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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
Other posts in this series: