Monday, October 04, 2010

Two Aubades: Philip Larkin and John Donne

An aubade is a lyric about dawn -- it may be a joyous celebration of morning, or a lament that two lovers must part.  Think Romeo and Juliet.  Think "Morning Has Broken", the great song popularized by Cat Stevens. 

Below are two aubades, one by Philip Larkin, the other by John Donne.  Donne's poem is by far the more famous -- heavily anthologized, it's among The Classic Hundred, I think. A poem of tremendous verve and gusto, it's also, well, more than a tad artificial, with its tight meter and rhyme, its apostrophe to  the sun -- is old Sol in his regular courses really so "unruly"? -- but his devices enable him to generate some great lines, like "I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink" and the oft-quoted "hours, days, months, which are the rags of time."  Larkin's poem owes much to Donne -- there are a few image-echoes here, and doubtless he wouldn't have written it this way had not Donne's poem been among his prior reading.  (I also hear echoes, in his lament about religion, of Arnold's Dover Beach.)

Clearly Larkin is well-nigh our contemporary, and his poem I relate to strongly -- I've endured many a night just like this.  Donne's poem, for all its brilliance, seems more a rhetorical exercise.

Philip Larkin

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 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.

John Donne

BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, "All here in one bed lay."

She's all states, and all princes I ;
Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world's contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I.
E. K. Chambers, ed.
London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 7-8.


The Aiken ite said...

I didn't know the Larkin poem and really loved it.

Brian Campbell said...

Yes, Monica, I just discovered it myself --a friend of mine sent it to me. I'd rate it among my own "Classic Hundred". (I'm now following your blog. Motherhood -- an experience I'll never know directly, in this life at least.)