Ambulance Poem by Philip Larkin Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


The poem “Ambulance” by Philip Larkin, which was released in 1960 as a section of “The Less Deceived,” examines the transient nature of existence and life. Larkin compares spontaneous, unplanned events in life to an ambulance to illustrate how they may break routines and make us face our death. Through vivid imagery and concise language, the poem portrays the urgency and unpredictability of life, inspiring readers to contemplate deeply on the transience of human existence. One of Larkin’s first compositions, “Ambulance” demonstrates his excellent capacity to arouse strong emotions with carefully composed rhymes and powerful ideas. 

About the poet

Philip Larkin, a poet and author, created various pieces of fiction, poetry, and critical analysis under the pen name Brunette Coleman. Coleman’s work contains a novella, an unfinished sequel, seven short poems, a pseudo-autobiography, and a critical essay. The Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull stored the Coleman manuscripts. The biographies of Andrew Motion and Larkin were released in 1992 and 1993, respectively, while the Coleman works were eventually released in 2002. Despite building a reputation as a poet, Larkin’s career as a prose writer suffered, and opinions on the Coleman material varied between those who thought it had no worth and those who thought it helped understand Larkin’s mature work.


Stanza 1

Closed like confessionals, they thread

Loud noons of cities, giving back

None of the glances they absorb.

Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,

They come to rest at any kerb:

All streets in time are visited.


These lines from Philip Larkin’s poem “Ambulances” describe ambulances as closed chambers similar to confessionals. They go through the bustling city streets during the loud, bright daytime hours, yet they do not convey any of the feelings or glances of the people they encounter. The ambulances are said to be sleek, shiny, grey, have emergency lights on top, and rest at curbsides while stopping at various locations. The speaker claims that ambulances will ultimately visit every street.


In his poem, Larkin addresses the harsh and impersonal aspect of ambulances in the city environments, comparing them with “confessionals” where individuals hide their weaknesses and secrets. The vehicles are reported as being “light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,” and they continue to be silent and distant. Grey is used to imply neutrality, and the “arms on a plaque” probably relate to the emergency lights that are placed on the roof of the car. Throughout the city, ambulances are always in motion and prepared to react to emergencies. The last line, “All streets in time are visited,” emphasizes the inevitability of accidents and emergencies in the urban setting, reminding us of the constant presence of risk and the fragility of human life. 

Stanza 2

Then children strewn on steps or road,

Or women coming from the shops

Past smells of different dinners, see

A wild white face that overtops

Red stretcher-blankets momently

As it is carried in and stowed,


The speaker in these lines depicts the scenes that women and children in the city see when an ambulance passes by. While the women are returning from shopping, surrounded by the different fragrances of dinners being made, the children wander around on the stairs or the streets. They are startled to find an ambulance carrying a patient with a pale, terrified face that contrasts sharply with the red stretcher-blankets used to transport the sick or injured people. The ambulance arrives on the scene quickly carrying the patient away for medical care.


In his poem, Larkin examines how an ambulance’s passing through city streets affects the lives of regular people. With the contrast between innocent children and women going about their regular lives, the phrases “children strewn on steps or road” and “women coming from the shops” create a sense of disturbance and worry. The smells from different meals improve the scene’s sensory experience. The patient’s “wild white face” shines sharply against the red stretcher-blankets, emphasizing the gravity and urgency of the situation. The poem highlights the common occurrence of emergencies and the reality of mortality in daily life. These unexpected crisis situations can disrupt daily routines and cause individuals to pause and reflect on how vulnerable and fragile life is.

Stanza 3

And sense the solving emptiness

That lies just under all we do,

And for a second get it whole,

So permanent and blank and true.

The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,

They whisper at their own distress;


The speaker considers the deeper existential reality that lies at the heart of human life. He claims that behind all of our everyday activities and distractions, there lies an underlying sense of emptiness or meaninglessness. People may, on rare occasions, catch a glimpse of this emptiness and sense its profound reality. “Permanent and blank and true,” is how it is defined, referring to an unchangeable and timeless quality of human life. The fixed doors of buildings, according to the speaker, appear to move backward, almost as if they were fleeing the harsh reality of life’s emptiness. The speaker also feels empathy for the suffering spirits of people who are trapped inside the structures and must face their own misery and mortality.


The poem examines existential issues, concentrating on the basic meaning of life. The phrase “solving emptiness” refers to a deeper truth about the way that emptiness affects human life—a fact that may be hard to completely understand or only be experienced briefly. A basic truth that underlies all of our actions and experiences is the emptiness that sits just underneath everything we do. This nothingness is defined as “blank” and “true” without any specific meaning or importance, which emphasizes how timeless and unavoidable it is in the statement “So permanent and blank and true.” Given that they stand for a sense of protection and confinement, the picture of the “fastened doors” fading contributes to the strange and reflective tone of the poem. The line “They whisper at their own distress” humanizes buildings by implying that they bore witness to human suffering and mortality, emphasizing the connection between human experience and the emptiness underneath it. 

Stanza 4

For borne away in deadened air

May go the sudden shut of loss

Round something nearly at an end,

And what cohered in it across

The years, the unique random blend

Of families and fashions, there


The speaker reflects on the huge impact that death and loss have on the human experience. The lines imply that death and loss can strike unexpectedly and quickly, leaving a void and silence in their aftermath. It is said that the suddenness of loss is like a “sudden shut,” bringing up images of doors closing suddenly and ending things that were about to come to an end. The verses go on to explain the importance of what is lost. The “unique random blend” of families and styles reflects a sense of unity and connectedness that persisted over the years. This mixing of connections and experiences is seen as unique and precious.


In the poem, themes of mortality and existential emptiness are explored. Phrases like “borne away in deadened air” and “the sudden shut of loss” emphasize how immediate and final death is. The notion that something is almost completed increases the sense of sadness and unfinished business. Because each person’s life is an individual mix of influences and interactions, the expression “the unique random blend” emphasizes the richness and diversity of human experiences and connections. The mention of families and clothes emphasizes the variety and diversity of human existence, with families signifying family and affection and styles indicating shifting cultural and societal influences. These lines contribute to the poem’s thoughtful and introspective atmosphere, prompting readers to ponder on the impermanence of existence and the unique combination of events and connections that comprise each person’s life.

Stanza 5

At last begin to loosen. Far

From the exchange of love to lie

Unreachable inside a room

The trafic parts to let go by

Brings closer what is left to come,

And dulls to distance all we are.


The speaker contemplates the aging process and approaching death. The poem emphasizes how, as we increasingly distance ourselves from the world and physical life, our attachment to them weakens. The speaker talks about feeling alone and cut off from the lively world of human connection, and the metaphor of the passing traffic represents the transient essence of being alive. Our perspective of the present becomes dulled as time goes on and death draws closer, separating us from the truth of our life.


Lines like “At last begin to loosen” depict the gradual diminishing of our bodily and emotional links to life. The term “Far from the exchange of love” draws attention to the emotional loneliness that might come with aging and the separation from the dynamic world of interpersonal interactions. The idea of being confined inside oneself and unable to completely interact with the outside world is conveyed by the term “Unreachable inside a room”. By emphasizing the fleeting aspect of human existence, the use of traffic as a metaphor for time passing increases the sense of death’s inevitability. The poem’s concluding line, “And dulls to distance all we are,” makes the suggestion that as time goes on and death draws closer, we may lose sight of the present and become emotionally detached from it. Readers are encouraged to consider the passing of time and the value of cherishing life and human connection by this commentary on how aging and mortality affect our perspective on life and the necessity of appreciating life and human connection while we still have it.