To understand how Larkin presents the concept of death in the above poems, we need to consider the personal, literary and moral framework of Larkin's poems. Larkin was writing his poetry during a period of massive economic, moral and social change. For the most part, Larkin's confirmed atheism has implications for his presentation of death. However, what emerges from a detailed study of these three poems is that Larkin shows an ambivalent attitude towards death, despite his atheism. Irony forms a central part of his poetry where Larkin grapples with his inner poetic self and is forced to re-evaluate his attitude towards death. Larkin attempts to make sense of two seemingly contradictory ideas where death can be seen as both a final and a transitional act. Larkin for the first time entertains the possibility of hope in the face of death. The preaching tones previously associated with Larkin are largely absent. All three poems entertain the possibility of hope in both life and death, even in the grimmest of circumstances.
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Larkin paid a visit to the medieval tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel shortly before his death. This visit resulted in the writing of the poem, "An Arundel Tomb". The faded coat of arms is not Larkin's immediate concern. What draws Larkin's attention and has a disarming effect is the fact that the Earl and Countess are holding hands: "One sees, with a sharp tender shock, His hand withdrawn, holding her hand."
For Larkin the sculptor's intention was to record the family history of this noble family, based on Latin inscriptions around the base of the tomb: "their proper habits vaguely shown". These inscriptions have faded over time and we are left with the poignant image of two persons engaging in a simple human embrace. The statue's significance comes from the act of holding hands. This simple act symbolises the importance and endurance of love. The famous concluding lines of the poem: "what will survive of us is love" adds weight to this sentiment. The literary device of personification is used in order to give human attributes to the statue. To avoid the charge of overt sentimentality, Larkin uses two poetic devices: one he makes use of a traditional poetic rhyme scheme where his feelings are kept strictly under control; and two where he draws attention to the fact that: "Time has transfigured them into/Untruth". Larkin points out that although we may never know what sort of lives they really lead, what remains of their life is everlasting love. The main moral message of the poem here is that love outlasts us all.
In Mr. Bleaney, Larkin reverts to his comfort zone of concentrating on that in life which is pessimistic, fragile and melancholy. Focussing on the life of a lonesome character Mr Bleaney, Larkin sets the scene by drawing attention to the actual room that Mr Bleaney inhabited. Not surprisingly, the room is drab, sparse and lacking in homely comforts. The sense of room as opposed to home is reinforced with the introduction of the landlady who shows a callous disregard for the life of Mr Bleaney. The unsaid words of the landlady help to reinforce the view that the life of Mr Bleaney is not even worth commenting on. The insignificance of Mr Bleaney is further reinforced by the fact his room has: "no room for books or bags". Larkin does not make use of similes or metaphors with the: "one hired box" representing a coffin. In order to develop this mood of gloom further, Larkin alludes to the landscape outside the window which is equally unwelcoming, where all he could see was a: "strip of building land", consisting of sparse vegetation. Larkin also makes use of pathetic fallacy where he compares the wind and the clouds to how Mr. Bleaney was removed from the room.
Having set the mood and social context of the poem, Larkin speculates about the actual character and habits of Mr Bleaney: "what time he came down, his preference for sauce over gravy" and how Mr Bleaney was trying to win money in order to make his life better. These acts of speculation give Mr Bleaney significance in death which he did not possess in life. Despite the bleakness of Mr Bleaney's world, Larkin avoids judgmental tones. Larkin never allows himself to conclude that Mr. Bleaney lived a pointless and worthless life, commenting that: "I don't know. / That is how we live measures our own nature/ he warranted no better, I don't know". Larkin avoids taking the nothingness of life symbol to its absolute extreme. Callousness is rejected in favour of a concluding mood of resignation. We have in the poem compassion tempered with cynicism. Larkin does attempt to rescue some human significance in the poem and does not allow the theme of morbidity to become all that the poem represents.
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
In, "Ambulances" Larkin's preoccupation is the indiscriminate way in which death can visit humans: "they come to rest at any kerb/All streets in time are visited"... The sight of an ambulance is used as a metaphor to represent imminent death. Larkin adopts a more reflective tone in stanza three where the act of immediate death reduces all the supposed important pre-occupations of life to naught: "And sense he solving emptiness/That lies just under all we do". Larkin reinforces this image further by alluding to the way that women and children are cut off from family relationships. Larkin describes the victim in the Ambulance as being: "far from the exchange of love" who becomes metaphorically isolated from life in the: "deadened air" of the ambulance. The ambulance becomes the vehicle for isolating the dying patient from loved ones. He also draws attention to the insignificance of life in death, "All dulls to distances we are".
Larkin does not continue with this bleak mood. Uncharacteristically Larkin shows empathy for the dying patient and the families that are left behind. The change in tone is completely unexpected. Larkin employs the techniques of onomatopoeia with short vowels to reflect his changing concerns. Larkin has allowed himself to be moved by the experience and his empathic tones allow us to see the less caustic side of Larkin. Larkin is clearly struggling with the notion of remaining faithful to his previous matter of fact, unsentimental portrayal of death.
Larkin's presentation of death in the above three poems show a poet wrestling with the actual significance of life and death. The concept of death forms a central part of Larkin's concerns. The atheist beliefs held by Larkin provide little emotional comfort about his concerns on the emptiness and nothingness that follows death. However, we have in the above three poems a common theme of trying to rescue or find a human significance or context for each of the characters in the poem. Each character, be they powerless like Mr. Bleaney and the lady in the ambulance, take on significance in death, which equals that of the noble family represented in the medieval tomb. Whatever the nature of their lives, each person has an important human story to tell.