The Tomb of Love
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, October 28th, 2009. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, The Tomb of Love. During his life, Philip Larkin published only four short books of poems, but he is now considered one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century. He was also immensely popular. When magazines published one of his poems, it was something of a cultural event in England. Part of his appeal is that he used traditional forms to deal with very contemporary subjects like environmental degradation, the boredom of everyday life, sexual inadequacy, the delusions and disappointments of love. He hated modernism because he thought it was too cerebral; he thought poetry should communicate and give pleasure to the reader. Most poets think this, actually, but few can do it as well as Larkin did. On this program, we’re going to listen to Larkin read his poem, “An Arundel Tomb”. I’m joined by Jeremy Axelrod, a poet who wrote a reading guide on Larkin’s poem for The Poetry Foundation’s new Learning Lab. Hi Jeremy.
Jeremy Axelrod: Hi.
Curtis Fox: When we spoke about doing this podcast, you said Larkin was one of your favourite poets. He’s actually one of mine. What do you like about it? What’s the pleasure that his poetry gives you?
Jeremy Axelrod: The pleasure starts with the cleverness of his writing. There’s that old Frost line, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom”. And it does with Larkin begin that way, although the speaker is never delighted, the reader might be.
Curtis Fox: That’s true, the speaker is often demoralized and ashamed of himself and so on. But the reader often takes delight in the formal pleasures of the poem.
Jeremy Axelrod: Larkin said something similar to that, he said that you can write a very negative poem but still have done a positive thing. I don’t think he was trying to be dark so much as descriptive about the world. I think that as in any poetry that works, what delights a reader, what delights me, is seeing something and finding it to have somehow crystallized an experience you’ve had or a sense you’ve had about other people’s experiences in a way that it hasn’t been before.
Curtis Fox: So, “An Arundel Tomb” is about the tomb of an aristocratic married couple, a medieval Lord and his lady, that’s in Chichester Cathedral. I looked it up online and found these pictures of the tomb. Have you ever looked at this?
Jeremy Axelrod: I have seen them, Wikipedia’s wonderful in that way.
Curtis Fox: That’s exactly where I found these pictures. While you’re looking, I want to play what Larkin said about it.
Jeremy Axelrod: It is the tomb of the Arundel family and on it are the stone effigies of an earl and countess of the Arundel family, shown lying hand in hand in a way I’ve never seen in English church monumental sculpture anywhere else, which I found extremely evicting.
Curtis Fox: What’s also unusual, and he comments on it in the poem, are the dogs lying at the feet of the two prone statues. Then the earl of Arundel is in armor, some kind of weird medieval armor, and the countess looks like she’s dressed in a habit. These are really medieval people.
Jeremy Axelrod: Let’s listen to the poem in it’s entirety and then I’ll have some questions for you about it afterwards. Here’s Philip Larkin reading “An Arundel Tomb”.
Philip Larkin: 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.
Curtis Fox: So the first two stanzas of the poem, they’re a straightforward description of the tomb. Beautifully rhymed, very smooth throughout. Then the poem does something tricky —
Philip Larkin: … They would not think to lie so long.
Curtis Fox: — That’s not necessarily true, because if you’re a Lord and a lady and you’re building a funeral monument for yourself, the assumption is you’re going to be there a long time, right? So what is he doing there in that phrase?
Jeremy Axelrod: Certainly one thing happening in that line is he’s cashing in on a pun or double meaning he set up in the second line of the poem:
Philip Larkin:… Side by side, their faces blurred, / The earl and countess lie in stone,
Curtis Fox: To lie as in tell a fib. What is the fib?
Jeremy Axelrod: The fib is that they have a pure and perfect union, this scene of hand holding. What it suggests actually is itself very temporary, not only that their marriage is going to end because they’re going to die and centuries will pass, but even in Larkin himself, “a sharp tender shock” — a shock isn’t a long lasting thing, by it’s nature it tends to be quick, immediate, and then it subsides. This poem is very much the subsiding from that shock. I think one sense of the not thinking to lie so long is that that doesn’t survive very well.
Philip Larkin: 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,
Jeremy Axelrod: You almost imagine this long line of differently dressed visitors throughout centuries, washing over them as he said, “washing at their identities” he says in the next stanza.
Philip Larkin: 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:
Curtis Fox: Then he makes a very grand generalization to being the last stanza —
Philip Larkin: … Time has transfigured them into / Untruth
Curtis Fox: What does he mean by that?
Jeremy Axelrod: One part of this i think is that the passage of time has left them only with that lie, that one lie that has become a symbol.
Philip Larkin: … The stone fidelity / They hardly meant has come to be / Their final blazon
Jeremy Axelrod: This one little lie that was meant to be the cover over what they were, as though they could preserve their life in that vessel when really of course this symbol is all that remained.
Curtis Fox: He ends rather confusingly for me in some way.
Philip Larkin:: … and to prove / Our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love.
Curtis Fox: That last line, “What will survive of us is love” is very famous, isn’t it? But the poem seems to be building up to say something quite different than that, doesn’t it?
Jeremy Axelrod: All of Larkin’s lines perhaps a little better famous because it doesn’t by itself sound quite so gloomy.
Curtis Fox: It doesn’t sound like Larkin, it sounds like Auden.
Jeremy Axelrod: And Auden himself had that line, “We must love each other or die”. Poets have these lines which become famous because they’re a bit more palatable. The thing to remember is that throughout this poem there are all sorts of clues that tell you Larkin is undecided and will remain undecided at least in his feelings about that notion, “What will survive of us is love”. But when you hear him read it:
Philip Larkin:… What will survive of us is love.
Jeremy Axelrod: He ends with a tenderness in both the recordings I’ve heard which doesn’t suggest that he’s simply set up everything so that he can ironize the idea that what will survive of us is love. He’s actually getting at a feeling which can’t be irradiated by his own skepticism. That’s really central in Larkin, that he suspects things and is cynical of things that he can’t help but also have an appetite for. He regrets that he’s not satisfied by something like love or marriage or the notion that love can survive his own life, but he also wishes that it could be so. He senses the attraction that brings people to that tomb of a lasting love, and a love that can survive to him the great negator, which is death.
Curtis Fox: Thanks Jeremy.
Jeremy Axelrod: Thanks.
Curtis Fox: Jeremy Axelrod is a writer living in New York. You can read his reading guide “An Arundel Tomb” on our website poetryfoundation.org. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes where you can also write a review. Let us know what you think of this podcast, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.