Ambulances by Philip Larkin Study Guide
‘Ambulances’ was finished in January 1961 and included in Philip Larkin’s third major collection, The Whitsun Weddings (1964).
Summary of Ambulances by Philip Larkin
‘Ambulances’ delves into the pervasive sensation of death that exists in restricted cultures; in cities, in particular, death is ever-present due to the varying ages of the population, the inherent risk of city life, and other things. Although death is significantly less common today than it was, for example, in the Medieval Ages, there is still a stigma and a fear around the subject of death, which may have motivated Larkin to explore it in poetry.
From the first stanza of the poem, Larkin emphasises how elite, almost divine, ambulances are – they are ‘closed like confessionals,’ implying privacy and divinity to an ambulance, and indeed, to death itself; as vehicles, they are hardly considered sacred, but for Larkin, they are at this moment. An ambulance is strange and omnipresent, and the way Larkin describes it distinguishes it from everything else – it “threads/loud noons of cities, giving back /none of the glances they absorb” and appears to float along the road, never quite touching the live inhabitants.
The moment of death is captured outside of the viewer; it is transformed through the eyes of “children strewn on steps or road, /Or women coming from the shops” and because it has suddenly become a sideshow, it contrasts and conflicts with the previous stanza, in which the ambulance was written about as a ‘confessional.’ Although death is a very private experience, there are always some on the outskirts who catch sight of it and stand and gawk.
Notice the dehumanisation of the word ‘it,’ and how Larkin focuses on the stretcher rather than the actual corpse, always skirting around the problem of death, never truly confronting it head-on.
The “solving emptiness/That lies just under all we do” writes Larkin. Larkin, at least in this stanza, wonders why we bother doing the things we do; there is no meaning to existence because we shall all die and be buried at the end of it, sooner or later. However, Larkin’s argument is that this is not something that people are aware of and that it is only when we are witness to or near-death that we realise there is an end to life, an end to existence, and a blank nothingness to follow (something that Larkin was particularly scared of) our lives.
Larkin, on the other hand, does not just write that life ends and there is nothing after; he first defines the end of existence as “the unique random blend / of families and fashions” At the end of a person’s life, that is all that is left of them: their family, their habits, and their memories scattered across a generation or two. It could be argued that there is no emptiness, but this is not a point that Larkin explores – it is not something that the deceased understands or knows after they are gone, and this is specifically about death in all of its self-centred application; death as an experience only for the deceased, and not for those who struggle on afterwards.
In the final stanza, Larkin finally defines death: “the exchange of love to lie / unreachable inside a room”; even the strength of love, life, and family cannot push death aside, and death is man’s ultimate fate. The ambulance is mentioned again in “the traffic parks to let go by”; it is the room that renders the people who have died “unreachable” to everything they lived for; yet, this is not the only statement that the ambulance makes.
It is mentioned as an omen by Larkin, who says it “brings closer what is left to come, / And dulls to distance all we are.” As a reminder of death, the ambulance reminds us all that we are not immortal and will not live forever.
The final stanza also emphasises that every brush with death we have, no matter how fleeting, further isolates us, makes us introspective, and pushes us to ponder on our own experiences, lives, and frail existence.
Analysis of Ambulances by Phillip Larkin
Ambulances are popularly referred to as medical vans because they provide medical services, first aid, and transport the ill or injured, victims of accidents, victims of natural disasters, and medical patients in critical condition to hospitals for prompt medical care. The poem compares such ambulances to enclosed spaces known as ‘confessionals’ found in most Roman Catholic churches, where believers or even penitents who wish to make a confession are free to do so without hesitation, thus relieving their hearts of burden, shedding their worries, absolving themselves of guilt, and renewing themselves, as well as their faith in God. During such a confession, a ‘priest’ who remains concealed patiently listens to the confessions of the ‘penitent,’ who may or may not be visible to the entire congregation (depending on the provision or design of the confessional box), and the priest acts as an intercessor or mediator between the penitent and God. Similarly, ambulances have developed into enclosed rooms where the ailing or even the dying frequently make their final confessions before passing away.
This also brings the religious practice of Extreme Unction into focus, which is another Christian rite of the Roman Catholic Church in which a priest gives final sacraments of confession and prayers to the sick and afflicted, as well as the dying, in their final moments. Thus, in the poem’s opening lines, we encounter images of the penitent, the sick, and the dying, which serve to convey the amount or degree of agony endured by such tormented souls. It depicts how ambulances speed through cities, attracting the attention of people in traffic or on the sidewalk with their loud sirens as they navigate through traffic and crowds on their route to perform emergency services. The poet observes that ambulances eventually arrive at each and every door and that ‘Death’ occasionally visits unannounced to claim someone or everything, leaving only a gravestone and an inscription bearing the names and memories of the departed souls.
Again, it is only by rare miracles that persons on the verge of death are occasionally spared, obtaining a new lease on life. Otherwise, ‘Death’ is defined as being ruthless in its random choices and as ‘the great leveller,’ as the poet William Shakespeare memorably observed, which in all fairness reduces every single living person to dust at the end of existence.
Another vivid image presented by the poet is of a white-faced figure (whose gender is not specified) who could easily personify ‘Death’ or serve as the messenger of ‘Death’, shown to be too preoccupied with stowing stretcher blankets and noticed by ‘children’ who spend nights on steps or by the roadside, and even by ‘women’ returning from grocery shopping as part of their daily work. Thus, while the poor children are engaged with their own mundane realities of life and the ladies with their own boring job, ‘Death’ is also preoccupied with its own mundane work.
Death is thus defined as a ‘resolving void’ that pervades all aspects of our life and that we frequently take for granted or disregard in order to maintain our own mental calm. Perhaps, even as we live in denial, inside our own beautiful bubble unaware that it may rupture at any time without warning, it is the only way for us to live more freely and sensibly, making sense of our existence and purpose in life. After all, it is foolish and wasteful to live in constant fear of death, even when death may stare us directly in the face. The student will undoubtedly agree that rather than live in perpetual terror that ‘Death’ is never far away from claiming us definitively, it is preferable to liberate our conscious thoughts from such fear and focus on the magnificent jewels that life has to give. Perhaps ignorance is also delightful in a variety of ways, since being unaware of mortality or avoiding fear of death from preoccupying our brains also permits us to enjoy life to the fullest with freedom and bravery.
The poem’s concluding words highlight how the deceased or gone souls leave an emptiness in the lives of their family and friends, a hole that can never be filled, even with time. Thus, ‘Death’ travels from door to door, family to family, and person to person, oblivious to ‘Life’ and the promises it offers for all of us. We are all fated to slumber in eternal sleep after spending our formative years developing connections, nurturing families, and moulding every phase of our life. Eventually, this is how everything in our lives collapses like a house of cards, reducing all our accomplishments and acquisitions to nought. Even if our lives are inextricably linked to death, this should not prevent us from savouring every moment, cherishing all our small joys with our loved ones, and living as if it were the final day of our lives, because one of those days is rapidly approaching.
The following part expands on the core ideas found in the assigned poems, adding additional thematic issues from the learner’s own reading.
Even while we overlook this unchanging reality of life as mere mortals on earth, each day brings us closer to our demise. We naturally forget or lose track of our own heartbeats in our chaotic and busy lives; forgetting that there is a wonderful rhythm to life that can affect the way we live and designing our lives to fit the rush and confusion of modern existence. Despite the ticking of the clocks and the rush of ‘time,’ the never-say-die spirit residing deep inside us, as well as the spring of beauty manifested in our lived moments, must determine our sense of self-worth and the worth of our life experiences. Furthermore, as poet Robert Frost observed, “the woods are lonely, dark, and deep, but I have miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep.” Ageing and growing old, being frail and suffering from illness are all-natural aspects of our life, and just as we are born, we are all destined to die. Regardless of our age, health status, or other worries, we must embrace life to the fullest without ever submitting to Death. After all, life is a gift from God.
You would all agree that a sense of foreboding and doom pervades even the mention of death, one of life’s fundamental facts and also one of the most unpleasant. Regardless of how much we live in denial, death is an inescapable aspect of existence, and indeed, the entire natural world is subject to the cycle of life and death. When death decides to claim life, it does so without the slightest mercy or consideration.
Although there is no way to predict when death will strike, sooner or later it will claim everyone, our loved ones, our acquaintances, and ourselves, as well as every other living creature on this planet. Death casts a pall over everything, as it robs us of both our life-breath and the meanings we invest in our existence, reducing everything to void.
Thus, the only option we have is to infuse our lives with magic by living in the right spirit and by leaving our imprints on the world by doing something extraordinary and worthwhile for which we will be remembered forever, as living in the hearts and memories of the living is the only way we can continue to live on after we die. Thus, as the titles of the poems suggest, Larkin takes up the central theme of ‘death,’ with the intention of not instilling fear psychosis in his readers, but rather of providing a space for reflection, confronting it directly by highlighting the consciousness of human mortality and the precious moments of life that are within our grasp.
Living in the Present Moment
Perhaps in the pursuit of satisfying our needs and realising our aspirations, we frequently overlook the abundance of beauty inside and around us. Thus, with a little more awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, even our ‘daily lives,’ which we frequently take for granted, will begin to feel more vibrant, alive, and brimming with positive energy — such is the priceless gift of life. Our inner wisdom and the prism through which we view the world should always enrich and enlighten us. For anyone, life will never be uninteresting as long as he or she believes that we only live once and that once is sufficient provided we live in the correct spirit. After all, it is entirely dependent on our ideas and viewpoints, both of which shape our lives and personalities.
However, as Larkin emphasises in his contemplative poems, people are continually striving to acquire and reach more, to the point that they forget to recognise their blessings and savour the small pleasures of life. As a result, those who are constantly seeking the ‘future’ and its rewards lose sight of the immediate ‘now’ and the beauty of everyday life. Many of us appear to have little time to savour the beauty of life because we are so focused on pursuing future aspirations and desires rather than recognising and celebrating what we already have. While it is critical to have long-term goals, shape our desires, work harder, and be farsighted, it is even more critical to celebrate one’s small joys and accomplishments, to appreciate hard work and count all the blessings of life, and thus never lose sight of the immediate ‘present’ per cent the here and now, so that when death comes to claim us, we do not look back on our lives with regret but rather with a sense of fulfilment for having lived each day. Thus, both poems emphasise the importance of living in the moment and appreciating the beauty of the life energy that nourishes us all.