Critical Appreciation of ‘Ambulances’ by Philip Larkin

“Ambulances” by Philip Larkin is a profound poem that reflects on the universal and inescapable nature of mortality. First published in 1966, this piece is emblematic of Larkin’s broader poetic output, characterized by its clear-eyed examination of life and death, its nuanced understanding of human psychology, and its stark, evocative imagery.

Form and Structure:

  • The poem is structured in regular quintains (five-line stanzas), and follows a consistent ABABC rhyme scheme. This structured approach to form contrasts with the randomness and unpredictability of death, a central theme of the poem.
  • The orderly progression of stanzas mirrors the steady, unavoidable approach of death, reflected in the movement of the ambulances.

Themes and Ideas:

  • Inevitability of Death: The central theme of “Ambulances” is the inevitability of death. Larkin uses the image of an ambulance moving through the streets as a symbol of the constant presence of mortality in everyday life.
  • Isolation in Death: The poem also touches on the idea that death is a deeply personal and isolating experience. Despite being surrounded by others, the individual’s encounter with mortality is solitary.
  • Intersection of the Ordinary and the Extraordinary: Larkin explores how an ordinary sight, such as an ambulance in the street, can become a profound reminder of human fragility and the thin line between life and death.

Imagery and Language:

  • Larkin employs clinical, precise imagery to describe the ambulances, lending a sense of immediacy and realism to the poem. The starkness of the imagery reflects the poem’s unflinching approach to its subject matter.
  • The use of everyday language makes the poem’s exploration of death relatable and impactful, grounding its abstract ideas in concrete realities.

Symbolism and Metaphor:

  • The ambulance itself serves as a powerful symbol throughout the poem. It represents not only medical emergencies but also the broader concept of mortality intruding into the realm of the living.
  • The imagery of closing doors and the ambulance’s interior symbolizes the finality of death and the separation of the individual from the world of the living.

Critical Reception:

  • “Ambulances” is widely regarded as one of Larkin’s most powerful poems. Critics have praised its ability to distill profound existential themes into concise, impactful verse.
  • The poem is often noted for its stark portrayal of mortality, its reflective tone, and its skillful use of imagery and symbolism.

All poets, especially romantic poets, absorb the past into their genius. An interesting quality of a romantic poet like Keats, lies in the fact that he is the most realistic when he is fervently romantic. The poet who is most romantic in this sense after Keats, is Philip Larkin. Larkin, like Keats, deems romanticism as the most intense aspect of a reality. He transforms the romantic heroine to suit his vision.

 In a pig’s arise friend

Day comes to an end,

The gas fire breathes,

the trees are darkly swayed.

 In the present poem the poet says that we get the forgetting of death under the conditions of modern urban life. The sight of an ambulance gives us the true perspective of things and a shocked perception of our own mortality. When we confront the face of death, we get all trivial aspects of life. The ambulance gives us a true aspect of life. For a second we get whole. We see death of others and think ourselves. The poet says that he is a member of mankind so he values the death because he sees death to others. In the last stanza the poet says that a sick man goes to hospital by ambulance, he understands the shadowy of experience and reality of death are close very close to each other. Look: here:

At lasy begin to loosen, Far

From the exchange of love to lie

Unreachable inside a room  T traffic parts to let go by.

Rhythmic Quality and Sound Patterns:

  • Larkin’s use of rhythm in “Ambulances” contributes to the poem’s overall impact. The meter is carefully controlled, creating a pace that mimics the solemn progression of an ambulance. The poem’s soundscape, including the use of assonance and alliteration, enhances its meditative quality.
  • The rhythmic flow of the poem, coupled with its sound patterns, echoes the poem’s themes of life’s regularity and the sudden, jarring interruption of death.

Tone and Mood:

  • The tone of “Ambulances” is reflective and somber, yet there’s an underlying note of universality and acceptance. Larkin does not sensationalize death; rather, he presents it as an ordinary yet profound aspect of human existence.
  • The mood of the poem oscillates between the mundane flow of life and the poignant, solitary moments of confronting mortality, capturing the dichotomy of life’s everyday nature and its existential depths.

Philosophical Undertones:

  • “Ambulances” transcends its immediate subject to explore philosophical questions about the meaning of life in the face of death. Larkin contemplates the shared fate of all humans, offering a perspective that is both bleak and unifying.
  • The poem subtly raises questions about how the awareness of mortality shapes human consciousness and the way people navigate their lives.

Public vs. Personal Experience:

  • Larkin contrasts the public spectacle of an ambulance in a busy street with the intensely personal experience of facing mortality. This juxtaposition highlights how moments of crisis and realization are experienced individually, despite occurring within the public eye.
  • The poem captures the curious interplay between the individual and the collective, particularly in how public events like an ambulance’s passage can prompt private reflections on life and death.

Critical Analysis and Interpretation:

  • Critics have analyzed “Ambulances” not only for its thematic depth but also for its technical proficiency. The poem is often cited as an example of Larkin’s skill in conveying complex, universal ideas with precision and clarity.
  • The poem is also noted for its existential underpinnings, as it echoes the broader 20th-century preoccupation with questions of meaning, existence, and the human condition.


“Ambulances” is a compelling embodiment of Philip Larkin’s poetic artistry. It masterfully combines a stark portrayal of reality with deep, universal insights, wrapped in a technically proficient and emotionally resonant form. The poem stands as a poignant reminder of the inescapability of death, while also offering a contemplative reflection on the nature of human existence. Its enduring appeal lies in its ability to connect with readers through its honest, unadorned exploration of one of life’s most fundamental truths.


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