David Runciman (that’s 4th Viscount Runciman of Doxford, a professor at Cambridge University) writes about the final days of the poet Philip Larkin and Runciman’s father Garry:
The last letter Philip Larkin wrote was to Kingsley Amis on 21 November 1985. He was too ill to hold the pen himself and dictated it to be typed and signed by his secretary . . . He told Amis he was going into hospital that day for more tests – “only tests, but of course they are looking for something, and I bloody well hope they don’t find it”. Still, he tried not to sound too downcast. “Don’t get unduly alarmed; the doctors, as always, are cheerful and light-hearted, but I don’t really trust them anymore.” Eleven days later he was dead.
In fact, Larkin’s doctors had found what they were looking for months earlier. During the summer, after an operation on his esophagus, they had discovered inoperable cancer. The surgeon told his companion, Monica Jones, who . . . decided to keep the news to herself. She was worried about the effect of a terminal diagnosis on a man who had often expressed his terror of dying. So Larkin’s doctors kept up a cheerful front and told him that they were still investigating, while the disease took its toll. Whether he believed what he was told is open to question, but he did his best to keep up his side of the deception.
After falling downstairs that September, he wrote that although no bones were broken “my chief worry is a “funny feeling in my throat” which lasted about a week, and which of course I fear the worst about. It makes me very bad company.” That said, “my doctors are quite happy about me (they don’t know about the throat or falling downstairs).” This dance of deceit continued to the end. When he was taken to hospital for the last time, he was sedated to spare him a confrontation with the truth. “If Philip hadn’t been drugged,’ his friend Michael Bowen remembered, “he would have been raving. He was that frightened.”
Larkin’s letters are full of references to his fear of death, some humorous, some grimly foreboding. . . . At the start of the decade, he’d written to Amis: “How are you, old cock sparrow? If like me, then enduring vertiginous waves of realisation every so often i.e. about every three hours when not drunk that during this decade we i.e. MEEEE are quite likely to be dead.”
But Larkin’s most direct engagement with his fear of dying can be found in a letter he wrote to my father, W.G. Runciman, in November 1978, following the publication of his poem “Aubade”, which begins:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
My father, who was then in his mid-forties, suffered from the same intense fear of death. He would sometimes talk of waking in the night gripped with a sense of utter terror at what was to come. After ‘Aubade’ appeared, he discussed this fear with his friend Martin Roth, a psychiatrist and fellow academic, who tried to persuade him it was a treatable neurosis rather than a reasonable response to inevitable extinction. My father wrote to Larkin . . . about Roth’s opinion, conveying his own scepticism. “Roth asked whether I seriously wished to come for a clinical consultation, to which I replied, rather like Yossarian in Catch-22, that the condition can hardly be treated as paranoia when he himself agrees that whoever is up there is indeed going to dispose of us all quite soon.”
‘It is hard to say whether fear of death is a neurotic condition,’ Larkin responded. ‘My first impulse is to say that it is simply seeing things clearly, and it’s the rest of the world who ought to visit Sir Martin Roth; or that it’s simply being more sensitive, like worrying about cruelty to animals (I do that too).”
He was, however, open to the idea that it might be a temporary state of mind. “A lady of seventy wrote to me about the poem ‘When I was fifty I felt as you do; now I don’t’. So perhaps we can comfort ourselves with the thought that when death is really near, it won’t worry us. We shall become as thick-skinned as everyone else.”
He completely resisted the idea that worrying oneself to death about dying was selfish and that the sufferer should simply get a grip. ‘Nothing really expunges the terror: it remains a sort of Bluebeard’s chamber in the mind, something one is always afraid of – and this is bad for one. It certainly doesn’t feel like egocentricity!”
. . .Though they never met, my father continued to feel close to Larkin, and took me – then aged eighteen – to his memorial service at Westminster Abbey in February 1986. The event was open to the public, and we sat at the back along with hundreds of other ‘poetry-lovers’, as Larkin would no doubt have hated to hear us called (it probably wasn’t true of plenty of those there, including me, who didn’t much like poetry in general, just Larkin’s). . . .
At the start of the service the sub-dean quoted from “Aubade”:
We give thanks for [Larkin’s] intellectual integrity which would not allow him to accept the consolations of a faith which he could not share and which would have delivered him from a fear of dying by which all his life he was haunted. Of this he frequently wrote or spoke and never more movingly than in the lines:
“This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die.”
Now we commend him to the God who is the loving Father of all, of those who cannot yet believe in Him as well as those who do. . . .
That’s one way to do it. In a valedictory poem published in February 1986, Clive James made a similar point, though less unctuously:
A bedside manner in your graveyard tone
Suggests that at the last we aren’t alone.
You wouldn’t have agreed, of course. You said
Without equivocation that life ends
With him who lived it definitely dead
And buried, after which event he tends
To spend a good deal less time with his friends.
But you aren’t here to argue. Where you are
By now is anybody’s guess but yours.
My father, a lifelong atheist who never wavered in his conviction that there was nothing next, died in December aged 86, after a long illness. He was diagnosed with a slowly fatal heart condition a few years ago, but outlived the prognosis he was given then. . . . At the end, when he had stopped eating and his GP gave him a couple of days to live, he clung on tenaciously for two weeks. Perhaps his fear of dying had something to do with it, but he didn’t seem afraid. Indeed, in his later years he conformed to the suggestion in his exchange with Larkin that age diminishes and perhaps even extinguishes the terror. I can’t remember him mentioning it after about the age of seventy. . . . My father’s final months were relatively peaceful. He was calm and uncomplaining throughout. He died at home.
I happened to be with him at the end. After a day when he had found it hard to breathe, he became peaceful again towards midnight and slept. I fell asleep too and twenty minutes later was woken by the fact that the room had become completely silent and still. I had never been present before when someone had died. I was deeply struck by a feeling that the step from the half-life my father had been leading to no life at all was less significant than the earlier step from his full life to his bedbound one. Dying did not seem something to be afraid of. . . .