"Ambulances" by Philip Larkin

Introduction



Ambulances is, in its totality, a celebration of the values of consciousness. It modestly and devoutly collects evidence of ordinary life to create a truth which can be universally acknowledged. The poem is a depressing one. The very title suggests something saddening. Ambulances drive through a city street, and stop to pick up a critically sick man and take him to a hospital.
 Everybody looks at an ambulance when it is driving through the streets, though an ambulance does not look back at anybody. The sick man has been taken away to a hospital and the sense of loss which the spectators might have experienced would then abruptly come to an end. The man, who has been carried to the hospital by the ambulance, had led a meaningful life which was a mixture of family relationships and an observance of the fashions of the time. But that life has now come to an end and has, in fact, lost all its meaning.


The main idea in this poem is that an ambulance signifies illness, and that it fills the spectators with the thought of death. The first two stanzas of the poem contain vivid and realistic imagery of the ambulances threading their way through the streets of a city possibly at noon-time when there are many loud noises coming from the traffic and from the crowds of people. When an ambulance comes to a stop, women coming from the shops look at the wild white face of the sick man who is being taken away to a hospital. The remaining three stanzas of this poem contain the poet’s reflections and meditations on the sad fate which awaits all of us. The entire life of an individual loses its meaning in the face of his approaching death. What gives to the poem Ambulances its impressive authority is its relentless insistence that “all streets in time are visited,” and its closing assertion that to be taken away by an ambulance “brings closer what is left to come, /And dulls to distance all we are.”

Critical Appreciation




A Pessimistic Poem About Illness and Death


The main idea in this poem is that an ambulance signifies illness, and that it fills the spectators with the thought of death. The spectators perceive their own lives coming to an end when they see a seriously ailing man being taken to a hospital by an ambulance. The approach of death, says the poet, would mean an end to a life of activity which includes family relationships and fashions. But, when death comes, this “unique random blend of families and fashions” would come to an end, thus depriving life of all its meaning. Here then is another poem about death by Larkin who had felt obsessed with the fact and the reality of death throughout his life. This, again, is a pessimistic poem with an atmosphere of pathos and melancholy hovering over it.


Vivid and Realistic Imagery


The first two stanzas of this poem contain vivid and realistic imagery of the ambulances threading their way through the streets of a city possibly at noon-time when there are many loud noises coming from the traffic and from the crowds of people. When an ambulance comes to a stop, women coming from the shops look at the wild white face of the sick man who is being taken away to a hospital. There is a realistic detail about the women coming from the shops, “past smells of different dinners,” meaning that these women have passed several food-shops which were emitting odours of different kinds. The remaining three stanzas of this poem contain the poet’s reflections and meditations on the sad fate which awaits all of us. The entire life of an individual loses its meaning in the face of his approaching death. There is a vivid picture also in the line: “The traffic parts to let go by”. When an ambulance is driving through a street, the people move quickly to one side or the other in order to make way for the ambulance.


A Depressing Poem


This poem is a really depressing one. The very title suggests something saddening. The sight of an ambulance has an immediate effect on the spectators who would at once think of somebody dying. An ambulance may remove a sick man, who has been injured seriously in a road accident, to a hospital. But an ambulance always symbolizes illness, disease, a road accident, and possibly death. The sight of an ambulance is by no means a cheering one.










Critics’ Comments


One of the critics says that the poem Ambulances conveys the idea that every imaginable pain in life is as nothing compared to the permanent and true fact of death. This poem is, in its totality, a celebration of the values of consciousness. Even the greatest drama of life—“the unique random blend of families and fashions”—cannot continue for ever. All streets in time are visited by ambulances, and all people are eventually carried and stowed inside those ambulances. The same critic says that Ambulances, like all Larkin’s best poems, modestly and devoutly collects evidence of ordinary life to create a truth which can be universally acknowledged.


Another critic points out that Larkin wrote a group of poems which insist harshly on fear in the face of death, and which are therefore bleak and sinister. In some of these poems, Larkin’s view of death is chilling and effective because of the very ordinariness and everyday settings he writes about. For instance, in the poem Ambulances, he emphasizes the omnipresence of death in the line: “All streets in time are visited.” His poem Aubade proves that nothing can defeat or mitigate the horror and permanence of death.


According to another critic , what gives to the poem Ambulances its impressive authority is its relentless insistence that “all streets in time are visited,” and its closing assertion that to be taken away by an ambulance “brings closer what is left to come,/And dulls to distance all we are.” This poem is able to arrive at that comprehensive realism only by concentrating simultaneously on the particularity of the lives in question, namely the lives of the children on steps or on the road, and of the women “coming from the shops, past smells of different dinners.” The reference to smells of different dinners leads unexpectedly to a moment of heightened intensity, while its seemingly mundane quality strengthens the sense of common destiny which follows in the line: “so permanent and blank and true.” The phrase “solving emptiness” a little before this line functions enigmatically and ambiguously since the word “solving” can be interpreted as both resolving and dissolving. The poem seems to speak with timeless and universal wisdom, and yet its ideas are those of a very distinctive agnostic consciousness. Larkin’s support to late twentieth-century agnosticism is evident not just in the poem’s residual religious vocabulary (“Closed like confessions” or “Poor soul, they whisper….”) but also in the conviction that individual lives are both “random” and “unique”. What gives that individual life a claim upon the reader’s attention is “what cohered in it across/The years.” In the absence of a more sustaining and unifying belief, the speakers in Larkin’s poems resort to the secular principle of coherence. This notion of coherence, however, is not only a pseudo-religious principle; it is also an idea which is central to English political liberalism and to the underlying aspirations of post-war consensus. (It is this search for coherence that gives scope and momentum to what many commentators regard as Larkin’s finest poem. The Whitsun Weddings).

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