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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…”

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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:

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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.