Philip Larkin’s “Ambulances” exemplifies the hollowness of life in the face of death.The poet’s ease and conversational tone is juxtaposed with the eeriness of reality. Calvin Bedient asserts:”Larkin is unillusioned with a metaphysical zero in his bones. “Ambulances” highlights the pragmatics of life and contrasts it with the inevitability of death.
The symbol of the ambulance at once emblematizes death. They are like ‘closed confessionals’. Sitting in the ambulance, one is like an open book outpouring all the woes of life mentally and is ultimately resigned to fate. In both the ambulance and the confessional, the last resort is submitting oneself to God. When apprehended as a symbol of death, it is indeed ‘closed’ as Death possesses no openings. The ‘silence’ of death is juxtaposed against the ‘loud noons of the cities.’ The noon is glaring and so are the glances that the ambulance receives. However, it does not return any of these stares as it is totally apathetic to the practicalities of life. The phrase “Light glossy grey” though it refers to the colours of the ambulance, they may also allude to the various stages in life. The Light, the infant stage; the Glossy, the prime of youth; and the grey, the aged individual. It reiterates how individuals in all walks of life are vulnerable to the universal phenomenon, and :”All streets in time are visited.” The ambulance may come to rest on any kerb, any person may be the victim regardless of criteria. It may be children strewn on steps or road, or ladies coming from shops amongst the smells of dinner. People consume ‘dinner’ or food as a basic prerequisite to life; here the smell of it lingers as Death holds the centre stage. Bodies are carried away only to be ‘stowed’ away like the blankets. The colour ‘red’ signifying blood and the ‘white’ face add to the gloomy atmosphere of the poem.
The ‘solving emptiness’ stresses the existential dilemma of man. His doings and achievements are reduced to nihilism in the confrontation with death. People reaffirm the truth for a second as it dawns on them with its omnipotent force.
“So permanent and blank and true.”It is a persistent reality,as much as it is blank and hollowly secretive. As the doors of the ambulance unfasten, people exclaim in sympathy. However, this sympathy is more than empathy; it is directed at themselves, who may perhaps be the next victims.
In the fourth stanza, the poet shifts the scene to the interior of the ambulance. The patient senses the sudden “shut of loss,” the fear that death is around the corner. One wonders when Death is portrayed as a universal phenomenon; he projects the victims of death in this poem predominantly as women. Perhaps his misogynistic views attribute to this aspect. The last defining moment of the poem, also has the woman apprehending the unavoidable fear. Perhaps, is the poet suggesting that fear is essentially feminine? She is cut off from familial ties that are the dearest to her, and all ideas of fashion pale into insignificance here. Individual tastes and differences no longer matter. The poet is slightly satiric here. In his “Whitsun Weddings” also, he projects women as “parodies of fashion.” The victim is far from the ‘exchange of love’, distanced from the give and take of love. The ‘traffic parts’ are side-stepped: all the directions and guidances received in life are of no consequence on the threshold of Death.
“And dulls to distance all we are.”
On an encounter with Ambulances, we are left with a sense of desolation and are isolated as Death is. All sense of materialism is reduced to naught.
©Rukhaya MK 2010
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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.