Content

Ambulances

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 inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.

Analysis

‘Ambulances’ are another type of container for our lives, like the room in ‘Mr Bleaney’ and ‘Days’. The first image, “closed like confessionals,” conveys this, and the small “closed” spaces compared both seem threatening. The next phrase shows Larkin’s linguistic inventiveness: “they thread / Loud noons” uses the great verb “thread” for weaving through the traffic and pre-modifying “noons” with the usual “loud” evokes the general noise and bustle of life around them.

The ambulances give “back / None of the glances they absorb” refers to how everyone always turns to look at an ambulance, as it drives past, but with its darkened glass, it returns none of the looks it receives. There’s something threatening about the one-sided nature of it, and isolating.

The final two lines of the stanza are also chilling, and yet are true: an ambulance can “rest at any street” (the word “rest” reminds us of “requiescat in pace” of a tombstone, as well as their ominous, silent approach) and “All streets in time are visited”. Death eventually strikes everywhere in the world.

As we move into the second stanza, there in a sharp contrast. From the previous ominous mood, we are greeted with “children”, “women”, “smells of different dinners” (typical of Larkin’s day, when meals were home cooked) and a general image of life.

“Then”, in the midst of this life, the ambulance’s “wild white face” appears, and the “it” is “stowed”, both the genderless pronoun and the verb suggesting something inanimate. Even if the human isn’t dead when they are carried into the ambulance, it suggests that they won’t last long.

Larkin uses an idea found in a number of poems like ‘Love Songs in Age’ at the opening of the next stanza: “And the sense of solving emptiness.” It’s as though life is somehow a puzzle with a solution, as though death is the solution. Or, perhaps, it is live ‘dissolving’, that the life is being eroded.

Another familiar Larkin characteristic is the use of direct speech: “Poor soul, / They whisper at their own distress.” This line, again, is so true. It’s quite astounding how well Larkin can express the ideas that surround death. (Sorry, I can’t help but get subjective…)

“For borne away in deadened air” can be interpreted as punning on “borne”, as in “born”, and thus juxtaposing the ideas of life and death. It reminds us, perhaps, of the transience of human life: how from the moment we are born, we are moving closer and closer to death.

Yet in this, Larkin is quite mournful of what is being lost. “Across / The years, the unique random blend” is a celebratory description of a person, how we’re all unique, formed from our experiences of our “families and fashions”. Despite this, it “At last begins to loosen.” As we age, we start to decline, though not everything goes at once: first the eyes, perhaps, then the ears, our strength… Until in the end, we are “unreachable”.

The largest piece of evidence that the “out of reach” of ‘Here’ is actually death is the “unreachable” of this poem. It reminds us of ‘Here’ and connects the persona’s desperate longing to the death of ‘Ambulances’. The absolute solitude can only be found in death.

The final two lines perhaps shift our interpretation a little. “Brings closer what is left to come” means that seeing the ambulances reminds us of the approaching death, “And dulls to distance all we are.” Death shadows us, and this somehow “dulls” our lives. Larkin, celebrating life as seen in the “unique, random blend”, regrets the hold death has over us. How much better would life be without the perpetual fear always shadowing us?

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