English Higher

AMBULANCES       Philip Larkin

A meditation on the closeness of death, its randomness and its inevitability. These three ideas are captured for Larkin in the action of ambulances in the city. Today young people might see ambulances as a sign of hope, a positive intervention sustaining life rather than heralding death. When the poem was written in the fifties, to be carried away in an ambulance was a sign of worse to come.

Stanza 1

The ambulances symbolise death. They are closed and inscrutable "giving back none of the glances they absorb"; like a corpse. They are private, secretive, silent like confessionals. They cause agitation in people who glance nervously at them hoping that their time has not come. The randomness of death is suggested by

"They come to rest at any kerb"

Its inevitability is expressed in,

                        "all streets in time are visited"

Stanza 2

Note Larkin's superb eye for significant detail as he points out the contrast between the zest and energy of living

                        "children strewn on roads"

                        "women..past smells of different dinners."

and the horror of its opposite

                        "A wild white face.."

as the patient is carried away from the flow of normality to be "stowed" like some dead thing in the ambulance. The red of the blankets, the white of the face are colours of distress.

Stanza 3

A reflective stanza after the vivid details of the first two. The poet is moved to think that death is our common fate that has the power to render life meaningless. All our busy concerns, all our cooking, our play is just a way of filling time until death takes us away to empty nothingness;

                        "And  sense the solving emptiness

                        "That lies just under all we do".

This thought which we put out of our minds comes to us without any softening theology

                        "And for a second (we) get it whole

                        So permanent and blank and true"

As the ambulance pulls away, Larkin suggests that peoples' expression of sympathy at the patient's plight is also an expression of our common vulnerability to sickness and death.

Stanza 4 and 5

Now Larkin thinks of the dying patient and the sadness in her heart as she experiences

                        "the sudden shut of loss

                        Round something nearly at an end."

He sympathises with her fear. He reflects on the loss that death will bring; how it will destroy this unique person

                        "the unique random blend of families and fashions."

and "loosens" her from her family and identity - all that really matters to us as people.

The tremendous isolation of  being in an ambulance as she faces death

                        "Far from the exchange of love to lie

                        Unreachable inside a room "(i.e. the ambulance)

brings out Larkin's deep sympathy for the victim. This sympathy is for a real person.

But as with most poems by Larkin, he is able to take a particular experience, a particular circumstance and find a general truth in it.

Here, the suffering of the victim become the model for all life lived, all death experienced. The model is bleak, however. Living according to this model is just the rush towards death,

                        "brings closer what is left to come"

and the effect of this realisation is to make life seem a lonely and bleak experience robbed of its joyful immediacy its pleasant physicality,

                        "And dulls to distance all we are."

We are left isolated by the experience, distanced from ourselves.


As in many of Larkin's poems, the event that occasioned the poem provokes the poet to move from an almost casual reflection on the details of the event to a final a deeper empathy with our common human destiny; suffering and death (the mining catastrophe) but also love and beauty ( the vision of the wives).

Stanzas  1-5

Notice how Larkin tries to set a distance between himself and the miners. They are shadows pointing towards the pithead - it is to be their catastrophe. He will not become personally involved in their fate but maintain that air of detachment to be found in many of his poems. He wishes to allow the catastrophe and characters to stand independently worthy to have their suffering noted without sentimentality.

In stanza 2 we may observe Larkin's gift for making images;

"Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,"

These are simple, ordinary young men of their time swearing, smoking, proud of their strength and stature 

"Shouldering off the freshened silence."

The sounds are almost onomatopoeic to reflect the rough humanity.

In stanza 3 the poet leads us a little closer to the men. One is shown as innocent, playful as he chases after rabbits. But on his return from the chase another side of his nature is seen. He is gentle; does not trample on the nest of lark's eggs and returns them to where he found them. What does this action tell us about him? Is Larkin asking us to note his sensitivity? his gentleness? his unspoken respect for the mystery of procreation? Might this have been a gesture he made to his fiancé; a proposal, almost.

These men are part of a close community simply, elegantly suggested by,

"Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter"

But all this simple, homely normality is under grave threat suggested in the lines,

"Through the tall gates standing open"

These are the gates of fate, of the underworld, inescapable.

And in stanza 5 their fate is met. The poet delivers the news without melodrama; we knew the explosion was coming from the title. The world of nature is unmoved by the catastrophe,

"cows stopped chewing for a second"

The sun was dimmed as the dust from the explosion was blasted high into the sky.

Notice that Larkin leaves the aftermath, the rescue, the grief unmentioned.

Stanzas  6 - end.

In the second part of the poem the focus is changed. Now it is the wives who are central. It is said that the poem is based on a real event and that the wives of the dead miners had visions of their men at the moment of the explosion.

Larkin uses this knowledge to transform what would be a sad and meaningless accident into an occasion of transformation and grace.

In the religious imaginations of the wives the men are seen "for a second" as transformed into gold, metal of purity and endurance. In this new changed appearance they will live in the memories of their wives. The poem ends with the image of the unbroken eggs. The eggs are also transformed; now they may represent the hope of resurrection or the preciousness of memory or the strength of the bonds of love.In the face of death we have a choice; either to accept it as the slide into nothingness or we may find in it the door to renewal.

In this poem Larkin offers us the renewal vision that flashed into the shocked serious hearts of the miners' wives.



The poem is full of joy, expectation, and excitment of the young woman on the brink of her new life. The wind is a symbol of renewal; the past is being transformed; a time of enriched experience is beginning.

Larkin stands apart from the persona of the young woman. She is the speaker; it is her story.

Two separate experiences are recounted by her. They form a narrative that comprises her wedding night and the first morning of her married life. Ironically her new husband is absent throughout the poem. He is looking after the nuts and bolts of the real farm. She is looking to herself and the joyful powers she is beginning to take responsibility for; the power to be a lover, a wife, a mother, a co-owner of the farm.

The two stanzas trace the sequence of her growth from a simple girl

                                                                         "and I was sad

That any man or beast should lack

      The happiness I had."

To a speaker of profound questions..

"Can it be borne, this bodying forth by wind

                                   Of joy my actiond turn on..?"

A strong narrative sequence unites both stanzas; first night, first day.  Think of The book of Genesis; of Eve.Consider what must have been on her mind during the first morning in Eden - her joy at knowing herself to be the treasure house of all future generations. Larkin appears to suggest that the girl is partaking of the same self-realisation as Eve. Note the biblical echoes of,

"Can even death..conclude

Our kneelnig as cattle by all generous waters?"

Wind in the poem is energy. In stanza one the speaker remembers the high wind first and then the noise of the door banging in the wind. Her new husband is not part of her recollection - he is absent bolting the stable door. In the first stanza she recalls the first night of her marriage. Often in the lore of marriage the first night is spoken of with special significance; as consummation and initiation - but not in this poem.

Unexpectedly she tells us the simple truth; she felt a bit stupid when he had left,

"leaving me stupid in the candlelight"

She recalls seeing her face in the "twisted candlestick" but yet she admits to

                                                "seeing nothing".

It may be that she is telling us that it is not until the next morning, "Now in the day", when she experiences the wind as she feeds the chickens that she fully realises its meaning as a symbol for her own new energy and delight.

Notice that there is no honeymoon. She must look to her chores as must her husband;

                                    "He has gone to look to the floods, and I

                                     Carry a chipped pail to the chicken run,"

This might be seen as tedium but the change she undergoes is an inward, spiritual one.

It leads her to ask those profound questions (they are really statements) which end the poem.


"Can it be borne, this bodying forth by wind

Of joy my actions turn on, like a thread

Carrying beads?"

The thrill of her excitement is so intense that only the wind is big enough to embody it, "bodying forth". The meaning of her life is clear to her now. Even her simple actions like feeding chickens feel as if they are part of a greater unified whole, "like a thread carrying beads."


"Shall I be let to sleep

Now this perpetual morning shares my bed?"

The sexual joy, the romance, her ownership of the farm, the very newness of her situation makes her so giddy, so thrilled that she feels she will never be able to calm down again so that she may sleep. The windy morning symbolises all that is new and energetic in her life.


"Can even death dry up

These new delighted lakes, conclude

Our kneel ing as cattle by all-generous waters?"

She feels immortal. The brimming lakes symbolise new life to be enjoyed almost forever. Her gratitude for this new life is expressed in the image of the grateful cattle kneeling as they drink their fill - a picture of Eden on the first day?


Advanced Comparative Study KNOW THE MODES


Larkin ambulances

Larkin explosion

Larkin wedding