‘Days’ and ‘Ambulances’ by Philip Larkin. Poetry comparison essay.

                                                                            What are days for?

   Days are where we live.

They come, they wake us

Time and time over.

They are happy to be in:

Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

“Larkin is known for his realistic, sometimes fatalistic, view of life, and much of his poetry reflects a kind of less-than-hopeful attitude towards a person’s experience of life. In other words, life just happens — it’s neither good nor bad — and then we die…” – Stephen Holliday.

‘Days’ opens with a thought-provoking, and obviously straight-talking, hypothesis that almost simultaneously questions how we choose our lifestyle, our general outlook on life and emphasising the value and meaning of it, “What are days for? Days are where we live.” It’s as if it invites discussion and debate, which I’m sure was one of Larkin’s objectives.

The phrase “They come, they wake us” personifies life, makes it mortal. It gives life an edge of instability. Also it shows that life is something we may not be able to control, that whatever will happen will happen. We were awoken from unconsciousness by the reality and inevitability of life.

The next line is a negative connotation and twist to the phrase ‘time and time again’. Again it highlights the author’s idea of the fragility of life, “Time and time over.” As each day ends, we lose the freedom to be able to change what happened, and sometimes to ever have a second chance of something. It suggests that though life may be cruel, we’re powerless to stop it, so we’ve to mould into it to suit it, rather than life having to blend to suit us. This idea is also supported with the phrase, “They are happy to be in: Where can we live but days?”, this is quite sardonic in the sense that we have nowhere to life but in the days, it’s inescapable, so we have no other choice but to make the most of it while we can.

“Ah, solving the question/ Brings the priest and the doctor/In their long coats/ Running over the fields”. The doctor here seemingly represents science as does the priest represents religion. They are respectively running a futile race on how to postpone or even explain why it happens. It tells us about the never-changing idea of sickness and death.

Larkin uses an assonance technique in this poem, ‘are where we’. This repetition of the vowel draws a slightly more emotional effect, it’s also heavily contrasted by the poet’s use of alliteration, for example, ‘time and time’. This creates a harder sounding poem. This may have been used in order to draw attention to the specific words and to make it have a lasting effect on the reader. Larkin also uses colloquial words, ‘Ah’. Despite the apprehensiveness in which manner it is said, we can assume that the poet means it in a wise way. Like he’s in a state of knowing. The effect of this is adding to the informality of the tone to the poem.

Punctuation plays a huge role as to how this particular poem sounds. Its use of rhetorical questions and full-stops and a very direct tone to the poem, ‘for?’, ‘where we live.’ It makes the poem slower, so the reader tends to read it in a slower pace, which makes it sound a lot longer considering it’s only two stanzas long.

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.

The theme of the poem ‘Ambulances’ is a metaphor for death. It is a major theme in the poem. The poem is a depressing one, yet wholly realistic. It forces the reader to come to terms with reality, which is death is an essential part of life and is inescapable, it’s also largely misunderstood, thus ignored and when it comes it dehumanises you. What I think stands out in this poem is that only one ambulance is discussed, yet in reality there are ambulances everywhere. It’s as if Larkin wants to give the ambulance its own character, which is engaging.

The title to the second poem, ‘Ambulances’, is an extended metaphor. Throughout the poem ambulances is the general topic but the actual word itself is never mentioned. This makes it seem like the ambulance is something that’s everywhere, but never discussed. ‘Ambulances’ opens with a simile, ‘Closed like confessionals’, so as the ambulance is being compared to a private situation, a confessional box, we immediately get the sense of privacy and death. So we already get the notion of the theme of the poem, and its contents. The first line also includes the word ‘thread’. This is a classical illusion of Greek mythology, so in mythological terms, threading represents the connection between life and death, or ‘the thread of life’ which could be a possible theme in the poem.

‘Loud noons of cities, giving back/none of the glances they absorb.’ This may be directed to the ambulance, that the ambulance is ‘giving back none of the glances they absorb’. This infers the emergency of the ambulance, it is too focused on getting somewhere it doesn’t take its time to stop.

‘Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque, /they come to rest at any kerb:/All streets in time are visited.’ The alliterative phrase ‘glossy grey’ enforces a dull atmosphere, whereas ‘arms on a plaque’ gives a slightly horrific tone. Also ‘glossy grey’ may rouse an image of death, so it adds to the general tone of the poem, which is sadness and mourning. What I noted from the line ‘All streets in time are visited’, is that it hints that everyone must die eventually, that it is inevitable. The word ‘visited’ itself is interesting because usually it’s associated with good things, like something good is going to happen to you or is going to happen but in the context of this poem, it’s contradictory.

A juxtaposition is used, so in contrast to the gloomy tone of the poem, ‘Or women coming from the shops/Past smells of different dinners’, this phrase is almost cheerful. Here the reader sees that Larkin disconnects to living from the people who are dying. It shows that death has been cast as an inferior part of life, it has been left in the background. Ambulances in this poem is a symbol of death and suffering. The poet may have wanted to convey the different emotions of the content of the play. So whereas something serious is happening, there is an element of indifference and ignorance of some in the poem. Also it suggests that what’s happening is common, and the people no longer pay attention to it, or that, as previously stated, that as ambulances is almost synonymous with death and suffering in this poem, people choose to ignore it and block it out because of fear.

The theme of hostility and despair is switched back in the next three lines, ‘A wild white face that overtops/ Red stretcher-blankets momently/ As it is carried in and stowed’. The ‘wild white’ phrase is an example of assonance, which sets a distressing, horrific tone to the poem. It has a slightly more emotional effect, and is likely to stay with the reader.  Also the dying are described to be more like objects, rather than actual human being, it’s as if that Larkin is trying to say you lose everything that makes you a human being when you’re in that situation. Similar to the beginning of the poem, ‘Closed like confessionals’, the line ‘carried in and stowed’ is very funeral-like, the reader gets the idea of privacy and finality, such as in a funeral. The contrast in colours is notable, ‘wild white’, and, ‘Red stretcher’, it emphasises the horror and reality of death.

Larkin implies that death is the end to all our problems in life, ‘And sense the solving emptiness/ that lies under all we do’, this presents the reader that death is always nearby, it’s ubiquitous, as dark as that may be and it’s what the poet believes.

‘And for a second get it whole/ so permanent and blank and true’. This implies that accidents and death happen randomly, we can never be sure that it won’t be us. The three words ‘permanent’, ‘blank’ and ‘true’ particularly stood out in this stanza because it shows the poets feelings towards death, thus the reader may feel slightly closer towards the poet for that. The reader gets to see his arguably pessimistic idea of death.

The writer provokes sadness and sympathy by using a pathos. It reinforces a gloomy tone and mood in the poem, ‘The fastened doors recede. Poor soul, they whisper at their own distress;’ The use of ‘fastened doors recede’ in the poem is a metaphor for the different stages of life, that when the doors recede, we cross borders into the afterlife, which is something unknown to us until the doors open to us personally. It is inferred in this quote that it is something that may well come to us, that we may one day be whispering to our own distress.

‘For borne away in deadened air/ May go the sudden shut of loss’. This sentence gives us the idea of the families’ perspective, they feel a ‘sudden shut of loss’ for the family member as that person is being shut into the ambulance. The use of the word ‘deadened’ stands out because it gives us an idea of the atmosphere inside the ambulance and the how the air may be very still, which implies mourning and death. ‘Round something nearly at an end, / and what cohered in it across’. ‘Nearly at and end’ gives us a sense of finality, and what’s ‘cohered in it’ adds to the idea of fatality in the poem. We know this poem isn’t optimistic.

‘The years, the unique random blend/ of families and fashions, there’. This sentence gives us an idea of the randomness of accidents and death, it shows that in some cases it isn’t anticipated. The message of this has a strong effect of the reader, it’s something that’s related to everyone, it can happen to everyone and the poem makes the reader comprehend this. ‘At last begin to loosen. Far/ from the exchange of love to lie’. I think the message Larkin may have wanted to convey with using the phrase ‘begin to loosen’, was family members who had to come to terms with finally letting a family member go, to accept what had happened to them. From another perspective, it could be the victim having to come to terms with what happened, to finally let go of life. These ideas reinforce a distressing and despondent atmosphere of the poem.

‘Unreachable inside a room/traffic parts to let go by’, by using the phrase ‘unreachable inside a room’, the poet emphasises the helplessness and safety of the victims situation, no help nor danger can come to him from the outside. The slight awkwardness of the syntax in ‘traffic parts to let go by’ is evidence that ‘ambulance’ is unmentionable, it’s as if the poet purposely didn’t use the word to convey two different meanings. He may want us to hear two different meanings, to let go of life and the traffic that parts to let the ambulance to by. This has a lasting effect on the reader. It’s unique and unusual, therefore it stands out and the reader may appreciate this. The suggestion that the ambulance is rushing in this quote implies that we too rush towards death

‘Brings closer what is left to come, / and dulls to distance all we are’. The assonance in ‘all we are’ gives an emotional effect to the poem, it also adds a gloomy rhythm to it. The phrase ‘dulls to distance’, suggests that all we made or have become diminishes as soon as we’re dying or about to die, like we no longer are ‘human’. This idea reinforces the earlier quote by calling the victim ‘it’.

The lack of punctuation in this poem makes it faster and quicker to read, so whereas ‘Days’ has a lot of punctuation for a small poem, ‘Ambulances’ has less that average for a larger poem to speed it up. I think what Larkin may have wanted us to consider was that death should never be unanticipated and never ignored in life. He wants us to acknowledge that death is inevitable and a natural part of life and that it is nothing to be feared. It should be respected, even.

The idea for the poem ‘Days’ is the pessimistic ideas that days just happen, and death is inevitable in the end. The poem tells us the fragility of our existence and how we will never get our time back once it’s spent, and that’s all there is to life. Despite all this he also points out the insignificance of how we spend our time. Larkin lends the idea in ‘Ambulances’ that death is mostly ignored, despite it being a natural part of life. So essentially ‘Ambulances’ tends to focus on the peoples’ behaviour towards death whereas ‘Days’ focuses on questioning ‘what are days for’ and, similarly to ‘Ambulances’, the inevitably of it.

The theme for ‘Days’ is essentially life, death, science and religion. We see that days are numbered and meaningless, so essentially days are just for living in. Death is end inevitable to the meaningless life and neither religion nor science can prolong or stop it. The word ‘Ambulances’ serves as a theme and a title for the poem. Also, similarly to ‘Days’, life and death play significant roles in the poem, it also conveys the idea that death is inevitable.

The tone to ‘Ambulances’ throughout the poem is sadness and anxious, but the use of a juxtaposition is used in the second stanza to convey the differences between the living and the dying, ‘women coming from the shops/Past smells of different dinners’. This is the only part of the whole poem where we get to see cheeriness. The tone to ‘Days’ is neutral, the use of assonance and colloquial techniques give a conversational and philosophical edge to the tone. The questions raised definitely gives it a conversational tone. The suggestion that neither science nor religion can extend life invokes debate and questioning.

The structure for ‘Days’ is separated into two parts. One’s for questioning the meaning of days. The other stanza is for answering the last question to the first stanza, ‘Where can we live but the days?’ the poet leaves this question open but brings in ‘the priest and the doctor’ who try to answer the question and to bring us comfort. ‘Ambulances’ is split into five parts. The end of the first stanza ends with a full-stop, he ends this sentence to convey a specific idea and give a more dramatic effect to the poem. The next four sentences are linked so they run into another line in order to strengthen its eloquence.

The most prominent techniques used in ‘Ambulances’ is assonance, pathos and an extended metaphor. Examples for assonance are ‘wild white’, and, ‘all we are’. In comparison to alliteration, assonance makes the poem sound softer, it gives the poem the emotional effect to balance out the harshness of it. Assonance is also used in ‘Days’ for the same reason, to soften the tone and to balance the use of alliteration, ‘are where we’. An example for a pathos ‘Poor soul/they whisper at their own distresses’. This is also key to setting a horrific and gloomy tone to the poem, and effectively does so. The extended metaphor is the ambulance. The word ‘ambulance’ is discussed and described but never mentioned, and because ambulance is used to symbolise death and illness, it is ignored in society because it isn’t valued or take into account the majority of the time.

The colloquial technique is used in the second stanza of ‘Days’. We can assume that Larkin meant for this to be an emphasis on wisdom rather than sardonic, ‘Ah’. It helps create a more thoughtful and philosophical tone to the poem and relaxes the general atmosphere. Larkin also uses rhetorical questions to make the reader think and to involve, ‘What are days for?’

My initial response to the two poems was surprise at its realistic ideas of life and death. The two poems are quite similar in the general content. What I found interesting where the content of the poems itself are very metaphoric, thus the meanings aren’t very clear and until we ‘read between the lines’ do we really get a clear idea of the poem and, debatably, the poets rather idealistic outlook of life. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed both poems.


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