Poem Guide

Philip Larkin: “An Arundel Tomb”

Does a notoriously grumpy poet believe in everlasting love?
Black and white medium shot portrait of poet Philip Larkin.

The last line of “An Arundel Tomb” is among the most quoted in all of Larkin: “What will survive of us is love.” Its popularity can seem ironic. Larkin is mainly known for the dry eloquence of his gloom, and for the sly precision of his phrasing. A line so keen on love looks odd, even mawkish, coming from Larkin, for whom starry-eyed imagery, as he wrote in “Sad Steps,” was “High and preposterous and separate.” Yet “An Arundel Tomb” is not a sentimental poem; it is about what sentimentality looks like the morning after. Its last line, in fact, distills a romantic notion that Larkin has challenged almost from the poem’s beginning. He lets it resonate through the whole poem so he can hear what it sounds like by the end. And while Larkin unravels, somewhat, the conviction that love survives, he also shows that it has an inevitable ring of truth—if only because we want so much to hear it.

Finished around 1956, the poem describes a 14th-century table tomb that Larkin saw in an old cathedral (for an agnostic, he bore churches no small affection). On top, two stone effigies, sculptures of the earl and countess within, lie “Side by side.” Their quaint “plainness”

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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

Over the next few stanzas, Larkin follows that sculptural flourish through centuries of corrosion, imagining the tomb, from its creation onward, in a kind of time-lapse footage of wear and tear, the seasons cycling on as the air changes “to soundless damage.” The couple’s sculpted faces are “blurred” by the years, but much more so are the substance and meaning of their lives. While their tomb merely fades, the world they lived and died in disappears. The friends who remember “The Latin names around the base” of the tomb don’t last long; nor does “the old tenantry” of the churchground. Fewer and fewer people remain to appreciate their tomb as a tomb rather than a historical site. The place shifts, in other words, from a token of their memory to a monolith of their age. “They would not guess,” Larkin muses in the fourth stanza, “How soon succeeding eyes begin / To look, not read,” noting the way people view a tomb they regard as an artifact; to look, not read, is to ignore the particulars of something in favor of a sheer visual impression, a sharp tender shock.

It’s telling that Larkin sums up time’s abuses in terms of what the two “would not think” and “would not guess” would happen. Though the tomb gets the title, the couple gets the poem; Larkin refuses to leave them behind. By imagining “Their supine stationary voyage” through the years, he’s also tracing his initial feeling back to its source: the real lives buried beneath the crafted lid. A dogged historian will note that marriage, for the Earl of Arundel, was not (as it were) set in stone, since the lady on the tomb, Eleanor of Lancaster, was his second wife. Whether Eleanor was first or ninth, however, it’s important to recall that most titled families were thoroughly business-minded about marriage in medieval England. Romance was more often a game of extra-marital sneakery. When Larkin considers how much the tomb’s audience has changed, he may have in mind this gap between the contractual unions of the past and the more recent hope for wedlock as a catch-all net of bliss. Either way, Larkin hedges a solid bet that “They would not think to lie so long.” Eternity is a stretch for anyone.

The dual meaning of “lie” in that line (lying down and lying to deceive) is inescapable, and each sense strengthens the other. The honeyed picture of marriage on the tomb “Was just a detail friends would see”—a vain, even perfunctory lie, told through “A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace.” Yet it has become all too true, since now, in every way, they “lie” together forever, “linked, through lengths and breadths / Of time.” Larkin, outspokenly terrified of death, transfers the terror of being entombed into a less morbid but equally final predicament: The pair is imprisoned in both their marriage and their lie. They lie not only in stone but as stone, since now the sculpture is all that’s left of the people it represents. The touching scene that Larkin opens with relies on precisely this confusion between stone and life. Larkin begins as though he were viewing people, not sculptures—describing “His hand withdrawn, holding her hand”—and one reason he does this is so that his next remark (“They would not think to lie so long”), pivotal line that it is, can give the lie to art.

The ambiguity here recalls, a little, the trade-off that Keats observed in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which a boy and girl stay loving and beautiful because they aren’t boy-and-girl at all—they’re engravings. To realize that the Arundel hands are just stone is to mark the different territories of romance and reality. (“I have always believed that beauty is beauty, truth truth,” Larkin once remarked, “that is not all ye know on earth nor all ye need to know.”) What Larkin finds questionable about this sculpture—or about the shock it provokes—is its remove from the world we make our homes in. Indeed, Larkin measures the passage of time by degrees of irrelevance. Once powerful, the couple is now totally passive; their clothes and stately armor look hokey in “An unarmorial age”; their bodies are merely “a trough / Of smoke in slow suspended skeins / Above their scrap of history.” Today, “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.

By the end of the poem, the couple has vanished into an abstraction. Hardier than their love is an attitude toward love, a wishful openness to the notion that it can be as pure and permanent as a symbol in a sculpture. What started with the sculptor’s impulse to join stone versions of their hands now survives in the “endless altered people” who come to visit. It survives by living, as everything does, outside the tomb. But even this kind of survival is finally only “almost true” because the tomb has memorialized a feeling that never existed for the pair who embody it. It was a belief about love that weathered the centuries, Larkin insists, along with an impulse to believe, an “almost-instinct”—nearly universal but not totally natural—that future generations never jettisoned.

Then does Larkin’s “sharp tender shock” survive the poem? To some readers, the last line may seem entirely deflated by the poem that precedes it. Yet it is hard to ignore the line’s sheer rhetorical punch. Its immediate impression, like that of the tomb, has an uncanny longevity—enough to rear up after five stanzas of inquiry. Maybe this popular line is the poem’s own “final blazon,” a touching lie, “hardly meant,” whose sense outsounds the poem behind it. (One might take this wickedly further and imagine some distant future where, after millennia of erosion, only that single line of Larkin’s oeuvre survives, misleading the endless altered readers.)

In an audio recording of the poem, Larkin—who was exceptional at reading his poetry aloud—remarked that he indeed found the tomb “extremely affecting.” But he also scribbled, at the bottom of one draft, “Love isn’t stronger than death just because statues hold hands for 600 years” (courtesy of Andrew Motion’s enormously helpful Larkin biography, A Writer’s Life). Both these perspectives are evident in the poem from the start, however, and their cohabitation in one poem, and in one man, is perhaps the very point of “An Arundel Tomb”—the scrappiness of the sentiment, the telling strength of its untruth.

That Larkin can feel a tenderness the rest of him resists is largely the story of his poetry. He haunts what he has come to distrust—most famously in “Church Going,” a magnificently irreligious poem in which the speaker (popping into a church) voices his awe for what “held unspilt / So long and equably what since is found / Only in separation—marriage, and birth, / And death, and thoughts of these.” Marriage, family, and faith were all English traditions of the good life—mythical or not—that Larkin both dismissed and peered back at. A central sadness in Larkin is that while his belief in these institutions has gone, the gaps they were meant to fill remain. For Larkin, atheism doesn’t replace the comforts of religion, nor does a skepticism toward love cure the loneliness of its alternative.

For all his talk of isolation, Larkin could have married more than one woman during his life, and at times he even juggled girlfriends. Mordant, morbid, and withdrawn, Larkin was also a savage wit, an Oxford chum of Kingsley Amis, a jazz columnist for the Daily Telegraph, and a major administrator as the Hull University librarian. Bachelorhood was partly a choice he made to avoid distraction from his art, though as many of his poems and letters suggest, Larkin also felt that married life was too much a song and dance, a “Success so huge and wholly farcical” (“The Whitsun Weddings”), to be trusted, let alone embraced. He later retracted his one, early “garbled proposal of marriage” to Ruth Bowman, blaming it, in a letter to J.B. Sutton, on a trifecta of idiocy: “the maggot of loneliness, the maggot of romantic illusion, the maggot of sexual desire.” But beneath this aversion flowed Larkin’s even bleaker sense that his disposition, the coarse fabric of his cynicism, disqualified him somehow from happiness: “it never worked for me,” he wrote in “Love Again.” Family life was a matter of “what something hidden from us chose” (“Dockery and Son”), not a matter of our own choices.

It is startling to recall that Larkin died less than 25 years ago, in 1985, at the age of 63. His poetry is so quotable, so comfortably embedded in a common repertoire of favorites, that he can seem more like an ancient standby than a recent laureate of modern life. Even where a reader doesn’t share Larkin’s particular discontents, the arc of their discovery is no less familiar. Stronger than the acid of his ironies is a profound sympathy for the wishful or naïve, and for the poignancy of their disabuse. One returns to Larkin not for lyrical heckling but for the humane clarity at the core of his irreverence. What makes Larkin such a valuable poet is his fidelity to life.

Originally Published: October 29th, 2009

Jeremy Axelrod is a writer living in New York. He has written articles for Parnassus, the New York Sun, Commentary Magazine, and other publications. His poetry has appeared in Parnassus and the Yale Review. He is also the assistant editor of Contemporary Poetry Review. He lives in the East Village.

Related Content
  1. November 1, 2009
     David Goodman

    Thanks for doing this piece on Larkin
    without using the words "racist," "anti-
    Semite" or "pornography." Refreshing!

  2. November 3, 2009
     Margot Lurie

    I love Mr Axelrod's reading of the last stanza. "Transfigured" does not mean "disfigured" -- it recalls Yeats' "The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner" and the "sharp tender shock" that Axelrod assesses so persuasively.

    I'd like to hear more from this talented writer.

  3. November 16, 2009
     Mekonnen Haile

    Mr. Axelrod's piece is excellent. It is criticism of the best kind: an intelligent appreciation. Reading the piece, however, one would think it an appreciation of a rare saint, rather than that of a worldly poet whose many antipathies were the essence of his poetry. Perhaps Mr. Axelrod is entitled to forgive Larkin's severe--his admitted and avowed--deficiencies. I hope others of us won't overlook his vicious racism and chauvenism, as we admire, appreciate and love--even--his poetry. Refreshment be d-----.