Nomination: Ambulances [10 January 1961. From The Less Deceived]
Rather like ‘Aubade’, this poem is a portrait of Larkin’s fear and contemplation of death. Yet it manages to cleverly encapsulate the entire human story within just five verses. From ‘the exchange of love’ in conception to a summary of a life filled with ‘families and fashions’, he makes it perfectly clear that we will all end our days within a small, confined box, ‘unreachable inside a room’ and the traffic of ongoing life will part and let the dead move through, as if flinching in denial of its inevitable consequence.
The poem tackles the human need to ignore death in a ‘whisper at their own distress’, as if by offering sympathy, we can cheat death and push it away as someone else’s problem. Larkin also argues that ‘all streets in time are visited’, like in ‘Aubade’ when ‘Being brave …. Lets no one off the grave’. He reiterates that we cannot avoid it, but like an ironic lottery, we all hope that the ambulance will not come to our door, just yet.
In the second verse, Larkin describes the aroma and pace of life, the ongoing population, the children ‘strewn’ and the women going shopping as if nothing had happened, the smells of food – but then the sick person is ‘stowed’ away, so as not to spoil the idyllic view of family life and its fragrant perpetuity. His own questions on faith emerge again with, ‘And sense the solving emptiness …. That lies just under all we do’. In these words, we feel the hopelessness in our meaningless existence that leads only to death. We feel dull in our own fragility, cut off by our own denial and frightened by the inevitability of what is to come.
It is clear that Larkin’s ambulances are a one way ticket ‘closed like confessionals’ and they tell no secrets – rather like the mystery of death, with its precarious religious overtones, where nobody really knows whether there is eternal life or if it is simply something that ‘dulls to distance all we are’. Whilst some may feel this is a gloomy and pessimistic poem, it can also be viewed as an opportunity, not to fear but to seize the chance, make your mark on the world and leave a legacy that can be remembered within the sea of forgotten faces.
A reading of a classic Larkin poem
‘Ambulances’ was completed in January 1961 and published in Philip Larkin’s third major collection, The Whitsun Weddings (1964). You can read ‘Ambulances’ here; this post offers some notes towards an analysis of Larkin’s poem.
‘Ambulances’, in summary, is a poem about death. The poem describes what happens when somebody critically ill is taken away to hospital in an ambulance. Passers-by witness the ambulance as they are going about their ordinary lives, catching a glimpse of the person’s white face (denoting sickness) as they (the gender of the person is not specified) are placed in the ambulance on a stretcher. Witnessing this scene prompts these observers to muse upon their own mortality, because they sense that the person who has just been carried away in the ambulance – and many ‘poor souls’ carried away in ambulances – never come out of hospital alive. The full life that this person once lived – their life with their family, their changing observance of various fashions – all ‘loosens’ into nothingness. They end up in a room on their own, as we all do. In summary, then, ‘Ambulances’ is a bleak poem.
Yet in spite of this bleak subject, the poem also contains Philip Larkin’s usual touches: his ambivalence towards death, for instance. He would later write ‘Aubade’, a chilling and eloquent poem about the fear of his own impending death, but in ‘Ambulances’ death is described as a ‘solving emptiness’, as if death is a corrective to the horrible mistake that is Life. A horrible and final one, perhaps, but then Larkin wasn’t always much keen on life either!
But overall the poem is not exactly uplifting. The connection between ambulances and death is established in the opening words, ‘Closed like confessionals’: as well as physically likening the ambulances to confessional booths in a church, this simile also reminds us of the Christian tradition of having a priest to attend a dying person, so that they might confess their sins before passing away. In describing the ambulances threading through ‘loud noons of cities’, Larkin subtly likens the prime of life to the midday point of the day, and in doing so suggests both the inevitable end of that day, and the brevity of it (‘Stop and consider! Life is but a day’, as Keats had put it). The reference to ‘arms on a plaque’ evokes the coat of arms inscribed on a gravestone or other memorial marker, again suggesting death.
Throughout ‘Ambulances’ Larkin goes to some effort to emphasise the individuality of our lives, yet of course the central meaning of the poem is that we are all ultimately united by the fact that we are going to die someday. Somehow emphasising our differences and uniqueness only makes this sadder: ‘Ambulances’ is a sort of modern take on John Donne’s famous sermon (‘No man is an island’), yet it manages a fine balance between commonality and individuality, between what unites us and what makes us distinctive. This is a tricky thing to achieve, yet the poem does it: on the one hand we have the reference to the ‘smells of different dinners’ which the women smell while going home with the shopping, and the reference to the ‘unique random blend’ that made the life of the ambulance’s passenger so special to him and his family. Yet on the other hand we have references to ‘any kerb’, ‘All streets’, and the sense of death lying ‘just under all we do’. Note how the passers-by who see the person being placed in the ambulance whisper ‘Poor soul’ in sympathy for this stranger, yet they do so ‘at their own distress’, implying distress at the awareness that they themselves will one day be taken away like that. We are both strikingly different in terms of our social and cultural attributes and allegiances, but ‘Old and young, we are all on our last cruise’, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it.
‘Ambulances’ grapples with one of the key themes of Philip Larkin’s poetry: death and our own sense of our mortality. In this analysis we’ve focused on one of the most noteworthy aspects of the poem, which is its blend of human individuality and common humanity. That ambulance dulls ‘all we are’.
Image: Old ambulance by Al Howat, via Flickr.