In the strange, romanticized magic hours when light arrives, the brighter darkness often brings dread, not peaceLinda Yu

Wall label Interpreting Larkin

Content note: this expander includes a first-person account of depression

Alice's Living poetry series relates a different poem each week to the life and literary history of Cambridge, and alongside this we are also asking Varsity illustrators for their own creative responses. This week Linda Yu joins Alice in looking at Larkin's 'Aubade', a melancholic ode to the dread of the early morning.

Linda tells us how the poem relates to her own experience:

"I used to work two early shifts on my feet and then collapse into bed immediately after getting home and sleep until three or four am. I'd wake up in the musty dark, scrabble around on my nightstand for my phone and stare at the screen until I started to look past it into nothing. I didn't even try to look outside that circle of light and maybe that's why I was able to keep living through a deep depression."

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I first became obsessed with Philip Larkin’s poetry when my friends and I read his works in sixth form. His skepticism of the sentimental and the supposedly eternal, his apprehension of inescapable decline, his hallmark negative constructions — all ideas rehearsed and rehearsed in my A level revision classes, and still important to me now.

Aubade was a stand-alone poem first published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1997. It runs in much the same vein as Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark.’ Writing late in his career, Larkin captures the indigestible dread of being unslept and awake to see and hear the first squirms of morning: the light through the curtains, the birds singing. His title is pleasingly ironic: an aubade (French for dawn song) is a poetic form which usually entails a lyric-subject lamenting the coming of morning and the curtailing of sex with their whoever. Larkin’s poem instead posits a speaker who is apprehensive about the movement towards death symbolised by the new day.

Larkin captures the indigestible dread of being unslept

I found the poem very consoling. I spent a lot of Lent term awake in the early hours of the morning, eking out another two thousand weekly words as the glass of my windows turned bleary with condensation, lying in bed unsolvable and anxious due to afternoon coffee. The terse, end-stopped lines of the opening evoke grim all-nighters and university’s misidealised work-hard-play-hard attitude: "I work all day, and get half drunk at night. / Waking up to soundless dark, I stare. / In time the curtain edges will grow light." In the strange, romanticised magic hours when light arrives (the sky changes much earlier than you imagine, even with daylight savings), the brighter darkness often brings dread, not appreciation and peace. The gradual sunlight on buttery collegiate sandstone – so persistently photographed, usually so bright – feels so empty.

The last lines are equally evocative: ‘All the uncaring / intricate rented world begins to rouse./ The sky is white as clay, with no sun. / Work has to be done. / Postmen go like doctors from house to house.’ Studying at Cambridge is very focused on endpoints: essays, essays, trains home, exams. Everyone is full of deadlines. Work does have to be done.

The poem echoes a sense of the remoteness and relentlessness common to Cambridge life

Likewise, living in college can feel isolating. The world outside is full of fellows and gardeners and students and friends, all presumably happy and busy. Combined with deadlines on anxious, brain-fogged days and nights, it seems suffocating. One particular night last term I didn’t sleep at all, and ended up walking to Castle Mound to watch the (albeit disappointing and watery) sunrise. Although it did help me finally relax – I would recommend walks for everyone, even as just a way to help stay sane – it was lonely. I passed groups of rowers, ostensibly well-rested and cheery, people on their way to work. The world was irreverent. (And my essay? — still not proof-read.) The poem echoes a sense of the remoteness and relentlessness common to Cambridge life.


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The poem is comforting reading for when your late night gets too much. University — as is frequently remarked upon — can be very isolating and stressful, and intense terms put a lot of pressure on your circadian rhythms. Aubade evokes this loneliness and dread brilliantly. Uncomfortably, even.

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