View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

Why spend one’s life in fear of death? Larkin had no answer

Larkin argues that those who don’t fear death are deluding themselves, but as I age I realise that he misses the point.

By Margaret Drabble

Larkin was much afraid of death, and he did his best to communicate this fear to others. I well remember reading “The Old Fools” in the Listener, in 1973, as I sat innocently unaware on top of the 24 bus on my way to the British Library Reading Room. I was horrified. My hair stood on end. And recently, during the pandemic, I heard William Sieghart reading “Aubade” on Radio 3, a poem that has a similar and appalling message. But I am so near death myself now that it had lost its impact. Why spend one’s life in fear? Larkin addressed that question, but he had no answer to it.

 I read Larkin’s poetry as it was published, with admiration and at times (for he can be very witty) amusement (see “Sunny Prestatyn” and “Annus Mirabilis”). But increasingly, as I aged and death approached, his corpse lantern flickered with less immediate menace, and I began to rally my spirits. Larkin argues that those who don’t fear death are deluding themselves, but he really misses the point. He writes in “Aubade”:

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.

With respect to the rest of the poem, that’s just not true. Of course it’s better not to scare others. Whining in itself is not a good approach to anything. Although he worried about other people (principally his mother) Larkin never had to look after anybody but himself. He sent his laundry home to his mother when he was a grown man. If he had had to care more for others, he might have felt differently.

It’s true that courage doesn’t let you off the grave, but why should it? And what would you want instead of death? More of life as an old fool? What on earth was he so frightened of? As Shakespeare has Caesar say: “Cowards die many times before their deaths,/The valiant never taste of death but once…”

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Some of Larkin’s poetry is more optimistic, more conventionally consoling: “Church Going” and “An Arundel Tomb” speak more confidently of the eternal, although they have their inbuilt ironies. His evocations of the natural world are, almost despite himself, magnificent (and he did mock himself for these Wordsworthian moments). I particularly love “The Trees”, which I say to myself every springtime:

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

This does demonstrate how much Larkin loved the world he feared to lose. But so did Seamus Heaney, whose last message, a text from hospital to his wife, makes for me a better mantra: “noli timere”. Do not fear. We need that message too.

This article is part of a series in which writers reflect on Larkin’s life, work and legacy to mark the centenary of his birth. Read the other contributions here.

Content from our partners
Inside the UK's enduring love for chocolate
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU