02 February 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/5

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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.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.

Philip Larkin

Arundel is a small town near Chichester, southwest of London. There is a specific tomb in Chichester Cathedral that inspired Larkin towards this poem. You may see some images of it here, though there are some differences, possibly caused by the usual vagaries of memory, between the actual monument and Larkin's description of it: he puts the empty gauntlet in the wrong hand, there is a dog under the lady's feet but a lion under the knight's, there are no Latin names around the base – also, though he did not realize it when he wrote this poem, there had been some restoration work done on the tomb in the nineteenth century. These differences are interesting but don't affect the separate reality created by the poem.

In the title Larkin has located the tomb in space but not in time; it's described as an Arundel tomb, not as a medieval tomb. Given how central time and its relentless forward movement are to this poem, this geographical title might be to ground the poem in a specific location before we start our main exploration, which will be temporal. The tomb is old enough so that the stone has started to crumble; the faces are blurred. Those depicted were of high social rank, an earl and a countess, though we probably could have deduced that from the prominence and intended permanence of their monument. They are shown in their "proper habits," that is, their appropriate attire: armor for the knight, elaborate (and therefore expensive) pleats for his lady. The little dog underfoot is actually a symbol of fidelity, though it's unclear if the poet knows that; visually it registers on him, perhaps because of the incongruity of the fluffy little pooch under the pleats and armor, as a "faint hint of the absurd."

It's not an ornate tomb; its "plainness of the pre-baroque" contrasts with the swirling drama of that later age (one which to us is also old and alien in style). His eye is not involved, only scanning the generic qualities of the tomb as he tours the old church, until he notices with "a sharp tender shock" that the sculptor has shown the dead couple holding hands. It's the sculptor's "sweet commissioned grace" but it's unclear if this is the couple's commission or a posthumous wish of their friends. In any case this touching show of married faith and love was probably not the main feature of their actual lives; it's "just a detail friends would see." (The friends, of course, are also long past.)

The poet tells us that the couple would not imagine lying thus into the twentieth century (perhaps they were among their contemporaries who expected the imminent arrival of the end of the world and the Last Judgment); further, that they could not imagine how soon the world would change around them, the feudal arrangements giving way, turning "the old tenantry away"; how soon "succeeding eyes begin / To look, not read" – I take this to mean that those attending or just visiting the church no longer "read" the monument as they would when it was new; that is, they would no longer consciously take it in, paying close attention to it, but instead would include it in their general visual survey – they would look, but no longer really see.

The mention of the old tenantry turning away hints at the social changes in England in the centuries since the tomb was new, but the passage of time is mostly marked here by natural phenomena existing outside of humanity and independent of its controls: the snow, the summer light, the passing sounds of birds (I love the beautiful alliteration in this passage, subtly echoing the twittering avian music: "bright / Litter of birdcalls strewed the same / bone-riddled ground"). Different generations rise up and recede like waves; like waves, they wear away even what stone memorializes, so that actual knowledge of the two inhabitants of this tomb is long gone (I take this to be the meaning of the "endless altered people . . . / Washing at their identity").

Throughout, the real names of the buried pair have not been mentioned. And they are not relevant to our purposes here. Their social position is emphasized, but mostly to point out how meaningless it is in our age: they are "helpless in the hollow of / An unarmorial age." And this is no doubt how they would see our puzzling times: as hollow (as in spiritually empty, though the primary meaning here is most likely a hole or cavity in something), and unarmorial, as if to be a society permeated with knighthood and heraldry is normal, and a culture without these things can only be defined by their absence: unarmorial. And they lie in this odd age, helpless. It is referred to, in a striking image, as a "trough / Of smoke in slow suspended skeins / Above their scrap of history." A trough is a long and narrow and open container, skeins can be loose yet knotted stretches of yarn, or a tangled and complicated state of things, and of course smoke is transitory and not solid: the implication is of something that seems fairly complex (the skeins) as well as unchanging and long-lasting (the skeins are slow and suspended), yet is of its nature impermanent (it's smoke, and we each have only a little bit we can call ours of the on-going stream of history). We have the sense that both our time and their personalities, which seemed so indelible and ineradicable to us and to them, are fleeting and illusory things.

All that is left of what these people were is what is conveyed to us when we see his hand sculpted holding hers, a stone memorial to marital fidelity. Time has "transfigured them" and the implication of transfigured is that they have been elevated into something more beautiful and glorious than they used to be: in this sense what they are to us is an "untruth"; the sculpted affection that may have been incidental to them has, for us, overcome whatever the actual people were or thought their lives meant ("the stone fidelity / They hardly meant has come to be / Their final blazon"). Blazon is an excellent word there; for us it usually means to display prominently or extensively, and its hidden blaze gives the word some forceful fire, but it can also mean to describe or depict armorial bearings in a correct heraldic manner. So blazon is both an accurate technical description of the purpose of the tomb – to remind us of the correct lineage and standing of those buried there – and a gauge of how much has changed in the world from what they would have recognized.

This final stanza keeps hinting at and then pulling back from something magnificent, even perhaps transcendent: the dead couple is transfigured, there is a final blazon, and it proves something true – but they are transfigured into Untruth, the final blazon is something they hardly meant, what is proved is an almost-instinct (that is, deep-seated, innate, but therefore unreasoned, and perhaps linked to a sense of spiritual self-preservation rather than to any outside reality) – and it is only almost true. (Perhaps this last stanza has been prefigured in the first, when the speaker sees the little dog, a symbol of fidelity, and finds it faintly absurd.) Yet out of this very Larkinesque sense of irony and doubt blossoms one of his most famous lines, an assertive statement bursting forth (made more definite by contrast with the ambiguity leading up to it) that has perhaps tended to overshadow the irony and doubt in which it is grounded: What will survive of us is love.

People do love to think that. It is, as Larkin says, almost instinctual in us to say it. But I have to say: though it makes a grand conclusion to the poem, I think the statement is incorrect. For all we know, the hand-in-hand gesture put there by the sculptor was meant to gloss over or misrepresent the actual relations between the actual people. Nothing of them, or of whatever they thought of as love – whatever for them pinned to the board that elusive, glittering, fragile butterfly – has survived at all. What has survived is the sculptor's work, intended to illustrate an emotional state that is long vanished, and may not even have existed in the first place. What we are seeing is not love, but the representation of love. In short, what will survive of us is not love at all, but Art.

I took this from The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett. The information about the differences between the actual tomb and the one described in the poem and about the restoration of the tomb and Larkin's not knowing about it comes from Burnett's annotations.


Unknown said...

But art doesn't survive us, either. Poems get lost in time, sculptures erode, authors and composers go out of fashion, paintings fade and crack. In fact, much of the poem is about how the tomb is going away. I think it's the idea of and need for art that survives us, but I would say that is equally true of love.
This was a new poem to me, and I find I keep returning to it because every reading gives me another view of it (and there's science in it).

Patrick J. Vaz said...

True enough, nothing survives, ultimately. But in the context of the poem, the tomb (though worn by time) is still standing. The love, if in fact it ever truly existed, is long gone.

I'm very glad you liked this one.