Poetry Sunday: An Arundel Tomb

Today’s edition of Poetry Sunday features a return of the English poet and novelist Philip Larkin. Born in Coventry in 1922, Larkin received a degree in literature from Oxford in 1943. Though he worked for most of his life as a librarian at the University of Hull, he was well-known and widely acclaimed for his poetry and his work as a literary reviewer and jazz critic. He received numerous awards for his writing in his lifetime, including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, the German Shakespeare Prize, an honorary doctorate from Oxford, and an honorary rank of Commander of the British Empire, one step below knighthood. He was also offered the title of England’s Poet Laureate late in life, but declined the honor. Nevertheless, Larkin was recently voted England’s best-loved poet of the last 50 years in a popular poll.

Larkin’s poetry is skeptical, plainspoken, down-to-earth, occasionally bleak and pessimistic but sometimes idyllic and hopeful. He was a confirmed agnostic, and his work was praised as being “free from both mystical and logical compulsions” and “empirical in its attitude to all that comes”.

My choice of poem for today was inspired by the story of Edward and Joan Downes, whom I wrote about last month in “Dignity in Dying: An Atheist’s View“. In it, the poet describes the tomb of a long-dead husband and wife from the English nobility, and the touching, defiant statement they left sculpted in stone on their sarcophagus. The tomb in question is real: after you read this poem, go see the pictures of it.

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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.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.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.ahsstudents.org.uk AlexMagd

    I love Larkin, especially his talent for combining beauty and cynicism. This is one of my favourites, and I love how in this poem he creates this beautiful image of everlasting happiness but just throws in that smart bomb of a line that makes you question the truth of it: “A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace/Thrown off to prolong the Latin names around the base” Amazing, amazing poem!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    That blend of beauty and cynicism is very typical of Larkin, I agree, and he uses it to great effect here. The poem as a whole is unusually sentimental (especially that line about the “sharp tender shock”) – but in the end, it seems he’s playing with the reader, drawing back slightly from his own conclusion: “our almost-instinct almost true”, and writing that the ancient fidelity of the lovers was a message they “hardly meant”. It’s as if he wants to believe what he’s written, but falls just short of fully convincing himself of it.

  • valdemar

    A wonderful poem. Hope I don’t spoil it by pointing out that the hand-holding is not original, but was in fact the product of Victorian restoration.


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