How Phillip Larkin apprehends mortality and ageing in two of his poems ‘The Old Fools’ and ‘Ambulances’
How Larkin apprehends his/our ageing and then inevitable mortality in ‘The Old Fools’ and ‘Ambulances’
In ‘The Old Fools’, Larkin describes the slow depression of life that one experiences in old age as a steady dissolution of what makes us up. He explores the idea of dignity being the first component of oneself to neglect them, and how incomprehensible it is that the elderly manage to ignore the terrible nature of the horrors that await them in death. ‘Ambulances’ is more an exploration of the actual demise itself, and of our reactions as human beings to it. It very much revolves around the depressing nature of the transportation of the dying (in ambulances) and the passive response of the public to the personally apocalyptic terror the patient inside is experiencing. In ‘The Old Fools’ we hear senility described as an ‘inverted childhood’ at the end of the poem, a fine conclusion to how he displays this period of one’s life. In the first stanza he asks whether the elderly believe that ‘pissing themselves’ and having senile dementia is somehow ‘more grown-up’, questioning ironically their ability to have no shame over these clearly infantile indignities.
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The tone of his questioning is almost pre-emptive of his description of them as inverted children, as it gives the idea that they are almost naïve; he patronises them in the way one might a child. Later in this first stanza he questions whether they perhaps believe that they can repeat the past, an idea that he cynically expresses is impossible, and how, without being able to do so, he cannot understand how it is they ‘aren’t… screaming’. The final image there is a perfect description of how one perceives old age from the outside. Something so incomprehensibly horrific in our minds that we would scream, but for the fact that its inevitability being so foreseeable would mean we would scream for only a small portion of the time where the presence of its approach was felt; instead we experience the horror in silence. In the second stanza Larkin describes death as ‘the bits that were you… speeding away from each other for ever with no one to see’, our components dissolving into oblivion, in effect. This, and his slightly later quote of not being able to ‘pretend that there’ll be anything else’ is clear proof of Larkin’s agnostic beliefs that, in no sense, will any parts of us stay together for any form of afterlife. He clearly dictates that, at least in his mind, death is the end. Later in this second stanza he describes where we go as ‘only oblivion’ which we have ‘had before’, referring to how, before birth we were also experiencing oblivion, effectively in the other direction, except that ‘then it was going to end’; saying that in this previous oblivion we still had the concept of life being ahead of us, something which Larkin emphasises as no longer being the case in this so-called second oblivion. A concept that merely emphasises how different this death will be to anything else we have ever experienced. In the third stanza Larkin speculates that ‘being old’ is like having memories re-enacting in your head, and that in effect, the elderly live in the past, ‘not here and now, but where all happened once’.
This view on old age is clearly very cynical, it completely dismisses the idea of old age having anything interesting to it within itself, and describes it only as the torturous wait for the decaying of our life to finally subside. This is very much on a parallel to his views on death itself, with his descriptions of both being completely immersed in pessimism. He describes old age as ‘crouching below extinction’s alp… never perceiving how near it is’ and claims this is what ‘keeps them quiet’, yet another pessimistic overlook of what one’s senile years are like, quiet due to the constant fear of one’s ever-approaching demise. In relation, he says ‘the peak that stays in view everywhere we go for them is rising ground’, a very accurate metaphor for how death is a persistent entity always in the back of our minds, which, for the elderly, is now the clearest and most prominent thought, right at the very forefront of their consciousness. The three penultimate lines of the poem all set up well a finale which encapsulates Larkin’s feelings towards death perfectly. He poses questions about what the elderly know, as to whether they can ‘never tell… how it will end… never, throughout their whole hideous inverted childhood’, asking if they at any point within that stage of losing one’s dignity, and reverting to the ways of a young child, understand just how final their final breath will be. He then answers his question in an almost stoic fashion saying that ‘we shall find out’. He clearly at this point exposes the more personal side to the poem, explaining in an almost frightening, eerie way, that it will happen to the best of us, all of the things he’s said, and that all of these unanswerable questions on how the elderly somehow remain so calm, knowing that death is so prominent, will only be answered when one finds themself in that very same, miserable set of circumstances. In ‘Ambulances’, Larkin expresses within the first stanza the idea of how death is inevitable for all, and how it can strike wherever, through the line ‘They come to rest at any kerb’ (referring to the ambulances). Something about this line is menacing, as though the ambulances are choosing to rest there, almost choosing who dies, without a care who the person is.
This portrays the randomness of death, and how cruelly unforgiving it is in terms of who it affects. In the second stanza he describes people watching the ambulances as a corpse is moved into them, saying that ‘children strewn on steps or road… see a wild white face… carried in and stowed’. His phrasing of children being ‘strewn’ on steps or road, without immediately explaining that they are voyeurs, gives the reader the idea that perhaps it is these children themselves which are the victims, merely going to remind us of how anyone can die, regardless of age, etc.. The idea of a ‘wild white face’ seems cold and almost anonymous, which, paired with the fact that the deaths are so easily classified, reminds us of how unimportant each individual’s demise is to the large proportion of the population. This idea is backed up in the final line of this stanza where Larkin describes the corpses as being ‘stowed’, like an object or an animal, showing just how unimportant the death is to the wider eye of the population, as though once one is dead the body is mere garbage that must be removed. At the end of the third stanza he says how the onlookers whisper ‘poor soul’ upon seeing the moving of the dead body.
However, rather than this being a sign of sympathy or empathy, Larkin says they whisper it at their own distress, giving the idea that the sight of death only really creates a sad feeling for us as it reminds us of our own mortality. Fundamentally, it shows that above all we are selfish, and that this is most visible when we are confronted with death as it is a situation where we have nothing to gain and literally everything to lose. In the last two stanzas Larkin describes all we are as a ’unique random blend of families and fashions’, as though he is saying that, despite being unique, we are only unique in the sense of which trends we follow, rather than being unique in any personal sense. He describes this ‘blend’ as ‘loosening’ upon our descent to death, as though it is an intricately formed object, breaking apart, putting to waste whatever effort was put into its design. He says that the dying are ‘far from the exchange of love to lie unreachable inside a room’, reminding us of how death is such a contrast from life, as we are so far from being able to exchange love, or happiness, when we are alone dying or dead that it creates an almost horrific loneliness we can’t help but dread our whole lives.
The traffic parting in the third final line of the poem acts as a release, as though the public are permitting the death of this person, allowing him to leave the world, themselves putting up no fight and showing no sign of panic; it is not their problem. This returns to the idea of persistent human selfishness upon staring death in the face. Larkin’s exploration of the human demise is about as pessimistic as it can get. He sees old age as a mere crumbling of everything we are, before death, where everything that makes us up becomes separated forever, and we lose all that is ourselves. However, my question is this: In the transition stage from the previous oblivion, the one which was ‘going to end’, the time when, over nine months, we developed from nothing to everything, we technically were living, semi-conscious beings, and, yet, in this time, we had no real knowledge of what was outside the womb. We may not have even known there was an ‘outside the womb’, and so, for these nine months, we lived with the womb as all we knew existed, when there was something a lot more complex going on for which our purpose in the womb was to develop. Therefore why is it that we must immediately dismiss the idea of a wider spectrum?
We see what we have as all that there is, but, technically, throughout our lives we are developing; my question is ‘what for?’, is it that we are still in some form of metaphysical womb, developing from what we are to something a lot more complex? I agree that the idea of re-incarnation is a bit far-fetched, but the argument that people would be able to ‘remember’ a past life is too rash a conclusion to make. After all, we have lived before for nine months and I can bet no one remembers that, so the idea that there could be something else, something more developed, outside the womb of life, not instead of but before our second oblivion, that’s a concept I find worth considering.