Evolving Thoughts

A poem: Aubade by Philip Larkin

This was brought to my attention by a reader on the alt.fan.pratchett group in response to an evangeliser there. Below the fold, it really asserts how I think of death (and identifies me thus as an Epicurean).

Aubade

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 anasthetic 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.

Philip Larkin

Comments

  1. #1 Ian H Spedding FCD
    January 4, 2009

    That just about says it all – which I suppose makes me an Epicurean too. Faced with that bleak, unblinking void – it doesn’t even qualify as fate – it’s not hard to see why people cling to faith. For the rest of us, it’s a bit like that scene towards the end of the movie Deep Impact where Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell stand helplessly and hopelessly on the beach waiting to be obliterated by the onrushing tidal wave.

    Just a few cheery thoughts to begin 2009.

  2. #2 John S. Wilkins
    January 4, 2009

    I thought it was Tea Leoni, not Vanessa Redgrave.

  3. #3 Ian H Spedding FCD
    January 4, 2009

    My mistake. You’re quite right, it was Tea Leoni. She has the reconciliation with her father after her mother – played by Vanessa Redgrave – dies and just before they’re wiped out along with the rest of the eastern seaboard of the US. I still say it’s a memorable image – and a good metaphor.

  4. #4 Thony C.
    January 5, 2009

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    And you, my father, there on the sad height,
    Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Dylan Thomas

  5. #5 Tlonista
    January 5, 2009

    Oh, is it poetry time?

    De Vermis
    John M. Ford

    The worm drives helically through the wood
    And does not know the dust left in the bore
    Once made the table integral and good;
    And suddenly the crystal hits the floor.
    Electrons find their paths in subtle ways,
    A massless eddy in a trail of smoke;
    The names of lovers, light of other days -
    Perhaps you will not miss them. That’s the joke.
    The universe winds down. That’s how it’s made.
    But memory is everything to lose;
    Although some of the colors have to fade,
    Do not believe you’ll get the chance to choose.
    Regret, by definition, comes too late;
    Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.

    and Ecclesiastes 9:9-10:

    9. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.

    10. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

  6. #6 John S. Wilkins
    January 5, 2009

    Well if you’re going to include The Preacher:

    Chapter 3
    18 I also thought, “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

    22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?

    Chapter 4
    1 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:
    I saw the tears of the oppressed—
    and they have no comforter;
    power was on the side of their oppressors—
    and they have no comforter.

    2 And I declared that the dead,
    who had already died,
    are happier than the living,
    who are still alive.

    3 But better than both
    is he who has not yet been,
    who has not seen the evil
    that is done under the sun.

  7. #7 Eamon Knight
    January 5, 2009

    Very poignant. I really don’t get atheists who defiantly say to evangelists that they don’t fear death — I think anyone who says that is either psychologically unusual, or in denial. The impending oblivion of yourself and everyone you care about is something to which one can become resigned, but never fully reconciled. As my father said, a couple of years before his passing, and as he felt his health and mind declining, even when you know there isn’t much left, you sure cling to what little is still there.

    For myself, the response to the evangelists is: Yes, it’s rather sad; but wishing it were otherwise won’t change anything, and I prefer to live in reality than in fantasy, however comforting.

  8. #8 rajay
    January 6, 2009

    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,

    how true!
    religion with gods and demigods and heavens and hells was one glorious subterfuge for ordinary persons like me who so much needed it to die peacefully. no wonder the people who gave us this grand design were called prophets and enlightened ones. it seems we have lost religion, that last resort for thinking mortals, for ever.

  9. #9 jeff
    January 6, 2009

    Some are prepared for death and welcome it. People commit suicide every day. And there are much worse things than death. Darwin suffering in his last hours repeatedly said, “If I could but die.” The lucky ones are perhaps caught unprepared: “because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me” (Frost).

    If you’re a scientist, you can view it as the ultimate scientific experiment. Unless MWI quantum immortality is somehow real. That would be hell indeed.

  10. #10 jeff
    January 6, 2009

    Oops… sorry, that Dickinson, not Frost. My Poetry teacher would kill me.

  11. #11 Kolya
    January 6, 2009

    “Courage is no good:
    It means not scaring others.”

    Courage will not save you from death, but the courage of the dying means not to scare others of your dying.

    My father died eight years ago. He died of small-celled lung cancer. A devastating disease usually linked to smoking. Ironically, he used to be a very heavy smoker, but quit smoking 32 years before his death so his children would not pick up the habit. And his courage during the last three months was precisely that: he tried not to scare us while he was dying.

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