First published on April 14, 2020, on Medium
April is a cruel month to be stuck indoors, especially when the elusive English sunshine makes an appearance. Opening Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems, I noticed the following in ‘Spring’, from The Less Deceived (1955):
“Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
Is earth’s most multiple, excited daughter:
And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous…”
Larkin was writing of a person left out of the fun: “Threading my pursed-up way across the park, / An indigestible sterility.” Yet these lines seem to capture the agony of life under “lockdown”, or national house arrest: As our own paths have grown circuitous, we are unable to take Spring’s outstretched hand. (As for “multiple excited daughters”, don’t get me started.) The spirit-lifting affect of seeing this rendered so beautifully works not in spite but because of the melancholy context.
Some people are predisposed to melancholy. John Keats was able to get bummed out by birdsong, to the point of wishing to slide into death like a boozy sleep, “to cease upon the midnight with no pain”. In a pandemic, painful death is precisely what one fears. Camus (whose novel La Peste is back in vogue) believed that the intellectual rejection of suicide involved an affirmation of life. La Peste hammers this home: In circumstances out of our control, be they plague or political terror, our choice, to reverse the Shawshank vulgarism, is to “get busy dying or get busy living”.
For Camus “living” meant working together for the common good, be it resisting Nazi terror, treating plague victims, or building a new France after the war. In this way Camus improved on Hamlet’s famous meditation on suicide. “To take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them” becomes not an embrace of the Reaper, but a resolution to take a militant (or rebellious) position in favour of life.
The idea that facing death can be life-affirming is arguably what gives Larkin’s poetry its power. ‘Aubade’ finds Larkin in a Keats-like reflection, but without even the song of a nightingale for company:
“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…”
There are some echoes of the Prince of Denmark, (“yet the dread of dying”, “no trick dispels”, “the anaesthetic from which none come around”), and a famous swipe at religion, “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”. (Interesting that for Hamlet the notion of an afterlife had the opposite effect, the survival of death not as consolation but an unknown danger and reason to stay the bare bodkin.)
Larkin saw everything “through a glass darkly”, that’s to say weighted by the certain knowledge of his own mortality. Yet in the midst of death we are in life, and however morbid, it’s simply not possible to read a Larkin poem as a suicide note, or as a counsel of despair. Death is the dark backing of his poems, yet they blaze with the glory of the quotidian, (“Where can we live but days?”), their musings on death brimming with a certain joie de vivre.
Outside the factories, hospitals, and laboratories, the struggle against COVID-19 will largely take place in the minds of its prisoners, who will have to steel themselves for mental fight. As Larkin closes ‘Aubade’:
“Work must be done.
Postmen like doctors pass from house to house.”