Death in Larkin and Abse
Death pervades The Whitsun Weddings and in Ambulances is reflected on in terms of the significance of our response to seeing an ambulance stop. Passers-by view them as ‘confessionals’, secretive, mysterious places where we confront our deepest nature. They are impersonal and unpredictable, resting ‘at any kerb’ and reminding us of our mortality because ‘All streets in time are visited’. The contrast of the mundane reality of a visit to the shops with the ‘wild white face’ (note the alliteration and assonance denoting an interruption from the norm) shows how anyone can be randomly caught up in another’s loss, before the patient is dehumanisingly ‘stowed’ and it is this that leads in stanza 3 to the onlookers understanding the tenuousness of their own lives, ‘the solving emptiness’ which is infinite. Whether religious or colloquial, ‘Poor soul’ is not, therefore an expression of sympathy but of self-pity, ‘at their own distress’.
Inside the departing ambulance, in stanzas 4 and 5, there comes a sense of inherent extinction, of the eventual falling apart of life. Larkin puns ‘borne’ with ‘deadened’ as the closing doors symbolize life ending, then begins defining what actually constitutes a life. He defines it as an accidental, haphazard event, a ‘unique random blend Of families and fashions’ as the ‘thread’ of stanza 1 ‘begins to loosen’. Near death, the patient is no longer part of a living relationship, but ‘Far from the exchange of love’ as if death nullifies an individual. Larkin’s shift from third to first person plural replaces the anonymous patient with ‘we’, telling us of death’s inescapability and nothingness while maintaining stately seriousness through the strict iambic tetrameter and grave noun phrases e.g. ‘what is left to come’. As the coherence of life unravels, so does the grammar – with the final stanza’s convoluted, awkward syntax . As in other Larkin poems, abstract nouns and inactive verbs add to the sense of...
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