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Larkin’s unexpected Hallmark moment

By Harriet Staff

Can great poetry bear a resemblance to a Hallmark moment and still be great? Prolly not. But Ron Rosenbaum takes up the issue over at Slate by looking at 2 most-famous lines by 2 most-famous poets. The lines and poets in question: 1) “What will survive of us is love” from Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb.” 2) “We must love one another or die” from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Don’t worry if you think these lines are little sappy because, well, Larkin and Auden thought so too. So much so that Auden changed his most-famous line to read “We must love one another AND die.” From the article:

These two lines—Larkin’s “What will survive of us is love” and Auden’s “We must love one another or die”—may be the most well-known lines of poetry about love written in the past century. But what’s remarkable about them both is that the poets who wrote them agonized over them, were conflicted and critical of their own lines. Both Larkin and Auden eventually tried to distance themselves from their original unmediated utterances.

Indeed that extended footnote in the new Larkin edition eventually led me to rethink it all—Larkin, Auden, love, love poetry—even footnotes. Footnotes? Sometimes with poetry you can know too much about what the poet thinks. After he publishes a poem, it’s not his or hers anymore, you know? Though that doesn’t stop some of the poets—or their loving anthologists—from trying to control how you construe the poems (or at least prevent egregious misconstruals) via scholarly footnotes. But do poets always know the truth of what they’ve wrought?

Auden rethought his line—“We must love one another or die”—almost immediately. Indeed he turned violently against it, tried to ban, or vanish it. Called the poem in which it appeared “trash.” Said he “loathed” it. And yet the line still persists in a limbo of literary erasures that don’t completely efface the original. And now we learn Larkin had doubts about his love-affirming line.

Rosenbaum considers why Auden strenuously sought to distance himself from this line, and how changing “or” to “and” shifts the valence of the poem from one of hope to one of resignation. He argues that the “and-version” of the line offers a view of love “Which does not denigrate, even may elevate love. Love for its own sake, love that can perish and die, love not for some promise of immortality. This is tragic, romantic, existentialist, French cinema love, perishable with our death or the death of our love, but nonetheless, even more valued, despite (or because) of its transience.”

Finally, Rosenbaum returns to Larkin’s line and wonders if it is less saccharin than it may appear upon casual reading:

What’s curious here is that the poem doesn’t really say that “love is stronger than death.” Larkin says, “What survives of us is love.” Something entirely different from love conquering all.

Surviving something does not make you stronger than it, or make you its conquerer. Larkin wasn’t entirely skeptical of the poem though. Here he is, quoted later on in the footnote, that same year. “I was very moved by [the clasped hands on the tomb]—that ‘sharp tender shock’—Of course it was years ago. … I think what survives of us is love. …”

What survives of Larkin in regard to this poem is Larkinesque discomfort at the intrusion of sentiment—or what others might construe a sentimentality he was always at pains to disclaim. What survives of Larkin is his tormented ambiguity, so Larkinesque.

There’s much much more love in the article. Make the jump and get the rest.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, May 29th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.