Monday, 17 January 2011

Mortality and the Arundel Tomb

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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

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.

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.


  1. What-ho GM!
    How beautiful. Lovely poem and lovely sentiment. I got goose bumps at the point where you realised which tomb it was! Note to self - visit Chichester Cathedral...

  2. Thanks CB, pleased it came across; yes, do drift in next time you're passing, beautiful building, lots of interest. And then there's the Earl and his Countess...

  3. Marvellous serendipity. I can't make out the meaning of 'Time has transfigured them into / Untruth'. Help!

    Fab poem. My first go at it. Vita brevis, ect.

  4. Werl...I read it that this was a formal memorial sculpture, but we tend to see it as a personal statement from the Earl and his Countess. (Who knows what their relationship was really like?)So they may not particularly ("hardly") have meant to make such an affectionate gesture, and maybe the sculptor simply meant to catch our eye (which he really does)and prolong his clients' memories for longer than a more conventional memorial would have done (which he certainly has.)

    But the passage of time, and all the changes around them down the centuries,("snow fell, undated")means that we now look on it as a symbol of the longevity of love. And so, in a way, it is.

    But a transfiguration is usually seen as a change into some higher spiritual truth; here it is into an untruth, something not originally intended. So it's only almost true,and we have almost-instinctive feelings about it. You could say the tomb is just a little twist on a convention which we over-interpret, because of all we read into it. But then we read whatever we find into any text, and time and our own world direct our eyes.

    OK, that's how to slaughter a poem, sorry - and Rupert, Larkinophile that he is, may have a very different view.

    The tomb says to me exactly what Larkin says in his last line, however fine the balance of qualification and insight with which he prepares us. The gesture is so tender and vulnerable, the empty glove so startling.

  5. Ah, I see, they were intended to symbolise what their sort were all about back in the day but now they symbolise something else. Got it. If Rupert disagrees I shall disagree with him.

  6. Good on you Charles, I like a critic who doesn't take prisoners...

  7. Wouldn't dare. Neither would Larkin himself I imagine. Brilliantly explained.

  8. H'mm, well thanks Rupert, but I guess really good poems don't need too many explanations. "We murder to dissect" etc. As for PL, I imagine one would have got a pretty level stare through those great big glasses!

  9. Had this read at a wedding once - love is just love, after all, and suits most rites of passage.

  10. I've long adored this poem and re-reading it now in the context of this terrific, measured, and heartfelt conversation gives me a misty sense of hope. I can almost picture the moment Larkin's imagination fired in looking at this carved tomb, and Ms. Mundi (or Moria Glundy, as a besotted conductor once approximately murmured) sums up the poet's extravagant attention to the details beautifully. As it happens, my awareness of the removed gauntlet's signal came to me only on re-reading this poem on your site. Thank you for being you! If that's not too boldly idiotic a thing to say. And even if it is. Recently an airplane was brought down by a missile. I'm no mystic, but it is powerful and necessary to be reminded by the Larkins, the Glorianmundis, and you lovely strangers, that whatever happens to All This doesn't change the fact of Love (though this sort of talk sometimes jangles annoyingly in my own ear), which, be it an anthropological imperative or a cosmic marching order, is a Thing that will outlast all this ruinous crap we pull down on ourselves. Love you people! Understand this overweening hug is partly due to the overstrong coffee I just slammed. Heartfelt thanks, many thanks, just the same.

  11. Jeff, just picked up your comment of a few days ago. Thanks back to you - nothing overweening here, brother! I'm just very pleased that PL and the above comments rang true for you.

    You write of hope, in a week of barbarisms across the world; maybe there's a sense in which hope is love, in the broadest sense, pointed forwards into the future?