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 plainess 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 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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.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 could see:
A sculptor’s sweet comissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
Their 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 grass. 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 finality
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.
— Philip Larkin. This is the last poem in his 1964 book The Whitsun Weddings, which I imagine is still available somewhere.
I only recently discovered Philip Larkin; I came across a mention of him in a story or novel I was reading, I don’t remember which, googled him (coming across the incredible Aubade: do yourself a favour and read this poem aloud. It is the most incredible linguistic experience I’ve had for awhile) and proceeded to shake down my mother’s bookshelves for stuff with him in it. I eventually hit upon The Whitsun Weddings and rushed through it, reading bits aloud, stopping and stepping back the way you have to with poetry (never just read something once, no point at all).
This is the final poem in The Whitsun Weddings and apparently it’s rather jaded (Wikipedia has a few wonderful quotes describing Larkin as “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket” with “a very English, glum accuracy”). I suppose so, I suppose you could say that about “Aubade” as well (whereas I find “Aubade” completely devastating and wholly restoring: it has that quality of the best of poetry that precisely captures your own feelings and describes them so well that you no longer feel alone). But I find “An Arundel Tomb” quite lovely, although Larkin’s cynicism certainly comes across. “The stone finality/They hardly meant”, he insists.
But he can’t help himself with that lovely last four lines.I think that’s what really charms me: you have such a good idea of what Larkin wants you to think (“Oh, those cynical folks who made that tomb and wanted their names to be remembered, but really this is all that remains of them: their hands clasped, a last romantic gesture by rich people to make themselves look good dead”), or what, perhaps, the poem wants to think; but you equally can’t help being moved by the image it presents, feeling the “sharp tender shock” of their attitude. The tomb, he says, in spite of itself, presents us with this idyllic, almost soppily romantic notion of love lasting; yet because the poem reflects the tomb (or Larkin’s experience) so well, it does the same, against its better (or more curmudgeonly) judgment.