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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
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.
Ever since I read this poem, it has seemed to me a very rare combination of clarity and profundity, a deeply moving mediation on mortality, time and love that is unequalled in anything I've read from our times. Its poise is exquisite, and the last two lines full of honesty and grace.
I had a fortunate experience recently. Like many, I'd assumed this tomb was in Arundel. Wandering round Chichester cathedral, I came upon the tomb on the Earl's side, away from the notice and the poem, which is posted on the Countess' side. I looked carelessly at the Earl, and realised that he was holding an empty glove.I was puzzled and startled, the "shock of recognition," slightly disorientating. "But hang on, that's surely...."
What a delight.
Something Larkin doesn't mention is that the position of the Countess' feet turn her slightly towards the Earl, another touching and unexpected tenderness. I think usually such figures are simply level and supine.
At a casual glance, it is all as the poet says - nothing particularly noteworthy or exceptional to a modern eye. Takes a great poet to universalise it for us.
I think it's only "almost true" that "what will survive of us is love," because of course the loved person doesn't survive. Ultimately, nothing survives, not the Colossus of Rhodes, not Berkhampstead, not the planet itself. But it seems to me absolutely true,in the way of the poem, that love survives - accidentally (you can't programme love, or predict it, or calibrate it), yet as a result of deliberate action and gesture, confirmed through the unfolding of time, and as a minimum.