Whatever you think of his message, you have to admit that Philip Larkin is a very good poet. "Continuing to Live" was written in April, 1954, and was published in Collected Poems 2003. First the poem and then a bit of commentary.
Continuing to live — that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries —
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise —
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it's chess.
And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
And what's the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,
On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.
One can see that Larkin is a very good poet indeed. And like most good poets, he knows enough not to send a poem on a prose errand, to borrow an apt phrase from John Ciardi. So one will look in vain for a clearly stated philosophical thesis packaged poetically.
There is nonetheless philosophical content here. I read Larkin as expressing the futility of life. We are in the habit of living, despite the losses that pile up day by day. Like nervous chess players eyeing the clock, we are in time-trouble as our positions deteriorate move by move. We know what is coming and its inevitability. Life's a series of checks culminating in mate.
What one is sure of, what we command, is as clear as a lading-list and as boring and inconsequential: an inventory of events, mostly failures. Beyond these mundane particulars we are sure of nothing, and our intellectual honesty does not permit us to entertain dreams of transcendence. Anything else, anything more, must not be thought to exist.
So what's the use? The use of a life is to identify or half-identify the unique upshot of our varied behavings, an upshot and deposit unforeseen. The mark we make is blindly made and no providential power foresees or provides.
But this paltry result hardly satisfies. I've spent a life making a mark, leaving a trace, making a dent unlike anyone else's, and now appreciating it. But I will soon pass from the scene and be forgotten. So any uniqueness achieved is as good as nonexistent. It pertains only to me and I am soon not to be.
A poem of despair by a 20th century atheist.
But does Larkin have good reasons for his atheism? That is a question that, for a poet qua poet, 'does not compute.'
This philosopher asks: what's the ultimate good of suggesting momentous theses with nary an attempt at justification? Of smuggling them into our minds under cover of delectable wordcraft? Poetry is a delightful adjunct to a civilized life, but philosophy rules. It would be very foolish, however, to try to convince any poet of this unless he were also a philosopher.