I have to admit that this post has been inspired by none other than my favourite UK broadsheet, The Guardian. (Actually, that’s not an altogether sarcastic comment – mostly, but not entirely! I disagree with most of its editorial politics, yet I do enjoy the quality of the writing). Anyway, The Guardian has been publishing several small booklets of poetry by acclaimed writers such as Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin, over the past week or so.
Now, Larkin was a miserable so-and-so, yet his poetry was undeniably exquisite. Perhaps his best known (or most widely acclaimed) poem was "Aubade", a brutally honest and unflinching look at the concept of death. Larkin seemed horrified by the idea of his own death, and he never quite came to terms with this undefeatable certainty which loomed always before him:
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 of being dead,
Flashes afresh, to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse –
The good not used, 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 forever,
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 cannot 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.
Powerful stuff, if a little bleak, huh? Continuing along this theme, I was interested to read Inayat Buglawala’s recent "Comment Is Free" blog, "Is Death The End?" in which he put forward some thoughts on his ideas about death as viewed from his own religious perspective. I thought he sparked off quite a lively debate there…and I thought I might try and
plagiarise continue it here, so to speak.
So, Is death the end? Life is full of mystery – Is it ultimately as bleak and fatalistic as Larkin implies, or is there a hope, either for an afterlife, or for the memory and lessons of our own earthly lives to be passed on and built upon in future generations here? What do you think?