The Building by Philip Larkin

‘The Building’ is a powerful poem that although seems ambiguous at first, is eventually thought provoking. The poem describes a building which assumed to be as a hospital even though we are not overtly told. Toward the end, Larkin meditates upon ideas of sickness, death as well as spirituality and religion in an attempt to make sense of the former two while maintaining a somewhat flippant and ironic tone throughout.

The building seems ‘higher than the handsomest hotel’; sarcastically described as typical of Larkin. Glass windows shine like a ‘lucent comb’ like a beckoning beacon of light, surrounded by criss-crossing streets. At the entrance arrive vehicles that are ‘not taxis’, which can assume as ambulances. The building represents technological and medical advancement ‘like a great sigh out of the last century’. However, sight can be deceiving while within lingers a ‘frightening smell’.

Like at ‘an airport lounge’, people read paperbacks, ‘ripped mags’, drink tea yet ‘tamely sit’ for a kind of arrival that seems less exciting than travel. Ordinary people have come for check-ups in ‘outdoor clothes and half-filled shopping bags’ with obvious intentions of doing other more important things. Yet they are ‘restless and resigned’ for the possibility of receiving bad news about their health. The busy nurses seem ominous, coming every few minutes to ‘fetch someone away’, during which time people are fidgety and ‘curiously neutral’.

The building is a place of ‘humans’ in which people lose individualities and form a homogeneous group of patients no matter what age. They are reduced to faceless numbers all in fear of sudden ‘abeyance’, ‘the end of choice and ‘the last of hope’; death the great leveller. Some come to ‘confess that something has gone wrong’ in reply to their doctors who reveal an ‘error of a serious sort’ in their health. However, they are just one of several people to endure illness. To house this inexhaustible supply of humans, so ‘much money’ has gone into nurturing the building   so that it may be ‘tall’ with ‘many floors’ and staff working ungodly hours. Yet, it is morbid.

People look around at others, wondering if they too will be wheeled off down a corridor of endless rooms ‘harder to return from’. The fear of death is a ‘new thing held in common’ that suppresses all hopes and makes them quiet. Outside lies the normal world – streets, pipes, traffic, children playing games, a car park and freedom. A ‘locked church’ kills any hope of divine intervention. The hospital could very well be a prison and perhaps that is why Larkin ambiguously calls it a building.

The building strips people of their identity and dresses them in ‘washed-to-rags ward clothes’. Now the world seems like the false illusion of a ‘touching dream’ – its loves and chances ‘unreal’. ‘Self protecting ignorance congeal’ the true sense of death and harsh realities realised when ‘in these corridors’. Some may evade death and leave early but ‘others not knowing it’ would have come to join the non-discriminatory ‘unseen congregations whose white rows lie set apart’.

The building’s purpose is to evoke the realisation of a ‘clean sliced cliff’ from which we shall all inevitably fall from. We may use flowers, prayers, confessions to ‘transcend the thought of dying’ but these efforts are ‘wasteful, weak, propitiatory’ unless of course the supernatural or God contravenes. Until then, the nurse beckons us like a grim reaper, summoning us to die. She offers no hope of faint maternal comfort; an idea which would match well with how we were brought into the world. Yet, the nurse approaches with frigidity; she’s doing her job, it’s a chore these days considering the ungodly hours she has to work. Nothing can placate death; it is a guarantee. Perhaps the only choice is to come to terms with this phenomena until the perception of its inescapability morphs into an acceptance of its inevitability.
© 2016 Pia Krishnankutty & springtidevoice. All Rights Reserved


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