Poems for Valentine’s Day #6

February 12, 2019

Philip Larkin: An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd— 
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn, the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

This poem, one of Larkin’s finest, I think, was inspired by this tomb; in it, he reflects on the nature of love and the nature of how we perceive reality, as well as how time changes us.

The rhyme scheme is a complex one: ABBCAC, and it’s not always scrupulously observed: if a half-rhyme suits his meaning, he uses one. That, and the six-line stanzas, together with frequent use of enjambment, sometimes from one stanza to the next, create a slow and meditative feel and pace to the poem; you can experience this clearly if you try reading it aloud. So he definitely wants his readers in a reflective mood.

The first stanza describes the ancient tomb: blurred faces and vague habits. We cannot see them particularly clearly, and they appear strange to a modern visitor. (Incidentally, anyone wondering why the husband of a countess is not a count should think about what obscene English word it closely resembles and remember that vowel sounds have shifted in English pronunciation over the centuries…)

We follow the poet’s eye through the slow second stanza, noting, via alliteration, how plain he finds it all, until the sharp, tender shock – what an astonishingly apt example of oxymoron that is – of seeing his hand clasping her hand. His response to the statues, and ours, changes: they have been lying there affectionately holding hands for centuries… or have they?

They would not think to lie so long. To lie there, as statues, or to lie, as in, give a false impression of their affection for each other? The joined hands might just have been a sculptor’s detail thrown off, no reflection of any truth. We cannot know. Is this Larkin the cynic revealing his attitude here?

We are shifted into travel through time in the fourth stanza. Observe how, although the names of the couple are inscribed on the base of the tomb, we are never told them: the couple are always they, for their names can mean nothing to us now, hundreds of years later. I love the image of their supine stationary voyage through time; again the oxymoron can almost pass unnoticed; time flows and people begin to look at the image rather than know or care who the images represent. Alliteration of sibilants, supine stationary, soon succeeding, helps the effect.

Look at the way that carefully-wrought fifth stanza makes the centuries pass: an enjambment leads into it, and another one out of it; brief phrases and lengthy sentences alternate, making the stanza itself seem longer. The endless altered people is effective as we picture centuries of churchgoers making their way to the building, and the way they are altered by time and fashion. The sixth stanza continues the effect through alliteration: helpless, hollow, and the sibilants a couple of lines later: as we reach the present day, it’s the attitude that strikes us, the pose, the couple hand-in-hand and what we read into that in our own time: tenderness, closeness, lovers happily together. And it could well have been nothing like that, way back when.

A lapidary final stanza suggests the poet’s take on his experience, his reflections on love. Time – first word of the line, sentence, stanza: what the poem is all about. Alliteration emphasises: transfigured, untruth. What is the effect of the oxymoron – for I think it is one – of stone fidelity? For Larkin, our interpretation is not what they wanted, and yet it bears a message for us nevertheless: the power of love to transcend time. But he hedges his bets with that superb double almost in the previous line, ever the cynic.

It’s a lovely poem and one of my all-time favourites. And although the tomb exists in Arundel, for me, on a personal note, it always takes me back to the village of my birth, Easton-on-the-Hill in Northamptonshire (but now Cambridgeshire) where in the village church the very well-worn stone paving of the aisle leads to the tomb of a Norman knight and his wife to the right of the sanctuary, set into the wall and labelled in fading Norman French.

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