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Nothing to Be Said
For nations vague as weed,
For nomads among stones,
Small-statured cross-faced tribes
And cobble-close families
In mill-towns on dark mornings
Life is slow dying.
So are their separate ways
This poem, like many of Larkin’s poems, is about death. In the first stanza, we are presented with an mixture of images, from “nations vague as weeds” – those tiny, isolate communities – to “nomads”, wanderers without fixed homes, to an image of Hull, with “cobble-close families / In mill-towns on dark mornings”. Despite all the differences in their ways of life, life, for all of them “is slow dying”. Life is a slow death.
Similarly, their “separate ways” all “advance / On death equally slowly”. It doesn’t matter about what “building” is done in life, for like “nomads” they come to death eventually. All their “benediction” similarly, their kindness, blessings and religion won’t slow death’s constant progression. “Love and money” are juxtaposed in “measuring”, bringing both to a commercial, materialistic level. Everything they do are just “Ways of slow dying”.
In “hunting pig” and “holding a garden-party”, Larkin refers to the upper class of his society, and there are more examples in the final stanza, “hours giving evidence” referring to the law profession, while “or birth” refers to a medical occupation. Like everything else, it doesn’t matter where you are in society, you “advance / On death equally slowly”.
Yet, though the things in life cause us to “advance / On death”, irony lies in their inescapability: they are a distraction from the haunting death, and without them, we might as well die upon “birth”.
The conclusion of the poem shows the differing attitudes. For some, the idea of life being a slow death “means nothing”, that they don’t think about it and that it has little consequence, or are perhaps too scared to think. For “others it leaves / Nothing to be said”. There’s no way to escape it, and its traumatic nature robs any words they might have.