An ‘Aubade’ is a morning song. It’s the AM equivalent of a serenade and traditionally contains the serenade’s communication of love.
Philip Larkin’s famous Aubade is anything but a serenade transplanted to dawn. This is a poem about death, and being overwhelmed by the realisation that your days are running out. Romantic it is not.
From the very first line the reader gets the impression that he’s already half given up on life with his daily ritual of work and getting ‘half-drunk at night’ to dull the senses. He wakes up at four – wide awake and with the realisation of his mortality making any further rest impossible.
Larkin continues by explaining that this isn’t a moan about regretting his life until now, nor is he jaded with the struggle of his life so far; the fear and trembling that Larkin is experiencing is purely existential – he is petrified of one day not ‘existing’ anymore.
For such a dark topic, it’s interesting how tight the metre in this poem is – Larkin doesn’t veer from his 10-line stanzas and rhyme scheme; it’s not disjointed like one might expect such a despairing poem to be. The form from stanza to stanza is predictable and unavoidable like the subject matter itself.
By the third stanza Larkin is looking for solace; Religion is useless now and logic can’t convince him that death and its ‘anaesthetic’ is nothing to fear. Larkin seems like he’s wrestling with the inevitable, and the darkness of early morning amplifies his dread before the light ‘strengthens’ and another day begins. His poem seems to me to be ending with a slight note of positivity, or at least, a strategy for getting through the day – by working, by pushing forward as this is the only way we, as humans, know how – ‘Work has to be done.’ But then, in the very last line, he reminds us that death is always there – following us around – with the startling line: ‘Postmen like doctors go from house to house.’
Listen to ‘Aubade’ in Philip Larkin’s own words: