The first thing anyone should do when researching this one is what they should do for all of these poems and that is research the life and works of the poet, where they lived, in what era, through which wars, to see how the world was very different to what it is now. Even if they are still alive and writing, one has to know this information to readily understand why a poet puts pen to paper. I know from my perspective as a writer, novelist, playwright [just starting] and published poet, that when something inspires me in life, I put pen to paper, or nowadays, hit the computer and open up Google Docs. An event like 9.11 can inspire me to write something about the victims or a hate filled rage poem at the horror inflicted on the world. Likewise, a Year 7 parents’ evening at my school where I used to teach left me with a few minutes where parents who wanted to see me were talking to other teachers and it gave me rest, so I wrote two poems in quick succession; one being called Grasp The Nettle, about how we should cherish our children, for we only have them on temporary loan as it were.
So, with that in mind, let us now look at this poem by Philip Larkin, a very famous poet indeed. He writes a poem about a tomb, about how love itself is portrayed in the figures of the two dead people in the tomb, because he has seen that there is a closeness in the sculpture and he sees that as being emblematic of true love, real love, not this wishy washy watered down version we see today at times, especially on the television.
Here is the poem…
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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.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.
This is one of my favourite poems of all time to teach in a key stage three setting. I have so many fond memories of teaching it to Year 9 groups [14 yrs old]. They may struggle with some of the language and imagery, but as an introduction to how to analyse at GCSE for Year 10 onwards, there is not much better than this.
Note please, how it begins. The title in three words puts us in the place itself. A tomb. Presumably in Arundel. Easy. We know what to expect. But what are tombs actually like? What is this one like? What do you expect it to be like assuming you had never read this poem? These are all questions I would ask before the students even see the poem. Title analysis is important after all.
Verse 1 begins with these words, “Side by side, their faces blurred, the earl and countess lie in stone.” What better way to start by showing the love that an Earl and his Countess had when they were alive than representing them both in stone? They are buried side by side which shows closeness. My Grandparents are one on top of the other in their grave. Not side by side. This is because they died 32 years apart from each other, but this edifice shows them side by side, as they were in life. But their faces are “blurred” which suggests the tomb is old and the carvings for their faces have weathered badly, being worn down by normal weather and possibly even, people touching the faces, body line etc of the couple, in the paying of their respect. It is a beautiful way to begin a poem about love.
But be careful with the language contained herein because some of it can be confusing, especially if you are studying this from somewhere outside the UK. Words like “their proper habits” can lead you to thinking about habitually derived things they do when in fact, it is ambiguous in that the word “habits” can be about clothing as well and as you, as a visitor, are looking at two effigies carved in stone, you will see them lying there, side by side, in peace with their maker. But the effigies show “jointed armour, stiffened pleat and that faint hint of the absurd, the little dogs under their feet.” Do not forget, this is an Earl and a Countess you are viewing when you visit their tomb. They were the Landed Gentry of their time, the land owners, rich and powerful people who have now passed into heritage and the next life.
So, as a visitor, you are there seeing these two images carved in stone. The style of the carving is “pre-baroque” [another thing to Google]. Baroque style is quite grand and magnificent, so it is before that time that the sculptor has decided to show them and as you view them in reality, there is nothing much you see until your eye “meets his left-hand gauntlet, still clasped empty … ” and you see “with a sharp tender shock, his hand withdrawn, holding her hand.” The symbolism is obvious here. The reference to their love when they were alive is evident. Hand holding in English culture signifies attachment and love in many forms so the sculptor has decided to immortalise them in their love. But, you would think, standing there, “they would not think to lie so long” should they know how they have been set in stone, “such faithfulness in effigy” for all their friends to see. It is the “sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace” that has been used here to keep the carvings in line with the rest of the tomb, which has “Latin names around the base.” The pre-Baroque style is evidently grand in style and opulent to the eye.
The next verse adds to this wondrous sight by asking the visitor to the tomb, or the reader of the poem, to consider just what time does to such carvings as this. The problem with effigies is that they wither and fade away over time and this is happening here. Visitors do not “guess how early in their supine stationary voyage,” itself a beautiful use of the English language, how the “air would change [them both] to soundless damage.” As such, and as time has gone on, these two have been slowly withering away and those that have visited have looked, “not read.”
Now to all you die hard poetry fans, there is one simple rule with poetry and that is this: THERE ARE NO RULES. A poet can twist and turn the rules on their heads and Larkin does that here, at the end of the verse. You would expect the words “Rigidly they” to be on the next line down but he wants to use some enjambement to keep the piece going, almost as if he wants to keep their love going, so one becomes symbolic of the other. As such, the words trip on, using no punctuation at the end of the line [enjambement] to make the reader immediately read the next line as being part of what has gone before it. Clever poet!
“Rigidly they persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths of time” symbolises how their love has continued to this day, even though snow has fallen and light has “thronged [shone through] the glass” in the window to the church to rest on them. All manner of things have happened as they have lain there in their love; “a bright litter of bird calls,” along with “endless altered people” coming to view them, altered by what they have seen as they walk away. Such is the beauty of their love for each other shown in these carvings. But as these things have happened, there has been a sense of time “washing at their identity.” Through all that time, they have laid there, in their supine splendour, “helpless in the hollow of an unarmorial age.” Armorial is a reference to armour worn by the man in the carving. This is something we do not do now, so we live in an “unarmorial age.” To the visitor, who has walked by their grave, “only an attitude remains” because “time has transfigured them into untruth.” In a way, Larkin is saying that now, they do not fit in with the modern age any more.
This is because in the modern age, we need to look back to the past and the days of yore and learn from them, learn our mistakes, learn how we did things right and correct and then move on using those learnt lessons. As such, if we were to do that, any “stone fidelity” would be worth the visit by anyone and not just become an old relic of time. Theirs, according to the poet, has “come to be their final blazon” and as such, almost proves that our “almost-instinct,” that hint of gut feeling we have as humans, has become “almost true.”
Notice the use of the colons at the end of these verses and lines as well, for they invite us on, to read the next line as a list, like the use of enjambement, in this case a list of one, a message to us all that “what will survive of us is love.” When we have gone and are buried, or cremated, or whatever we choose to do with our mortal bodies, one thing will remain, says this poet and that is our love for each other, in this instance, our families and our friends. When those who remember us after we have gone think of us, let them think of one thing only, our capacity to love!