Depressing Goings-on in the House of Actuality: Philosophers and Poets Confront Larkin's 'Aubade'

Kathy Behrendt
Wilfrid Laurier University
Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” tackles the subject of mortality with technical facility and unsparing candour. It has a reputation for profoundly affecting its readers. Yet poets Seamus Heaney and Czeslaw Milosz think “Aubade” is bad for us and for poetry: it lures us into the underworld and traps us there, and betrays poetry’s purpose by transcribing rather than transforming the depressing facts of reality. Philosophers, however, quite like it. “Aubade” crops up repeatedly in contemporary philosophy of death. I examine the various appeals that philosophers have made to Larkin’s poem with a view to drawing out subtleties in the poem and the philosophical texts, before turning my attention to broader questions of its merit. At first glance, philosophy’s affinity for “Aubade” may seem to confirm Heaney and Milosz’s contention that the poem is somehow against poetry and on the side of “reason, science, and science-inspired philosophy” (Milosz). I argue that the philosophical uses of the poem help to undercut if not entirely dissolve Heaney and Milosz’s polarising efforts; they are mistaken in their views about the different purposes of poetry and philosophy, but there is some philosophical support for their commitment to averting mortal despair.
Keywords Death  Poetry  Philip Larkin  Seamus Heaney  Aubade
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