature, and natural, organic process, that comes out of these poems is very strong. 'The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower', for instance, is about decomposition in the grave––and a returning to nature: a renewal, in another form; death as a part of the life cycle, the process of living. 'The force that through the green fuse drives the flower', the speaker says, 'Drives my green age'(ll.1–2). The same force that drives all things, drives us. And while, in death, 'I am dumb to tell the crooked rose'(or hanging man, or weather's wind(l.4,14,19)) that we are like them, nonetheless, we are like them. This primal feel of natural process comes out in 'After the Funeral',('Ann,/ Whose hooded, fountain heart once fell in puddles/ Round the parched worlds of Wales'(ll.12–4)), and 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London': 'After the first death, there is no other'(l.24). But perhaps it is most clear in 'Poem on His Birthday'. While the speaker mourns his thirty–fifth birthday, and being that much closer to death, he observes nature. He sees 'flounders, gulls, on their cold, dying trails'(l.11), 'finches fly(ing)/ In the claw tracks of hawks'(l.20–1), and 'The rippled seals streak down/ To kill'(ll.34–5). This death is all part of living––the last part we are aware of, but not the final part: our bodies are still part of life's process. As 'And Death Shall Have No Dominion' says, 'Dead men naked they shall be one/ With the man in the wind and the west moon;/ When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,/ They shall have stars at elbow and foot'(ll.2–5). Man continues, in death, to be exactly what he was in life––a part of nature. Yet Thomas, while seeing the naturalness of death, and not fearing it, does his most to affirm this life of 'four elements and five/ Senses, and a man a spirit in love'('Poem on His Birthday', ll.82–3). Not being afraid of death is not the same as wanting to die, or even waiting to die. No, the awareness of death is only another reason to live, and to live as much, as fully, and as long as we can, just as the speaker in 'Poem on His Birthday' finds life more intense as he approaches death. 'Do Not go Gentle into that Good Night', however, is the best example of Thomas's affirmation of life. While the night––death––is specifically called good, it is still something to be fought. 'Old age should burn and rave at close of day'(l.2), even 'Though wise men at their end know dark is right'(l.4). Another, more obviously buoyant factor in Thomas's poetry is religious faith. If, as in 'After the Funeral', 'I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands/ Lie with religion in their cramp'(ll.30–1), there is no need to mourn Ann's fate, nor any need for her to have been afraid. If there is a god, and one is on proper terms with that god, life is only keeping one from Heaven. Thomas seems to acknowledge this hope for others, while unsure of it himself: in 'Elegy', he mourns that his father 'died/ Hating his God'(ll.22–3) and says 'that He and he will never go out of my mind'(19–20). Yet in 'Poem on His Birthday', 'he goes lost/ In the unknown, famous light of great/ And fabulous, dear God'(ll.46–8); lost, thinking of 'Heaven that never was/ Nor will be ever is always true'(ll.50–1). Yet in lines sixty–five and six, he prays. This seems to be a conflict between rational scepticism and faith, giving faith a new strength, and the poem a sense of hope. This sense of hope, arising from belief in something beyond death, coupled with the naturalness and rightness of dying, makes Thomas's work optimistic. In accepting death as the natural consequence of life, and celebrating life itself all the more because it will end, he makes death itself into something that gives life value. Even if we cannot accept his religious faith, we can still take heart in this.

And So What

Larkin affirms the absurdity of life by resigning himself to death, yet he never takes the next step. Camus does take this step, by granting that life is absurd, but maintaining that it has whatever value and meaning we choose to give it. There is nothing outside of the self, this life––and nothing beyond it to give it meaning. But the self is free to assign it value and meaning, just the same. Thomas does grant life this value. By seeing life as process, he grants it an intrinsic value, and thus never comes to the question of absurdity. He acknowledges the intrinsic value of sensation, and tells us to live, because only in life will we have sensation. Thomas's view comes out of a much more traditional approach to life, one which comes from dependence on the cycles of nature and life and death for survival––the farm. Larkin's, on the other hand, is urban and industrial; a no–god–and–science–can't–save–us view, which captures the way many of us, raised in the city and not in the church, react when confronted with death. Having no god to give them meaning externally, and acutely aware of their own meaninglessness, these lives are naturally more pessimistic. Not being grounded in natural processes, they are likewise much more afraid of these processes. In this sense, Larkin's view is more modern than Thomas's, and in this case, the change has not been for the better.


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