Compare the ways in which Philip Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy present the theme of death and its implications on life

Authors Avatar by aneesa5aangmailcom (student)

ELLA4 Coursework Essay

Compare the ways in which Philip Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy present the theme of death and its implications on life

The concept of death and its implications are explored extensively by Larkin and Duffy, both poets agreeing that the destructive quality of death makes void of all the time and effort we invest in life. Larkin seems to demonstrate a cold fear towards this inevitability by distancing himself from the reality in ‘Ambulances’ and ‘Dockery and Son’, choosing to make resigned but philosophical points on the subject. Duffy, by contrast, invests in a far more emotional approach and suggests how the finality can bring a strange sense of comfort amidst the devastation; this is demonstrated in the poems ‘The Suicide’ and ‘Never Go Back’ where the personas vow to never repeat their deathly experiences again, and, in the case of ‘The Suicide’ in particular, use death as a means to exact revenge.

‘Ambulances’ are described as vehicles that both literally transport the dying, and are the anthropomorphised psychopomps who help establish the transitory stage between life and death. The fairly archaic yet idiomatic verb phrase ‘borne away’ and the use of determining modifiers in ‘any kerb: / All streets’ suggests that death is a ubiquitous and ghostly presence that transcends time and takes life indiscriminately. Thus, Larkin achieves a grave mood and an aloof tone which suggests the easy dissolution of identity and personality in the face of death. Duffy similarly presents the event of death in ‘The Suicide’, but unlike Larkin’s distance, the persona here takes control with the modal auxiliary in ‘I will write’ and demands recognition from their attempted suicide: ‘Famous.’ The delivery as an emotional dramatic monologue helps serve the speaker’s appeal to victimhood, as they use a bitter and increasingly vindictive tone to justify their heinous sin of ‘despair’. This cry for attention thus suggests the instinctive egoism of humans, much like the bystanders in ‘Ambulances’ who, despite witnessing a tragedy, ‘whisper at their own distress’. In contrast, death in ‘Dockery and Son’ incites abstract musings on the meaning of life and depicts Larkin’s autobiographical account of attending the memorial service of an old college acquaintance. The poem is introduced in medias res, ‘Dockery was junior to you..?’ but the disinterested speaker quickly dissolves into a nostalgic reverie as he explores the fatalistic reality that is often followed after death. The lack of consolation in living is demonstrated when Larkin attempts to revisit his past and ‘tries the door of where I used to live’, but finds it ‘Locked’; the finality in the modifier symbolises how the speaker is unable to return to a past that no longer exists, and thus remains estranged from the familiarity of the past. ‘Never Go Back’ develops on this idea further since it follows the journey of a speaker who revisits her old haunts after the end of her failed marriage. Death, here, is used as an extended metaphor, in contrast with Dockery’s literal death, but this likewise establishes a period of mourning and self-reflection as she is being transported by ‘a taxi implying a herse’. However, the persona suggests there is some consolation in life since she is ‘released’ by the past, the verb carrying connotations of the relief and freedom gained in knowing that the past no longer exists, whereas Larkin’s resignation towards life in sombre lines such as, ‘Whether or not we use it, it goes’, suggests Dockery’s death to be more of a call to take stock of his life and thus suggests it to be the beginning of the end.

‘Ambulances’ invites us to the idea that death is a private experience but this sense of intimacy can be misleading as it opens with the simile ‘closed like confessionals’. The sinister religious connotations suggest how the sudden belief in death has the ability to invoke regret as one realises the significance of their life; the narrator thus suggests that there is a need for secrecy at this personal revelation as he attributes the ambulance with a spectral quality by the dynamic verb ‘thread’, provoking images of the Moirae and their threads of fate, and thus constructing the image of the ‘traffic’ as being the fabricated flow of time. However, the persona reminds us that death is a definite reality as he eerily juxtaposes it against youthful innocence with ‘children strewn on steps or roads’. The verisimilitude of the ordinary urban scene also grants death a recognisable status, but at the same, Larkin demonstrates how death is inscrutable via the symbol of the ambulance: ‘giving back none of the glances they absorb’, presenting the ambulance, and therefore, death as a mystery which provides no answers.

Similarly, ‘The Suicide’ provides as an example of how death can be cryptic as the persona presents a gothic scene breathlessly. The irregularly long opening line coupled with the pathetic fallacy in ‘bitter moon’ and ‘smudgy clouds’ conveys the speaker's rambling tone and her disorganised state of mind as she appears to plan her own death. These imagined, celestial characters provide a parallel with her emotional reality through the repeated vowel and consonant sounds in ‘gleam’ and ‘glee’, thus drawing attention to the sandwiched non-sequitur of ‘I dress in a shroud.’ The deliberate caesurae and the ending rhyme ‘me’ suggests she is preparing for and welcoming her death, a stark contrast with the ‘ambulances’ which ‘come to rest at any kerb’ and are the intruders that disturb the normality of everyday life. The reassuring universality of life is also missing in ‘The Suicide’, as the persona twists images of innocence such as with the modifier in ‘the horrid smiling mouths’, and conveys her contempt, much like the case of betrayal by her loved one. Duffy thus attempts to establish a personal relationship with death which is arguably seen as unnatural, whereas Larkin suggests that it is perfectly acceptable for death to transcend life and for our understanding of it to remain little.
Join now!

Larkin’s ‘Ambulances’ continues its cool narration which helps create an ironic quality to the scene when the speaker suddenly launches into the description of death in the second stanza, all whilst sustaining the organised verse form. Life is seen to quickly dissolve into the image of the ‘wild white face atop red stretcher blankets’, the elongated effect of the alliteration serving as the only definite point of transition. Otherwise, the face isn’t given any attention as ‘it is carried in and stowed’, the pronoun ‘it’ dehumanising the person and the use of verbs which carry connotations of luggage ...

This is a preview of the whole essay