I discovered Ambulances, by Philip Larkin while leafing through “The Golden Treasury of the best songs and lyrical poems in the English language, sellected and arranged by Francis Turner Palgrave, updated by John Press”. As with his poem Aubade the theme in Ambulances is that of the nearness of death, of how the grim reaper is ever present waiting to sweep us into oblivion. For Larkin, as an atheist there is no afterlife, death is the end, once dead our essence is no more.
In Ambulances the poet describes how ambulances (which represent the nearness of death) will, in time visit every street as, indeed will death. Women and children pause in their day to day activities to watch individuals being carried into ambulances and in so doing come face to face with their own mortality,
“Then children strewn on steps or road, or women coming from the shops past smells of different dinners, see a wild white face that overtops red stretcher-blankets momentarily as it is carried in and stowed,
and sense the solving emptiness that lies just under all we do, and for a second get it whole, so permanent and blank and true …”.
Of course ambulances may be symbols of hope and one might object that Larkin paints to grim a picture of their symbolism. However the vehicles do frequently portend death and Larkin’s basic message of the fragility of life and the fact that we will all, one day die remains true.
AMBULANCES BY PHILIP LARKIN
Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.
Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,
And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;
For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there
At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable insided a room
The trafic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.